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Merger Policy

Volume 980: debated on Monday 3 March 1980

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20.

asked the Secretary of State for Trade when he expects to publish his new proposals on merger policy.

The Government are committed to a strong and effective competition policy. It is too soon to say whether this requires any changes in the legislation on mergers.

May we take it that the referral of Blue Circle's bid for Armitage Shanks to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission is a signal from my right hon. Friend that he recognises that the British economy tends to be over-concentrated, that the urge to merge in recent years has not always shown unquestionable benefits, and that the policy which tended to encourage small but more competitive companies might, in many cases, be preferable?

Some of those features may have led to the recommendation to me by the Director General of Fair Trading for a reference to the Monopolies Commission. I must make it clear that my powers enable me to overturn a recommendation by the Director General, but I seek not to do that unless there are overriding political reasons for so doing. In this case the Director General recommended that the case should be referred to the Monopolies Commission, and I saw no overriding political reason why I should interfere with that recommendation.

In view of the Secretary of State's earlier admission that the Government's policy on competition will have only a marginal effect on the level of prices, will he stop indicating to the British people that competition is an effective means of holding down prices? Will he seek to strengthen competition policy from the steps that he has announced already, to make it more effective?

The principal new element in the Competition Bill, a firmer policy on anti-competitive practices, is one which, interestingly enough, stems from the now Opposition's Green Paper, which no doubt the hon. Gentleman helped to draft. I expect him to welcome the new Bill. I am making no brave prophecies for the Bill. We wish to build up and strengthen competition policy. We shall proceed step by step. I shall not make any brave, great prophecies for it. I believe that the measures contained in the Bill will prove helpful.