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Lord Simon of Highbury : My Lords, clearly comparing prices across Europe is a complex matter. There are the issues of taxes, exchange rates, quality and production specifications. If there is any evidence that cartels are operating, the correct place for that information is the Director-General of Fair Trading together with the appropriate complaints procedure. I would not want to comment further at this stage except to say that our Competition Bill, if it is successful through both Houses, will ensure that these matters are regarded with the utmost seriousness.
Lord Borrie: My Lords, does the Minister agree that wide discrepancies in prices across Europe for any considerable period of time make a mockery of the single market? Does my noble friend agree with me that a serious drawback is the persistence of a block exemption enabling a tightly knit car distributorship agreement to prevail contrary to the normal competition laws of the European Union?
Lord Simon of Highbury: My Lords, in general terms I would never wish to cross swords with my noble friend on matters of competition. However, he must know that extreme variances of prices are capable of being observed in one region of one country let alone across the European Union. Therefore, given the features of tax and exchange rates, disparity of prices does not necessarily mean that the European Union single market is not working effectively. However, at the informal ECOFIN meeting in May we asked the Commission to look at pricing across the European Union with a view to helping the completion of the single market.
Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister comment on whether the stockpiling of many thousands of new and nearly-new cars at RAF Upper Heyford is in breach of our restrictive practices legislation? Is it a form of cartel, the main purpose being to stop the price of second-hand cars from falling?
Lord Simon of Highbury: My Lords, I cannot comment on individual company's stockpiling policies. By and large holding large stocks of any product is usually a function of the order and resale process within any industry. Holding large stocks is not a crime, but it usually turns out to be expensive for the company which holds them.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware that there is a great deal of confusion about car prices, not only in relation to Europe but also in relation to the way that manufacturers and distributors handle the industry? Manufacturers are whining and moaning about a high pound, saying that they cannot export. But since many of the components and cars are imported, can my noble friend explain why the high pound does not result in much lower prices of cars in this country? Manufacturers cannot have one without the other.
Lord Simon of Highbury: My Lords, my noble friend raises an extremely acute point of analysis about how pricing should operate. My experience is that there are often swings and roundabouts in these matters, and the consumer often thinks that he is on the roundabout rather than the swings.
Lord Razzall: My Lords, does the Minister accept that the real issue--it has been demonstrated by the questions asked by noble Lords--is that for at least the past two to three years there has been a significant problem of differential pricing between UK purchased cars and cars purchased elsewhere? The Government must commit themselves to doing something about it. Will the Minister give that undertaking?
Lord Simon of Highbury: My Lords, I believe that I made clear in an earlier answer that in May the Financial Ministers' Council asked ECOFIN for pricing discrepancies in Europe to be studied by the Commission. I am sure cars fall within that study. As we prosecute the single market, we shall ensure that pricing disparities which are not for wholly acceptable and justifiable reasons will be pursued at whatever legal level is required.
Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Commission's interpretation and enforcement of competition laws are subject to many inexplicable differences? Will my noble friend give the House an undertaking that the Government will look
Lord Simon of Highbury: My Lords, without wishing to trivialise matters to my noble friend, I think that the decisions of the Court are often complex and sometimes incomprehensible to the layman. However, we shall ensure that within our powers the prosecution of the law is undertaken in a manner which is compatible with the treaty and our own regime and of benefit to the consumers for whom it is designed.
Lord Simon of Highbury: My Lords, I would rather write to the noble Lord in response to that question. It is a detailed matter. I do not wish to waste the time of the House because it is different in each country.
Lord Dholakia: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Is he aware of the case of the 66 year-old man who tried to park his car on a double yellow line to deliver his invalid wife to the hairdresser? He was sprayed with CS gas, arrested and put in a cell for six hours. While one appreciates the use of CS spray for a defensive purpose, is it not inappropriate to use it as a control mechanism? Is the Minister also aware that the Police Complaints Authority--I declare an interest as a member of that authority--dealt with over 254 complaints? Its opinion is that in many cases the use is neither justified nor appropriate.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am aware of the case in question. In fact the Bedfordshire police took the view that the officer in question had acted outside the guidelines. They had to bear in mind the constraints of Section 3 of the Criminal Law Act 1967 which provides that someone may only use such force as is
Baroness Anelay of St. Johns: My Lords, cricket has already been mentioned in your Lordships' House today. I am aware that the new football season is a mere 13 days away when Arsenal will play Manchester United in the Charity Shield at Wembley. Can the Minister say how many police forces carry CS spray into football grounds? Were any problems experienced during the last football season in situations where crowd safety must be the prime consideration?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I cannot say how many police forces use CS gas in football grounds or at any other sporting event. It is a matter for the operational view of a chief officer of police. Every police force in England and Wales bar two uses CS spray.
Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, bearing in mind that there is still a tendency for increased crime, and for people to attack policemen who are doing their duty of protecting individuals or the community, can the Minister indicate whether there is any alternative to CS gas? There does not seem to be one on the table at present.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, my noble friend is right. Numbers of assaults on police officers in England and Wales rose from 14,840 in 1995-96 to 15,488 in 1996-97. If one expects police officers to uphold the law, one has a duty to give them the reasonable but lawfully controlled tools to do the work. The alternative is to use a baton and, as I said in my original Answer, that may involve more force and more disagreeable consequences than CS spray.
Earl Russell: My Lords, is the Minister aware of any research on the effect of CS gas on people suffering from mental illness or those taking psychotropic drugs? If the Government are unable to discover any such research, will they ensure that some is commissioned?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I know of no specific research related to the two categories identified by the noble Earl. I can only repeat that it has been evaluated to the same level as any new pharmaceutical drug and was found not to present any significant threat. If the noble Earl has any particular instance in mind, of course, as always, I should be more than happy to research it and write to him.
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