In 1973, the Conservative government of Edward Heath set up the Office of Fair Trading, otherwise known as the ‘OFT’.
To be honest, sometimes I wonder how they found the parliamentary time to do so at the time—what with the need to ensure that corset-makers got their well-deserved holidays (The Wages Regulation (Corset) (Holidays) Order 1973); grey squirrels were protected from DVTs (The Grey Squirrels (Warfarin) Order 1973) and milk bottle tops were coloured correctly (The Milk and Dairies (Milk Bottle Caps) (Colour) Regulations 1973).
But find time they did. And the world—well, the UK at least—was introduced to an office that promoted fair trading.
What an exciting time it was to be an OFT civil servant in those halcyon days 40 years ago!
I’ve often thought that Sam Tyler, the time travelling character in the BBC series ‘Life on Mars’ should have been transported to this newly created body instead of to some dull Criminal Investigation Department in drizzly Manchester. Imagine a two-hour long special episode on the scandal of mispackaged macaroni under The Weights and Measures Act 1963 (Pasta) Order 1973. The screen would simply fizz with intrigue and food-based malpractice.
Or picture a hard-hitting episode where hundreds of packets of biscuits are manufactured by women on a wintry Sunday afternoon in clear contravention of The Baking and Sausage Making (Christmas and New Year) Order 1973 (see below).
Despite 40 years of service to the country, the OFT is due to close its doors for the final time on 31 March. So where are its responsibilities heading to exactly?
As it happens, they are being distributed to a pretty wide (and, on occasions, bizarre) selection of bodies:
- Competition: Promotion and enforcement of competition will now be dealt with by the newly created Competition and Markets Authority (CMA)
- Consumer protection and business education: Best head to your local authority Trading Standards Services if you need help in this area
- Advice and consumer education: Your first port of call should be a Citizens Advice Bureau
- Consumer credit (and anti-money laundering): If you are a consumer credit firm, the Financial Conduct Authority now deals with regulation in this area. What’s more, you had better get your skates on if you haven’t yet registered with the FCA for interim permission as you need to do so by 1 April 2014, otherwise you will be breaking the law
- Anti-money laundering (estate agents): HM Revenue & Customs are tasked to look after this area for our estate agent friends
- Estate agents: Talking of estate agents, on 1 April 2014 the OFT’s powers to prohibit or warn estate agents, and to authorise redress schemes, passes to Powys County Council. So far as I know, the county town of Llandrindod Wells wasn’t, or indeed isn’t, a hotbed of estate agent malpractice but this function is moving there anyhow. Good luck to them I say! (As it happens, James Forsyth at The Spectator is less than convinced: Powys County Council reaches dizzy new heights. Other commentators have been referring to this move under the superb, but ultimately incorrect, pun of ‘Last Quango in Powys’)
- Consumer Code Approval Scheme: The Trading Standards Institute will now be looking after this scheme. So now you know!
- Sectoral regulators: Many regulators, to quote the OFT, ‘share concurrent competition and consumer powers with the OFT, and will continue to share these powers with the CMA’. So who are we talking about? Well, this list of regulators includes Ofcom, the Office of the Rail Regulator, Ofgem, OFWAT, the Civil Aviation Authority, the Financial Conduct Authority and Monitor (competition only).
Having said all of that, the main replacement regulator, for most intents and purposes, is the CMA.
Like all new regulators, it is keen to be seen as bursting with energy and having a insatiable desire to shake things up. In a recent government consultation the CMA proposed, for example, to ‘initiate three cases that focus on markets where there is evidence of widespread or endemic practices that negatively impact on consumer decision-making or choice’.
Three cases doesn’t sound very much but when the OFT delved into an industry not many stones were left unturned. I suspect that this will also be the case for the CMA, particularly given that it has a lot to prove.
In other words, businesses shouldn’t think the CMA have their eyes of the regulatory ball even though there will be the inevitable bedding in period.
So what do you think of all of this? Should the OFT have a reprieve? Is this a necessary change for the better or just more political tinkering. Do let us know below!