Agents’ Mutual boss ‘facilitated’ agents to ‘get into bed with each other’ – tribunal hears allegation
10 Feb 2017
Agents’ Mutual chief executive Ian Springett facilitated estate agents across the UK to “lay down arms and get into bed with each other”, it was alleged at a tribunal yesterday.
Mr Springett allegedly encouraged’ agents to make decisions “jointly” and sign up to OnTheMarket as he knew that once one agent in a specific area signed, the rest would follow, the Competition Appeal Tribunal was told.
The tribunal is examining issues surrounding the “one other portal” rule that Agents’ Mutual put in place for its portal, OnTheMarket.
The rule has been challenged by agent Gascoigne Halman – an independent when it signed up, and since acquired by Connells.
Yesterday, Mr Springett was questioned by Gascoigne Halman’s QC, Paul Harris, who claimed Springett knew that agents were working “collaboratively” in deciding to join Agents’ Mutual and over the decision over which other portal, Zoopla or Rightmove, to boycott.
Continuing his cross-examination, Mr Harris read two email discussions of agents in the north-east of England that he said Mr Springett was copied into.
In the emails, said Mr Harris, they collectively talk about joining OTM and the choice to drop Rightmove.
Mr Harris put it to Mr Springett: “Part of what you were trying to achieve through group meetings was to get estate agents to get into bed with each other, wasn’t it?
“About how to get people who compete to the extreme to lay down arms and get into bed with each other.
“A coming together, even though they would be competitors.
“It was in your interests … to get a group of agents to join as a group they could give significant advantage to a portal.
“You were instrumental in getting the groups together.”
Mr Harris said Mr Springett knew he could influence groups as to “encourage or facilitate them” into making a joint decision to join AM.
He added: “You facilitated and encouraged collective decision making about which portal to choose, didn’t you?”
Mr Harris said that Mr Springett had sent round a list to estate agents in the north-east who not signed up to OTM inviting them to a meeting.
Mr Harris alleged that Mr Springett also sent another email containing names of those who were signed up, together with a list of those who weren’t, to “assist them in growing the group in the north-east”.
He said: “I put it to you that you were sending this list round knowing and intending that the recipients would use it to contact other agents in the north-east as it would support further member recruitment.
“This was also for portal negotiations.
“You were facilitating this group both member recruitment and portal negotiations by sending round this list.”
He said Mr Springett knew “at that time the group of agents in the north-east were working together collectively both about joining Agents’ Mutual and about which portal they would choose”.
Mr Harris said every agent in the north-east that joined Agents’ Mutual later went on to ‘boycott’ Rightmove due to “competition in a locality”.
Mr Springett denied that was the case, and said that at the time, “the decision agents who were considering Agents’ Mutual were asking was whether it would be viable”.
He said “nothing in this email” that was written when the project was still ‘evolving’ reflected anything about collective decision making about joining AM.
“We put out a proposition and were asking people to support it,” he said.
He accepted that you “can’t get something fresh off the ground if you do not get people to collaborate together”.
Mr Harris said Mr Springett saw it as a joint venture and a collaborative venture to “achieve objectives together”.
Mr Harris said at the time Mr Springett was investigating the legal ramifications of collective decision-making and had already had advice that it was “not proper”.
In an email from 2016, Mr Harris said Mr Springett talked about the difficulty of “remaining within the law” and acknowledgement that “a collective decision to join Agents’ Mutual would be illegal”.
Mr Springett said he had received two differing messages from the Competition and Markets Authority on the legality of collective decision-making.
Mr Harris said that he only emailed back one of the agents in the north-east and did not mention the legal issues of collective decision-making.
When he found out the agent’s wife was a barrister and the agent had “legal advice on tap”, he became concerned about there being no evidence about collectively making those decisions, it was said.
Mr Springett informed the agent he should be careful about what he circulates, as he did not want any evidence of these discussions, alleged Mr Harris.
He said: “You were very concerned they would demonstrate your knowledge of collective decisions being taken and you did not want any evidence of your involvement, did you?”
Mr Springett replied: “That’s not true.”
Mr Harris said Mr Springett wanted groupings around the country.
He said Mr Springett admitted to knowing of groupings in the north-east as well as groups of agents in south-west Wales, north-west London and other informal groups such as the one in Cambridge, in a Statement of Truth on the eve of the trial.
He also said he thought “there may be” a group in Devon.
Mr Harris alleged Mr Springett knew of groups in other areas such as Maidstone, Kent, Bristol, Norfolk and East Anglia, and the independent estate agents group to which Gascoigne Halman belonged, making collective decisions.
He told the hearing that Mr Springett had not mentioned any of these collective groups making decisions to join Agents’ Mutual and which portal to leave in his statement of truth.
The hearing continues.
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