Enterprise Bill

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Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): Some of the amendments stand in my name and those of my

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hon. Friends, whom some people might refer to as hon. comrades. The hon. Member for Eastbourne trailered these as hard-left amendments. In fact, as I said earlier, my position is neither hard nor soft left. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East described that as the ''Goldilocks'' tendency; neither too hard, nor too soft.

The amendments and others that we shall reach later are interconnected. Amendment No. 124 would delete one provision to make way for the expansion and definitions in amendments Nos. 125 and 165. They are part and parcel of the public interest argument that I shall advance now, so I may not need to go over that ground again when we reach that group of amendments.

For reasons that I shall make more clear later, I call my group the Biwater amendments. These arise from experiences in my constituency to do with the Biwater plant as it was at Clay Cross. My worries about part 3 can be seen in my reaction to the views that an extreme supporter of part 3 expressed in a document that came into my hands. The British Bankers Association circulated to its members a document that states:

    ''Following lobbying from a range of business and City institutions, the Enterprise Bill will introduce a number of major reforms to UK competition law, as well as changes to insolvency procedures.''

The document then deals in detail with part 3 and the matters that we are considering. It goes on to say:

    ''Obviously these proposals are extremely welcome and represent the culmination of what we have been seeking for some years with regard to UK merger policy, in terms of both financial services and other sectors of the economy. It is important, however, that members should take no premature action to jeopardise the proposals whilst they are still subject to Parliamentary scrutiny. In advance of Second Reading of the Bill, members are also urged to ensure that, in the event of being contacted by backbench MPs, no opinion is offered for the time being. Once Parliament has approved the proposals (largely a formality)''—

our business seems to be beside the point—

    ''which we are led to expect should be achieved by the summer, members may of course then comment freely!''

The document says that part 3 will

    ''remove Ministerial and Parliamentary control over mergers & acquisitions . . . leave decisions on M&A and other cases to the Regulatory authorities (principally the Office of Fair Trading) . . . replace the current 'public interest' test for assessing M&A and other cases solely with a 'competition-based' test . . . prevent trade unions (or MPs with trade union connections) from having any say in decisions on such matters.''

Those matters concern me, and people within the trade union movement. The Financial Times of 10 April, the day of Second Reading, printed a letter from Ed Sweeney, the general secretary of Unifi, the finance trade union, in which he expressed concerns. He said:

    ''the policy on mergers will be governed solely by the effect of a particular transaction on competition rather than, as at present, the effect on public interest (which, while emphasising effective competition, can also include the effects on employment, regional policy and so on). Ministers will have reserve powers to intervene only on those merger cases affecting national security/defence, plus other exceptional cases subject to parliamentary approval. Unifi's concern is that no consideration will be given to the 'social' implications of mergers. Unifi believes that the consequence of mergers do sometimes need to be considered beyond the 'economic' and that the proposed reforms do not allow a mechanism for that consideration.''

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My amendments would provide that the OFT take on board consideration of the public interest. A later amendment to clause 56 attempts to restore the public interest consideration to the Secretary of State. Ed Sweeney goes on:

    ''Consideration should also be given as to whether the new 'super-complainant' procedure (that will enable certain consumer organisations to have the right to compel initial investigations by the Office of Fair Trading into specific markets) should be extended to other third parties.''

That is similar to one of my earlier amendments, which put forward producer and not just consumer considerations. Amendment No. 122, which provoked a great deal of discussion about G.D.H. Cole, was flawed because a crucial stage in the Bill had been passed by the time it was introduced and I could put forward only a measure on producer references to consumer matters rather than matters that affected producers. However, there will be an opportunity later, maybe on Report, to correct that and to table the type of amendment that Ed Sweeney seeks.

The document of the British Bankers Association was sent to me anonymously with a note saying that I might be interested in it. I have made efforts to check whether it is genuine. I asked a researcher in the Library for his response to it. He said:

    ''As I am sure you understand, it is difficult to comment without making direct enquiries. If it is a hoax, it seems an informed and fairly elaborate one. It uses the correct logo and details of the BBA; it provides a broadly accurate account of Part 3 of the Bill; and it has been precisely targeted in that this is an issue that concerns you.''

Mr. Waterson: My affection for the hon. Gentleman is in no way diminished by the black and white way in which he views political issues. Does he accept as a corollary of his proposal that a wicked Tory Government should listen to the blandishments of big business, banks and others and make political decisions, in their turn, about merger issues? That seems a fair deduction to make from his argument.

10.30 am

Mr. Barnes: Decisions made under section 84 the 1973 Act, if fully implemented, are not made by Governments and by Ministers. Such decisions can be to make references to the Competition Commission to examine a matter. The likelihood of pressures being put on Ministers to consider things seems part of the duties in which they should be engaged and for which they should be accountable to Parliament. To say that things should be taken out of the hands of politicians is to say that things should be taken out of the hands of democratic processes. Obviously, politicians can manipulate and fiddle behind closed doors, but we should open up those procedures as much as possible and make people fully accountable. The interests of workers should have access to and feed into the political process through the type of avenues that are available for the public interest.

Since the early 1980s, successive Secretaries of State have had a policy that references should be made to the Competition Commission only on competition grounds, not on public interest grounds. That seems to have been a wilful refusal to use the enabling measures contained in section 84 of the Fair Trading Act. It has had a disastrous effect in numerous cases, including

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the Biwater case at Clay Cross in my constituency, which led to the entirely unnecessary loss of 700 jobs.

My amendments use the wording in section 84 of the 1973 Act, although at present it is a smaller measure that instigates the public interest provision, which is defined by later amendments. There is a need to go beyond the rather weak enabling measures in section 84 and to place a public interest duty upon Ministers and the OFT. We have to proceed one step at a time. The current step is to try to get us back at least to the possibilities that exist in the 1973 legislation.

I shall now deal with the relevance of the Biwater case to my amendments. On 4 September 2000 Saint-Gobain, acting through its British subsidiary Stanton plc, took over Biwater at Clay Cross works in my constituency. The acquisition was sanctioned by the OFT which, in its report to the Secretary of State, failed to mention that it knew that Saint-Gobain's intention in purchasing the plant and taking it over was to close down the works. That was revealed later. Within minutes of the takeover announcement it was announced that the closure would take place after a statutory minimum period of 90 days.

The works are now closed. Yet Biwater was an entirely viable operation. It had a thriving trade in pipe manufacturing and the sale of pipes for the distribution of water. It had growing orders with the increase in oil prices in the middle east. When it had full order books, 80 per cent. of its production went to export. If the Secretary of State or the OFT had acted on section 84 of the 1973 Act the Competition Commission would have had a clear case for preventing that closure. But all that happened was that the Secretary of State referred the matter back to the Office of Fair Trading for a second look. The OFT merely confirmed that it was acting on competition grounds, and that no reference would be made to the Competition Commission. After much dithering, that is still the Secretary of State's position. The first batch of redundancies had taken place on the Friday before he announced his decision to stay with the OFT recommendation on the Monday, supposedly after examining the details during the weekend.

It was clear to me from a conversation with John Vickers, the Director General of Fair Trading, that he believed that competition criteria were fulfilled as long as the consumer's ability to go the market and buy pipes could be reasonably guaranteed, whether they were produced in this country, or had to be imported from the rest of Saint-Gobain's pipe-manufacturing industry throughout the world. On 11 March, Saint-Gobain's advertisement stated that two thirds of European households, not to mention all of Brazil's, were supplied with water from Saint-Gobain pipes. It said that every year it made enough ductile iron piping to build a pipeline through the earth, and that their water systems equipped 80 world capitals.

Biwater was a competitor with the same sort of operation. Although Stanton plc and Stanton Works are in this country—Stanton Works is in my constituency—and they may have found easier avenues of production, production is directed towards the home, not the overseas, market. The

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order book from the purchase of Biwater Clay Cross went overseas. That productive capacity is now exercised in Brazil and other countries.

The public interest provision provides for exports to be considered as a factor. Saint-Gobain has almost gone from the site, because Biwater still owns the land and buildings. There should be some serious consideration of an arrangement that exists throughout industry, where one company owns the land and buildings and another operates the firm. A firm in my constituency went into receivership. The major interest in the firm also had a major interest in the land and buildings under a separate company, which has made a fortune from houses built on that site.

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