IT’S always important to ask the right question. Never has this been more relevant than with the Leveson Inquiry.
The Prime Minister’s appearance at the inquiry has now taken place, to answer questions about his relationship with News International, Rebekah Brooks and others.
The irony is not lost that the Prime Minister now has to give evidence at the inquiry he instigated. As ever the questions revolve around the elements of fame or notoriety of the story – horse riding with Brooks, the Sunday dinner parties with editors and TV presenters. In the spirit of fairness Tony Blair was subject to similar treatment with much focus on the fact that he is godfather to Rupert Murdoch’s daughter.
Almost as a sideline the question of Jeremy Hunt’s appointment to oversee the BSkyB merger, deliberations have been raised and all of the focus has been on whether he was biased towards the merger at the time of his appointment.
However, the more important question is why was it deemed necessary to put a minister in the position of overseeing a proposed merger when competition law is now meant to be removed from the influence of politics.
With the Orwellian name changes at various Government departments, the main players are now the chief executive of the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) and the Secretary of State for the Department for Business Innovation and Skills.
Whilst the names have changed the positions are largely the same, the roles have altered, albeit subtly. Under the new law the chief executive makes the decision and the Competition Commission can act as an appellate body with the Competition Appeals Tribunal having an oversight role. There is not meant to be any ministerial interference.
While the OFT is technically under the Secretary of State for Business Skills and Innovation, the minister is not meant to interfere in merger clearance decisions. Comments made by the current Secretary of State made it clear he had no role in the assessment of the BSkyB merger. However, since he had no role in any event would it not have been easier to make this clear?
As an aside, when ministers could intervene in merger clearances who was the most “lenient” Secretary of State? Answer – Lord Mandelson.
:: Neil Warwick, partner at Dickinson Dees.