I welcome the Competition Authority's annual report for 2003, which has been laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. I am currently examining the report which demonstrates the authority's wide range of functions in the areas of competition law enforcement, controlling mergers and acquisitions, and promoting competition generally.
With regard to the authority's expectation to prosecute one cartel per year, I understand that this takes account of the authority's experience to date in investigating cartels both at national and international level. Cartels are conspiratorial by nature, making them difficult to detect and prosecute successfully. It should be borne in mind, therefore, that undertaking the prosecution of a cartel case is an arduous and time consuming process which involves the investment of significant legal and economic resources. For example, I am aware that the authority is planning to commence the prosecution of a particular cartel, the investigation of which began more than two years ago. In excess of 50 summonses have been issued in 11 different District Courts to companies and individuals. The authority does not view the number of defendants in this case, or the length of time it has taken to get the case to court, as unusual in cartel investigations.
In view of the harm caused by cartels to consumers, the authority has identified the pursuit of cartels as a priority and to this end it introduced a cartel immunity programme in December 2001 in conjunction with the Director of Public Prosecutions. I understand the programme has been operating successfully. Furthermore, the authority's law enforcement role is not confined to cartel investigations. I note that the authority's annual report for 2003 shows a considerable increase in overall enforcement of competition law compared with previous years.
2003 was the first full year in which the authority operated with its current powers and functions under the Competition Act 2002. The report shows that the authority has made a good start and I look forward to its future success.