Howells under fire over lunch with BSkyB chief

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The Independent Online

BSKYB found itself at the heart of a gathering political row yesterday, as opposition parties called on the Government to clarify its relations with the satellite broadcaster.

BSKYB found itself at the heart of a gathering political row yesterday, as opposition parties called on the Government to clarify its relations with the satellite broadcaster.

Vincent Cable, the Liberal Democrat Trade spokesman, said he will table a series ofquestions to Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, over his handling last week of two competition enquiries into deals affecting cable and satellite broadcasting. There have been suspicions that Mr Byers' surprise referrals may have been unduly influenced by BSkyB. BSkyB denies it acted improperly.

A lunchtime meeting on Tuesday between Kim Howells, the Trade and Industry minister, and Tony Ball, BSkyB's chief executive, also drew opposition criticism.

Angela Browning the Conservative Trade spokeswoman, said: "This department has to be whiter than white. I am surprised that Mr Howells should have done this."

A DTI spokesman said the session had not breached departmental guidelines and refused to rule out Mr Howells' future involvement in the broadcasting cases. "The current competition case involving BSkyB was handled by the Secretary of State [Mr Byers] and this will continue to be the case," the DTI official said.

Mr Cable said. "Its a very dangerous road for DTI ministers to be following: they should not only behave properly, they should be seen to be behaving properly." Responses to Mr Cable's written queries are expected on Tuesday. Last week, Mr Byers overruled advice from officials at the Office of Fair Trading, and asked the Competition Commission to probe Nasdaq-listed NTL's planned takeover of Cable & Wireless Communications' cable television business.

The £8.2bn transaction would reduce the number of cable companies from three to two, and potentially present a stronger challenge to both BSkyB and British Telecommunications. Mr Cable said that Mr Byers' decision to refer the planned decision "left open the suspicion that they [ministers] had been nobbled".

Mr Byers also asked the Competition Commission to probe Vivendi's recent purchase of a 25 per cent stake in BSkyB, becoming its second-largest shareholder. The Government said that the French conglomerate's move "raises concerns in respect of the market for film and sports rights and for conditional access to technology in the UK".

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