Ireland's combined competition and consumer protection agency (CCPC) today published its 2017 annual report.
The CCPC refers in the report that during 2017 the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), in conjunction with the CCPC, secured the first criminal conviction in Ireland for bid-rigging in a case investigated by the CCPC. There had been previous convictions for anti-competitive activity in Ireland but this was a "bid-rigging" cartel case. The CCPC and DPP were disappointed with the initial sentences imposed but those sentences were increased by the Court of Appeal on an appeal by the DPP in 2018.
The report indicates that a number of competition cases were closed by the CCPC without the need for action (which is a positive result in terms of outcome and use of resources) in sectors as diverse as the property and university supplies sectors.
The report mentions that the CCPC was investigating during 2017 "potential bid-rigging in the procurement of publicly funded transport services" and had opened "a formal investigation into suspected anti-competitive conduct in the ticketing services sector". It also "commenced an examination of potential anti-competitive behaviour by a trade association, Nursing Homes Ireland".
During 2017, the CCPC opened 11 new screening files and closed 17 relating to potential criminal breaches of competition law. On the civil side, it opened 26 new screening files and closed 29 relating to potential civil breaches of competition law with seven of the files reviewed related to abuse of dominance.
The CCPC also referred to its on-going motor insurance case stating that it had "held multiple witness summons hearings and obtained over 1.25m emails and documents from parties under investigation into potential anti-competitive price signalling in the motor insurance sector".
In terms of dawn raids and inspections, the CCPC said that it had "assisted the European Commission in two separate competition searches and assisted a member state with a competition investigation."
In regard to merger control, where there is a compulsory notification regime in Ireland for deals involving parties whose turnover exceed particular thresholds, in 2017 the CCPC received 72 notifications and issued 68 determinations (some are always carried into the following year – for example, a notification in the last few days of a year would be decided in the following year). None was prohibited, which is not unusual. Commitments were given by the parties in 4 of the 68 determinations. The annual report also highlights that the CCPC is keen to investigate and prevent "gun-jumping" – that is to say, acquirers of businesses must not acquire control until the CCPC approves the deal and. The CCPC refers to an investigation which it was pursuing in regard to this.
On the consumer side of the house, the CCPC mentioned that 2017 saw the first custodial sentence for misleading a consumer in the sale of a car. There had also been 35 Fixed Payment Notices paid by traders. Compliance Notices were issued to 12 traders directing them to comply with consumer law.
In regard to Brexit, the CCPC commissioned the Economic and Social Research Institute (ERSI) to assess what the potential financial impact of Brexit could be on Irish households. The ESRI found a potential increase in the cost of living of between €892 and €1,360 annually for the average household because of Brexit. The ESRI also found that the increases would be distributed unevenly across households, with lower income groups more affected.
The CCPC renewed its call to be able to impose fines for breach of competition law. At present in Ireland, only courts may impose fines but the CCPC is keen to also have this power. Of course, fines imposed by the CCPC would be capable of appeal to the courts so some commentators would say that it would be better to have fines imposed by courts who have not investigated the breach but heard both sides, rather than having the same body both investigating and punishing, with those fines then being appealed to courts who hear the case all over again.
The CCPC's staff numbers grew during 2017 – filling 29 positions and ending the year with 90 staff. In 2017, 27% of the CCPC staff were new to the organisation or in roles arising from promotion. Those are dealing with mergers, cartels, consumer protection and so on but will also be dealing with, based on the 2017 report, issues such as potential anti-competitive activity in procurement as well. Next year will mark five years of the CCPC being in existence (a successor to the Competition Authority which was established in 1991) so it will be interesting to see how it will mature and develop to become more active in the economy.