The UK’s competition watchdog has unveiled a new crackdown on illegal price fixing, less than a year after it fined an estate agency group hundreds of thousands of pounds for the practice.
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) announced it is launching a new campaign to encourage more people to come forward after it was awarded an extra £2.8m from the Government for the work.
The CMA said that UK workers knew little about how cartels worked but that the new campaign called “Safe, not Sorry” would ask people who think they may have involved themselves in cartel activity to report it to the watchdog.
Witnesses, who can receive a reward of up to £100,000 for blowing the whistle, are also asked to “Do the Right Thing”.
The CMA claimed it had seen an increase in tip-offs of 30% in 2017 after the launch of its first digital campaign.
And it pointed to some of its recent successes, including a fine of over £370,000 it levied on a group of Somerset estate agents for fixing the minimum price of its commission rates, which it said denied home owners a fair deal when selling their property.
The ruling, in May last year, found that a group of six agents in Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset, had a meeting where they agreed to fix their minimum commission rates to 1.5%.
The six, said the CMA report, potentially had 95% local market share between them.
“With a bit of talking and cooperation between us, we all win!” was their rationale.
The agents fined were Abbott and Frost Estate Agents Ltd, Gary Berryman Estate Agents Ltd (and its ultimate parent company Warne Investments Ltd), Greenslade Taylor Hunt, Saxons PS Ltd; and West Coast Property Services (UK) Ltd.
The sixth agent, Annagram Estates Ltd (trading as CJ Hole), was not fined as it was the first undertaking to confess its participation in the arrangement under the CMA’s leniency policy and co-operated with the CMA’s investigation.
The CMA said its new campaign would target sectors including construction, manufacturing and business support services.
A spokesperson for the CMA confirmed that estate agency would fall under the “business support services” category.
Stephen Blake, senior director for cartels at the CMA, said: “We are committed to tackling cartels wherever we find them.
“More people are reporting illegal activity to us and we urge anyone with information to come forward.
“If you’re involved, it’s better to be safe, not sorry, and to tell us about it first – before someone else does.
“For those who were not involved but have witnessed illegal activity, we urge them to do the right thing.
“We know that this is a sensitive issue and some people could worry about what might happen to them if they speak to us.
“All information is treated confidentially and we can discuss any concerns that people may have over keeping their identity secret.”
The CMA claims it has issued £151m of fines following investigations into anti-competitive practices over the past two years.
It is currently investigating 15 cases where competition law may have been broken.
Businesses found to have been involved in illegal cartels can be fined up to 10% of their annual turnover.
Individuals can face up to five years in prison and directors can be disqualified from holding director positions for up to 15 years.