Commentary: UK competition policy adrift

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The Independent Online
One of the many matters languishing in Michael Heseltine's in-tray awaiting attention is the question of what he intends to do, if anything, about competition policy.

We may have had a Green Paper from the President of the Board of Trade setting out his plans for clamping down on abuses of dominant market positions. Yet, strange as it may seem, Mr Heseltine has still to brief Sir Bryan Carsberg, Director-General of Fair Trading, on how he should interpret competition and mergers policy six months after Sir Bryan arrived at the OFT.

For the past decade, industry and commerce have lived with the Tebbit doctrine - namely that when mergers and monopolies are examined, the public interest lies in the narrow test of whether they affect competition.

Is there now to be a Heseltine doctrine? Neither we, nor Sir Bryan, yet know. Is the Government happy with the proposals outlined yesterday by Sir Leon Brittan, the EC's competition commissioner, that Brussels be given authority to investigate more of the mergers that at present fall to domestic authorities to examine? We await an answer.

In the meantime, UK competition policy is being left to drift. In the recent case of British Airways and Dan-Air, Mr Heseltine, advised by Sir Bryan, waved the merger through despite observing that it raised competition concerns.

During his internal exile under Margaret Thatcher, Mr Heseltine gave the impression that wider considerations than simply those of competition should inform mergers policy. He owes it to business to spell out what his position is now.