Minister rules himself out of third competition inquiry

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The Independent Online
Nigel Griffiths, the Competition Minister at the DTI, has been barred from taking part in three important competition inquiries because of conflicts of interest. Michael Harrison reports on the investigations in question and difficulties facing the Government's Competition Bill.

The Department of Trade and Industry confirmed last night that Mr Griffiths had exempted himself from the examination of a $3bn chemicals deal between ICI and Du Pont of the United States because he owned shares in ICI.

This is the third time that Mr Griffiths has been forced to rule himself offside because of conflicts of interest. He has taken no part in the DTI's long-running investigation in to the P&O-Stena cross Channel ferry merger because his family own shares in P&O. He has also been excluded from involvement in the inquiry into the travel trade industry, although the DTI was last night unable to say why.

The sale of ICI's polyester and titanium dioxide interests to Du Pont was announced in July and finally approved by the European Commission four days ago. Although responsibility for vetting the deal fell to Brussels, the DTI was involved in examining the deal and making representations.

Margaret Beckett, President of the Board of Trade, wrote to her shadow, the Conservative trade and industry spokesman John Redwood, on 2 October confirming that Mr Griffiths had taken no part in the investigation. A DTI spokesman said that Mr Griffiths had not seen any papers relating to the case, nor had he made any recommendations to Mrs Beckett about the deal.

The travel inquiry is examining links between tour operators and travel agencies to see whether common ownership acts against the public interest. The Monopolies and Mergers Commission report into the matter is due to go to ministers in November.

The DTI said Mr Griffifths had agreed in July to stand aside from any consideration of the MMC report in. During the summer there were complaints that Mr Griffiths had made comments at a travel conference which had compromised his position. He is reported to have said that the tour operator Thomson, which owns the Lunn Poly chain of travel agents, should rebrand them in the Thomson name to make their ownership of the business clear.

A DTI spokesman said that Mr Griffiths had a long-standing interest in the travel industry but declined to say whether the complaints about his comments had prompted the decision to stand aside. "To avoid any doubt he decided to play no part in the inquiry," the spokesman added. The DTI also said that Mr Griffiths made his decision long before Mr Redwood had written to Mrs Beckett to raise the matter and the Competition Minister's other conflicts of interest.

Last night Mr Redwood returned to the attack saying: "These are three of the biggest issues facing the DTI and the Competition Minister cannot touch any of them. It is a rum situation altogether."

The DTI said, however, that it was not surprising that ministers had to exempt themselves from involvement in competition inquiries from time to time. "This is a share owning democracy and there are a lot more people owning shares than ever before. There are also a lot more mergers coming forward for judgement. Therefore the chances of a minister holding shares in companies that may come before him is that much higher."

Mr Redwood also claimed that the Mrs Beckett was being forced to redraft her Competition Bill extensively after discovering that it would render a large number of existing trade agreements illegal, including the Royal Mail's letter monopoly and agreements protecting privatised rail operators from competition.