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Monopolies And Mergers Commission

Volume 15: debated on Monday 14 December 1981

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asked the Secretary of State for Trade whether he is satisfied with the powers of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the powers of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission would be better used in tackling public sector monopolies such as coal, gas, electricity and the British Leyland price ring—which maintains car prices in the United Kingdom at thousands of pounds in excess of prices on the Continent—rather than using its powers to determine who should run that over-large sweet shop in Knightsbridge?

I have a good deal of sympathy with what I think is the point that my hon. Friend is making, which is that the service to consumers, the prices offered by the public sector industries and the service that they render to the economy as a whole are far less satisfactory than the contribution made by the private sector. If that is my hon. Friend's point, I entirely agree with him. The Government have recently announced measures to strengthen the Commission's role in the external scrutiny of the nationalised industries' efficiency. The membership and staff are being reinforced as necessary. Existing powers to call for information are sufficient for all present purposes.

If the Minister is so satisfied with the powers of the Commission, might she also explain to it the difference between commercial danger and crises of identity, an example of which was raised in the House of Fraser and Lonrho merger?

I think that the legislation is sufficiently explicit for the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Commission has wide discretion in determining the criteria—

These are all matters for ongoing Government consideration. The Commission is an independent body and that is its main strength. It has wide expertise to call upon and the Government will not criticise individual reports from the Commission.

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that to some of us, at least, the criteria adopted by the Commission in considering the House of Fraser issue, and to some extent the Sealink reference, are rather worrying? Will she continue to ensure that she keeps an eye on the criteria that are adopted? Is she aware that some of us think that we are getting the wrong answers and that we may be asking the wrong questions?

I am not sure whether my hon. Friend is aware of the recommendations contained in the Liesner report of July 1980. The Government took a keen interest in the recommendations and they will continue to consider them. That matter will be part of the ongoing consideration of policy concerning the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and the competition policy that is involved. These are matters for continuing consideration and are dependent on the legislative timetable.

Is the right hon. Lady aware that, following the decision of her right hon. Friend on the inquiry into the acquisition of the House of Fraser, it was said that undertakings were expected to be given by Lonrho Ltd. to the Director General of Fair Trading? Since that time there has been considerable comment in the press and elsewhere to the effect that the undertakings have not been forthcoming. It is rumoured that some artifices are being adopted to try to avoid the recommendation and the Secretary of State's decision. Will the right hon. Lady make it crystal clear that the decision is meant to stick on all the parties to that effect?

I am much gratified by the right hon. Gentleman's knowledge of commentary and rumour. Any action that had to be taken would depend on the circumstances. I can give him the assurance that if necessary there would be recourse to the order-making powers under the fair trading legislation.