Opinion: OFT attack on contractors was over the top

Grant Prior 12 years ago
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Kier chief executive Keith Sheffield is right to describe the Office of Fair Trading construction investigation as “history”.

To contractors now the issues raised must seem like a lifetime ago.

The thought of firms sitting down together to find ways of not winning work is laughable in today’s market.

Cover pricing was often more of a reaction to a flawed public tender system than an evil conspiracy by the contracting world.

But OFT officials got a whiff of something amiss and poured huge resources into pursuing construction companies.

Such a large investigation demanded its pound of flesh and 103 contractors were duly named, shamed and hit with massive fines of £130m.

Trebles all round at OFT towers after another successful result for our competition cops. But it hasn’t panned out like that.

Judges have agreed with the contractors that the fines were excessive and the OFT faces an embarrassing reverse.

Of course anti-competitive practices should be stamped out from construction because they distort the free market.

But this was an assault on virtually the whole construction sector indulging in a practice which had become the industry norm.

The investigation said more about an OFT bloated with public funds than it did about a construction industry rife with dodgy dealings.

The OFT had swollen to a size and sense of self importance that it needed a constant string of “results” to justify its funding.

The investigation has dragged the names of good contractors through the mud and cost them a fortune in unnecessary legal fees.

Hopefully we can put all this behind us and see now if anyone jumps to the contractors’ defence as clients rip-up the rule book and screw everyone down to the lowest price.

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