Enterprise Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 15th October 2002.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Sainsbury of Turville Lord Sainsbury of Turville Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Science and Innovation), Department of Trade and Industry, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Trade and Industry) (Science and Innovation) 5:45 pm, 15th October 2002

My Lords, Amendments Nos. 22 and 23 seek to amend the Office of Fair Trading's function of making the public aware of the ways in which competition may benefit consumers and the economy. I begin by reminding noble Lords of the purpose of Clause 6. A key role of the OFT is to make markets work for consumers. This is reflected in the clause which gives the OFT the function of promoting to the public the benefits that competition has for consumers and the economy and providing the public with information or advice on matters relating to its functions.

Competition does indeed benefit consumers: the best form of consumer protection is choice. The aim of the clause is to help to create assertive and knowledgeable consumers who are aware of the importance of competition. There is much to be done in this sphere. The DTI peer review of the UK's competition regime showed that while more than 83 per cent of respondents in the United States thought that competition policy was important to the US public, the equivalent figure in the UK was just 10 per cent. So there is a very substantial job to be done.

I turn to the two amendments. I have great sympathy with Amendment No. 22, but rather little sympathy with Amendment No. 23. Amendment No. 23 proposes that the OFT should have the function of making the public aware of the ways in which competition may affect, rather than benefit, consumers and the economy. I find that an extraordinary statement. We are establishing this body because we believe that competition is a good thing. The alternative would be to say that we do not think that competition is a good thing—that we think that some monopolies and a few cartels would be an excellent thing. In establishing this body, we are clearly making the judgment that competition is a good thing.

To ask the body established to make that statement to express the view that competition is other than a good thing would be to make an extraordinary assumption. We did not, for example, establish the Equal Opportunities Commission and tell it, "By the way, you should put forward a balanced view about equal opportunities. Perhaps equal opportunity is not always a good thing". Rather, we said to the EOC: "We expect you to promote equal opportunities". The same applies to the treatment of racial discrimination. I do not know what we are doing in this legislation if we are not starting with the assumption that competition is a good thing. We should therefore refer to the "benefits" and not just the "affect" of competition.

When consumers understand the benefits of competition—which include quality, choice and accessibility as well as price—I believe that they become more powerful, more confident of their rights and more demanding. I understand from what the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, said in Committee that he believes that competition may have adverse consequences for consumers. I beg to differ. Of course, competition can be abused but that does not alter the fact that, overall, competition is a good thing. Anti-competitive behaviour constitutes abuse but competition does not. Anti-competitive behaviour harms consumers. However, competition benefits consumers and the clause should reflect that.

Amendment No. 22 falls into a different category. I have a great deal of sympathy with it, particularly as regards the context of school education. However, I wish to explain why the Government do not want to accept the amendment. It seeks to amend Clause 6 to give the OFT the function of making the public aware of the role of competition within a context of social community and environmental responsibility. As I am sure the House is aware, I certainly accept the importance of social community and environmental responsibility. Indeed, those are matters which the Government actively promote. I also accept that consumer and competition policy must function within the broader framework of social welfare. We are not saying that competition which in any way detracts from legislative, social or environmental frameworks should be excused or condoned. However, I do not believe that it is right to broaden the specific focus of the OFT which is rightly focused on making markets work for consumers. To broaden the OFT's general function as proposed in the amendment would seem to be a rather arbitrary choice.