Competition Bill paves way for consumer watchdog

Public interest of media mergers to be judged by Minister for Communications

A substantial reform of consumer and competition laws will pave the way for a powerful new watchdog in the area, stiff rules to prevent “hello money” practices in supermarkets, and a new role for the Minister for Communications in deciding if media mergers are in the public interest.

Minister for Jobs Richard Bruton on Monday published the long-awaited Competition and Consumer Protection Bill.

One of three major elements in the Bill is the merging of the National Consumer Agency and the Competition Authority as part of what has been dubbed the Government's "quango cull" programme.

While the savings of about €170,000 per annum are relatively nominal, Mr Bruton has asserted the new combined agency will be a “watchdog with real teeth”.

The new body will be headed by Isolde Goggin of the Competition Authority and will comprise between three and seven members, acting in a collegiate manner. The Bill provides for increased powers when investigating serious offences in such areas as cartels and price- fixing.

Among the new powers will be court orders compelling people with relevant information to provide information or answer questions; a more effective use of detention periods; and more efficient ways of ensuring documents are produced.


Regulations
In relation to the grocery trade, Mr Bruton opted for a system of regulations backed by legislation.While the regulations have yet to be drawn up, the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation said yesterday they would be informed by the substantive points that will be made in the Dáil and Seanad during the debate on the legislation.

Media mergers is the third major area of the Bill. The proposed laws will incorporate the majority of the recommendations of the Advisory Group on Media Mergers (the Sreenan report). This new law will therefore contain a statutory definition of media plurality (referring both to ownership and content).

The transfer of the powers in relation to media mergers to the Minister for Communications will give the incumbent minister an oversight role over both broadcast and print media for the first time, as well as other new forms of media, including internet and social media.

However, the three-step test for a media merger will remain the same. The new Competition and Consumer Protection Commission will still determine if a merger has taken place and if it should be allowed go ahead on competition grounds.

Following the determination by the Commission, the Minister will then decide on whether it should be allowed go ahead on grounds of the public interest. He can request the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland to investigate the merger and report back to the Minister within 80 working days. The Minister will then make the ultimate decision.

There is also a new obligation on parties to a media merger to provide full information to the Minister on all circumstances that might impair media plurality in the State.

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times

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