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Competition Commission and Office of Fair Trading

Volume 722: debated on Monday 22 November 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they will ensure that companies are judged by a panel of their peers following the proposed merger of the Competition Commission and the Office of Fair Trading.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as a former deputy chairman of the Competition Commission.

My Lords, we are looking very carefully at the options, including that of retaining the Competition Commission-style panels. Our consultation proposals planned for next year will be aimed at preserving the best features of the current regime, especially the robustness of analysis and the objectivity of decision-making.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Although this merger is to be welcomed, I am delighted to hear that it is planned to keep the best of both. Does the Minister agree with me that the independence and impartiality guaranteed by the panel system of part-time members drawn from a variety of backgrounds, including leading lawyers, economists, financiers and business people, ensures that companies can present their case to their peers rather than to salaried bureaucrats?

My Lords, I am very happy to reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Kingsmill. Her expertise in this area is recognised around the House. As she said, she worked on the Competition Commission as a deputy chair. Without doubt, the panel of peers, to which she refers, has done a marvellous job. There is no intention on our part to get rid of what is good; if we can, we intend to improve on what is already there. When the consultation paper comes out in the new year, I hope that she will speak strongly so that we shall have the advantage of her expertise.

My Lords, will the noble Baroness consider—in due course, at any rate—that in order to get the most skilled and experienced practitioners in business and the professions, as my noble friend Lady Kingsmill feels is desired, it is almost certain that we will have to engage part-time people, because most people with that sort of experience are not willing to give up their jobs to take another job in the Civil Service? In considering the Government's plans, will the Minister also explore whether it is possible to keep the staff of the investigating arm of the new body separate and distinct from the staff of the decision-making and more quasi-judicial part?

The noble Lord, Lord Borrie, with whom I have worked many times over the years, has the OFT as his expertise, so anything that he has to say on the subject is certainly worth listening to. When it comes to the consultation period in January, I am sure that all the points that he has just made will be taken into consideration. As I said before, we have absolutely no intention to ruin a good thing; the idea is to try to improve it. Therefore, the better the consultation, the better, and I look forward to his contribution.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that at the moment, consumer credit regulation is split between the FSA and the OFT. What is the Government's latest thinking on whether that responsibility should devolve to the proposed Consumer Protection and Markets Authority?

Once again, that is a very good question that I cannot answer at this stage, because we are not in the consultation period. Such matters worry people. I come from a background of seven years as chairman of the National Consumer Council, which became Consumer Focus, which will now be merged with the CABx. There will be a whole new range of consumer representation. I think that it should be a very exciting and empowering time, and I look forward to it.

My Lords, the merger between the Competition Commission and the Office of Fair Trading will come as a consequence of the Public Bodies Bill. The Minister mentioned the forthcoming consultation; does she think that it would have been more appropriate to have the consultation before the legislation is passed?

Obviously, my Government do not think that, otherwise we would not be bringing the Bill forward at this time. That means that all the people with expertise who are taking part in debate on the Public Bodies Bill, whose opinions we are hearing—the noble Lords, Lord Borrie, Lord Whitty and Lord Dubs—will be feeding in to the process going forward that will start at the beginning of next year. I think it starts just in the new year, and we hope that the new body will be in place in 2013.

It may be worth my reminding the House that the previous Government were working on the possibility of merging the Office of Fair Trading and the Competition Commission, and it was only the election that stopped that work being completed. We are using some of the conclusions of that work to aid in formulating proposals for the consultation, and I hope for the support of noble Lords.

Does my noble friend not agree that consultation can be taken too far and that the previous Government taught us that you can go on consulting almost indefinitely and nothing ever gets done?

My noble friend sounds like a man who is scarred by many consultations. I, too, have taken part in consultations and have sometimes wondered at the end of them, “What a lot of talking”, but this is the country we have, and we consult. We hope to be fast and furious and to get everybody’s opinion in.

If the noble Baroness holds consultation in such relative contempt, does she not find some sort of embarrassment in trying to give us the Answer to the Question before there has been the analysis to provide a proper Answer? Does she not find some sense of embarrassment in that?

I do not think that is what I said. I said I think that we take part in consultation. This is a democracy. Sometimes it may be irksome, but it is very important that all opinions are heard, even the noble Lord’s.