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9.14 pm

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): One of the great joys of representing the City of London is the ready availability of a vast array of historic material about that part of our nation. As I recently ploughed my way through David Kynaston's excellent history of the City—I wonder how often any of us have the uninterrupted chance to read a book—I came across a passage that seemed as apposite today as it was when it was written in 1857 by a contemporary commentator on commercial life, who said:

Perhaps things have not changed much in the past century and a half.

I want to say a few words about cartels, then concentrate on insolvency. I realise that I may yet have a chance further to examine the Bill's 269 clauses and 26 schedules if I win the fierce competition to serve on the Standing Committee.

On cartels, the principle of open competition has been supported across the political spectrum—if not by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael)—but in recent years there has been increasingly wide divergence on the means by which that can be achieved. There is also universal acceptance of the commercial need, in certain instances, for regulation. However, all too often the Government have used regulation as a rough and ready tool to promote competition while effectively displacing consumer choice. That has been especially true in the newly privatised industries, where under the pretext of enhancing competition the Government have shifted nominally to allow private utilities the responsibility to ensure that their disadvantaged customers benefit from improved efficiency and greater fairness. Under the

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disguise of competition, regulators have been given significant new powers of social engineering and, with that, an added burden on business that should properly be borne by the Government.

The importance of regulation dates back to the United States in the early part of the 20th century, when anti-trust legislation under Theodore Roosevelt clamped down on the protectionist power of big business. The undesirability of monopolistic power was deeply entrenched in the US's corporate psyche, and that played its part in the years ahead.

The domestic system was introduced about two years ago when the Competition Act 1998 came into force. The Bill goes a step further by proposing a maximum custodial sentence of five years for offenders. That creates a problem in relation to the complementary jurisdiction of European Union law. Where a cartel has an inter-state trade aspect, EU law will apply to the exclusion of national legislation. In view of the reluctance of many European countries to extradite their own nationals, it is difficult to see how the proposed new "get tough" cartel rules will work in practice.

On insolvency, I welcome the Government's clear commitment to grasp the nettle after so long. I suspect that many of the concerns pre-date even the comments from 1857 that I quoted. For as long as I can remember there have been plans to relax our insolvency laws. The Bill allows at least for a dispassionate analysis of some of the key issues, although I shall have time to do no more than set out a few ground rules.

During my experience as a junior corporate lawyer in the recession of the early 1990s, when I dealt with restructurings, administrations and liquidations, many UK lawyers cast an envious eye across the Atlantic at what appeared to be the infinitely more flexible regime under chapter 11. US insolvency legislation enables directors to continue in business well beyond the point at which a director in the UK would have incurred some personal liability for trading insolvently. Moreover, the mechanism allowing for the restructuring of older debts operates alongside a welcome breathing space for a company to reorganise without the ever-present prospect of creditors breathing down its neck. I accept the wisdom of trying in this country to emulate America's bankruptcy laws. However, we need to recognise that the stigma of insolvency is probably as strong as ever. It has been argued that, culturally, Britain is not sufficiently attuned to using insolvency to return a restructured company to the hands of its management. As a practical issue, that is as strong as ever. The commercial reality is that, without strong management and a distinct restructuring plan, no amount of tinkering with the insolvency law is likely to make a great difference.

The experience of Railtrack in the past six months seems to be adequate evidence that creditors should do anything that they can to prevent a business going into administration or any form of receivership, since the costs of that process are absolutely prohibitive. Railtrack is by no means an exception in that regard. All too often, the management of such companies is paralysed by having to concentrate on day-to-day rather than strategic concerns. That applies particularly to businesses in the service sector, in which the main assets of companies are often the middle-ranking and junior staff. A protracted cycle of

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administration is likely, as much as anything, to result in the rapid departure of that key staff asset in such businesses.

Before administrative receivership is consigned to the archives, it is worth pointing out that it is a quick, cheap and often effective mechanism, which allows businesses to be sold without interference from companies or their creditors. The unfettered power of secured creditors to appoint receivers makes them insufficiently accountable to other creditors, but that appointment puts paid to other potential rescue plans. Although the Bill seeks to water down the power of secured creditors to control an insolvency situation, a greater degree of certainty is needed as to its true replacement.

For all the Bill's much-heralded radicalism, these proposals are still founded—as I mentioned in my earlier intervention—on the traditional British insolvency distinction between innocent bankrupts who are victims of economic circumstance and more culpable cases, without recognising that there is often a very grey area in cases of negligence and recklessness. In its own terms, the Bill aims to improve enterprise and enhance responsible risk taking. However, I am concerned about the difficulties in relation to these measures, and I question whether they will make as much practical difference as the Government would have us believe.

9.22 pm

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham): As the last Back-Bench speaker in this debate, I feel that, although everything has been said, not everybody has said it.

I want to focus on the competition aspects of the Bill. First, from my experience of talking to businesses in my constituency, and on the basis of more than 100 responses to a business survey in my constituency, the main concern of businesses is not the competitive framework within which they operate, although that is important, but the burden of red tape and taxes that the Government have imposed on them. As colleagues have said, the costs of regulation since May 1997 have been £15 billion. That is the context in which the benefits that will accrue to business as a consequence of the Bill must be set.

As I believe that the Bill is peripheral to most businesses, I welcome much of its content. The removal of decisions on mergers from the Secretary of State to the Competition Commission is fundamentally right. It is a great strength to a country when it is perceived that decisions that affect business are made not on the whim of whoever happens to be in government at the time but on the basis of a clear, legal framework. Although I am sure that my hon. Friends the Members for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) and for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), who referred to the Tebbit test, were right in extolling its virtues, merger policy should not be dictated by the incumbent Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, especially as there have been four of them since May 1997. Business requires a more stable and consistent framework than such a turnover allows. In that context, it is also right to change the test for whether a merger or takeover should be referred from one of public interest to one of competition. That will enhance the certainty within which major companies can operate when they undertake what I know from experience to be complex, lengthy and expensive transactions.

It is regrettable that although they have taken themselves out of merger and takeover decisions, the Government have retained reserve powers with regard

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to market investigations. Those powers allow the Government to override decisions made by the Office of Fair Trading, or to force the Competition Commission to investigate potential market abuses when the Government believe that the OFT will not act satisfactorily on evidence presented to it.

It is sad that the Government have not grasped fully the importance of taking competition policy out of Ministers' hands. They should accept that the OFT should not be second-guessed by the Government, and that, if the OFT has completed an investigation into supermarkets, for example, that should be the end of the matter.

It is sad that the Secretary of State has not learned from the experience of her predecessor, the present Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. His dealings with campaigns about "rip-off Britain" proved fruitless in many cases, but imposed high costs on British business. He distracted businesses from achieving their main goals, which are to grow bigger, to recruit more staff and to make profits. Such distractions force an unnecessary cost on business.

A further provision in the Bill will make matters even worse. Consumer organisations will have the potential to make super-complaints. Such organisations have their own priorities, and there is a grave risk that they will use that ability to press political agendas with a small "p". We need to make sure that more organisations can make super-complaints.

Moreover, the Confederation of British Industry has recommended that the powers to launch super-complaints be used sparingly to ensure that they retain credibility. Too many super-complaints launched by consumer groups to raise their profile, justify their existence and demonstrate a macho style of consumer self-interest will throw the system into disrepute and force companies to pick up the costs of defending the complaints. Those costs will eventually be passed on to consumers. It would be ironic if the competition measures in the Bill ended up increasing costs to consumers, rather than reducing them.

We must make sure that there is a prima facie case for each super-complaint made under the Bill, and that each such case passes a reasonableness test. I am sure that that will be discussed in Committee, as we must ensure that only fair burdens are imposed on business, and that businesses and consumers do not have to pick up the costs of fishing expeditions mounted by consumer organisations.

This is an important Bill for business. Many businesses will not benefit from its provisions, and most will not fall under its competition provisions. I hope that any businesses that take advantage of the insolvency changes will be those acting as creditors, rather than those that are insolvent.

I hope that the Government have listened to the comments made in the debate. The Bill is peripheral to most businesses. The Budget is to be announced next week, and the Government should accept that the real way to improve the competitiveness and productivity of business in this country is to lift the burden of regulation and taxes.

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9.29 pm

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