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CMA to take over energy price comparison website investigation

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is to take over an investigation into whether a number of energy price comparison websites (PCWs) agreed not to compete for certain online search keywords in breach of competition laws.

Energy market regulator Ofgem, said that it was transferring the investigation to the CMA, which has concurrent jurisdiction in relation to competition issues in the energy market, after becoming aware of impartiality concerns in relation to some of its staff.

"Ofgem became aware of communications between Ofgem staff and representatives of some of the parties under investigation encouraging those parties to change their behaviour in relation to bidding on search advertising keywords relevant to Ofgem," the regulator said in a statement. "These communications took place before the investigation was opened."

"Ofgem considers that this could delay the progress of the case, for example if parties were to call into question Ofgem's impartiality in continuing with the case. The CMA has the same powers to investigate this case as Ofgem, so in the circumstances we therefore considered the CMA was better placed to continue with the investigation," it said.

Ofgem has now implemented "appropriate training" for all staff so that similar circumstances do not arise in future, it said.

The CMA said that it had not "reach a view as to whether there is sufficient evidence of an infringement of competition law" for it to begin formal action against the companies involved, it said in a statement. It expects to come to a decision about whether to proceed with or close the investigation in August, according to a rough timetable posted on its website.

Ofgem has been investigating at least two PCWs since October 2015 which it suspects of having agreed "not to compete in relation to particular search terms". These agreements may have related either to bidding for certain keywords or 'negative matching', which occurs when an advertiser indicates to a search engine that it does not want its website to appear in searches for certain keywords or phrases.

The case is "at an early stage in the information-gathering phase", according to a 'notice of transfer' published by Ofgem.

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