'No blank cheque' for competition watchdog

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 May, 2011, 12:00am


The future competition watchdog will not have a 'blank cheque' in overseeing Hong Kong companies because the city, like other jurisdictions with similar laws, has checks and balances 'to keep the dog from running wild'.

So says John Fingleton, head of Britain's Office of Fair Trading, commenting on what he termed the peculiar debate over the forthcoming competition bill during a trip to Hong Kong - his first.

'The competition authority here will have the court, the legislative body and the media looking at what it is doing ...

'These are the important safeguards,' said the Irish economist, who headed the Irish Competition Authority and oversaw the implementation of Ireland's Competition Act in 2002, before taking up his present job in 2005.

'I do not think it is a blank cheque ... if you are too aggressive with the new law it will have a backlash. An authority that goes beyond what is perceived as reasonable is not going to enjoy business support, and it is not going to last for long.'

Fingleton said there were universal conditions for a competition authority to build trust. 'The legislative body must have the ability to ask the authority to account for what it is doing,' he said, 'and the court must be able to review the decisions. Media follow very carefully the decisions we make.'

Similar safeguards had kept the British and Irish competition authorities accountable, he said.

The current draft in Hong Kong seeks to set out a broad framework to curb hardcore anti-competitive agreements, such as price-fixing and market-sharing, and abuse of substantial market power.

The bill, expected to be passed into law in July next year, would leave it to a commission to draw up detailed guidelines. The commission would then deal with complaints and a competition tribunal would hear disputed cases.

Some lawmakers raised concerns that the commission would have boundless powers amounting to a 'blank cheque', threatening economic freedom and harming small and medium-sized enterprises in particular.

Fingleton said the key to keeping the agency in check was to hold public consultations when the guidelines were published.

The city's business community has called for drastic changes in the bill since the government introduced it in July, objecting to the law's provision for private litigation and pushing for exemptions for some small businesses.