Buscombe launches probe into Which? complaints power

The Advertising Association (AA) is to question the validity of the legal powers of lobby group Which?, in an attempt to probe into any possible link between its commercial and public policy activities.

AA chief executive Peta Buscombe will be putting the question to the regulator Office of Fair Trading this week.

Which? has a “super-complaints” status that enables it to lobby for the cause of consumers, investigate complaints and then complain direct to the OFT against markets it thinks are not working “properly for consumers”. The process is intended to be a fast-track system for designated consumer bodies to bring to the attention of the OFT market activities that appear to be significantly harming the interests of consumers. It is a legal power under the Enterprise Act of 2002, which was granted to Which? three years ago.

But Buscombe says: “Which? has a split personality, because it represents consumers in most public policy debates but at the same time has a commercial arm. I would like to ask the OFT how it assesses Which? and the extent to which the OFT delves into the validity of groups like Which? and their super-complaints status.” She adds that she would like to know what kind of regular checks are put into place to ensure that the commercial activities of Which? do not interfere with its consumer lobby activities.

The organisation making the case does not need to provide all the evidence of a problem, but the OFT has 90 days to assess the complaint. It can either reject it or launch a market investigation, take action under competitive law or consumer law, or even refer the market to the Competition Commission for further investigation. Other organisations with the “super-complaints” status include Postwatch and the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA).

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