Clause 127 - Variation of market investigation references

Enterprise Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 10:30 am ar 7 Mai 2002.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

The Competition Commission must end its investigation within two years. That is a long time for a business to undergo an investigation, given the investigation's impact on costs, the potential fall in the company's share price on the stock market and other impacts caused by market uncertainty as to where the business is heading. In particular, foreign competitors who are not bound by the investigation may take over a company's activities while it is subject to an investigation and is stuck in a rut.

Let us imagine that, after one year, the Competition Commission says, "We have got it all wrong. We've been barking up the wrong tree for the past year. I'm sorry that your share price fell, that a foreign company has taken away your business and that, as a result, jobs that would have been made available in this country have gone abroad." That could happen, given the possibility of a variation. What if the Commission then says, "Okay, we got that wrong, but we've considered it a bit further and have decided that we investigated the wrong thing. We are going to restart the investigation, but this time we will consider a different set of criteria."?

I am sure that we all appreciate that businesses might be fearful of such circumstances arising; of not knowing what was going on, of not being able to plan and of having their strategy turned on its head. They might worry that their share price would be re-affected by the terms of the new investigation. Under the variation provisions of the clause, there is a great possibility that businesses will be dramatically affected.

Can the Under-Secretary give business some comfort about how the variations will happen?

What remedy would business have if a variation were called? Would business be able to complain if, after a year, the investigation failed? In those circumstances, it would be unfair to be suddenly faced with a whole new set of guidelines.

Will there be a limit to the number of investigations that could be carried out, or can the Commission change the rules of the game as it goes along, willy-nilly? We shall discuss the cost of the investigation later on in our proceedings. In the meantime I would be interested to hear the Under-Secretary's views.

Photo of Miss Melanie Johnson Miss Melanie Johnson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Trade and Industry

Perhaps I can reassure the hon. Gentleman. The point of the statutory timetable is to give certainty to business. There is real value in having such a timetable because it provides a full stop to proceedings and it is important that that is not undermined. Of course, variations could narrow as well as broaden the scope of a pre-existing inquiry; the hon. Gentleman assumes that it would always be broadened. The amended reference will build on work already done by the Competition Commission; a new inquiry will not be started. In fact, clause 161 requires that parties be given time to comment. It is unlikely that the reference would be varied significantly late in the day, as the Competition Commission would not have enough time to complete its inquiry, especially if it was to be broadened.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Ceidwadwyr, Cities of London and Westminster

Will the Under-Secretary confirm that under no circumstances would the clock be turned back to zero with the two-year timetable effectively starting again? That key concern was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) and it obviously would be a concern for businesses if the uncertainty were to hang over them for a long period.

Photo of Miss Melanie Johnson Miss Melanie Johnson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Trade and Industry

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I do not envisage any circumstance in which the clock would be turned back to zero during the process. The decisions taken must be reasoned, and any decision to vary a market investigation would be open to appeal by the Competition Appeal Tribunal. I accept that questions raised by the Opposition on the matter are utterly reasonable, but I would argue that the clause and related provisions already meet all of their objectives.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 127 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 128 ordered to stand part of the Bill.