HL Deb 25 March 1999 vol 598 cc1415-6

3.8 p.m.

Lord Razzall

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord McNally, and at his request, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows: To ask 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 low and when he makes his findings public. I understand that the director-general continues to make good progress with his inquiry. He will announce his decision as soon as possible.

Lord Razzall

My Lords, will the Minister accept hat my noble friend Lord McNally would regard that as a somewhat disappointing Answer? Initially his request for an inquiry was resisted on the basis that there was no case to answer. The Minister then promised a report by 28th February, and we are now told that it is progressing satisfactorily. Does he agree that that is an unsatisfactory response? Does he also agree that the issue is less about the behaviour of Times Newspapers and more about the creditability of the OFT? Does he further agree that that supports our case that newspapers need special legislation?

Lord Simon of Highbury

My Lords, in trying to reply as appropriately as I can to transferred disappointment, perhaps I may say that the response is to a complex question. On the last occasion I was at the Dispatch Box, I gave the best indication that the inquiry would be completed by February. We are now into March and I have said that the director-general will announce his decision as soon as possible. I believe, without any doubt, that the matter is being attended to in the appropriate way.

Lord Borrie

My Lords, has the Minister been able to consider further the suggestion that I made to him on the last occasion this question was raised; that is, whether the enhanced investigative powers of the Director-General of Fair Trading, contained within the Competition Act 1998, should be implemented as soon as possible so that they can apply to all such inquiries as the one being conducted at present?

Lord Simon of Highbury

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that question. I am glad he returned to it. We have, indeed, followed up the point that he made. I can confirm that the enhanced investigatory powers to which he refers will be put into place—particularly in relation to the Fair Trading Act, as that is existing legislation—on 1st April 1999. That would not be applicable to this inquiry because all the data required by the director-general are in place. However, it will certainly enhance his investigatory powers as regards any future inquiry.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, the noble Lord referred to "a complex question" raised by this matter. Can he identify, for the benefit of the House, what is complex about it?

Lord Simon of Highbury

My Lords, I believe that this is the fourth time that the matter has been brought to the attention of the director-general and, effectively, no case has been found. That means that it is not a simple matter. There must be additional information and new circumstances to bring the case again. The director-general has been looking at both those matters with care. He required a great deal of information. As we stated when we last discussed the matter in the summer, he would need a great deal of extra information to ensure that the complexities were well understood.

Lord Acton

My Lords, how long has the inquiry taken and how long did the previous three inquiries take?

Lord Simon of Highbury

My Lords, this inquiry started at the beginning of last year. It has now been running for just over a year. I shall let the noble Lord know the timing of the previous inquiries. It was before my period of office so I shall need to look up the detail.