Enterprise Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:12 pm on 15th October 2002.

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Photo of Lord Phillips of Sudbury Lord Phillips of Sudbury Liberal Democrat 5:12 pm, 15th October 2002

My Lords, this amendment is comparable to the one moved in Committee, when a number of your Lordships spoke in support of it. Clause 6, entitled "Provision of information etc. to the public", is divided into two parts.

We have no quarrel whatever with Clause 6(1)(b), which gives the OFT the function of

"giving information or advice in respect of matters relating to any of its functions to the public".

That seems to us on these Benches to be absolutely sensible. It is Clause 6(1)(a) that concerns us. It talks of

"making the public aware of the ways in which competition may benefit consumers in, and the economy of, the United Kingdom".

That provision is buttressed by Clause 6(2)(a), which gives the OFT the power to publish educational material and, in the following subsection, to commission any independent group, body or organisation to produce materials or carry out education. In simple terms, the concern on these Benches is that for education, particularly in schools, one needs a broader matrix than the bare one provided by Clause 6. That is particularly the case given that Clause 6 refers only to promoting public awareness of the benefits of competition. Much heat was generated at Committee stage, during which the Minister expressed himself to be passionate about competition. He said that competition does indeed benefit consumers. We agree. He added that the best form of consumer protection is choice. We agree.

The argument on this amendment is not about free marketeers and anti-free marketeers; it is about the simple fact, which is no great secret, that competition comes in many forms and not all of it is desirable. Let me give a couple of examples of competition that is lawful and certainly red of tooth and claw. What about a firm that exploits foreign workers in their working conditions and pay? That is perfectly lawful. Indeed, one could say that if one were a real competitor in the real, tough economic world, the more we exploit foreign workers to produce cheap products for the shelves here, and to make a profit, the better. But plainly that is not the view of the majority in this House, and I would be staggered if it were the Minister's view. What about, for example, environmental issues? The reckless despoliation of the environment is not unlawful, but it could be highly competitive if one takes a narrow view of that concept. I know that the Minister does not and I read his words only because I want to suggest that both the quotes I gave need to be couched within a broader context of social, community and environmental awareness and responsibility.

I have used those words in the amendment because they appear in the model Companies Bill, which was published after a huge amount of work by the commission sitting on the reform of company law under Dame Mary Arden. Those three words are to be found in Clause 75 of the draft Companies Bill, which talks about the duties to consider, including other matters, in operating and financial reviews of larger companies. Those matters include,

"the companies' policies on environmental issues; the companies' policies on social and community issues".

There is therefore no doctrinal difference between us and the Government on this clause. The difference lies simply and solely around the issue of education in schools. It has nothing to do with the regulation of business or anything else, but with education in schools. And it is the Government's firm policy that education in schools, which will come as part of the citizenship curriculum, must be broad, impartial and fair.

I refer to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, in Committee. The Minister may say that nothing the OFT will do will be less than unbiased and fair and non-propagandist. The noble Lord said:

"it strikes me that the specific functions of the OFT in the Bill and in the Competition Act are partisan in the promotion of competition. More balanced judgments are made by the Competition Commission and others. In future, it will be part of the job of the Office of Fair Trading, as it has been in the past 30 years, to be partisan in those respects".—[Official Report, 16/6/02; col. 1156.]

We are saying, "Fair enough in all that it does, but not fair enough in schools". It runs directly counter to the obligations which the Government have imposed on themselves statutorily. I read that the statutory order imposing citizenship education directs that pupils should be taught about,

"how the economy functions, including the role of business and financial services . . . the rights and responsibilities of consumers, employers and employees . . . the wider issues and challenges of global interdependence and responsibility, including sustainable development".

That last phrase replicates in crude terms what the amendment puts into the Bill.

I urge the Government to take a step back and accept that if they are taking, as they are, a specific power on the part of the OFT to educate in schools—or, worse, to get others to do it for them—they must accept that in that regard, if no other, they ought to couch it in a wider social, moral and environmental context. I beg to move.