Outlook: Car prices

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The Independent Online
THE MOTOR manufacturers took one look at the line-up for the Competition Commission's open hearing into UK car prices and, fearing a Stalinist show trial, elected to stay away en masse.

On one level their absence yesterday was understandable. Attendance would merely have provided an opportunity for ritual humiliation as they attempted to defend the indefensible and explain why the UK motorist is charged up to a third more than for a new Mondeo than his counterpart on the Continent.

There is also a suspicion that this first ever public hearing was designed as much to promote the career of the inquiry chairwoman, the gorgeous pouting Denise Kingsmill, a soft-focus picture of whom accompanied the press pack.

Still, the spectacle of the motor lobby pleading the fifth amendment every time one of the inquiry panel bowled an awkward question did provide some light relief for the 200-odd souls who made it to the Institution of Electrical Engineers.

Only its mouthpiece, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, turned up. Even then, it was generally reduced to monosyllabic answers - mainly consisting of the word "No" - when invited to comment on some of its members' more interesting sales techniques.

Perhaps the manufacturers hope the whole bothersome issue will go away if they keep their heads down or perhaps they think they will get a better hearing in private. Alas, there will be no respite. Brussels is due to publish its latest price comparison survey tomorrow demonstrating that, despite a high pound, UK buyers continue to be ripped off.

Differential tax rates across the European Union are certainly part of the problem, encouraging manufacturers to charge what they reckon the local market will bear.

Fiscal harmonisation is not on the agenda of the Commission. But Mrs Kingsmill and her colleagues could strike a blow for the UK consumer by demanding the immediate end to the EU block exemption. This is the anachronistic system which allows the car firms to exercise the most outrageous restraint of trade on who can sell their goods where and for how much on the dubious grounds that this will delivering a better after-sales service.

The evidence is so heavily stacked against it now that abolition is surely a recommendation that even Stephen Byers could not ignore.