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OFT urges workers to blow whistle on cartels

The Office of Fair Trading has called on workers to report unlawful price-fixing agreements and to provide information over a 24-hour telephone hotline.

Sir Bryan Carsberg, Director-General of Fair Trading, said he had formed a task force to persuade informants to help him uncover such cartels.

He added that the task force would seek to educate consumers and workers at all levels about the "pernicious" effect of cartels and the damage they caused the economy.

"Secret price-fixing agreements invariably result in the exploitation of customers and market-sharing cartels are tantamount to criminal fraud. I need adequate information before I can even commence an investigation, let alone make a case in court.

"I am keen for inside information, particularly from former and present employees," he said.

Sir Brian also reiterated calls for the Government to fulfil its promise to strengthen the law and the penalties against those involved in cartels and to provide the OFT with greater powers of investigation.

"I urge the Government to implement soon the reforms proposed in the 1989 White Paper, Opening Markets, to ban cartels and to increase my powers to uncover and deal with them."

The Consumers' Association added its voice to the call for government action, saying that any attempts by the Office of Fair Trading to drive out cartels would otherwise prove "hollow". Stephen Locke, policy director at the CA, said: "It is an area wherecrime pays in Britain. The chances of getting caught are not great and the penalties usually mean being told not to do it again."

Sir Bryan said the decision to launch the campaign followed a break-through judgment in the House of Lords that ruled against a successful appeal by ready-mixed concrete firms found guilty of contempt of court in 1990.

The House of Lords ruling made it clear that companies are responsible in law when their employees participate in unlawful cartel agreements in the course of their work, even if they were not ordered to do so.

The Office of Fair Trading now plans to take ready-mixed concrete companies back to the Restrictive Trade Practices Court some time this year.

The case, which started with a whistle-blower about 20 years ago, has been widened to cover about 20 companies involved in up to 70 agreements throughout Britain If a company is found guilty of contempt, an unlimited fine may be imposed upon it. Directors and employees may also face unlimited fines and up to two years in jail if they have aided and abetted in the contempt.