Byers to retain reserve power on merger rulings decisions

STEPHEN BYERS, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, is to retain the right to intervene in merger decisions in exceptional cases, under proposals published yesterday.

The Government's much-trailed and long-awaited plans to "take the politics out of mergers" will put competition policy on the same footing as monetary policy by handing over the responsibility for deciding whether to allow takeovers to independent competition authorities.

There will also be a new test for determining whether a merger should be referred in the first place based on its impact on competition. This will replace the more general public interest test used at present.

The only circumstances in which ministers will have the final say will be in mergers which raise issues of national security or involve newspapers.

However, the consultative document published yesterday proposes the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry should also have a "reserve power" to intervene by specifying additional public interest criteria in cases which he deems to be exceptional.

Mr Byers insisted this was only the same as the reserve power the Chancellor had to take control of interest rates. "Should it ever be used I would need to go to the House of Commons and seek parliamentary approval," he added.

The primary legislation needed to introduce the new system is unlikely to be introduced until after the next election. Mr Byers said the exceptional public interest grounds for intervening would need to be clearly defined in the legislation to reassure business.

The Government is also consulting on whether to abandon the pounds 70m threshold on merger investigations, which would allow the authorities to vet takeovers of football clubs or Internet companies. It will also consider the special regime for the water industry, which requires all mergers to be referred, in light of the separate review of competition in the sector.

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