Outlook: Clear as mud

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The Independent Online
Outlook: Clear as mud

MURKIER AND murkier grows the Government's decision to refer to the Competition Commission both Vivendi's stake in BSkyB and NTL's takeover of Cable & Wireless Communications. The decision itself is inexplicable enough, but even harder to understand is Kim Howells' subsequent breach of DTI convention to lunch with one of the interested parties, BSkyB's Tony Ball.

Just to recap, the rules state that relevant ministers, of which Mr Howells as trade and industry minister is plainly one, should not receive representations from interested parties during the course of competition inquiries, this for the obvious reason that deliberations might thereby be influenced.

Rightly or wrongly, most people believe that the real reason these deals were referred, in one case against the advice of the director general of Fair Trading, was because Sky demanded it. In the NTL case, Sky was the only outside party lobbying for such a reference. In these circumstances, Mr Howells could scarcely have been more stupid. Not only does he seem to have broken the rules, but he's also reinforced the impression - mistaken or not, it matters little - that the Government is in these matters little more than Rupert Murdoch's poodle.

The wider and more serious point in all this is that the Government seems to have drifted an awfully long way from its original commitment to de- politicise competition policy. If it wants to meddle in matters as trivial as these, goodness knows what is going to happen in the really important cases.

The Government's other commitment is to transparency in its affairs, but there's no sign of it here whatsoever. These reference decisions are about as clear as mud, further encouraging the conspiracy theorists. For instance, the idea that the real purpose of these references is to punish the French for the ban on beef refuses to go away, however fanciful the suggestion.

If we are to have a competition policy which is determined by politicians, and not independently according to guidelines by an impartial outside body, then it must at least be accountable and transparent. The DTI has always claimed that to do so would make its decisions liable to judicial review, but this is just legalistic hog wash. And in any case, if a Government decision is capable of being challenged legally, then it probably ought to be.