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Britain Eyes Merging Merger Cops

Posted  October 20, 2010

The United Kingdom’s two antitrust agencies will be merged if a proposed consolidation that seeks to streamline the British regulatory process passes its own merger review by the government.

Currently, the U.K. employs two regulatory bodies to scrutinize competition activity, the Office of Fair Trading (“OFT”) and the Competition Commission.  The two bodies have slightly different roles, but work together in the clearance of mergers and in investigating allegedly anticompetitive conduct.

The U.K. government is considering merging the two bodies in the interest of enhancing efficiency and accountability in the scrutiny of merger deals, which can take longer to clear in the U.K. than in other jurisdictions.

The OFT has the authority to investigate cartels, while the Competition Commission leads investigations in alleged market dominance.  Typically, the OFT will conduct initial investigations in the scrutiny of merger deals in the U.K., and it will pass the investigation onto the Competition Commission if it has any concerns with the deal.

Unlike in the United States, where the antitrust regulators (the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice) have to convince courts of the merits of blocking a merger, the U.K. grants its regulatory agencies the final word on merger clearance.

The U.K. has stated it will make a final decision on the proposed plan in 2011 after seeking public comments.

The idea of merging the agencies has drawn mixed reactions.  Some applaud the increased efficiency of having one agency conducting the merger process and competition oversight, while others fear that such an agency merger may undermine the quality of the oversight process.

Alec Burnside, a competition partner at Linklaters LLP, cautioned that “[t]he challenge will be to make sure there is somehow still a ‘fresh pair of eyes.’”  He noted the possible danger of having one agency with all the antitrust power in that it might be “judge, jury, and executioner.”  However, he added that “the argument for a merger is compelling in its own way, and there may be other ways of ensuring the right checks and balances.”  Other competition lawyers in the U.K. have expressed the view that from cutting down the number of regulators will promote efficiency.

The U.K. business community appears to favor the idea.  The Confederation of British Industry believes it would expedite the merger review and investigation processes, thus “reducing the time firms are left in limbo.”

Tagged in: Antitrust Enforcement, Antitrust Policy, International Competition Issues,