The President of the Board of Trade is right to assert to the House that those important matters touch on Britain's defence capability and the skills and jobs of many thousands of workers at Barrow-in-Furness, on the Clyde and, for that matter, at Vosper Thornycroft in Southampton. We welcome his decision to make a statement in response to my repeated request that he should do so.
Like the right hon. Gentleman, we have never taken sides in the matter but have pressed for both bids to be referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. The President of the Board of Trade was right to make such a reference. But the first and perhaps central question that he must answer after what is an almost unprecedented decision and statement today is: why has he not accepted the decision of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission? There was little of substance in his statement to justify his decision to reject a clear and emphatic majority decision by the MMC. It is worth asking the right hon. Gentleman what in his arguments can counteract the conclusions and recommendations of the MMC that
retaining the pressure of competition between prime contractors would be even more effective in promoting change and securing value for money … We see no reason to sacrifice the benefits of competition now in the hope that, if the merger were allowed to proceed,"—
this is in respect of GEC—
there would then be possible benefits …
We conclude that the proposed merger may be expected to operate against the public interest.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that those conclusions are emphatic? The MMC also stated:
As we are unable to identify any appropriate remedies for the detriments we have identified we recommend that the proposed merger should not be allowed to proceed.
That is what the MMC concluded after a long and thorough study. The right hon. Gentleman needs to offer the House more of an argument than that in his statement about why those emphatic, clear and unequivocal recommendations should not be accepted.
What is the status of the assurances that GEC has apparently given? Were they given to the MMC or simply to the Ministry of Defence? Can the right hon. Gentleman specifically tell the House what those assurances are and what they amount to? Will those assurances be legally binding or will GEC be able to negotiate them away as events unfold? Those important questions remain, as yet, unanswered.
In allowing the bid from British Aerospace to proceed—and quite rightly—did the President of the Board of Trade or his right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence seek any assurances from British Aerospace about predatory pricing policy? Will there be complete transparency of bids for warship contracts in the future, whoever may emerge as the successful bidder for VSEL?
The right hon. Gentleman and the Government have decided to leave the matter completely to the market—so much for the right hon. Gentleman's apparent commitment to and belief in stringent competition policy in the United Kingdom, which he reiterated to the House yesterday. The right hon. Gentleman has taken no strategic view on the maintenance of jobs or skills in our defence industries nor, apparently, have he or his colleagues taken any strategic view on maintaining our defence capability for the future. Those two requirements are left to the market and could easily be under threat as a result.