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Enterprise Bill: Clause 21 - Duty To Make References In Relation To Completed Mergers

30th October 2002

Jonathan Djanogly raises his concerns that the Bill borders on restricting the ability of companies to trade and is unnecessarily onerous for directors.

Mr. Djanogly: In supporting the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), and having examined the debate on these matters that occurred in the other place, I should like to say that there seemed to be some justification for the £100 million figure. However, I was happy to hear the Minister say that an open mind would be kept on the matter and that it would be reviewed.

In introducing the Bill, the Government's clear intention was to help enterprise by inducing a competitive environment and a level playing field. That has been accepted in all parts of the House. On the other hand, at various stages in the Bill's passage, Opposition Members have stated our concern that, rather than helping competition, the Bill borders on restricting the ability of companies to trade and is unnecessarily onerous for directors.

The turnover benchmark key in that context is obviously a very important issue. The merger rules are very complicated. Companies and directors that become involved in any sort of investigation must contend with enormously significant costs and a massive amount of time will be taken from them in running their businesses. There is always a fear in respect of such legislation that the OFT and the Serious Fraud Office, which will now get the same powers, will embark on fishing expeditions.

After the Committee proceedings, the Minister should know that, having spoken to a competition legal practitioner, my understanding is that the OFT has recently changed its procedure. The OFT is not only investigating companies, but putting in place a new procedure in which it asks companies to conduct its investigations on its behalf. It will basically send the companies lists of matters for investigation and ask them to come up with the goods. That is a serious development. Instead of having a certain amount of costs carried by the OFT, companies will now have to cover those costs themselves. In other words, they will have to employ professionals to do the OFT's work. Such concerns are very serious and are becoming more so. The turnover threshold is extremely important in that context. The concern is that, if we do not get the level right, it could stunt the growth of some of our fastest growing companies. We should want to encourage those companies, instead of restricting them with unnecessary regulation and cost. Obviously, stopping their growth will be bad for the economy overall.

While I certainly appreciate that the £70 million figure is better than the original one, companies and practitioners have communicated genuine concerns to me. I therefore hope that the Minister and the Government will keep to what they have said about reviewing the figure carefully and seeing how it works in practice.

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