Telegraph: John Penrose to review UK competition laws ahead of autumn Budget

John Penrose has previously proposed scrapping communications, energy and water watchdogs and replacing them with single body.

Tory MP who called for the abolition of the energy and broadcasting watchdogs has been appointed to lead a review of Britain’s competition laws.

John Penrose, a former minister who described Ofcom and Ofgem’s powers as “as out of date as the horse and cart”, is understood to have been asked to draw up proposals to address the problem in time for Rishi Sunak’s autumn Budget.

The move suggests senior ministers are mulling an overhaul of the country’s competition laws and regulators, which Mr Penrose claimed have allowed consumers to increasingly “end up paying more than they used to for the same things” and make the economy “less efficient and productive”.

In a 2018 pamphlet, Mr Penrose proposed scrapping the current communications, energy and water industry watchdogs and replacing them with a single body that would  also cover tech giants such as Google and Facebook.

It comes after Chancellor Mr Sunak – who ordered the review along with Alok Sharma, the Business Secretary – said he wanted to “turbo-charge our competition policy to make sure it is fit, especially for the digital age”.

Mr Penrose’s pamphlet on “rebooting capitalism” included a chapter proposing the introduction of a new Competition Act as part of a plan to “shift the balance of power back to customers and citizens”.

In the essay, reproduced on the ConservativeHome website, he warned that many consumers felt capitalism was “stacked against them by a complacent, comfortable, out-of-touch global elite” that rewards itself but appears to exploit some lower-skilled workers.

He wrote: “Energy firms rip off loyal customers with sky-high prices as soon as they forget to switch; railways are crippled by strikes and new timetables cause meltdown; water firms don’t fix leaky pipes but still impose hosepipe bans; broadband works slower than it’s supposed to.”

Mr Penrose said the solution was to “make the customer king again” and ensure that people have the ability to switch from one company to another that is “cheaper, or better quality, or faster, or slower, or has kinder staff”.

He added: “Britain’s competition watchdogs don’t have the resources they need to reverse the current trends and make British competition sharper and tougher, particularly after Brexit when they will have to take over areas which are currently covered by EU Competition authorities in Brussels. 

“And their powers are based on the UK’s most recent Competition Act, which was passed in 1998, in the era before email, Facebook, Twitter, Uber and the World Wide Web. They’re as out of date as the horse and cart.

“Both the watchdogs and their powers must be updated to cope with these new economy challenges so consumers get the huge advantages and benefits which the digital economy can offer without being exploited in new ways at the same time.  

“We will need a new Competition Act, enforced by a modernised and expanded Competition and Markets Authority. Plus a specialist new network monopoly regulator to replace Ofcom, Ofgem, Ofwat and all the others.”