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Competition regulator to prioritise productivity growth in future work

The UK's Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) will prioritise "cases in markets which underpin and enable economic growth" as part of its programme of work for next year, it has said.06 Dec 2017

The comments were contained in the CMA's draft business plan for 2018/19, and link in with the government's wider industrial strategy, which was published last month. The CMA said that prioritising its work in this way would enable it to "continue to make a valuable contribution to addressing the UK's longstanding problem with low productivity".

The CMA will also prioritise vulnerable customers, and building trust in the role played by competition law in wider society, according to the draft business plan. It has also confirmed its intention to expand its digital analysis capabilities by establishing and recruiting for a new digital, data and tech team, and to continue its preparations for the UK's exit from the EU and the greater role it will play in enforcing global competition laws in the UK.

"With increasing and accelerating changes to the world in which we operate – in the run-up to and beyond the UK's exit from the EU – the coming few years will be ones of opportunity and transformation, for the CMA and the competition and consumer regimes," said CMA chair David Currie.

"The investments we have made since we were formed in 2014 are delivering real results for consumers, and we will continue to invest further so that our capacity and capabilities match our ambition … We have been increasing pace, scale and impact across all our work and our draft priorities show that this is a journey we are committed to continuing in the coming year," he said.

The UK government intends to allocate an additional £2.8 million to the CMA each year from next April, so that it can "take on more cases against companies that are acting unfairly". This is in addition to, and separate from, the additional funding that it likely to be required once the UK exits the EU, to cover the costs of the CMA's additional responsibility for cases previously reserved to the European Commission.

"The next year or two is a critical period for the CMA," said competition law expert Alan Davis of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com. "It will need to rise to the challenge of Brexit and the expected significant increase in workload as a result of having to deal with parallel merger and enforcement cases alongside the EU which will no longer have jurisdiction over the UK."

"At the same time, the CMA will have to maintain the momentum it has built up on its local and regional competition and consumer enforcement cases and merger investigations. In addition, the Government's proposed industrial strategy expects the CMA will have a crucial role in supporting economic growth and productivity. The CMA will have a lot on its plate and the increased budget from the Government is unlikely to move the needle materially on how the CMA will be able to resource this additional work," he said.

The CMA will enter the 2018/19 financial year with a substantial volume of ongoing work. It is currently running 15 competition enforcement cases, seven consumer enforcement cases, 11 merger investigations and one market investigation. It intends to further increase its enforcement work in the coming year with at least six new competition enforcement investigations and at least one further market investigation, as well as to "open new criminal investigations and pursue prosecutions as appropriate".

The business plan contains further details of the CMA's planned new digital, data and technology team, which will "aim to improve how we capture, analyse and draw conclusions from large data sets, how we share them with partners and parties in cases and how we store them for future use". The team will also explore new analytical techniques, and build links with UK and international tech businesses, research communities and the Information Commissioner's Office.

The CMA intends to increase its focus on businesses operating online, to ensure that those with significant market power "do not abuse it to the detriment of consumers or other businesses". It is also keen to ensure that companies are unable to exploit algorithms and artificial intelligence as "a vehicle for collusion".

"We embrace many of the changes which technology and increased digitisation of commerce brings," it said in its business plan. "But we will also pay particular attention to businesses that misuse it to harm consumers … We are particularly interested in how companies use online data and the growth of algorithms in business decision-making, including price discrimination."

The CMA intends to "seek to strengthen our international profile" as part of its preparations for the UK's departure from the EU. This will enable it to "be able to play an increasingly important role in the review of global mergers and international competition enforcement investigations post-Exit".

"This includes maintaining existing – and forging new, strong, mutually beneficial and cooperative - relationships with other agencies, including the European Commission, with a view to promoting effective and consistent competition law and policy overseas for the benefit of UK consumers," it said.

The CMA is consulting on its draft business plan until 14 January 2018.