OFT shake-up backed by law firms

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Competition experts praisedthe decision yesterday by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) to cut the number of market abuse cases it examines to concentrate on a smaller number of high-profile investigations.

An inquiry by the National Audit Office last year found that the OFT was failing to deploy its resources as effectively as it could, and called for greater transparency from the competition watchdog. In response, the OFT unveiled six criteria it will use to rank investigations to identify which to take up and which to drop.

Becket McGrath, a partner at the City law firm Berwin Leighton Paisner, said: "Transparency is important... It raises awareness among consumers and businesses of the limits of what the OFT can do. They often think the OFT is a bit like the police and will respond to everything, but it has limited resources and can only investigate about 1 per cent of the... complaints it receives every year. There has to be prioritisation."

The OFT has a budget of £11.4m, with which it expects to investigate between 25 and 40 cases this year. Some take as long as three years. About five decisions are published per annum. The competition regulator also revealed that it plans to reduce dramatically the number of cases it investigates to allow it to deploy greater resources on those abuses of competition law that affect the most people.

Some of the OFT's decisions have been overturned by the Competition Appeal Tribunal, fuelling calls for the OFT to pick its fights more carefully.

Duncan Liddell, a competition partner at the law firm Ashurst, said: "This is generally to be welcomed. It recognises that the OFT has a finite resource... But they do need to be a bit careful that they do not use this as a mandate to go for only the highest-profile, headline-grabbing cases."

During an internal restructuring at the OFT last week its Competition Enforcement and Markets and Policy operations merged into a single division under the watchdog's chief executive, John Fingleton.