Regulation watch: competition law

Posted: 25/06/2020

BL68_MichaelByrne_GCRAMichael Byrne, CEO of the Guernsey Competition & Regulatory Authority (GCRA), looks at the need for flexibility during the pandemic, even as the islands’ regulatory authorities prepare to demerge

We are all aware of the challenges that are being faced globally as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and, of course, we are not immune to those health, wellbeing and economic risks here in the Channel Islands.

Now, perhaps more than at any other time in our living memory, it is most important to keep communication and, where it is safe, business flowing in our communities. 

It might seem odd, but the competition regulators in both islands have a highly important role to play in supporting families, businesses and individuals – helping them adapt to the way we live, work and communicate during this pandemic.

At the GCRA, we have recognised the need to be flexible and pragmatic in the way we apply regulatory and legal rules in these difficult days. 

For example, telecoms providers across the Channel Islands have come together to keep governments, homes and businesses connected. Some of the initiatives they have collaborated on include:
•  Free upgrades to standard broadband services for customers, with a doubling of broadband speeds
•  Free landline calls 24 hours a day to those on assisted services 
•  Mobile and landline calls to the States’ Covid-19 advice lines free of charge
•  Islanders unable to return from overseas due to the outbreak supported with free roaming boosters and discounted roaming rates to ensure they can stay in contact with family and friends here. 

While counter-intuitive for a competition watchdog, these collaborative initiatives are to be welcomed. 

We should also recognise that many people employed in these sectors have continued to work in challenging circumstances, with children and family at home while they go out every day to ensure the islands continue to function.

The approach has also been welcomed by politicians, who have been at the forefront of protecting our insular economies. 

CICRA demerger

The GCRA and JCRA will demerge from the Channel Islands Competition & Regulatory Authorities at the end of June. 

CICRA started 2020 with a work plan for the year ahead and, of course, we are having to review that in light of the pandemic. 

It will need to be adapted and rescheduled so that our stakeholders can focus their time and efforts on business-critical matters. 

The demerger will bring many benefits at a domestic level. It will also create challenges for the two bodies in finding a joined-up approach to the application of competition principles, particularly during the current time. 

We do not expect it, however, to materially affect our ability to deliver a pragmatic approach to enforcement as we deal with the pandemic, however long that may take.

The priority at this time has to be for industry to take decisions that support critical services, vulnerable people and those who are relying on communications services. 

The GCRA – and I know our counterparts in Jersey – will support those decisions where they are in the interests of consumers and businesses. 

We are also very conscious of concerns that competition law enforcement could impede necessary cooperation between businesses to deal with the current crisis and ensure security of supplies of essential products and services, such as groceries. And we have made clear we are willing to take a step back. 

Where agreements are not covered by legal relaxation, we can offer the following reassurance: neither the GCRA nor JCRA intends to take competition law enforcement action against cooperation between businesses or rationing of products to the extent that this is necessary to protect consumers. 

We will also remain vigilant that businesses don’t try to exploit the situation in an unfair way, which would be to the detriment of both their competitors and their customers. 

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