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New UK Competition Watchdog Sets Its Sights on Cartels

The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) recently released its Annual Plan for 2015/2016.  The Plan announces the CMA’s enforcement priorities for what will be the second year since the new organization assumed its role.

The CMA makes clear that a particularly important priority is the aggressive investigation and prosecution of criminal cartels; it hopes to “open as many new criminal cartel investigations as possible” in the coming year.  This is consistent with our prediction last year that prosecutions are likely to increase in number due to the enhanced enforcement powers bestowed upon the CMA.  Indeed, the CMA is putting its money where its mouth is: this January, it advertised three job openings (including Assistant Director for Cartel Enforcement) in its Cartels and Criminal Group.

One noteworthy example of the CMA’s enforcement activity in this area is an upcoming criminal trial—described in the Annual Plan as a “milestone” for the organization—scheduled for this June.  The prosecution of the two individual defendants arises from the CMA’s investigation (initiated by the Office of Fair Trading, the CMA’s predecessor competition authority) into cartel conduct in the UK market for galvanized steel water storage tanks.  This follows a guilty plea, in June of 2014, by another individual who was accused of criminal cartel activity in the same market.  The two defendants scheduled for trial are charged under section 188 of the Enterprise Act 2002, the criminal cartel provision, for “dishonestly agreeing with others to divide customers, fix prices and rig bids between 2004 and 2012.”  The CMA, pursuant to reporting restrictions, has not published further detail on the case.

second ongoing investigation by the CMA concerns the supply of products to the UK’s construction industry, pursuant to which seven individuals have been arrested.  Although the current number of active cartel cases is small, all indicators suggest that the CMA’s docket will grow rapidly in the coming years.