What is competition law? Why has the Competition Act 1998 been suspended amid UK fuel crisis - laws explained

Government responds as thousands of filling stations are without petrol and diesel

Ministers have made steps to help ease the fuel crisis on forecourts, including the temporary suspension of competition law.

A shortage of heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers saw a minority of filling stations without petrol and diesel over the past weekend.

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Worried motorists concerned of a national fuel shortage have then gone out to fill up their vehicles, upping demand across the UK.

Traffic snaking around filling stations and coned off forecourts have become regular sights in towns and cities across the country.

And, in order to help alleviate the shortage of fuel at the pumps, the government has decided to relax Competition Act rules.

What is competition law?

Competition law is good for consumers - and in this case good for motorists.

It tries to keep services and prices competitive between big companies, so that people aren’t paying over the odds in a distorted market.

It stops companies from making agreements with one another, such as fixing prices and limiting production, which would leave consumers worse off.

Competition law means companies are competing on a level playing field with each other and preventing others from acting unfairly.

It has seen firms try to find new ways to appeal to consumers, improving products and services while keeping a lid on prices.

The fuel crisis explained. (Graphic: Mark Hall / JPIMedia)

Why has competition law been suspended?

The government has said competition laws will be scrapped temporarily, so companies can better liaise to deal with any shortages.

The decision comes after business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng met with oil companies and retailers to address another day of continued queuing for the pumps.

Mr Kwarteng has opted to temporarily exempt the industry from the Competition Act to allow the industry to share information so it can target areas where fuel supply is running low.

The triggering of what is known as the Downstream Oil Protocol comes as the Petrol Retailers Association (PRA) warned that as many as two-thirds of its membership of nearly 5,500 independent outlets was out of fuel, with the rest of them “partly dry and running out soon”.

Mr Kwarteng said: “We have long-standing contingency plans in place to work with industry so that fuel supplies can be maintained and deliveries can still be made in the event of a serious disruption.

“While there has always been and continues to be plenty of fuel at refineries and terminals, we are aware that there have been some issues with supply chains.

“This is why we will enact the Downstream Oil Protocol to ensure industry can share vital information and work together more effectively to ensure disruption is minimised.”

What other steps is the government taking to ease the fuel crisis?

As well as scrapping competition law in the short term, ministers have taken additional steps to try to ease the fuel crisis across the country.

To plug the gap and end the current fuel crisis, the government is offering 5,000 lorry drivers temporary visas to work in the UK between now and Christmas Eve.

It is also offering 5,500 poultry workers UK visas.

Examiners from the Ministry of Defence will be recruited to increase the number of tests that can be carried out for prospective HGV drivers over the next three months.

Nearly one million letters have been sent to drivers with HGV licences, urging them to return to the industry, while additional staff recruitment will begin in October 2021.

Reports had also suggested that drivers from the Army could be drafted to help with deliveries, although this was swiftly rebuffed by the Environment Secretary George Eustice.

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