I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time".
The Competition (Amendment) Bill, 1994, is deliberately designed to be short. It is largely confined, at this stage, to making two major changes to the existing competition law. I would like to make it very clear that we are taking the opportunity to make these widely supported changes without changing the fundamental basis of the Competition Act, 1991. The two main amendments are improvements and will enhance the operation and applicability of the law within the State.
I fully accept there is a great need for debate in this House and in the public arena on the principles and priorities in the whole commercial law field. Deputies will be aware that I recently established a company law review group to look at a number of questions in this area. There is a clear need for critical analysis at this juncture.
The review group has broad based terms of reference. It can make recommendations in the area of our overall commercial law regime and I have asked it to report regularly to me with its recommendations and findings. I look forward to discussing these recommendations in the relevant Oireachtas committees. I assure Deputies that their views and contributions will be valued in our efforts to enhance the application of policy in this area. This Bill is a first step and should be seen as such. There will be continuing opportunities to input to the policy process in relation to company and business law.
First, the Bill provides for public independent enforcement of the competition rules. The existing system, whereby the principal means of enforcement was through private actions by individuals in the civil courts, has proved, in the period of operation, to be less than fully effective.
We have seen very few actions in the courts and there has, to date, been no award of damages to an aggrieved party. To strengthen the application of the law I propose to introduce public enforcement of the competition rules. The power to make investigations and to take actions will be given to the Competition Authority. To underpin this new function I propose to appoint a member of the Authority with specific responsibility for enforcement matters. The new member of the Authority will be known as the director of competition enforcement.
The second major change to the law proposes to remove all mergers from the scope of section 4 of the Competition Act which prohibits agreements between undertakings which prevent, restrict or distort competition. Merger or takeover agreements could, therefore, fall under section 4. It was not satisfactory that merger agreements were subject to two sets of regulatory instruments. Large mergers are already reviewable by me under the Mergers, Take-overs and Monopolies (Control) Acts. The dual jeopardy difficulty created by section 4 of the 1991 Act had to be removed. In this legislation I am also removing small mergers, or mergers which fall beneath the thresholds in the mergers legislation, from section 4 of the Competition Act. Section 4 is not an appropriate instrument to control structural changes in firms. Under section 4 of the Act a merger agreement could be licensed for a finite period of time. This clearly does not fit easily with the legal certainty required in mergers and acquisitions. While it is clearly desirable that mergers be removed from section 4 of the Competition Act it is also recognised that, in the interest of safeguarding competition, a system of checks and balances should be retained in this area. Our system has three components.
First, under the separate mergers legislation, I retain the power to approve large scale mergers, that is, mergers where, for each of the parties involved — the purchaser and the target firm or firms — turnover exceeds £20 million and assets exceed £10 million. Second, while merger agreements are to be excluded from section 4, ancillary ongoing agreements which are not indispensable to the merger or takeover will still be subject to section 4 of the Act. The Competition Authority has, in its recent decisions given indicators as to what is considered, on balance, to be acceptable or necessary for the transfer of goodwill to take place in terms of non-compete agreements. Third, mergers or takeovers will not be immune from section 5 of the Competition Act, 1991. Section 5 prohibits the abuse of a dominant position.
The removal of mergers from section 4 of the Act is also intended to facilitate co-operation between Irish firms and permit them to grow and take advantage of economies of scale. This should also enhance competition by creating new products and accessing new markets. This is in line with our overall industrial policy.
Before elaborating on the detail of the Bill it is important to explain the background and context in which the decision to amend the Competition Act in these respects was taken. The NESC, the Culliton-Moriarty Group, the OECD and others agree that for a small open economy like Ireland, growth and employment are dependent upon competitiveness and that sustainable employment growth can only be achieved by increasing the competitiveness of Irish firms. This view was further endorsed by the social partners in the Programme for Competitiveness and Work which said:
Sustainable employment expansion is dependent on increased competitiveness which:
— reflects the full range of operating costs for the whole economy, private and public.
— requires that inefficiency and rigidity should not be allowed to threaten the long-run viability of Irish employment,
— fundamentally depends on the capacity of Irish firms to innovate, to meet the needs of changing markets and to respond flexibly to the changing circumstances of customers at home and abroad.
Many factors influence the level of competitiveness in the economy and increasing competitiveness requires appropriate policy and action, on the part of Government and individual firms and industries.
Competition policy is a key area where Government can make a positive contribution to achieving the goal of increased competitiveness. The Government recognises that an effective competition policy is vital if we are to rid the economy of inefficiencies and anti-competitive practices, particularly in the non-traded sectors of the economy. I stress the word "effective" because that is the kernel of this Bill: its primary aim is the more effective enforcement of competition law in this country.
I am satisfied that the existing provisions for enforcement are inadequate and have not worked in practice. I am convinced that it is necessary now to strengthen the enforcement of competition policy in the manner proposed. This view is fully supported by the OECD and by the NESC in its report on a Strategy for Competitiveness, Growth and Employment, which concluded on the following point:
It is not clear that the Act provides sufficient powers to police effectively anti-competitive behaviour, with the reliance on private legal actions appearing to be a particular weakness. What is really required is that the present Competition Authority be given additional powers to initiate investigations and pursue actions through the courts if necessary.
It was against this background that the Government gave a commitment in the PCW to give urgent consideration to, and bring forward, such changes to the 1991 Act to address difficulties in the area of competition policy and to promote further the operation of competitive markets. The objective of the Bill is to deliver on that commitment. It will bring about the structural reform necessary to enhance competitiveness by protecting and promoting the effective functioning of the market system while at the same time affording help to the weak against those in more dominant positions.
Methods of enforcement vary but most countries have seen the value of strict and effective enforcement of competition rules which includes a public enforcement element. One of the principal beneficiaries of the Bill should be the consumer and small or medium sized enterprises, and it has to be remembered that the public sector is one of the biggest consumers of goods and services. We want to be sure that we too are getting good value for money.
This can be guaranteed only where there is open and free competition and where anti-competitive practices such as bid rigging, price fixing or market sharing are outlawed. Cosy anti-competitive arrangements in effect are a tax on the consumer, be it the State, firms or individuals and in aggregate constitute an unacceptable burden on the economy and a barrier to innovation and enterprise and future employment.
I turn now to the limited number of amendments proposed to existing legislation. I would like to stress again that the Government proposals are confined to two main points—public enforcement and mergers as they interact with the Competition Act, 1991.
Section 2 of the Bill has the effect of removing all mergers from the scope of section 4 of the Competition Act. The section does not preclude the application of section 4 to anti-competitive agreements or arrangements engaged in which are not part of the merger agreement per se.
Subsection 2 provides that mergers to which the Mergers, Takeovers and Monopolies (Control) Acts apply, that is, mergers above the £20 million turnover and £10 million assets threshold, are protected from section 4 actions retrospectively.
Section 3 provides that the competition Authority can now issue category certificates. Certificates are issued in cases where, in the opinion of the competition Authority, an agreement or arrangement does not offend against section 4 of the Competition Act. Up to now the Authority has had to issue individual decisions in each case. The new powers to issue a category or block certificate will assist in reducing the workload of the Authority and will cut down on the necessity for firms to make an individual notification if they are already covered by the terms of general category certificates.
Section 4 is a technical amendment. The effect of the section will mean that old agreements or agreements that were in existence before the 1991 Act came into force which have been notified to the Authority and which have been licensed or certified will be protected from third party actions for damages during the notification period. An anomaly which existed in the 1991 Act which protected new agreements from action during the notification period but not old agreements has come to light and therefore is being rectified.
Section 5 gives the competition Authority the right to take an action for breaches of sections 4 and 5 of the competition Act. In this section I am providing for public enforcement of competition by an independent body.
Section 6 permits the competition Authority to carry out studies and analyses on its own initiative. Under the 1991 Act the Authority had to wait for a matter to be referred to them by the Minister. This new power will give the Authority scope to target its investigation or studies as they see appropriate.
Section 7 permits the Minister to appoint a member of the Authority with specific responsibility for enforcement matters. The member will be known as the Director of Competition Enforcement and will have principal day-to-day responsibility for enforcement within the competition Authority.
Section 8 is a technical amendment. This section is intended to clarify in law an anomaly which, in practice, has been applied by my Department in relation to the mergers legislation. Section 8 specifies that the monetary thresholds set out in the Mergers, Takeovers and Monopolies (Control) Act, 1978—as amended—must be exceeded by each of the enterprises intended to come under common control.
Section 9 makes provision for the prescription of a fee to accompany merger notifications from large scale undertakings—over £20 million turnover or £10 million gross assets in each case. This is a measure which is in line with the general trend to make such services more self-financing. I would like to make it clear that the fee will not be onerous nor will it constitute a burden on business; it will not apply to small-scale businesses who are not in any event required to notify me under mergers legislation. On a technical point this section also provides penalties where false or misleading information is given in the context of a merger notification.
Section 10 is a standard section of the disapplication of the Public Offices Fees Act, 1879. Section 11 removes the definition of monopoly from the 1978 Act. This definition is no longer useful as it has been replaced by the concept of a dominant position. Section 12 is a standard section containing the short title of the Bill and the collective citation.
Competition policy is an instrument of economic policy and must be applied within an overall reference framework required to achieve our economic goals. Competition policy is a vital part of our industrial policy and therefore must be sentitive to the needs of our economy.
The approach taken in this short Bill reflects and underpins the twin objectives to support growth companies while at the same time protecting smaller firms and consumers from the damaging excess of cartels and abuses by dominant firms. Markets must remain open and competitive and must be seen to be so. Otherwise, the spirit of enterprise and innovation will be quashed and growth and employment which we require consequently will suffer.
I very much welcome the positive reception the Bill has received from various representative bodies and from those involved in the operation of the legislation. I consider we have achieved a well balanced approach and improved on the existing legislation both in terms of policy direction and in terms of the practical operation of the law. I commend this Bill to the House.
It is my understanding, subject to agreement between the Whips, that following completion of Second Stage today, the Bill will be referred to the Select Committee on Enterprise and Economic Strategy and will be dealt with in due course.