On 24 March 2022, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) published its 2022-2023 Annual Plan, setting out the focus areas for the UK’s principal competition and consumer protection regulator.

In contextualising the Annual Plan, the Chair of the CMA noted that the current rising cost of living and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic underpin the CMA’s core aims of keeping prices down for consumers and encouraging economic growth. The CMA also recognises that the pandemic has accelerated the importance of online trading, which is reflected in its focus on digital markets.

The Annual Plan is subdivided into five broad themes, with a focus on a wide range of industry sectors, from healthcare to music streaming. The two themes which stand out are the CMA’s focus on fostering effective competition in digital markets and its desire to support the UK’s sustainability goals (including Net Zero). These two themes were also part of the CMA’s 2021-2022 annual plan, indicating that they remain core priorities for the CMA.

Overall, the Annual Plan indicates that the remit and scale of the CMA’s operations continue to increase. Post-Brexit, the CMA has an increased workload, in particular handling cases previously dealt with by the European Commission. It also has new responsibilities and new structures, such as its new Office of the Internal Market which monitors how effectively companies are able to sell their products and services across the four UK nations post-Brexit (see further here) and its Digital Markets Unit. The Annual Plan confirms that the CMA is continuing to focus on its consumer protection role, alongside its established competition role. As the CMA embraces its expanded role, it recognises the need to forge strong relationships and close cooperation with other antitrust and consumer protection authorities around the world.

Digital Markets

In the digital space, the CMA is awaiting the creation of a new regulatory regime aimed at large companies conducting digital activities, on which the government consulted in 2021. In anticipation of this, the CMA has already established its new Digital Markets Unit in “shadow form” (pending legislation), which will eventually oversee the new regime.

Meanwhile, the Annual Plan indicates the CMA will continue using its existing tools, including scrutinising M&A activity, investigating anti-competitive conduct (where it currently has a portfolio of enforcement cases, many of which are running in parallel to European Commission investigations) and challenging practices which it considers may breach consumer law. The CMA will also conclude its two market studies already launched into music streaming and mobile ecosystems later this year, before deciding whether to take further action. The CMA has grown its Data, Technology and Analytics (DaTA) unit in order to provide important technological expertise and the data and analytical skills needed for it and the DMU to carry out their work in digital markets. Among other things, the DaTA unit builds bespoke tools to gather and analyse complex datasets, and has a Behavioural Hub team which examines consumer interactions with digital firms.

With this increasing focus on digital markets, it is perhaps unsurprising that the CMA chose online sales practices as the subject of its first ever consumer campaign, “the Online Rip-off Tip-off”, launched in February 2022. This campaign, which deals with issues such as “subscription traps” and hidden charges, is part of the longer-term goal (as set out in the Annual Plan) to bring the CMA closer to consumers.

The Annual Plan also recognises the need for more international engagement on competition and consumer protection in digital markets, such as the Enforcement Summit hosted by the CMA for G7 members in November 2021 (see here). It remains to be seen how the CMA will coordinate with other regulators to foster a coherent and consistent approach with respect to digital markets.

Sustainability

On 14 March 2022, CMA published its advice to the government on how competition and consumer law regimes could better support the UK’s target of net zero emissions by 2050 and other sustainability goals. The Annual Plan notes that the CMA intends to engage with stakeholders in the third sector (e.g. environmental charities) for input on sustainability issues which it might be able to address.

In the meantime, the Annual Plan sets out the CMA’s prioritisation of cases which support a transition to a low carbon economy. Notably, these will include at least one market study in a ‘net zero relevant market’ in 2022-23. Targeted use of the CMA’s market study tool to address environmental goals follows its study into electric vehicle charging in 2021 (on which the government has just published its response to the CMA’s recommendations) and its investigation into exclusive arrangements for charge points at motorway service stations (which concluded with commitments in March 2022).

The CMA is also following up on its publication of a “Green Claims Code” last year, by beginning a review of potentially misleading environmental claims in early 2022, starting with the fashion retail sector.  

Looking ahead

As the CMA notes, the government is consulting on a wide-ranging package of reforms to the UK’s competition and consumer regimes designed to strengthen the CMA’s powers across its multiple functions (see our briefing here). As we await the government’s response to that consultation, companies should be alive to the CMA’s growing influence on business practices (within and outside the UK) and its likely areas of focus in the year ahead.  Please get in touch for more details. 

To read more about these and other developments, refer also to our Global antitrust in 2022: 10 key themes report.