Key UK Competition Law Fines

Posted by

David Mangion

on 04 Apr 2024

Some businesses try to profit from gaining an unfair competitive advantage. Here are some examples of how costly breaching UK competition law may be.

uk competition law

The consequences of breaking UK competition law can be severe. Your business could be fined as much as 10% of global turnover, and your directors could be banned from running a company for up to 15 years. In the most serious cases, individuals could even go to prison for up to 5 years.

The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) takes all reported cases of anti-competitive behaviour very seriously and has demonstrated time and again that it will go to great lengths to crush business cartels for good, no matter their size or range of influence.

Competition Law E-learning Course

All businesses can be affected by competition law. Businesses in the UK are required to follow clear rules on all types of anti-competitive activity, including agreeing not to compete with another business or abusing a dominant position.

Key types of anti-competitive activity

  • Cartels

There are two main types of anti-competitive activity UK businesses must avoid. The first is agreeing not to compete with another business ('cartels'). If two or more businesses agree not to compete with each other in certain ways, it's called a ‘cartel’. Rules about cartels cover price fixing, bid rigging, sharing markets or customers, and sharing commercially sensitive information.

  • Abuse of dominant position

The second form of anti-competitive activity is abusing a dominant position. A business has a dominant position in the market if they have a more than 40% market share or are not affected by normal competitive restraints. Abusing that position means being unfair to customers or other businesses. Examples include treating customers differently by offering different prices or terms to similar customers, as well as charging low prices that don't cover your costs in order to drive out competitors.

1. Price-fixing - not 'real' estate at all

Somerset Estate agents fined £370,000

The CMA uncovered a Somerset-based price-fixing cartel involving a group of six estate agents in 2017. They had agreed amongst themselves to keep their commission rates above 1.5% when selling residential properties, aiming to “drive the fee level up” and make "as much profit as possible”.

As a result of their agreement, local homeowners were denied the best deal when selling their properties and ended up paying artificially high fees. Eventually, one of the agents involved confessed to the CMA and was spared a fine under their leniency policy. However, for failing to comply with UK competition law, the other five shared a fine of £370,000!

2. No fair trade - anti-competitive behaviour reigns

Illumina fined $476m

A coalition of global regulatory bodies has issued a record-breaking fine to the leading provider of DNA sequencing technology, Illumina, for breaching fair trade regulations. Illumina's anti-competitive behaviour hindered innovation and had a negative impact on fair market competition.

The company used different tactics to maintain its dominant position, which included exclusive contracts with suppliers and strategically acquiring potential rivals. Furthermore, it was found that Illumina engaged in pricing schemes that both limited consumer choice and disadvantaged smaller companies in the market.

Free Competition Law Training Presentation

3. Resale price maintenance - spotlight on price-fixing

National Lighting Company fined £2.7m

A domestic light fitting supplier was fined a jaw-dropping £2.7 million for breaking competition law. The National Lighting Company Limited (NLC) was caught engaging in resale price maintenance by setting a maximum discount that resellers could offer against the RRP.

A recording brought before the CMA shows one reseller asking about the legality of price-fixing, with the NLC representative’s response being: "It is illegal to fix prices. That's why we won't put anything in writing." The supplier sought to hide these agreements within Internet Licence Agreements but was ultimately unsuccessful.

4. Cartel activity - building a case

Thomas Armstrong (Timber) & Hoffman Thornwood fined £2.8 million

Two British furniture component suppliers were collectively fined £2.8 million for engaging in cartel activity. The companies admitted to agreeing not to compete on price and dividing a list of customers for them to supply to avoid a ‘price war’.

After the CMA received an anonymous tip-off, they opened an investigation into the matter, and a search of one of the premises uncovered a handwritten list of a rival’s furniture components inside a senior worker’s desk. It is the involvement of such senior members of staff which caused the fine for this breach of competition law to be so enormous.

Market Abuse Regulation E-learning Course

5. Price-fixing - getting in deep water

Franklin Hodge Industries, Galglass & KW Supplies fined £2.6m

Back in 2016, a group of leading UK water tank suppliers were collectively fined more than £2.6 million for breaching competition law. At the time, there were a mere four primary suppliers of a particular kind of tank in the UK.

Between 2005 and 2012, representatives from the four companies met in secret to fix tank prices, rig contract bids and split customers amongst themselves. Eventually, CST Industries (UK) Ltd reported the affair to the CMA and was granted immunity under their leniency policy. For partaking in cartel activity, Franklin Hodge received a fine of £2,015,135, Galglass £587,926, and KW Supplies £22,248.

6. Rigging competitive tenders - burning money

Fuel Express & CPL fined £3.4m

Two of the UK’s leading bagged household fuel suppliers were fined a whopping £3.4 million in 2018 after being found guilty of rigging competitive tenders to some of the nation’s largest supermarkets.

Evidence gathered by the CMA shows that each time one of these suppliers received an invitation to tender from an existing customer, they would email the other to ensure that they did not send a more competitive price, thereby maintaining the status quo, which was safe and favourable for both suppliers.

7. Cover bidding - fitting up businesses

Five office design & fit out companies fined £7m

In what is by far the harshest punishment on this list, five office design and fit-out companies have been fined a staggering £7 million between them after being found guilty of cover rigging. The cover bids in question affected 14 separate contracts between 2006 and 2017, with clients involved including an East London college, a low-cost airline, and a City law firm.

On each occasion, the company wanting to win would inform the other firms of the price they should quote and even provide other bidders with detailed design plans to send as their own.
Five companies received fines for their involvement:

  • Fourfront: £4,143,304
  • ThirdWay: £ 1,780,703
  • Loop: £1,090,816
  • Oakley: £58,558
  • Coriolis: £7,735

Anti-trust E-learning Course

8. Price-fixing - in the frame

Trod Limited fined £160,000

Another interesting price-fixing case involves the use of sophisticated technology to establish a cartel effectively. Two online sellers of frames and posters, GB Eye Limited and Trod Limited, were competing vendors on Amazon UK until they struck a shady deal to avoid undercutting each other’s prices unless another seller had the same product listed for a lower price.

During their investigation, the CMA found that one of GB eye’s internal emails stated that “Trod…have agreed not to undercut us on Amazon, and I have agreed to reciprocate. We will, therefore be aiming to be the same price wherever possible, put prices up and share the sales.” To make their lives easier, they used automated re-pricing software to carry out their crimes. GB eye eventually reported the cartel to the CMA, leaving Trod to face a £160,000 fine alone.

9. Reducing competitive pressure - printing money

Three estate agents & a newspaper publisher were fined £735,000

Castles, Hamptons Estates, Waterfords (Estate Agents), Three Counties (trade association) and Trinity Mirror Southern (publisher) were fined for a breach of competition law.

The association prevented its members from advertising their fees or discounts in a local newspaper. So far, so good, but the association then took it a step further and agreed with the publisher to extend this ban to all estate agents, even those not part of the association. Not only did this act affect the business of rival estate agents, but it was also very unfair to consumers.

Notably, two of the companies got a further reduction by committing to put in place specific compliance measures to help prevent them from breaking competition law in future.

Competition Law Training Presentation

Want to learn more about competition compliance?

We have created a series of comprehensive roadmaps to help you navigate the compliance landscape, supported by several financial crime prevention courses in our Essentials Library.

We also have 100+ free compliance training aids, including assessments, best practice guides, checklists, desk aids, eBooks, games, posters, training presentations and even e-learning modules!

Finally, the SkillcastConnect community provides a unique opportunity to network with other compliance professionals in a vendor-free environment, priority access to our free online learning portal and other exclusive benefits.

Compliance Bulletin

Compliance Bulletin

Our monthly email provides best practices, expert opinions, industry insights, news and key trends in regulatory compliance training, digital learning, EdTech and RegTech.