Section 70 & Schedules 6 and 9: Water mergers
207.Section 70 and Schedule 6 amend the special regime applying to mergers between water enterprises (whether water or sewerage undertakings) in England and Wales, as set out in sections 32 to 35 of the Water Industry Act 1991 (WIA 1991).
208.The current WIA 1991 provisions provide for the mandatory reference by the Secretary of State of qualifying mergers between two or more water enterprises to the CC. A qualifying merger is one where the value of the relevant water assets being taken over and those of the acquirer each exceed a specified figure (currently £30 million). Once a qualifying merger has been referred, the FTA 1973 ‘public interest’ test is applied in a way that attaches particular weight to the principle that the ability of the Director General of Water Services ('Director') in carrying out his or her functions under the WIA to make comparisons between water enterprises should not be prejudiced. If the CC makes an adverse finding, the Secretary of State is responsible for determining final remedies.
209.The purpose of the special water merger regime is to preserve the Director’s ability to make use of ‘comparative’ or ‘yardstick’ regulation (i.e. the ability to compare the performance of different water companies for the purposes of setting robust price and customer service standards), except where there are strong wider public interest reasons for not doing so. In the absence of any significant competition in the water sector, yardstick regulation is regarded as a particularly important regulatory tool.
210.The main purpose of the changes being brought about by this section is, while retaining a special regime for mergers between water enterprises, to bring that regime more closely into line with the general merger regime whilst also ensuring that particular weight continues to be attached to the Director’s ability to make comparisons between water enterprises.
211.The changes to effect a closer alignment with the general regime include:
a switch from an assets threshold to a turnover threshold for determining whether a merger between water enterprises qualifies for a mandatory reference;
transfer of the responsibility for making such references from the Secretary of State to the OFT;
the transfer of responsibility for final decisions on what remedies should be applied in the event of an adverse finding from the Secretary of State to the CC; and
in the case of a completed water merger, the time that the OFT will have to make a reference will be reduced from 6 months to 4 months from the date of the merger taking place.
212.New section 32 (duty to refer merger of water or sewerage undertaking) provides that qualifying water enterprise mergers will continue to be subject to mandatory reference to the CC, but with responsibility for making such references transferred from the Secretary of State to the OFT.
213.New section 33 (exclusion of small mergers from duty to make reference) provides that a mandatory reference shall only be made if:
the relevant turnover of the water enterprise being taken over exceeds £10m; and
the relevant turnover of one or more of the water enterprises belonging to the acquirer exceeds £10m.
These sums may be altered by regulations made by the Secretary of State.
214.The purpose of this provision is to exclude small mergers from the OFT’s duty to make a reference. It replaces a similar provision based on asset values, but is expected to have the same practical effect as the current assets threshold of £30m in terms of the current water enterprises that will be affected. A refinement of the present statute will enable the Secretary of State to prescribe a different turnover threshold for the target and for the acquirer for the purposes of deciding whether there is to be a reference. The regulation-making powers provided in subsections (4), (5) and (6) of the revised section include power to make provision for the definition of relevant turnover for these purposes. The turnover will be set independently of the qualifying turnover thresholds set for the general merger regime.
215.Schedule 6 replaces section 34 WIA 1991. The new inserted Schedule 4ZA sets out the task for the CC when a water enterprise merger has been referred to it. Its first job is to determine whether a merger situation qualifying for investigation has been or will be created. If it has been or will be created, the CC has to decide whether the merger can be expected to prejudice the Director’s ability in carrying out his or her functions by virtue of WIA 1991, to make comparisons between different water enterprises. Both such decisions have to be the decisions of at least two-thirds of the members of the relevant CC reporting group to be treated as valid. The Director’s functions that are likely to be most relevant here and that could be prejudiced by a merger are his or her functions of setting price controls and service level targets and the related general term of reference in section 2(3)(d) of WIA 1991 to ‘promote economy and efficiency on the part of water enterprises’.
216.If there is prejudice, then the CC has to decide whether to take action to remedy, mitigate or prevent the prejudice or any adverse effects that might result, and to decide what action should be taken. In deciding what action to take, the CC may have regard to the effect of any action on relevant customer benefits. The definition of a customer benefit is set out in paragraph 7. This matches the definition of customer benefits as defined for the purposes of the general merger regime.
217.Paragraph 4(1)(a) and (b) of inserted Schedule 4ZA, however, places two constraints on the circumstances in which the CC is able to have regard to customer benefits in deciding on remedies. These constraints are unique to the water regime. They provide that customer benefits can only be considered where the taking account of those benefits would not prevent a solution to the prejudice concerned, or in circumstances where the benefits are expected to be substantially more important than the prejudice concerned. These constraints are intended to ensure that the water regime continues to operate in a way that attaches particular weight to the preservation of comparator enterprises, whilst not excluding the possibility of customer benefits being taken into account if they are important enough, or if they can be obtained in a way that does not prevent action to address the prejudice.
218.Paragraphs 1 and 2 of inserted Schedule 4ZA provide for the general merger provisions in the Act to apply to qualifying water mergers subject to modifications contained in regulations that may be prescribed by the Secretary of State. It is envisaged that this power will be used, for example, to ensure that the general duty to remedy the effects of completed or anticipated mergers in section 41 can be adapted for the special purposes of the water regime. It may also be used to adapt the arrangements for the consideration of water mergers under the special regime to circumstances where the merger also raises a defined public interest issue.
219.Paragraph 5 of inserted Schedule 4ZA ensures that no enforcement action will be taken against a completed merger of water enterprises if a reference was not made within 4 months of the later of: the merger taking place, or material facts about the transaction coming to the attention of the OFT or being made public. The current section provides for a six-month period. The change brings the special water regime into line with the period in the equivalent provision for the general mergers regime.
220.Sections 32(2) and 32(3) of the current WIA 1991 set out transitional arrangements relevant when the original Act was brought into force. They are no longer required, and are therefore repealed.
221.The amendments to sections 32–35 are concerned, as is the original Act, only with water enterprises in England and Wales.
222.The transfer of responsibility for determining and implementing remedies under the normal mergers regime following an adverse finding from the Secretary of State to the CC requires a consequential change to section 17 WIA 1991. This section currently gives the Secretary of State a power, as part of her power to order remedies, to modify the conditions of appointment of a relevant undertaking for the purpose of giving effect to or taking account of the main remedial order. Schedule 9 revises section 17 WIA 1991 to give the power to modify conditions of appointment to the CC.