Clause 98 - Power to modify sections 93 to 97

Enterprise Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 12:00 pm ar 1 Mai 2002.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Ceidwadwyr, Eastbourne 12:00, 1 Mai 2002

This is a short clause, but it contains some significant powers for the Secretary of State. In three lines, the clause makes it clear that the Secretary of State can modify by order any of the provisions relating to merger notices and that seems a rather wide power. In theory, Secretaries of State can amend anything if they can find the parliamentary time and muster the votes. In the previous few clauses, what does the Minister believe might need to be changed in a hurry? Is it really necessary for the Secretary of State to take those major powers to herself and subsequent Secretaries of State? That is a current trend, which I cannot, as an individual, do anything to stop. It seems that when in doubt, the temptation is to give the Secretary of State endless powers to modify and change by order or otherwise. When the occasion demands, we should make the argument for not having such power in legislation.

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

I want to make a brief point in support of that contribution, particularly following the Minister's reply to our brief discussion on clause 97 when he courteously but not very informatively said that he would have to consult other Ministers on what the orders would consist of. The clause gives the Secretary of State power to change the rules under which notices will be issued. Following the Minister's strong reaffirmation this morning of his belief in parliamentary sovereignty, would not the affirmative resolution procedure be more appropriate than an arbitrary power to issue orders? The point has occurred not just to hon. Members in the Committee, but to those in industry and legal groups who are concerned that the clause represents a considerable accumulation of ministerial power and that greater parliamentary scrutiny should be afforded.

Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander Minister of State (e-Commerce & Competitiveness)

I feel, with respect, that we are making a mountain out of a molehill.

On the first point, I did not undertake to go away and find out what the provisions were; I undertook to establish the basis on which information would be made available to the Committee. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Twickenham for giving me the opportunity to clarify his thinking on that.

On the more substantive point, if there is a trend, as the hon. Member for Eastbourne suggested, it predates my arrival in the House. The provision identically replicates the terms of the Fair Trading Act. The idea that the Secretary of State is grabbing powers fails to recognise the reality. The provision simply replicates something that has been in place for nigh on 30 years.

The provision is prudent and allows Parliament to approve adjustments to the merger notice regime—one example might be timings. It is a sensible means by which we can provide future-proof assurance to the Bill. If reasonable changes that would be subject to parliamentary scrutiny were not anticipated, we would be obliged to return to the House and introduce further legislation when a minor reaffirmation of the position in the Fair Trading Act can ensure that that is unnecessary.

Photo of Ken Purchase Ken Purchase Labour/Co-operative, Wolverhampton North East 12:15, 1 Mai 2002

As a fully paid-up member of the awkward squad, I have to ask the Minister a question in this context: the political tide goes out and it comes in. I look to the future, when he will still be here long after I have left. Although I accept that the clause may not be the most serious matter that we ever deal with, if there is a trend, it is incumbent on me to secure, on the record, complete assurances from my hon. Friend that the nature of the provision is one that should not cause us difficulty in the future.

Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander Minister of State (e-Commerce & Competitiveness)

I hope that I can give assurances to my hon. Friend. Why look in the crystal ball when we can read the history books? The clause replicates the FTA directly. To that extent, comfort can be

provided on the basis of how Secretaries of State in turn have applied the FTA in the years since it came into effect. On that basis there is appropriate and legitimate concern about ensuring parliamentary scrutiny, and the avoidance of a situation whereby there could be wholesale changes to the terms on which the Bill is being discussed. I am certainly not convinced that the clause raised that spectre. I think that it is merely a sensible means of ensuring that the legislation is future-proof and entirely consistent with some of the sensible provisions that exist under the FTA.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 98 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 99 ordered to stand part of the Bill.