Clause 1 — Office of Fair Trading

Part of Orders of the Day — Enterprise Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:30 pm on 30th October 2002.

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Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster 5:30 pm, 30th October 2002

I, too, wish to endorse the words of my hon. Friend Mr. Robathan. We should seek to divide the role of chairman from that of chief executive as an integral part of good corporate governance. My concerns include the potential power of the regulator, which could be immense, especially given the criminal sanctions against individuals for cartel offences. That point was discussed at great length in Committee.

I also endorse the words of Lord Hunt of Wirral, who did splendid work in the other place on this issue, and of Dr. Cable, who said that the crux of the matter was who regulates the regulator. More importantly, how will that regulation operate? We have discussed that issue on several occasions, and the Cadbury code recommends separation. That is especially important for the OFT, given the sensitive and political nature of what it will do. It is staggering that Lord Sainsbury was complacent enough to say, in the other place:

XThe OFT is a government department, not a public limited company, and many of the principles of good corporate governance are aimed at business practices which do not have an obvious equivalent in government."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 15 October 2002; Vol. 639, c. 714–15.]

We have similar grounds of dispute on Lords amendment No. 2, and I wished to tease out of the Minister what the Government amendment means when it says:

Xthey may reasonably be regarded as applicable in relation to a statutory corporation, to generally accepted principles of good corporate governance."

The Government appear to be saying that what is good for the Government is not so good for business. That appears to be breathtakingly complacent, in the aftermath of the disgraceful behaviour over the Penrose inquiry into Equitable Life. The inquiry's delay has meant that tens of thousands of our constituents have not had an opportunity to take their cases to the ombudsman. Because it is a Government inquiry, it is also taking place under a veil of secrecy.

We see parallels with the distinction between the requirements for the OFT and those for bodies in the private sector, in respect of the divide between the roles of chief executive and chairman. Given the recent scandals in both the public and the private sectors, the Minister will understand why the OFT and all other public bodies must be beyond reproach. How can the Government exhort business to get its act together if they are not willing to do so themselves?