HL Deb 01 February 1999 vol 596 cc1286-8

2.59 p.m.

Lord McNally asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they expect to receive from the Office of Fair Trading the results of the inquiry into the pricing policy of Times Newspapers.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Simon of Highbury)

My Lords, the decision to undertake an inquiry into the pricing policy of The Times newspaper was taken independently by the Director General of Fair Trading. It is a matter for him how and when he makes his findings public. I understand that he is aiming to complete his investigation by the end of February.

Lord McNally

My Lords, that means it will have taken the OFT a year to conduct an inquiry that it said originally did not need to take place. Is the Minister concerned that we are at a dangerous time when one piece of competition law is being phased out, with a rather lethargic regulator in charge, and a new piece of competition law is not to be implemented until March 2000? The Mirror Group is in play and we are assured by Andrew Neil that the Telegraph is still Mr. Murdoch's prime target. Is not the Minister worried that, without proper protection, the quality and diversity of our press are still under threat?

Lord Simon of Highbury

No, my Lords. I think we have a vigorous law and a vigorous Director General of Fair Trading.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, does the Minister agree it is regrettable that the inquiry has taken a year? If a case of predatory pricing is established, those who have suffered as a result of that will have done so now for over a year, and if no such case is established, those who have been attacked for engaging in predatory pricing will have suffered those attacks for a year. This delay has been bad for the industry.

Lord Simon of Highbury

My Lords, as regards matters as complex as the one we are discussing, we all wish to ensure that investigations are sound and thorough. As noble Lords will be aware, there have been three or four similar investigations in the past, none of which has revealed sufficient evidence of any kind to bring a case. This series of investigations must be carried out thoroughly and well. I am sure the director general is doing that.

Lord Borrie

My Lords, does my noble friend agree with me that the investigative powers of the Office of Fair Trading at the present time are inadequate, particularly as regards demanding information and accounts of all kinds? Does he further agree that when piloting the Competition Act through this House last year he sought to establish adequate provisions in the new law which would much enhance the existing position? Does my noble friend also agree that it would be desirable to implement at the earliest opportunity the investigative powers contained in the Competition Act of last year, even though full implementation may have to await the date which my noble friend has given in the past; namely, 1st March 2000?

Lord Simon of Highbury

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that interesting contribution. It is true that the new Act introduces far more stringent powers of investigation. The Chamber thoroughly debated the matter. We set the date of 1st March 2000 for implementation of the Act largely to allow industry appropriate time for preparation. I believe that that date, which was chosen after much discussion in this House, is appropriate. As regards the investigation we are discussing, I say only that the length of the proceedings has been due in part to a request for further investigation and information which was made during the autumn, which was freely given by News International. That process will reach a swift conclusion in February.

Lord Razzall

My Lords, does the Minister accept that when he persuaded this House not to insist on the insertion of the predatory pricing clause in the Competition Act, he did so on the basis that the Office of Fair Trading would have the appropriate powers under the new Act to deal with the situation mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord McNally? Does he accept that as those powers do not come into effect until the year 2000 this issue will not go away?

Lord Simon of Highbury

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his implied flattery as regards my powers of persuasion. However, the House decided with its own good sense that that was the appropriate way to take the Act forward. I believe we all agreed that this was a sensible interim period to enable the industry to prepare for the new regulations. As I say, I have no evidence that there is any shortage of capacity under the current legal system for the Director General of Fair Trading appropriately to carry out this investigation.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, in view of the noble Lord's answers to previous questions, would it be helpful if the Director General of Fair Trading had greater resources to enable him to deal with these matters rather more speedily?

Lord Simon of Highbury

My Lords, if I may say so, that is an appropriate suggestion. I believe that in the latest budgetary process an extra £15 million has been dedicated to extending the capacity of the Office of Fair Trading over the next three-year budgetary period.

Lord McNally

My Lords, will the Minister confirm reports of an interview with Mr. Stephen Byers on the radio last night in which he said that although the Government wanted to see the removal of any political judgment with regard to most takeovers and mergers, the newspaper industry was a special case and that Ministers would wish to reserve powers to his department in cases of mergers and takeovers in the newspaper industry?

Lord Simon of Highbury

My Lords, I must confess that yesterday evening I was close to Highbury for a particular event. I upheld the name which I am fortunate enough to bear while making a lot of noise about it. Therefore I have not caught up with the Secretary of State's latest statements. However, it was a perfectly satisfactory home win!

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