The Office of Fair Trading has improved its operations following recommendations on maintaining competition in markets made by the National Audit Office and Committee of Public Accounts in 2005 and 2006. According to an NAO progress report published today, the OFT now needs to concentrate its efforts on strengthening the skills and experience of its staff at key management grades, and be clearer on how long it expects its investigations will take.
The OFT has now freed up resources by directing its work to areas that have the most impact. The decision to refocus on higher priority cases has however led to a perception that the OFT is less interested in smaller markets, with a risk that its deterrent effect will be reduced in these markets. The OFT has taken steps to address this perception, launching investigations into more local markets such as in construction and bus transport.
The time taken to process high profile cases has been reduced by introducing better project management and more flexible ways of working, including using bigger teams and temporary legal staff. Compared to earlier high profile cases which took over 4 years to progress to an advanced stage, investigations into airline fuel surcharges and marine hoses reached the same stage in 18 months. In three cases (airline fuel surcharges, dairy products and tobacco) parties have agreed to pay a total of up to £373 million in fines.
The OFT has also brought criminal charges in two cartel cases for the first time under the Enterprise Act, one of which to date has resulted in criminal convictions. The OFT recognises that some of its cases are still taking too long.
The OFT operates in a competitive labour market and still continues to face challenges in attracting and retaining talented staff. The OFT has provided project management and leadership training to its staff, but it needs to sustain and increase this work in order to continue to recruit and retain staff at key management grades.