Who do you trust?-(17.11.02)

Since the Competition Act came into force in 1998 the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has had far stronger powers to prevent price fixing than it used to. At the time it was proclaimed as a move to more US style anti-trust legislation. So far this would seem to have not resulted in the flood of cases and fines that you might have expected from ground breaking new legislation, just a couple of bus firms and some minor cartels that hardly had wider economic implications from the activities. In a final analysis, there are many areas, particularly affecting consumer goods, where UK prices are higher than in other countries for reasons that cannot be explained by different costs that are faced.

What comes next? The Enterprise Bill now in Parliament de-polioticies the whole process by turning it into the equivalent of a criminal investigation. Personal liability for comapny directors who engage in anti-competitive behaviour will now extend to jail terms. The real test of this will be how long the investigation and prosecution process takes and how long politicians will be able to stand on the sidelines of competition policy when pet interests are threatened and job justifications are used to defend cartels.