Politics Home: UK needs competition rules fit for the digital age that gives power back to consumers

This article was originally posted on Politics Home. You can find it here.

We need to update our competition and consumer rules so they’re the best in the world at giving the consumer more choice, and making firms try harder.

Britain has traditionally been one of the best places in the world to invest and do business. We do well in international rankings on investment or wealth-creation, and our independent economic regulators mean business leaders can focus on delighting their customers rather than lobbying legislators.

More certainty and less risk makes Britain a more attractive destination for global firms, and also means investors need lower returns which cuts costs and makes our firms more productive too.

But we’re far from perfect; some things have gone backwards since the banking crash in 2008. Big firms have got bigger, from Apple or Google to housebuilders and landlords, and it’s harder for small entrepreneurs to take them on and win than it used to be.

And the losers are you and me, because companies don’t have to try as hard as they used to. The customer isn’t king or queen anymore; we’ve become minor princelings at best.

How do we put things right? By updating our competition and consumer rules so they’re the best in the world at giving you and me more choices, and making firms try harder. The last time we looked at these rules was back in 1998, when the planet didn’t have email, Facebook, Twitter, Uber, Google or Apple. They’re analogue and out of date in a digital world, and they won’t do.

Today sees the launch of a Review which offers some of the answers. It’s called ‘Power To The People’, because reinstalling customers on their thrones as kings and queens is what will fix the problem fastest, and it’s a recipe-book of changes to make post-Brexit, post-pandemic British businesses, exporters and investors more competitive, creative, successful, digital and agile too.

What are the recipes? The core is stronger powers for consumer watchdogs like your local Trading Standards teams or the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to crack down on rip-offs, and new ‘Country Competition Courts’ so entrepreneurial startups can fight back if bigger and longer-established local rivals gang up on them unfairly.

There’s a stronger anti-red-tape regime, with sharper claws so we don’t dilute the quality of everything from food standards to workers rights or animal welfare, but we deliver them much more cheaply, digitally and less bureaucratically than before. And there are updated rules to make each digital online shopping trip just as safe and fair as walking down your local High Street or shopping mall.

There’s a new and bigger public role for CMA to become a micro-economic sister for the Bank of England, responsible for tracking and stamping out new consumer rip-offs, and finding reforms to make post-pandemic British firms and jobs more efficient. And both CMA and the Competition Appeal Tribunal (CAT) have to raise their game, working much faster to match the higher tempo and pace of today’s digital economy. They need to decide all but the most complicated, difficult cases in weeks or months, rather than years, so business leaders and investors know where they stand much sooner than today.  

With any luck, government ministers will think these recipes are tasty. They asked for them, after all: ‘Power To The People’ isn’t government policy, but it was commissioned by the Chancellor and the Business Secretary. It proves they’re on the lookout for fresh new ideas and, at a time when Ministers are besieged with multi-billion-pound pleas for help from struggling industries everywhere, the proposals in this Review will be some of the cheapest, strongest economic medicine they can buy. 

It’s time for the Conservative Party to renew its supply-side reforming credentials. I hope Ministers will welcome these ideas with open arms.