The Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) has called for the UK Government to introduce new emergency legislation to tackle price gouging tactics by companies profiteering from the pandemic.
Under current laws, the competition watchdog is unable to pursue retailers for heavily inflating prices of products in response to the virus.
The CMA is now asking for “time-limited legislation” to take action against opportunist retailers who have ‘bumped up’ the price of high-demand items such as hand sanitiser and face masks.
Limited consumer protections
The CMA has promised to take enforcement action where necessary, but is limited in its powers under the existing rules.
Current UK consumer protection legislation does not cover price gouging or impose any penalties for companies using this tactic.
The CMA received 21,000 complaints between March 10 and April 19 related to Covid-19, including alerts about price gouging.
The average price increase across all such reports was 130 per cent — and in the case of hand sanitisers, an average of 367 per cent.
Those retailers being complained of are typically small and not subject to competition rules on abuse of dominance. The only recourse for the CMA is under consumer protection legislation which is arguably deficient in the current emergency situation.
The CMA has written to companies and engaged with marketplaces such as Amazon and eBay, which have removed listings with unjustifiable price rises and cancelled sellers’ accounts. Ebay has limited the sale of goods like hand sanitisers and masks to a list of trusted businesses.
As yet there has been little clarity on the Government’s position towards this issue.
In March, Boris Johnson told the House of Commons that new laws were needed to tackle “profiteering”, but to date, the only official development has been business secretary Alok Sharma meeting with Amazon and eBay in April to discuss price gouging on their sites.
This is in contrast to other countries such as the US and France, where emergency laws have been passed to intervene on prices as a result of the pandemic.