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Children (Safeguards for Unaccompanied Travel)

Margaret Moran accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for a tracking system to safeguard the welfare of children travelling to the United Kingdom without their parents: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 July, and to be printed [Bill 117].

Point of Order

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As you know, at the beginning of each parliamentary Session we pass a number of Sessional Orders, which are not controversial and are normally agreed without a Division. One states that

You may not know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that today there has been utter chaos outside this building, creating severe traffic delays and impeding the work of many Members. The reason appears to be the closure of Victoria street where it becomes The Sanctuary. Having made inquiries, I understand that the road closure has nothing whatsoever to do with yesterday's events, nor with the demonstration by Greenpeace that took place earlier today, but is the result of roadworks that are being carried out.

That is a clear breach of our Sessional Orders. I can think of no other Parliament in the world that would allow democratically elected Members to be caused such disruption by roadworks, which could easily have been scheduled for when the House was not sitting.

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I understand that the roadworks may continue for the rest of this week or into next week, so will you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, draw the matter to Mr. Speaker's attention and ask him to look into it and report back to the House tomorrow?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): The right hon. Gentleman is obviously greatly concerned about the matter. I understand that, and I am sure that Mr. Speaker will also note the points that he has made. I think that the correct procedure is to ask the Serjeant at Arms to look into such matters, and I am sure that that will be done.

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Orders of the Day

Enterprise Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

4.51 pm

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Ms Patricia Hewitt): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

In our first term in government, our economic priority was to establish macro-economic stability—the essential precondition for business success and wider prosperity. As a result of the decisions that we took nearly five years ago, we now enjoy low inflation and the lowest long-term interest rates and highest levels of employment that we have had for many years.

In this second term, as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and I explained in our joint statement in June last year, our economic priority is to build on that foundation of stability by promoting higher productivity and greater enterprise. To achieve that, we will match the independence that we gave our monetary authorities with independence for our competition authorities, and alongside tough rules for public finances we will put tough rules for competitive behaviour and consumer protection.

Our ambition is greater prosperity and world-class public services for all—for every individual and family, every community and every region and nation of our country. To achieve that ambition, we need dynamic, competitive businesses that generate wealth, create jobs and provide the tax revenues that we need to invest in public services. The Bill strengthens the foundations of an enterprise economy by promoting competition, protecting consumers and establishing an insolvency regime that will encourage honest but unsuccessful entrepreneurs to try again. It builds on our considerable achievements to date—the Competition Act 1998, recent insolvency reforms and the measures that have already been implemented from the 1999 consumer White Paper.

Just as we are creating the right market framework for business in Britain, so we continue to press ahead with economic reform in Europe. We made solid progress in Barcelona, where, with our European colleagues, we set a timetable to complete the single market in financial services and achieved the long-awaited, if not yet sufficient, breakthrough on energy liberalisation.

The Bill has been widely welcomed. For example, David Lennan of the British Chambers of Commerce said recently:

Sheila McKechnie of the Consumers Association said that the measures will

Digby Jones of the Confederation of British Industry said:

the Bill—

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The extent of support for the Bill reflects the fact that at every stage in formulating policy we listened to the views of business, consumers and insolvency and competition experts. In 1999, we consulted on the measures in the consumer White Paper. In 2000, we consulted on personal bankruptcy and reform of the merger regime, and last year we consulted on competition and insolvency. As a result, we have developed proposals that improve the competition, consumer protection and insolvency regimes for all concerned without creating additional burdens or regulation for business.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): Before the right hon. Lady moves away from her references to the Competition Act, will she tell the House on how many occasions actions have been successfully taken for infringements of the chapters 1 and 2 prohibitions since that Act came into force?

Ms Hewitt: There has been significant use by the competition authorities of the new prohibitions in the 1998 Act, which will continue to be an extremely important part of the competition regime.

As a Government, we are unashamedly pro-competition. The best protection for consumers is choice—the choice that is provided in open and vibrant markets. Effective competition is a powerful incentive for firms to innovate, to improve their customer service and to become more productive. Of course, it also provides opportunities for new firms to enter markets and to grow. Strong, fair competition contributes to innovation and productivity growth and to the diffusion of economic power. It maximises opportunities for all.

The United Kingdom therefore needs a modern, world-class competition regime and a regulatory framework that is designed to promote competition rather than perpetuate regulation. The more effective the regulatory framework, the more markets will work efficiently and fairly, and the less regulatory intervention will be needed in the long run—competition where possible and regulation where necessary.

Before 1997, the competition regime had remained largely unchanged for almost 20 years, even though, for most of the period of Conservative government, it was clear that our competition laws were out of date and byzantine in their complexity. We have already made progress. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, when she was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, introduced the Competition Act and, with it, a modern, more streamlined regime that addressed anti-competitive agreements and abuses of dominant position. However, further improvement is needed. The mergers and markets regime needs to be modernised, and we need a step change in competitive pressures to help us close the productivity gap between the UK and our key competitors.

Our reforms are based on a number of key principles set out in the competition White Paper. The first principle is that we need strong, pro-active and independent competition authorities that are able to deal with anti-competitive behaviour. The Bill therefore provides that, in the vast majority of cases, with the exception of national security cases only, decisions will be taken by independent competition authorities, free from political interference. Although the Conservative party did not

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make that change when it was in power, I hope that it will support us in making it now. An overwhelming majority of respondents to our consultation supported the policy of taking the politics out of mergers and monopolies decisions. In removing those decisions from Ministers, we are removing a layer of regulation and streamlining the competition regime. Consistent with this new approach, I can announce today that, from September this year, UK competition views on merger cases that are being dealt with by the European Commission will also be a matter for the Office of Fair Trading, and not for the Government.

For mergers and markets cases, the authorities will apply a focused competition test rather than the current, less precise, public interest test. The result will be more transparent and predictable decision making. There will also be more transparency in the operation of the competition regime. The OFT will be required to publish an annual plan. Alongside its annual report, that will provide a clear basis on which Parliament and others will be able to assess its performance. The competition authorities will also be required to publish guidance on how they will approach the consideration of cases under the new regime, and to publish reasons for all their key decisions. Provisional conclusions in mergers and markets inquiries and the remedies for dealing with them will be discussed openly with the parties.

The Bill will also create better procedures for decision making, with statutory maximum timetables and a new right of appeal to the Competition Appeal Tribunal in mergers and markets cases. The effect will be a regime that operates more predictably, more consistently and more proportionately—better regulation.

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