Clause 27 - Public interest interventions in markets investigations

Part of Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:30 pm on 10 July 2012.

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Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills) 4:30, 10 July 2012

There are plenty of dissenting views on the matter. In its evidence on the consultation, British Airways said succinctly:

“Public interest issues should be for Ministers who are accountable to Parliament, rather than the CMA which is intended to be a competition law centre of excellence.”

At the very least, the situations in which the CMA should report on public interest issues should be tightly limited. Will the Minister make it clear what the limitations are with regard to the proposals for the CMA to report on the public interest?

A further point is that, without political accountability, businesses may not accept the legitimacy of a CMA public interest market ruling, especially if concerns about resources and expertise are not properly addressed. We all accept the need for a balance between public accountability, and expertise and stability. The worry is that the Government may step too far towards establishing a technocracy, which might be less efficient. Establishing what is and is not in the public interest is basically a policy decision, as I hope the Minister agrees. Should we hand over policy decisions to an unelected body? With a debate on Lords reform raging as we speak, it is rather odd that a Liberal Democrat Minister is proposing to remove wide-ranging policy-making decisions from the Secretary of State.

The final concern that I want the Minister to address is how the changes will work with concurrent regulators that already have public interest powers for market investigations. For example, Ofcom has a duty to report on the fulfilment of the public service remit by public sector broadcasters. Will the CMA have a role in that? I look forward to the Minister’s assurances.

As I have previously observed, the Government seem to have an obsession with top-down reorganisations—moving responsibilities around like deckchairs on the Titanic. [Interruption.] I look forward to the Minister’s response. In this case, we must stop and think about what the Government are for and what their purposes are. How does outsourcing the public interest to the CMA send the right message about the responsibility and accountability of the Government? This Government seem rather like those companies that have been invaded by management consultants telling them to focus on their core purpose. They decide to outsource their call centres to one company, their sales fleet to another, their cleaning to a third and their security to a fourth, so that they can focus on what they do best, which is  their core purpose. But if looking after the public interest is not the core purpose of the Government, what is their core purpose? How does the Minister justify removing the public interest power from the Government and putting it in an unelected body?