HC Deb 23 July 1985 vol 83 cc452-3W
Mr. Knowles

asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what steps he is taking to increase competition in the professions; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Fletcher

Competition in the professions, as elsewhere, can be a powerful force for protecting the interests of consumers by encouraging greater efficiency and the provision of better service, lower prices and wider choice. The Government have already done much to relax restrictions in the professions. For example, we have ended the optician's monopoly on the dispensing of spectacles; legislation has been brought forward this Session to allow licensed conveyancers to compete with solicitors for conveyancing work; and restrictions on fee scales and advertising imposed by a number of professional bodies on their members, including architects and surveyors, solicitors, accountants, stockbrokers, opticians and vets, have been relaxed.

These measures have been taken after careful assessment of the nature and effect of the restrictions involved, in most cases by the Director General of Fair Trading or the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. I propose to continue this process of scrutiny of restrictions in the professions with a view to establishing whether further relaxations would now be justified.

There remain a number of professional bodies which continue to impose restrictions on advertising by their members. Although mandatory fee scales appear no longer to be in use, some professional bodies recommend what level of fees their members should charge. This practice, taken together with other restrictions such as on advertising, may have much the same effect as a mandatory scale. There are also some restrictions on the legal form of business through which a member of a profession may practise; and the practice of some professions is restricted by statute to registered practitioners. The origin of these restrictions was no doubt a concern to safeguard the interests of the public. But any restrictions on competition need to be reviewed from time to time to see whether they remain appropriate to changing circumstances.

I have therefore consulted the Director General of Fair Trading about a programme of work which his office might conduct over the next 12 months. We have agreed that this programme should include:

  1. (i) A review of the right of representation held by patent agents and solicitors under the Patents Act 1977, which I have asked the Director General to undertake in order to give effect to the recommendation for such a review 453 in Sir Robin Nicholson's Green Paper "Intellectual Property Rights and Innovation" (Cmnd. 9117); and a review of advertising and charging restrictions relating to patent agents.
  2. (ii) A review of advertising and charging restrictions in the professions serving the construction industries (include-ing consulting, structural and civil engineers).
  3. (iii) A review of remaining significant advertising restrictions elsewhere in the professions; and
  4. (iv) A review of restrictions on the kind of organisation through which members of professions may offer their services (for example, restrictions on inter-professional links or mixed partnerships).

This is a substantial programme for carrying forward the government's policy of promoting competition in the professions. The Director General expects that the phased programme of reviews will be completed by August 1986.