Lobbying: Merger lobbying set for strategic overhaul - The UK lobbying industry is about to see a change of focus as the Government starts to implement changes which should make merger decisions less political and more transparent

As of the beginning of this month, the name of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission has changed to the Competition Commission. The new moniker has been selected to reflect a broadening in the responsibilities of the body, which a year from now will take responsibility from the Restrictive Practices Court for hearing tribunals on companies accused of anti-competitive practices.

As of the beginning of this month, the name of the Monopolies and

Mergers Commission has changed to the Competition Commission. The new

moniker has been selected to reflect a broadening in the

responsibilities of the body, which a year from now will take

responsibility from the Restrictive Practices Court for hearing

tribunals on companies accused of anti-competitive practices.



A merger policy consultation document being drawn up at the behest of

Trade and Industry Secretary Stephen Byers is expected this summer. Its

publication is eagerly awaited because it will outline options for

de-politicising merger decisions made by the new commission.



There is already a wider Government initiative to bring greater

transparency to competition policy and proceedings. Competition

lobbyists are divided as to how this will affect their work, although

most agree it will shift the focus of their lobbying.



At present, ministers have the final say on mergers that the Office of

Fair Trading (OFT) refers to the erstwhile MMC for investigation.

Although guided by the MMC’s report findings and advice from the OFT,

the buck stops with the politicians, occasionally putting the Government

at risk of provoking controversy and certainly making its members a

target of direct or indirect lobbying. But ’ministers may not be

involved in such decision-making in the future’, says a DTI

spokesman.



The Labour Government is keen to divest itself of responsibility for

merger rulings - in the same way as it has done by giving the Bank of

England the job of setting interest rates - in all but those cases of

overriding public interest. The defence sector clearly falls into this

category. Less certainly and more contentiously, so too might media

ownership issues.



One proposal to come out of the consultation process may be the creation

of an entirely new decision-making body. But another alternative is to

give the judgmental powers to the OFT. Both would undoubtedly shift the

focus of some lobbying. OFT director of information Dermod Hill says:

’The process we have for getting information to reach a position on any

merger is already pretty thorough. But if ministers no longer play a

role, any organisation involved would have to make their views known to

the director general of fair trading because that is where the power

will be.’



Westminster Strategy associate director David Robertson believes there

will still be plenty of work for competition lobbyists. ’To suggest that

political consultants won’t have much of a role to play is not the

case,’ he says. ’The Competition Commission will still be open to

arguments and civil servants will still have a considerable role in the

process.’



The commission has begun to look at making its work more transparent, a

tricky process given that much of the information it has to deal with is

of a commercially sensitive nature. It has asked PR and marketing

agencies to tender for the brief of sounding out the media, business and

political opinion formers about how competition decisions might be made

more transparent (PR Week, 26 March).



Under chairman Derek Morris, the commission has already become more

open, publishing more ’issues letters’ identifying the main issues

involved in an investigation, which are made available to interested

third parties.



However, in return for the loss of democratic accountability that will

come with the removal of responsibility from elected politicians, the

Government will expect even more transparency from the commission.



For many, the answer to this would be the introduction of public

hearings.



’What would be helpful is if some of the hearings were held in public so

interested parties could sit in in the same way as happens with select

committees,’ says Bell Pottinger public affairs manager Kevin Bell. But

another lobbyist foresees difficulties with this approach. ’If you do

that,’ he explains, ’the parties will expect the right to cross examine

each other and that would inevitably complicate and extend the

process.’



Although a proponent of transparency, GPC international regulatory

practice head John Dickie concedes that the commission’s ’behind closed

doors’ approach can be very effective at ’drilling down into

detail’.



APCO UK associate director Martin Sawer believes the combination of

de-politicisation and greater transparency will require a different

approach from public affairs specialists. ’The industry has to think of

different tactics,’ he says. ’Those consultancies less

Westminster/Whitehall-based which can offer skills such as media

relations and grassroots lobbying will do best.’



In the future, the capacity to deal with local newspapers, for example,

which cover the areas where firms involved in a merger are located could

become important, believes Sawer. And if the commission opts for public

hearings, there may be a role for consultancies in supporting

individuals called to give evidence with information and counsel on how

best to shape and deliver key messages - a rather different proposition

from the classic merger lobbying brief of providing political

intelligence and trying to influence ministers and civil servants.



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