The Office of Fair Trading
) is a not-for-profit and non-ministerial government department
A non-ministerial government department is a department or ministry of a government that is not headed by a Government Minister or Government Secretary, and answers directly to a legislature ....
of the United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...
, established by the Fair Trading Act 1973, which enforces both consumer protection
Consumer protection laws designed to ensure fair trade competition and the free flow of truthful information in the marketplace. The laws are designed to prevent businesses that engage in fraud or specified unfair practices from gaining an advantage over competitors and may provide additional...
and competition law
Competition law, known in the United States as antitrust law, is law that promotes or maintains market competition by regulating anti-competitive conduct by companies....
, acting as the UK's economic regulator. The OFT's goal is to make markets work well for consumers, ensuring vigorous competition
Competition in economics is a term that encompasses the notion of individuals and firms striving for a greater share of a market to sell or buy goods and services...
between fair-dealing businesses and prohibiting unfair practices such as rogue trading, scams and cartel
A cartel is a formal agreement among competing firms. It is a formal organization of producers and manufacturers that agree to fix prices, marketing, and production. Cartels usually occur in an oligopolistic industry, where there is a small number of sellers and usually involve homogeneous products...
s. Its role was modified and its powers changed with the Enterprise Act 2002
The Enterprise Act 2002 is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom which made major changes to UK competition law with respect to mergers and also changed the law governing insolvency bankruptcy.-Structure:*Part 1 The Office of Fair Trading...
The majority of the OFT’s work consists of analysing markets, enforcing consumer and competition law, merger control, licensing and supervisory work (of consumer credit, estate agency, anti-money-laundering supervision), advocacy, delivering information, education programmes and campaigns to business and consumers, and advice through Consumer Direct.
Studies into how markets are working
The OFT investigates markets to see whether they are working well for consumers and customers. Where appropriate, studies will lead to market investigation references to the Competition Commission
The Competition Commission is a non-departmental public body responsible for investigating mergers, markets and other enquiries related to regulated industries under competition law in the United Kingdom...
, to enforcement action, consumer awareness campaigns or to recommendations to government, which will be published.
Communication to explain and improve awareness and understanding
Showing how competitive markets that work well are important for consumers, fair dealing businesses and economic performance; explaining its decisions transparently; promoting compliance by explaining to business what the law is and how the OFT will apply it; promoting consumer awareness and confidence; coordinating effectively with enforcement partners locally, nationally and internationally, and advising government on how to achieve the most effective regime for competition and consumers.
The OFT structure is divided by market sector - Services, Goods, Consumer and Infrastructure - with officials specialising in the different legal and regulatory regimes working closely together in each of these market sectors. Each group typically consider potential breaches of competition law, review competition undertakings and performs market studies in their sector of the economy. These market sector groups sit alongside two other OFT groups - mergers, and cartels and criminal enforcement. The OFT is situated off Fleet Street, near to Blackfriars station
Blackfriars station, also known as London Blackfriars, is a central London railway terminus and London Underground complex in the City of London, England. Its platforms will eventually span the River Thames a short distance downstream from Blackfriars Bridge. The current entrance is located on the...
. It is next to St Bride's Church
St Bride's Church is a church in the City of London, England. The building's most recent incarnation was designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1672 on Fleet Street in the City of London, though Wren's original building was largely gutted by fire during the London Blitz in 1940. Due to its location on...
Markets and Policies Initiatives
Based on expanded powers granted under the Enterprise Act 2002, the OFT explores how different market sectors operate, in order to help markets work well. They may research one particular market in detail or, for example, how codes of practice or professional rules operate across different markets in a range of businesses. The results of the research, which are published, help the OFT to assess what action, if any, needs to be taken to protect consumers' interests. They may recommend stronger enforcement, or a change in the regulations, or suggest an awareness raising campaign for consumers (but will not always recommend intervention and when this is the case, will ensure that any non-intervention decision is well-informed and open to public scrutiny).
In 2006, the OFT restructured in response to Treasury proposals for splitting the department into separate consumer and competition regulators. The OFT argued that to protect consumers effectively, it had to be able to use both consumer law and competition law approaches in a holistic fashion. Moving away from division by legislative area, the OFT created divisions based on market sector. These officials are supported by a dedicated economics branch also including statisticians and financial analysts (the Office of the Chief Economist), a legal specialist, and a policy advisory branch.
Credit card charges
In 2006 the OFT investigated the charges being imposed on customers of credit card
A credit card is a small plastic card issued to users as a system of payment. It allows its holder to buy goods and services based on the holder's promise to pay for these goods and services...
companies. In its report, the OFT confirmed these charges were unlawful as they amounted to a penalty, rather than the actual losses suffered by the companies. It said it would be prepared to investigate any charge over £12 [£16 for Egg credit card accounts] indicating that £12 would not be a "fair and acceptable charge" itself. The OFT said it would be up to a court to determine such an amount based on the established legal precedent that the only recoverable cost would be actual costs incurred, i.e. liquidated damages
Liquidated damages are damages whose amount the parties designate during the formation of a contract for the injured party to collect as compensation upon a specific breach ....
The credit card companies did not produce evidence of their actual costs to the OFT, instead insisting their charges are in line with clear policy and information provided to customers. Charges have been as much as £38 per item, which campaigners argue is well beyond the cost of sending a computerised letter.
OFT investigations on Debt Management Companies
On September 2010 the OFT sent warnings to 129 firms after its review of debt management companies found widespread problems, with firms putting profits ahead of customer care. Since it issued that warning, 35 firms have surrendered their licenses and the OFT is forcibly revoking licenses from eight more in 2011.
The OFT has been criticized for being ineffective and for many of its investigations leading to no action, in contrast to the more vigorous approach of US (United States Department of Justice Antitrust Division
The United States Department of Justice Antitrust Division is responsible for enforcing the antitrust laws of the United States. It shares jurisdiction over civil antitrust cases with the Federal Trade Commission and often works jointly with the FTC to provide regulatory guidance to businesses...
) and European Union
The European Union is an economic and political union of 27 independent member states which are located primarily in Europe. The EU traces its origins from the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community , formed by six countries in 1958...
(DG COMP of the European Commission
The European Commission is the executive body of the European Union. The body is responsible for proposing legislation, implementing decisions, upholding the Union's treaties and the general day-to-day running of the Union....
) regulators. Criticism has been levied, among others, in the cases of:
- Oil companies retail sales / petrol - in October 2008 the UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown
James Gordon Brown is a British Labour Party politician who was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Leader of the Labour Party from 2007 until 2010. He previously served as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Labour Government from 1997 to 2007...
threatened oil companies with an OFT investigation unless lower oil prices were passed to consumers; this was despite several OFT investigations in the past giving the industry a clean bill of health.
The National Audit Office
National Audit Office can refer to:* Australian National Audit Office* National Audit Office * National Audit Office of the People's Republic of China* Swedish National Audit Office...
issued a report in March 2009 on the OFT's competition enforcement work which indicated progress in 7 out of 10 objectives, but also concluded:
- ...So whilst the OFT has improved the value for money it provides, there remains scope for further improvement.
According to the same report, in 2007-08 the OFT estimated that its competition enforcement work led to direct savings to consumers worth £77m per year and that its market studies work had saved consumers £98m in 2007-08; the OFT costs for these areas of work in the same year were approximately £26million of its £78m expenditure in 2007-8.
The OFT board
The board is
- Philip Collins - Chairman
- John Fingleton - Chief Executive
- Clive Maxwell - Executive Director
- Robert Laslett - Executive Director
- Vivienne Dews - Executive Director
and seven non-executive members:
- Alan Giles
- James Hart
- Professor Frédéric Jenny
- Anthony Lea Cock
- Dr Philip Marsden
- Alan Cooks
- William Moyes
The following bodies and companies are designated by the Secretary of State as being able to bring a super-complaint to the OFT:
- The Campaign for Real Ale Limited
The Campaign for Real Ale is an independent voluntary consumer organisation based in St Albans, England, whose main aims are promoting real ale, real cider and the traditional British pub...
- The Consumer Council for Water
The Consumer Council for Water is a non-departmental public body that represents water and sewerage consumers in England and Wales. The organisation provides impartial advice and/or advocacy for aggrieved consumers....
- The Consumers' Association
Which? is a product-testing and consumer campaigning charity with a magazine, website and various other services run by Which? Ltd ....
(trading as "Which?")
- The General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland
The General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland was created by the Government in 1985 and is funded by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment . The body aims to represent consumers' interests....
- The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux
A Citizens Advice Bureau is one of a network of independent charities throughout the UK that give free, confidential information and advice to help people with their money, legal, consumer and other problems....
- The National Consumer Council
Consumer Focus is a statutory consumer organisation in England, Wales, Scotland, and, for postal services, Northern Ireland, formed in 2008 by the merging Postwatch, Energywatch and the Welsh, Scottish and National Consumer Councils...
(trading as "Consumer Focus")
The Federal Cartel Office is Germany's national competition regulator. It was first established in 1958 and comes under the authority of the Federal Ministry of the Economy and Technology. Its headquarters are in the former West German capital, Bonn and its President is Andreas Mundt, who has a...
- Competition regulator
A competition regulator is a government agency, typically a statutory authority, sometimes called an economic regulator, which regulates and enforces competition laws, and may sometimes also enforce consumer protection laws...
- Conseil de la Concurrence
Conseil de la concurrence is the name of several national competition regulators:* Conseil de la concurrence, name of the former French competition regulator * Conseil de la concurrence...
- Consumer Credit Act 1974
The Consumer Credit Act 1974 is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom that significantly reformed the law relating to consumer credit within the United Kingdom....
- Consumers' Association
The Consumers' Association is the umbrella organisation that houses the trading arm Which? Ltd. The Consumers' Association is a charity, registered in England and Wales No 296072. Which? Ltd is its wholly owned trading subsidiary....
- Federal Trade Commission
The Federal Trade Commission is an independent agency of the United States government, established in 1914 by the Federal Trade Commission Act...
- Financial Services Authority
The Financial Services Authority is a quasi-judicial body responsible for the regulation of the financial services industry in the United Kingdom. Its board is appointed by the Treasury and the organisation is structured as a company limited by guarantee and owned by the UK government. Its main...
- Independent school fee fixing scandal
- Merger control
Merger control refers to the procedure of reviewing mergers and acquisitions under antitrust / competition law. Over 60 nations worldwide have adopted a regime providing for merger control....
- UK default charges controversy