The Campaign for Cheaper CDs: Plain speaking in committee

AS proceedings got under way in Committee Room 15, I noticed a group of people sitting at the back, writes Jack Hughes. They wore suits and puzzled expressions, I assumed they were from one of the big record companies.

After a few minutes they got up and made for the door. Seeing them go, Mr Kaufman thanked them profusely for their attendance, wished their country every prosperity - for they were tourists, not executives - and declared that although these were unusual proceedings, they had given a glimpse of the 'full majesty of Parliament'.

As the morning went on I saw what he meant. Here was big business being put on the spot in the interests of the general public. Here was democracy working.

Public concern had led to a press campaign, which led to greater public concern, which came to the attention of Parliament, which has now hauled in the people responsible.

I had gone to the Commons expecting little. I thought the industry would bluster and the MPs would end up, like the Office of Fair Trading last year, wringing their hands and saying there was nothing they could do. That may yet happen. But we are getting plain-speaking on a scale that would amaze anyone whose sole acquaintance with select committees came from seeing the Maxwell brothers on TV last year.

There has been a bit of bluster and evasion. Sir Malcolm Field, managing director of W H Smith, said he had been trying to get prices down for 18 months. But the three main witnesses so far - Sir Malcolm and the managers of Dire Straits and Simply Red - have all argued for cheaper CDs. And they have even talked figures, advocating a cut of pounds 2. It is not as much as we would like, but not to be sniffed at either.

Mr Kaufman treats witnesses with a magisterial blend of courtesy and disdain. He hails and farewells each one with a volley of gratitude, and in between he roasts them over a series of tough questions. 'I am utterly unconvinced by your explanation,' he informed Sir Malcolm after reading out a letter from a constituent who had found a CD costing 99p in a Manchester corner shop and pounds 3.99 in the Virgin Megastore, half-owned by Smith's.

Whether a price cut will come remains to be seen. The MPs cannot force one, and the people who will decide - the bosses of the big five record companies - have yet to lift their heads out of the sand. There is still only one language they speak: that of market forces. So please - don't pay full price if you can help it.