CMA to go ahead with investigation into veterinary market

On Thursday 23 May, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has confirmed its decision to launch a market investigation into the veterinary sector. The investigation will be overseen by an inquiry group made up of independent experts, and chaired by Martin Coleman.

The investigation will focus on several areas of particular concern, including:

  • Whether consumers are receiving timely and sufficient information to make informed decisions.
  • If a limited selection of veterinary businesses in certain local areas is affecting pet owners.
  • Whether the profits earned by vet businesses align with those expected in a competitive market.
  • If vet businesses, especially those within large integrated groups, have the incentives and ability to restrict consumer choices in treatments and related services.
  • Whether the current regulatory framework is hindering the market’s optimal functioning.

“In March we proposed that a formal market investigation was the best route to fully explore these concerns and, if appropriate, take direct action to address them”

Sarah Cardell, Chief Executive of the CMA, commented, “The message from our vets work so far has been loud and clear – many pet owners and professionals have concerns that need further investigation.

“We’ve heard from people who are struggling to pay vet bills, potentially overpaying for medicines and don’t always know the best treatment options available to them. We also remain concerned about the potential impact of sector consolidation and the incentives for large, integrated vet groups to act in ways which reduce consumer choice.

“In March we proposed that a formal market investigation was the best route to fully explore these concerns and, if appropriate, take direct action to address them. That proposal has been overwhelmingly endorsed through our consultation.

“While we’re aware of acute staff shortages and difficult working conditions for vets, we consider a formal market investigation is essential to ensure good outcomes for the millions of pet owners in the UK as well as professionals working in the sector.”

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Jonathan Compton, a partner at law firm DMH Stallard and expert in competition and regulatory matters, says, “The CMA has for a long time now indicated its concern with the veterinary sector. It has powers under the Competition Act to make orders before it reaches final decisions.

“Using these powers the CMA can regulate a market. They are also have dawn raid powers and powers to demand production of documents and storage equipment and it can seize computers and electronic files.

“The CMA can demand formal commitments from those it is investigating. Directions can be given to organisations found after investigation to have broken competition rules. Finally, the CMA can impose fines of up to 10% of top line turnover.”

Pet owners across the UK have long had concerns about high fees and a perceived lack of transparency. Since rules were changed in 1999 to allow non-vets to own vet practices in the UK, the veterinary world has changed immensely. As more and more UK vet practices are bought up by large companies, independent vets are increasingly rare – leading more and more pet owners to worry their pets’ health, or the well-being of vet staff, is not these large corporations’ primary concern.

“As the CMA undertakes its investigation, it’s important to remember that vets genuinely care and prioritise the health and welfare of animals”

Vet charity PDSA, which provides veterinary care to pet owners who cannot afford otherwise afford treatment, is ready to support the investigation, according to PDSA Head of Clinical Services Steve Howard.

Howard said, “PDSA supports the CMA’s full market investigation into the supply of veterinary services for household pets. We understand that this may be one way to establish whether changes could be made to improve the choices available to pet owners – and the associated transparency across the marketplace – provided it does not damage the availability of that care.

“Cost pressures on society are of particular concern at present and the cost of vet care has always been one element of the more general cost of living for pet owners. As the vet charity for pets in need, we have seen an increase in demand for our services. We treated a significantly higher number of pets across our network of Pet Hospitals in 2023 compared to 2022.

“We understand the complexities of providing quality vet care, particularly during a cost-of-living crisis. We believe transparency is key and feel it’s important to ensure open conversations between vets and owners on treatment options and cost implications so owners can make the best choice for themselves and their pet.”

Responding to the CMA’s announcement, British Veterinary Association President Dr. Anna Judson said, “Vets take immense pride in the high-quality service and specialised medical care they provide the UK’s animals and their owners. Whilst fees reflect the investment needed to keep practices financially viable and open, we recognise more can be done to improve client choice and vet teams are already taking action to address the Competition and Markets Authority’s specific concerns around transparency of fees and practice ownership.

“As the CMA undertakes its investigation, it’s important to remember that vets genuinely care and prioritise the health and welfare of animals – it’s often their motivation for entering what is a highly pressured profession. Since the CMA first announced their review, vet teams in practice have found themselves on the end of really unpleasant, often abusive behaviour. This is unacceptable and we urge everyone to remember that vets are people and are often not responsible for the pricing structures within a practice.

“The Competition and Markets Authority has acknowledged that urgent reform of the outdated Veterinary Surgeons Act is needed and regulation of vet practices should be introduced, a change BVA has consistently campaigned for. As it stands, the legislation is not fit for purpose and is failing both vet teams and clients. We hope the CMA’s market investigation will further interrogate the need for reform and support our calls urgent cross-party support for action and inclusion in party political manifestos as we head towards a General Election.”

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