Beckett outlines plans to boost competitiveness

Margaret Beckett, President of the Board of Trade, pledged yesterday that competition would remain the Government's primary consideration when vetting takeovers and mergers.

In her first big policy speech since taking up the job, Mrs Beckett also rejected proposals to reverse the burden of proof in merger cases to force a bidder to prove that a takeover was in the public interest and said Labour would not merge the Office of Fair Trading and the Monopolies & Mergers Commission.

Her wide-ranging speech to 100 leading businessmen went on to set out Labour's plans to improve the competitiveness of British industry. There will be a "competitiveness summit" in July at which the Government will audit Britain's performance followed by a competitiveness White Paper next year.

The White Paper will be produced with input from a series of working parties, each one chaired by a DTI minister and made up of businessmen, trade unionists, academics and consumer representatives. In addition there will be a 12-15 strong Advisory Committee on Competitiveness.

Mrs Beckett said her announcement amounted to the most wide-ranging consultation exercise undertaken by the DTI. But she denied it was tantamount to resurrecting the corporatist days of Neddy when government, employers and trade unions got around the table to thrash out policy.

She also insisted Labour had no intention of returning to its former industrial policies of intervention, saying it wanted to create a partnership between government and business.

"I have no interest in turning back the clock," Mrs Beckett said. "Nor am I arguing for wide-scale government intervention, though some have implied I am itching to take decisions which are properly for the private sector. I am not trying to do your job but I am determined not to neglect to do my own."

The confirmation that Labour does not intend to tinker with competition policy was greeted with relief by the business leaders present. There had been concern that Mrs Beckett intended to apply a wider definition to the public interest test after she overrode John Bridgeman, Director- general of Fair Trading, by referring the takeover by National Express of two rail franchises to the MMC.

Richard Davey, of the merchant bankers Rothschilds, said he welcomed the announcement that the takeover rules would remain unchanged but urged the Government to put pressure on the Germans and French to apply the same tests in their markets.

There was some concern about the setting up of the competitiveness working groups. Ian Peters, deputy director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, sought an assurance that they would not turn from talking shops into forums for negotiations between employers and unions at national level.

At a later press conference, Mrs Beckett said the Government was working at a fast speed to introduce the European working time directive and the works council legislation but could not give firm timetables.

However, the Competition Bill to tighten control of anti-competitive agreements and give the OFT increased powers to raid company premises and fine them up to 10 per cent of turnover would be put to Parliament in October, she said.

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