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Monopolies chief hits back at consumer critics: The MMC has not 'gone soft', Graeme Odgers tells David Nicholson-Lord

THE chairman of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission yesterday described as 'biased and inaccurate' claims that the organisation had 'gone soft' on industry and had stopped representing the consumer.

In an interview with the Independent, Graeme Odgers, the businessman who took over the chairmanship 15 months ago, said the criticisms were based on a misunderstanding of the framework for regulating competition. 'The consumer interest is hugely important to us.'

Mr Odgers, who in April last year became the first non-lawyer to chair the MMC, has come under fire from MPs and the consumer lobby after a series of reports on areas such as compact discs, perfumes, ice creams and mortgage valuations. Critics, such as the Consumers' Association, say these have favoured industry at the expense of customers.

Mr Odgers rejected the charges and defended the MMC's recent and much- criticised reports on perfumes and compact discs, both of which recommended no change. He said MMC research which showed that the price difference in compact discs between the United Kingdom and the United States was nothing like as large as claimed was unprecedented in its scope and 'absolutely solid'.

'Our prices are lower than almost anywhere in the world with the one exception of the US. Everybody likes to get lower prices if they possibly can. It's human nature. But the fact is that (compact discs) is a highly competitive market, with 600 smaller companies competing nose- to-nose and a tremendous range of products at an enormous range of prices.'

He also defended the rights of manufacturers of expensive perfumes not to sell their products in cut-price shops.

Their profit margins, 38 per cent, were lower than many of the stores that sold the perfumes and they had spent 'tens and tens of millions' of pounds building up a luxury brand image which was dependent on exclusive outlets. 'If you get a special product at a special price it is no longer a special product,' he added.

Mr Odgers, 60, whose previous career has been with firms such as GEC, Tarmac, British Telecom and Alfred McAlpine, said that forcing down prices would reduce businesses' scope for investment and innovation which was 'clearly . . . not in the public interest and not, in the long-term, in consumers' interests'.

The globalisation of the marketplace meant it was more important to bolster the competitiveness of British industry than it was 10 years ago. 'But I am not pro-industry or anti-consumer. I take both into account. That is the true industrial perspective.'

(Photograph omitted)