Pressure mounts on Byers over surprise NTL referral

STEPHEN BYERS faces detailed demands to lay out the rationale behind his surprise referral to competition authorities of NTL's planned acquisition of Cable & Wireless Communication's cable television business.

Vincent Cable, MP and Liberal Democrat spokesman for trade, yesterday tabled three written questions linked to the NTL referral, which came against the advice of the Office of Fair Trading (OFT).

Mr Cable has asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to list which competition rulings had been made against the OFT's advice since May 1997, and to detail "the exceptional public interest criteria" that he relies upon to do so. He also asked what representations British Telecommunications and BSkyB had made to the Department of Trade and Industry over the proposed NTL deal which, if allowed, would cut the number of cable companies to two from three.

Last Friday's move by Mr Byers has triggered fears that either BSkyB or British Telecom could be the surprise beneficiary of Mr Byers' decision. The pair have most to gain if the cable deal is halted. Critics have suggested that the referral could eventually favour Rupert Murdoch, the media magnate whose News Corp holds 40 per cent of BSkyB.

The disclosure that Kim Howells, the Competition Minister, met this week with Tony Ball, BSkyB's chief executive, has added to the controversy.

Under DTI guidelines, such meetings are generally avoided to shield ministers from parties affected by competition inquiries. Officials insist that Mr Howells did not breach the rules on this occasion. Both BT and BSkyB declined to comment yesterday.

"We don't want to get drawn into this," a BT spokesman said. "It really is a matter to be left there, and it would be wrong to pre-empt what comments [Mr Byers] may have."

The DTI said answers would be given on or after next Tuesday. CWC said it remained optimistic that the deal with NTL would be approved, and was working to co-operate with the Competition Commission.