All 23 contributions to the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill 2022-23

Read Bill Ministerial Extracts

Tue 13th Jun 2023
Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill (First sitting)
Public Bill Committees

Committee stage: 1st sitting & Committee stage & Committee stage & Committee stage

Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill

[Relevant documents: Fourth Report of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, Post-pandemic economic growth: State aid and post-Brexit competition policy, HC 759; the Government and CMA responses, HC 1078; and the Office for the Internal Market response, HC 1302.
Oral evidence taken before the Business and Trade Committee on 16 May 2023, on the Work of the Competition and Markets Authority, HC 1369.]
Second Reading
14:33
Kevin Hollinrake Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business and Trade (Kevin Hollinrake)
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Digital technologies are a 21st-century miracle. They bring us closer together and connect us to the world. Today it is difficult to remember a time without answers at our fingertips, or the ability to buy goods and services from across the globe in just a few clicks. Technology has hugely increased our choices of goods and services and how they are delivered to us. It allows us to work in entirely new ways when we are on the move or in far-flung places abroad.

Just as digital technologies have profoundly altered our lives, they have also transformed the UK economy. We now have more tech unicorns than any other country in Europe: indeed, we have more than France and Germany combined. Eight cities in the UK are home to at least one unicorn, and this success continues. Last year, our tech start-ups and scale-ups also attracted more investment than those of France and Germany combined, creating jobs and opportunities throughout the United Kingdom. It is clear that tech will be key to achieving the Prime Minister’s priority of driving economic growth across the UK. Our figures forecast that the digital sector could expand by an additional £41 billion by 2025. However, the UK’s continued tech success depends on markets that are fiercely competitive, where the best companies can thrive and create innovations that spur growth.

Over the last decade, the UK’s digital markets have developed at an exponential rate, but our competition framework has failed to keep up. Its last legislative overhaul took place nearly a quarter of a century ago, when the internet was in its infancy and smartphones had not yet been invented. Since then competition across the broader economy has declined, and in the tech sector a small number of firms exert immense control across strategically critical services with practices such as self-preferencing, restricting operability, and exclusivity requirements.

Competitive markets are, of course, the best way to provide the best outcomes for consumers, and Governments and regulators should step in only when we see market failure or excessive market power. The International Monetary Fund has found that market power in the tech industry increased significantly between 1995 and 2016, which included increases of more than 30% in mark-ups and more than 10% in concentration globally. The Competition and Markets Authority estimates that in 2021 alone, Google and Apple made excess profits of more than £4 billion in the UK. Apple and Google determine which apps are in the App Store, how they are ranked and how they are discovered. They often charge significant levels of commission, up to 30% of revenue, and require all transactions to be made through in-app systems—which, as we all know, means that at the end of the day, all charges, commissions and taxes are paid for by consumers.

Dominance of display ads for Facebook and Google cost UK consumers about £2.4 billion a year. Between 2009 and 2019, GAFAM—Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft—made more than 400 acquisitions without any regulatory intervention or referral through the voluntary mechanisms. This is why in recent years there has been an increasing acceptance of the need for new legislation that is fit for these dynamic and rapidly evolving markets. The Digital Competition Expert Panel, led by Harvard’s Professor Jason Furman, and the Digital Markets Taskforce have conducted independent assessments of how digital markets operate, noting that they have specific features which can allow them to tip in favour of one particular firm.

Colleagues on both sides of the House, including my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) and the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), have called for more to be done to allow consumers to benefit from greater competition in these markets. However, there is also a growing consensus that in a market which functions well, competition must work hand in hand with consumer protections. People must know that they can spend their money with confidence, safe in the knowledge that they have the right information and support if something goes wrong. That is critical, because when consumers feel that they risk losing their hard-earned cash, they also risk losing trust in markets as a whole. The Bill seeks to achieve all these goals and unleash the full opportunities of digital markets for the UK, so that every part of the country can reap the rewards. All told, under these measures we expect consumers to benefit to the tune of almost £10 billion over the next 10 years.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer recognises this legislation’s significance to the UK economy and its importance to consumers, particularly during a cost of living crisis, which is why he announced the earlier introduction of the Bill in his autumn statement. I should remind the House, however, that the majority of the Bill’s measures have been thoroughly scrutinised and analysed by experts and businesses over a number of years. This included a consultation in 2021 and a careful consideration of the responses.

I will now speak to the Bill’s measures in greater depth. Part 1 sets up a new pro-competition regime for digital markets, which will be overseen and enforced by the Competition and Markets Authority’s Digital Markets Unit. This legislation gives the DMU the ability to tackle the causes and consequences of market power, ensuring that people and businesses large and small are treated fairly by the most powerful tech firms. By encouraging greater competition, this work will lead to lower prices for everyday online goods and services and give consumers more choice and control.

The measures in part 2 will refine the CMA’s competition enforcement work so that it is better targeted, faster and more effective, allowing the free market to operate more efficiently.

Damian Collins Portrait Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con)
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My hon. Friend got through part 1 a bit quicker than I thought he would—I have a question relating to part 1. Clause 38 creates a final offer mechanism for dispute resolution. The news media industry has been waiting for this legislation for a long time but it is not expressly referenced in the Bill. Can he confirm that the news industry and other industries could benefit from this final offer mechanism?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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My hon. Friend makes a good point. I wish him the best of luck in the election this afternoon. It is for a very important Committee that will scrutinise this legislation. The final offer mechanism is innovative and represents a positive way forward, in that it will bring parties to the table and they will both have to make sensible offers relating to how they see a fair resolution. This will avoid them putting unrealistic claims on the table, and it could well help the news industry and many other sectors.

John Penrose Portrait John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con)
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Like my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), I was concerned that the Minister might be moving on from part 1 a fraction early. This is a welcome Bill that will do an enormous amount of good, and it has allowed me to tick off a large number of the recommendations that I made in my report, which he referenced earlier. The concern about the Digital Markets Unit’s powers is not that they are not good enough; it is that they might over time add more and more of a regulatory burden as ex ante powers build up over the years. Does he have thoughts on how he can ensure that, after those ex ante powers have been in place for a couple of years as regulations, the CMA can analyse whether they could perhaps be replaced by pro-market reforms?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his engagement on this. We have discussed this at length many times, both in my role as a Minister and in my previous role as a Back Bencher, when we looked at the best form of regulation. I think we both agree that ex post regulation is preferable to ex ante regulation, as is a pro-competitive environment, as I said earlier. We should step in only when there is market failure. Of course we should look at the powers and ensure that they are being used wisely, and I have confidence that the CMA will do that. There are a number of checks and balances on the CMA and the DMU, not least through the competition appeal tribunal and the courts, which ensure that decisions are valid and worthwhile, but we should also have a good debate on how we scrutinise the DMU and CMA generally. Obviously they report to Parliament every year, and the Select Committee work is also important. I think that my hon. Friend and I would agree that the best way to regulate markets is through competitive environments, and that is what we should always favour in this discussion.

Andy Carter Portrait Andy Carter (Warrington South) (Con)
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I echo the comments of my colleagues who have welcomed the Bill. The Minister will know that the DMU will be regulating a highly specialised area and that detailed knowledge of the sector will be critically important. Can he assure me that the DMU will have sufficient powers to recruit people who really understand the sector? Will it be able to pay accordingly in order to recruit those people, and not be bound by civil service contracts and pay bands that might limit its ability to recruit very experienced people?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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My hon. Friend makes an important point. The tech industry is clearly very powerful in terms of its resources and its ability to recruit the best people. My experience of the CMA is that there are good people within it, and I expect that to be reflected in the DMU as well. People who have been connected to the CMA, including former chairs, have spoken highly of its abilities, but my hon. Friend makes the important point that we need to have the best people so that we can hold those powerful entities to account.

The legislation will be delivered through making market inquiries more efficient, focused and proportionate, updating the merger regime and amending existing legislation concerning anti-competitive conduct and abuse of a dominant position. The measures in parts 3 and 4 make important updates and improvements to consumer law. The UK is currently the only G7 country without civil penalties for common breaches of consumer protection such as unfair trading. Part 3 creates a new model that will allow the CMA to act faster, tackle more cases and protect consumers’ interests while creating a level playing field for businesses.

Part 4 tackles the subscription traps that cost consumers £1.6 billion a year. We expect there to be a £400 million saving for consumers as a result of the measures we have proposed. I am sure that many Members know constituents—

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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I think I am going to hear about one in a moment. Many Members will know constituents who have received shock charges for a subscription or faced difficulties when trying to cancel one. The Bill contains new rights to subscription reminders and easier cancellations, so that those who want out can get out.

Craig Whittaker Portrait Craig Whittaker
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The Minister is not going to hear about a constituent, but I would like to point out that charities’ lotteries, which are great fundraisers for great causes that put so much back into all our communities, are already heavily regulated by the Gambling Commission. Will my hon. Friend look at schedule 19 to see whether subscription-based charity lotteries can be excluded?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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That is an interesting point and I would be happy to look at the matter in detail. It is not something that I have considered thus far but perhaps we can have a discussion about it at a later stage. We will certainly pick it up if we can and make sure that it does not cut us across anything that my hon. Friend is concerned about.

This legislation includes other measures to help consumers to keep more of their hard-earned cash, including a power to add to the list of banned practices. We intend to use this power first to tackle the wild west of fake reviews, which can dupe customers into buying shoddy goods and services. There are also new protections for consumer prepayments to consumer saving schemes, so that devastating cases such as the collapse of the Farepak Christmas savings club, which left vulnerable consumers out of pocket, can never be repeated. Together, these measures deliver on our manifesto commitment to tackle consumer rip-offs and bad business practices, demonstrating that this is a Government who back consumers.

Alun Cairns Portrait Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con)
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I recognise that the Bill would introduce enhanced competition and protect significant areas of consumer policy, but it would also extend the powers of the CMA significantly. May I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the regulatory reform group that my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) and other hon. and right hon. Members have sat on, which is seeking a cultural change among regulators to ensure that they have an interest in the wider industry as well as in consumers? For business and industry to be sustainable, the CMA must be able to respond in a proactive, business-friendly way.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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My right hon. Friend makes a strong point, and it is one reason why we are reviewing the economic regulators. The work has been ongoing for 18 months, and we are due to produce our thoughts this spring. It is important that regulators focus on consumer outcomes and, as others have said, a more competitive environment produces the best outcomes, so he is right to draw attention to that issue.

John Redwood Portrait John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)
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Briefly, what will be the direct impact of the Bill on the cost to the state and to business?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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The annual cost to business is £178 million, which we must consider carefully when we bring forward new regulatory burdens, but most people will think that the measures are needed because there is a huge consumer benefit of roughly £1 billion a year over 10 years, so it is important that we strike that balance. I am not aware that the cost to the state has been calculated, but my right hon. Friend and I are probably most concerned about the cost to business.

John Penrose Portrait John Penrose
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I thank the Minister for his generosity in giving way again.

The Minister’s response to the question about regulatory burden mentioned the welcome, necessary and important review of economic regulators. However, he will understand that enormous regulatory burden is created by other regulators. There are only eight economic regulators, but there are dozens of other regulators, many of which create vastly more regulatory burden than the economic regulators, although the economic regulators are not exempt. What plans does he have to address those regulatory burdens, which are much broader and cover much more of the economy?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and it is why only a few days ago we published a framework for better regulation to look at these things in the round and to make sure we have regulators that serve the public, rather than the interests of the regulator. We do not want to see regulatory creep for any purpose other than consumer benefit, and he and I will continue to have significant dialogue on those issues.

Some Members will argue that we should legislate more like the EU’s Digital Markets Act, by using this Bill to create sweeping, one-size-fits-all measures. However, our Brexit freedoms mean we can draft legislation that drives innovation without placing blanket obligations on firms or creating unnecessary regulatory burdens. Some will respond to the Bill by saying that we should go harder against big tech, but I remind them that the Bill’s primary purpose is to reduce economic harms, to boost competition, to create a fair and level playing field, and to give consumers greater choice and better prices.

We need to act, but we must act proportionally because tech firms make a valuable contribution to the economy and our lives. Big does not equal bad. A war on tech will not create growth. It has already been argued in this debate that the CMA has enough power, and my response is that technology is changing rapidly and our watchdogs need to be equipped to fully support businesses and consumers in this competitive world.

I look forward to engaging with colleagues as the Bill makes its way through the House, and I hope Members will give it their backing so that the Government can continue our work of protecting consumers, increasing competition in all markets and growing the UK economy.

14:53
Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op)
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It is a pleasure to speak on the Second Reading of this important Bill on behalf of His Majesty’s Opposition. The world has changed enormously, as has technology. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) and other colleagues for their important and influential work in the development of this Bill, which Labour welcomes, having led the way in calling for large tech companies to be properly regulated to ensure competition in digital markets. We have long called for measures to protect consumers, enhance innovation and promote competition in digital markets, to unlock growth and level the playing field for innovative smaller businesses.

In the midst of a cost of living crisis, the Bill could not be more important. As the Minister alluded to, fairer markets will save billions of pounds for consumers. This important Bill updates the UK’s competition and consumer rules, in line with a changing economy and changing consumer behaviours, through three main areas of reform.

First, it creates a new pro-competition regime for digital markets by putting the Digital Markets Unit on a statutory footing and establishing a process for designating the “strategic market status” of firms that meet specific criteria in relation to certain specific digital activities. These firms will be subject to regulated behaviour regarding such digital activities, in the form of conduct requirements to help ensure fair competition.

Secondly, the Competition and Markets Authority will have new powers on market investigations, enforcement of existing competition rules and enhanced mergers and anti-trust activity. Thirdly, there are updates to consumer law, reforming consumer policy to increase consumer protection.

As long ago as 1950, the Labour manifesto written by Michael Young promised:

“An independent Consumer Advice Centre will be set up to test and report on the various consumer goods on the market. Good manufacturers will be protected and unscrupulous advertising exposed.”

Since then, Labour has certainly been the champion of consumers. Consumer rights are a proud part of the Labour and Co-operative tradition and values.

The Government needlessly delayed this Bill as a result of infighting and the changing of Ministers and Secretaries of State. Since the Bill was announced a year ago we have had three Prime Ministers, four Business Secretaries and four small business Ministers. I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), who has done a full circle. He was the first Minister I shadowed in my role, and he will be winding up this debate.

It has been a year since this Bill was promised and five years since the Government established their digital competition expert panel. With these delays, we have fallen behind our European neighbours in this vital policy area, so this is an important Bill and we will support its Second Reading.

I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Business and Trade, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), and his officials for their meetings with me and my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones). I hope this is the spirit in which the Bill will be considered in Committee and in which we constructively debate the gaps we believe there to be in the Bill, which I will highlight today. I also thank those who have been involved in the development of this important policy and legislation, from the CMA, Which?, UKHospitality, the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, Citizens Advice, techUK and smaller enterprises.

In digital markets, a small number of large technology companies have an ever-increasing dominance. The subsequent lack of competition and regulation has acted as a barrier to entry and expansion in digital markets, preventing new entrants from bringing innovation and choice to the market. The seriousness of this for our economy and consumers has become apparent in the billions of pounds in penalties levied for anti-trust violations.

Legislators around the world are catching up with the challenges we face in relation to this abuse of dominance in digital markets. Indeed, the OECD’s global forum on competition highlighted this five years ago, outlining how many digital markets

“exhibit certain characteristics, such as low variable costs, high fixed costs and strong network effects, that result in high market shares for a small number of firms… Firms in these concentrated markets may possess market power, the ability to unilaterally and profitably raise prices or reduce quality beyond the level that would prevail under competition.”

In the UK, the Furman report concluded in 2019 that competition in digital markets needed a “new approach,” and in December 2020 the CMA convened a taskforce that recommended the creation of the Digital Markets Unit with a new regime for regulating digital firms with strategic market status.

The Office for National Statistics reports that, between 2008 and 2020, the percentage of adults reporting having shopped online in the previous 12 months increased from 53% to 87%. This ongoing trend has increased consumer exposure to the harms associated with the digital economy, including the use of consumer data, harmful online choice architecture and misleading information.

Those are reasons why the Bill needs to deliver on being a pro-competition, pro-consumer and pro-growth Bill. We welcome steps to address consumer harm resulting from monopolisation of our increasingly digital economy, while making sure that innovation is not stifled and that we are realising the benefits of new technology for social and economic progress. The interests and rights of consumers, and the enforcement of those rights through effective competition in this new, complex and evolving digital marketplace, need to be at the core of this legislation, which is vital for all of our constituents.

The challenge now is to get the legislation right. It is important that the new powers given to the CMA to ensure competition in digital markets are not watered down as the Bill progresses. Powers are needed to crack down on unfair practices. That means there must be clarity on how the new powers will be used, along with the right scrutiny, transparency and accountability, both of the CMA and of the Government to Parliament. In addition, there must be clarity on thresholds and the process of appeals. I am sure we will discuss the checks and balances in detail in Committee, not least because 35 new Henry VIII powers are in the Bill, as listed in the delegated powers memorandum. The November 2021 House of Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee report noted:

“Henry VIII powers are controversial and for good reason. Every such power; and its scope, must always be fully justified.”

Let me say a few further words about what we welcome in this Bill. We support the approach taken to the legislation, which seeks to be targeted to specific anti-competitive digital activities and is arguably more flexible than the reforms brought about in the EU. If that allows a more proportionate and targeted set of interventions, that is welcome. Legislators across the world are all learning, and we all want to see this be an effective regulatory framework that helps innovation, rather than hinders it, and protects consumers.

An example of how this is beginning to work is how the CMA has worked with Google on its digital Sandbox. An issue relating to third-party cookies emerged during the CMA’s digital advertising market study and a Competition Act 1998 case was then opened. Google’s proposed changes could have had privacy benefits, but they could also have given Google an anti-competitive advantage, strengthening even further its position in digital advertising markets. The CMA reached legally binding commitments with Google to address these concerns. It is important to say that both sides continue to work together and with the Information Commissioner’s Office. This is about working in partnership with business, and in the public interest, and this Bill represents a pragmatic step towards achieving that. We also welcome the inclusion of proposals such as monetary penalties for failures to comply and making undertakings directly enforceable, which were raised at the consultation. We welcome the strengthening of the alternative dispute resolution provisions, although we believe they could be strengthened further.

However, there are notable gaps that we are concerned about—areas where we are surprised and concerned the Bill does not go further. Such areas include subscription traps, tackling fake reviews and other consumer harms. First, on subscription traps, it is always to be welcomed when the Government decide to adopt a Labour party policy, which seems to be happening increasingly often. In April, we announced Labour’s plans to crack down on rip-off subscription traps, which trap people into subscriptions they no longer want. We want to legislate to ensure that customers must opt in to, rather than opt out of, subscriptions that automatically renew. That will end automatic renewal as the default option, ensuring that consumers are offered an alternative. Instead, businesses would have to offer customers a default option without automatic renewal, with the option for customers to seek automatic renewal if they prefer. At present, consumers only need to be informed about their continued subscription, not given a genuine choice. That means they can end up trapped into contracts they no longer want or use. Citizens Advice estimates that £306 million per year is spent in the UK on unwanted subscriptions.

This Bill goes part of the way to addressing that by introducing new requirements to remind customers at the end of a trial and the beginning of an auto-renewed subscription charge. But it does not go far enough in tackling these traps and adopting Labour’s full proposals, which stakeholders also support. We will be seeking to strengthen the legislation in this area to make subscription auto-renewals opt-in, rather than opt-out.

Secondly, the Government, with much fanfare, announced that this Bill would introduce provisions outlawing fake reviews. News headlines last month trumpeted the Government’s briefing, saying:

“Buying, selling or hosting fake reviews will become illegal as part of changes planned in new laws.”

Fake reviews cause huge damage, both by encouraging consumers to buy unsafe or poor-quality products, and by ruining the reputation of hospitality venues in the UK. Such reviews are utterly unfair for honest businesses, which have no means of redress, but banning fake reviews is not mentioned in this legislation once. What has been lauded as a huge step in banning fake reviews appears to be a clause allowing the Secretary of State to add to the list of unfair trading practices in schedule 18. This is quite vague and so it could be very weak. I would therefore welcome clarification from the Minister on why this has been left out, and whether he is able to expand on what banning fake reviews will look like in practice?

On broader consumer harms, the Bill represents an opportunity to take action on a number of issues affecting consumers in the digital economy. That includes taking action against drip-pricing and misleading green claims, and requiring online marketplaces and social media platforms to make buyers aware of the status of a seller, none of which are dealt with in this Bill. Do we need stronger statutory consumer advocates? I ask the Minister: why does the legislation stop where it does? Should it not go further in addressing further consumer harms in the digital economy?

Finally, on delay, it has been a year since this legislation was promised in Parliament. The Government’s own impact assessment acknowledges:

“The Bill’s impacts are expected to begin in 2025 once the package of Bill measures has been implemented”.

That is the earliest it could be, but action is needed now. We are prepared to work with the Government not only to ensure effective scrutiny of the Bill, but to get it on to the statute book as soon as possible. That includes ensuring speed on guidance and codes of practice, and sufficiency of resources. There should be no more delays.

This legislation is welcomed by the Opposition but it is well overdue. It is a welcome step in creating a new competition and digital markets regime that will enable the competition authorities to work closely and fairly with business to ensure fair competition, and promote growth and innovation. Labour welcomes competition, consumer choice and protection as signs of a healthy, functioning market economy. We are committed to making the UK the best place in the world to start and grow a business. We believe there is a pro-business, pro-worker, pro-society agenda to be built for Britain, and that consumer and competition law play an essential part in that. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

15:08
John Redwood Portrait John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)
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Competition is by far and away the best regulator, and I pay tribute to all those in the House, including my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), who have pointed that out; I am delighted there is cross-party agreement. The point he made needs stressing: we are dealing with a limited number of regulators here today, but there are many other regulators and much of their task could be better done by following competition as the prime means of enforcing choice. I should say that I have declared my business interests in the register and none of my comments relate to financial services as a result.

The regulators would be well advised to heed that advice and, instead of intervening in detail and trying to make very difficult distinctions and definitions that affect a complex marketplace, with the interplay of so many different consumers and suppliers, just stress that if there is effective choice and challenge in the market, normally there can be no harm.

Labour has said that it could be that an online supplier of goods and services was not offering a good deal, but I am less worried about that if there are shops in my local high street, because I do not have to use the offer by the online provider. The online provider themselves will anyway be subject to the challenge of other online providers. One advantage that the online retailer has is that the cost of entry is so much less than that required by those who wish to set up a formal shop with a property. If an online retailer, however large they might become, starts to offer very poor deals or offers, there will be plenty of challenge to that emerging in the marketplace.

In a fast-changing world where the market is extremely good at challenging, developing and changing offers overnight, we need to be careful about becoming too prescriptive. We may come up with a perfect solution to perceived problems of some suppliers at the moment only to find that, tomorrow, there are very different problems from different suppliers and that much of it can be taken care of by that pursuit of competition.

My main concern about all of this for our country is that competition only works, in the benign way that we know it can, if we have sufficient capacity. There is a danger, encouraged by the Opposition and pursued by the Government, that today we are so keen to regulate, to intervene and to tax anybody who makes a good profit; to provide a subsidy to anybody who has a failing business; and to decide that the Government know best about what consumers ought to buy and ought to want, that we end up with too little capacity in a number of crucial areas. That means that, instead of helping the consumer, we hinder them. Instead of having moderate prices with few rises, we have even higher price rises because there is insufficient capacity to meet the market demand. Instead of providing that perfect background for entrepreneurial businesses, which Labour and Conservatives are united in wanting, we send a hostile message to businesses. Those businesses then find other places with greater freedoms and lower taxes as the ideal place in which to experiment, to set up and to seek to export from, rather than from the United Kingdom.

Bim Afolami Portrait Bim Afolami (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con)
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I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. In relation to his very good point about capacity, what is his view about the need to ensure that we remain open for business internationally and remain an attractive place? Moreover, what is his view about the role of the regulators in that context, particularly the CMA, because of course capacity can come from other countries into our own market?

John Redwood Portrait John Redwood
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Indeed. I do not wish to go into the details of a recent case, because I have not studied all the documents, which would be necessary to do justice to both sides of the argument. Thinking back to when I was competition Minister—a good while ago now—when I was acting for the then Secretary of State, there was a difficult issue that arose over media challenge to the then existing limited number of media players where two of the new services wanted to merge together. I recommended, and we decided, that the two should be allowed to merge because they made a more effective competitor to what was already there, rather than taking the narrow pro-competition view that we needed to have two new challengers. The danger was that they would both fight each other to the death and leave the main media institutions—ITV and the BBC—unchallenged by alternative services.

The regulator has to understand that competition is not always furthered by blocking something; sometimes it can actually be furthered by encouraging the new. The main issue in competition law is often the definition of what is the market. I have already mentioned retail. If the market is online retail, we might want to stop a successful online retailer growing by acquisition, but if the market is retail, we might want a strong online competitor in order to challenge the previously dominant shop retailers. However, it is now coming to the point where it may be the other way around—where we need to be worried about the adequacy of the conventional retailer response.

Let me illustrate the importance of the central issue of capacity to the debate. One thing that has been extremely scarce—this has been blamed by many for the worst part of the inflation we have been experiencing—is energy. If the United Kingdom persists in saying that we do not want to get our own gas out of the North sea, we will not automatically transfer to green electricity; we will import gas from somewhere else. By doing so, not only will we damage our economy, as we forgo the jobs in the North sea and the cheaper gas, because the imported gas will be dearer; it will also be much worse for the environment, because by delaying or blocking the gas that we could get out, we will automatically import more liquefied natural gas. LNG generates at least twice as much CO2 as burning our own gas down a pipe because of all the energy entailed in compressing a gas, liquefying it, transporting it and then converting it back to the gas that we need to use. It is therefore a doubly foolish policy.

We need to expand our capacity in energy where it is available and we need to understand that there are huge economic gains to producing our own. We also need to be worried about national resilience. If we wish to say that we can defend our country and its allies, it is terribly important that we produce enough for ourselves. Having energy self-sufficiency is always critical to having a country with resilience and strong defences.

The electrical revolution seems to be popular in most parts of the House of Commons, with people urging the Government to achieve a faster electrical revolution, switching more and more people from being predominantly users of fossil fuel—most of us predominantly use fossil fuel with a petrol or diesel car and a gas boiler—to using electrical means for our main energy uses. If we are to pursue that electrical revolution, there needs to be a massive expansion in grid capacity and in cable capacity into everybody’s homes, offices and shops. It is simply not possible at the moment to generate the competition that we want for electricity against fossil fuels, and within electricity for renewables against more traditional ways of producing electricity, because the new renewable ways are so grid intensive and need so much more grid and cable capacity—we have to time shift them because they are often not available—that we are not going to get very far.

Already, I have helped with a major investment in my constituency, which was very welcome. One possible stumbling block was that the electricity companies could not offer enough power for the particular business development. There had to be an agreement over how much power the development could have available, because there was not limitless power for it to buy. The issue was to do with grid capacity. We will find that that becomes more and more common if we do not get on with dealing with this particular issue.

A very topical issue today is capacity in motor vehicles. If we are to have a full range of choice and enough domestic production, it is not a good idea to ban the sale and therefore the manufacture of petrol and diesel cars as early as 2030, when no other major country in the world is doing so and when there will still be quite a lot of buyers who want petrol and diesel cars. I urge the Government to understand what competition choice means. It means that people will buy electric cars when they want to buy them. They will buy electric cars when they are cheaper and better, and when they believe that the range is right and that the necessary back-up facilities are in place. I have no doubt that electric vehicle sales will grow, but it would be quite wrong to have an artificial injection of policy to ban older cars and prevent capacity and choice.

If the UK does not have battery production capacity, all we will do by banning petrol and diesel cars is destroy the successful industry that we have, which makes extremely good petrol and diesel cars, without having the replacement industry in place. It is not a simple matter of switching the production line from a diesel car one day to an electric car the next; it is a totally different product, built in a totally different way. An electric car needs a battery, which may be 40% of its value, and currently we cannot produce those batteries in any numbers to replace the capacity that we wish to cancel. I urge the Government to think again about consumer choice, competition and investment flows, because there is no way that people will want to invest serious money in the UK motor industry if its regulatory environment is more hostile than those elsewhere.

I was pleased to see my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister take a great personal interest in food production. I believe he held a very successful seminar yesterday and asked the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to go away and work up a series of measures. I do not doubt the enthusiasm of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, which I fully share and have often promoted, for us to grow much more of our own food in this country and to offer that much more choice to people in our supermarkets. However, when I look at the package of measures the Department has brought forward, there is hardly anything in it that would carry that ambition through.

The Department still intends to spend most of its subsidy money, most of its exhortation and a great deal of its regulation on encouraging farmers not to produce food, to wild their land and to achieve great things on managing the landscape for us all. That is all very nice, but it is possible to have perfectly attractive fields growing food, and that is clearly what we need rather more of.

We need to back the new robotics, artificial intelligence and electromechanical technologies that could transform the production of fruit and vegetables and other market garden products, as they used to be called, where we have allowed our market share to fall dramatically in the last 30 or 40 years. We are now reliant on imports, which limits choice, drives up prices and puts our national food resilience more in doubt because, were there to be problems with the supply from our normal suppliers abroad, I am sure we would be towards the back of the queue when it came to getting to what we needed.

I am conscious that others wish to speak in the debate, so I will not go into every sector, but the Government need to review sector by sector what they are doing that could help to increase capacity. Can they not reposition their subsidies, grants and direct investments, which they are making around the place on a pretty colossal scale, in a way that promotes that capacity and thus eases the position for competition? There is a particularly worrying trend at the moment—one that is bad for public spending and bad for business—that we make so many confused interventions that we need another intervention to deal with the previous intervention.

I will finish on the issue of high energy usage industries—steel, ceramics and other similar industries—which are gravely at risk. We have lost colossal capacity and market share under Governments of all parties since I have been around watching such things. The danger is that that loss will accelerate from here because we decide to impose the highest carbon taxes of any advanced-world country, as far as I can see—another major problem for the cost base of industries that are struggling to compete—and we then draw back in horror when we see that there could be closures and job losses, so the Government put some subsidies back in and we have a subsidy trying to countervail the tax. However, the subsidy is usually not as much as all the taxes combined, because when we add the 31% corporation tax—should there be any profits, and unfortunately there often are not—on top of the windfall taxes on the energy companies and on top of the carbon taxes on the steel and ceramics businesses, the tax burden is colossal and would be punitive were businesses to succeed and start making money. The demand for subsidy then becomes greater.

To have a competitive market would be extremely welcome. We have a market that is not nearly competitive enough. I ask the Government to look at what they are doing, because I think they are in danger of doing counterproductive and contradictory things: taxing too much, subsidising not quite enough and then inventing rules that stop people doing business.

15:23
Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP)
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The SNP welcomes very much the aims and objectives of the Bill, which broadly speaking fit well with the enhanced protections we have been calling for in the online space for some years.

For markets to be effective, they need a number of things, chief among them good market information for those participating, low barriers to entry, trust, the rule of law and a means of enforcing contracts where they are made. As the Minister alluded to, when the online marketplace emerged, there was always a risk—especially as it deals with entities that span several jurisdictions—that, for all its opportunities, it would become if not exactly a dystopian wild west, then certainly a less well-regulated space than physical trading spaces, which are more visible and more easily influenced by existing regulations. Given all the leaps and bounds that there have been in e-commerce, there is a need for the regulation of that marketplace to catch up and to rebalance it in the interest of consumers.

The Minister was correct to say that big does not always equal bad, but it is past time that we recognised that large digital entities with a significant public affairs presence can go around and say the right things, and even if their practices are not at variance with that, they can appear to be beyond the reach of and unbound by the obligations placed on other smaller market actors outside the digital space. That has long been an issue of concern, and anything that helps to rebalance that situation is a good thing.

We believe that conferring powers and duties on the Competition and Markets Authority to regulate that competition responsibly; updating powers to investigate and enforce both competition law and consumer protection law, where needed, and to resolve disputes; and enhancing protections in respect of unfair practices such as subscription traps and prepayment savings schemes, are good things in and of themselves and we welcome them.

To set out the scope of why those powers are necessary, recent figures from Action Fraud estimate that elderly people lose £1 million a day in the UK through online scams. The consumer organisation Which? estimates that one third of people in the UK experience at least one problem with a product or service each year, at an estimated cost of £54 billion, which is a tremendous drag on the economy. It prevents that money from being spent more productively in the economy, it reduces confidence and in many ways it reduces the competition that we would all like to see.

It is important to ensure that when people engage in the online market space they can do so with confidence, and we must recognise the role that the state has to play in that. No amount of competition can ever replicate what the state can do to act as the referee where necessary in this space, using a light touch. We very much welcome what the Government are setting out, particularly in defining organisations that have strategic market status and the additional responsibilities that will accompany that status.

The Bill goes a considerable distance to achieving those things but, given the scale of scams and unfair practices that, sadly, we witness on a daily basis, we think more needs to be done and that the Bill needs to go further in some respects. Like those on the Labour Front Bench, we believe that there are other areas where the Bill needs to go further.

At the risk of being criticised for making an unfavourable comparison with the Beelzebubs at the European Commission, there are many provisions in this Bill regarding firms with strategic market status that are broadly similar to those in the EU’s Digital Markets Act. The Bill falls short in that it does not explicitly include an equivalent to the EU’s right to redress, which would allow consumers to be paid with damages where they are misled by traders. Although the Bill gives the Secretary of State the power to do that in future through secondary legislation, it leaves a gap now, and there is the risk that that right will, over time, be watered down or removed entirely because there is no commitment to introducing it. If the ministerial team offer me some assurance about that, we can maybe explore it further in Committee, but that matter threatens to leave UK consumers behind.

The dangers there ought to be clear. Just last month, it was revealed that thousands of people from the UK who found themselves stranded in Dover following delays in coach trips faced losing their entitlement to compensation amid what was being billed as the “bonfire” of EU regulations. Rocio Concha, the director of policy and advocacy at Which?, noted that it is clear—or it was at that point, at any rate—

“that the government does not…have a firm enough grip on the extent of legislation which is at risk of simply slipping off the statute books by mistake.”

I welcome the Government’s change in tone last week, but right to redress is nevertheless an important consumer protection, and we certainly do not want to be in a position where our consumers have less leverage in that sense than their counterparts elsewhere in Europe.

Another area in which we believe the Bill should be getting its feet wet is greenwashing. It is not just in financial losses or deficient goods and services that consumers can be badly let down; it is also in goods marketed under misleading pretences, particularly when it comes to their environmental credentials. The Bill does not set out standards and practices that should be adhered to when making environmental claims. To give an example, in February, the Corporate Climate Responsibility Monitor found that many companies were involved in making misleading claims about their plans to tackle global warming and climate change. Sustainability is increasingly important for consumers choosing where to spend their money—particularly younger consumers—so it is vital that measures are put in place to ensure that people can have confidence in the claims being made for products, rather than being misled, wittingly or otherwise.

In terms of how the European Union is tackling that, around 230 separate sustainability labels and 100 green energy labels are commonly used across the EU, each with vastly different levels of transparency. Half of them offer weak or non-existent verification and 40% have no supporting evidence at all. The situation in the UK will be similar. Ensuring that labels and claims can be treated as credible and trustworthy would allow consumers to make better-informed purchasing decisions and boost the competitiveness of businesses that want to play a responsible role in the marketplace in terms of driving up standards to meet consumer demand. I urge Ministers to look at what the Commission is doing in that respect because this is a sufficient deficiency and a missed opportunity to make the Bill better than it already is.

The next point that I wish to endorse is one that was made by the right hon. Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) about charity lotteries. They do an awful lot of good, they give people an awful lot of enjoyment and they raise an awful lot of money for good causes. They are already in a very highly regulated marketplace, but we are concerned that the legislation could, in its present form, have a detrimental impact on their ability to raise funding and to give money to good causes. That concern applies in particular to clauses 148 to 253, which would—at least in my reading of them—introduce a significant number of new requirements on subscription products and pre-contract information. Schedule 19 already rightly contains a number of operators in the economy that are deemed sufficiently well regulated to be exempt from the requirements that the Bill would place upon them. I suggest that charity lotteries also fall into that category, and I urge Ministers to give that due consideration and make the necessary changes to schedule 19 to make it crystal clear that charity lotteries are exempt.

Another missed opportunity is on drip pricing, whereby companies add additional fees and costs that were not clearly stated at the beginning of a transaction. That tactic is commonly used by some airlines: the price given at the start bears little resemblance to the price that appears at the end, once the consumer has paid for everything that they assumed would come automatically with stepping on an airliner. The US is planning a crackdown on that through the Junk Fee Prevention Act. It would be a missed opportunity if the UK Government did not follow suit in the legislation before us.

I welcome the commitment to tackling fake reviews, which can cause a great deal of distress and harm. Many can be absolutely malicious—not on a personal level but in trying to discredit competitors and therefore reduce competition. That practice certainly requires a different approach in legislation, but it is unclear at this stage how the Bill would seek to deter it. If any ban is to work, it will have to be enforceable, it will need to have teeth and there will need to be appropriate redress.

John Redwood Portrait John Redwood
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I think we are all united in wanting to stop fake and damaging reviews, which are so unfair, but has the hon. Gentleman thought about how we would actually do it? Defining them, and deciding who judges that they are such, is not easy.

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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The right hon. Member is absolutely right that it is not easy, but that does not mean it is something that we should avoid trying to tackle, or that we should not try to come up with a way of improving the competitive environment. I am certainly more than happy to engage on an open and constructive basis with anyone about how we might do so.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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Will the hon. Gentleman therefore support our approach, which is to consult in parallel with the passage of the Bill through both Houses about things like drip pricing and fake reviews, so that we can have that open dialogue and make sure that we get the answers right, including to the questions posed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood)?

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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I thank the Minister for his intervention. Indeed, I would be quite happy to see what comes back from that consultation, because there are areas of real concern. If we can find consensus on how those matters can best be tackled—we might not be able to please everybody, but we can address them as best we can—that would be a welcome step forward.

In closing, the Bill is important for growth and competition, but also for consumer protection. The exchange that we collectively had just now on those matters was encouraging, and I would certainly like that spirit to continue in Committee. I do not think I have ever managed to successfully get something passed in Committee; I look forward to that changing.

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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I hear the hon. Member for Pontypridd say “Good luck”, but we will see how it goes. The Bill certainly does much that it needs to, but there are quite a few things that it misses; let us see what we can make it hit over the period ahead. As the Bill progresses, I look forward to working with others where it is possible to do so, in order to do precisely that.

15:36
Damian Collins Portrait Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con)
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I rise, as other Members have done, in support of the Bill. It is a very important piece of legislation that has been long discussed and much looked forward to. It is now safely on the Floor of the House and we wish it a safe passage as it goes through Parliament. The debate we are having is not dissimilar to debates being held in Parliaments around the world. In the United States Congress, there are very lively debates about what it calls anti-trust legislation in the tech sector. The European Union, as has been discussed, has already created its Digital Markets Act. In Australia, there has been a lot of concern about competition within digital markets and a lot of work to improve it.

I agree with other Members who have spoken so far that competition is often the best guarantee of higher standards for the consumer, lower prices and a more vibrant market economy. The reason we are concerned with regards to digital markets is that, in many of those strategic markets, there is evidence of a lack of competition—a lack of choice—that is restricting routes to business and will increase prices for customers. In his opening speech, the Minister rightly pointed to the market impact studies that the Competition and Markets Authority has done, looking at app stores and the mobile advertising market, which show a consumer detriment of over £6 billion. Those are just two market studies that the CMA has done and it is not surprising that that should be the case.

The app store market is important because most people, including most people in this Chamber, have a smart device that runs on one of two operating systems. There are two app stores, and most of what happens on those devices—not exclusively, but most of it—is not interoperable. There have already been investigations showing inconsistent pricing in the commission taken by those operating systems from app developers who sell through their devices. In a market such as that, it is not surprising that there might be constraints or evidence of overcharging, because there is simply nowhere else to go—there is no choice. When the ad tech market is dominated by two companies, Google and Meta, it is not surprising that there may be higher pricing in that market; there is certainly a great lack of transparency. Even some of the world’s biggest advertisers, such as Procter & Gamble, have raised concerns about this issue, but none of the advertisers themselves has enough market power within that market to challenge those incumbents.

Bob Stewart Portrait Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con)
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Does my hon. Friend agree that we should fully support what my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) has suggested as a model for competition? Competition itself does require to be amended.

Damian Collins Portrait Damian Collins
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I thank my right hon. Friend for his question, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) made an excellent opening speech from the Back Benches. My concern is that in digital markets we have an imperfect market. We are at a point in time where the strategic nature of digital markets has developed to such an extent that people cannot not use these systems to reach their customers. For a business looking to sell online, yes, the world is its customer base, but it is using a relatively small number of tools to try to reach those customers, and those tools are controlled by a relatively small number of people. App-based businesses are selling through one of two operating systems. Someone buying ads is doing so largely from one of two companies that dominate the global market. If people are looking for cloud storage, they are probably buying it from Amazon or Google.

Booksellers are a good example. Many book publishers will say that, when they come to their contract renewal with a company such as Amazon, they can be offered very unfavourable terms, but such is the volume of their business that they put through that one retailer that, while in theory they could go elsewhere, in practice they cannot. No shareholder would understand why a business would just walk away from that particular market. In such situations, it is right that the regulator should have the power to say, “Are companies abusing their strategic market status? Is that leading to higher prices for consumers? Is that leading to unfair competition?”

Companies have been quick already to threaten denial of access to the market to people who challenge their status. The Australians have already created their news media bargaining code for the news industry, where the big Facebook-owned and Google-owned platforms have to pay compensation to the media industry for the distribution of its articles for free across their networks. That is now negotiated—there is a negotiation mechanism to make sure it happens. In response, Facebook threatened to withdraw news from the market. During a series of bushfires in Australia, Facebook cancelled all news distribution on its platforms. Such was the popular reaction, it withdrew and has now done these deals, but they would not have been done without the requirement for final agreement and independent arbitration. A book retailer cannot not do a deal with Amazon.

In terms of big app developers, there was a company called Vine. Many Members may be old enough to remember that app. Vine was a popular short-form video app, largely built on the back of the Facebook operating system and the Facebook Graph API. Facebook decided arbitrarily that Vine was requiring too much Facebook user data, and therefore might be a threat to Facebook itself, so it claimed Vine was in breach of its data policies and just kicked it off the platform. It did that for competitive reasons. In these digital markets, we see companies following an aggressive strategy. Where they see competitors, they look either to acquire them or to deny them access to the market and close them down. This is not unlike the debate that was had more than a century ago, particularly in America around the railways.

There was the big test case that President Theodore Roosevelt had against JP Morgan over his railway monopoly. We can imagine lobbyists for Morgan saying, “We may have a monopoly in the rail market, but the price is quite cheap. People do not spend very long on the trains, and you can always walk or use a horse and cart. It doesn’t really matter that we have this monopoly, because people can choose to travel in other ways.” Of course, Morgan’s railway monopoly gave him massive powers of self-preferencing when it came to moving coal and steel around and denying others access to the market. It gave him massive market power and the monopoly was broken up for that reason.

We should be concerned that, if we allow the major tech platforms to control access to the market and people’s ability to trade, that will lead to a constrained market and higher prices. The tech sector is looking to develop more all-encompassing systems, such as the metaverse for Meta, where people will have a VR experience where they can buy and sell and do everything, and we see smart devices now playing an increasingly central part in almost every service that we access. The amount we are charged to access those services and the ability to access that market are extremely important for having competitive markets in the future. That is why I think these elements are important.

In finishing, I will talk a bit about the news industry. We see how these new marketplaces are changing the distribution of traditional products so much that their business model may completely collapse. The collapse of regional journalism is because of the massive disruption of the localised ad market. It has taken advertising out of those products. It is not just transferred online; it is transferred to completely different methods of distribution.

Now, that is market economics. That is changing consumer behaviour and businesses must adapt to that. If a news publisher is being told, “Your product can be distributed for free through our systems,” but you get more ad money in the long run if you do not. The distributor collects the advertising revenue and the data, and the publisher benefits little. If the product is being used to attract users to the platform, but the platform monetises it and the publisher does not, that is an unfair and unbalanced level of competition that could have significant detriment in other areas. If journalism is hollowed out because it cannot access the market fairly for its products and services, journalism will die, and democracy and society will be the loser as a consequence.

We want competition to flourish. We want competition to be the best guarantee of high standards and lower prices, but we must recognise that digital markets involve a series of markets in which companies are not really competing against each other, because they create controlled monopolies or business environments with very limited access to competition. If we allow that to continue unchecked, it will be to the detriment of us all in the long run. That is why I welcome the Bill.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
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Order. I will now announce the result of the ballot earlier today for the Chair of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. A total of 384 votes were cast, one of which was invalid. There was a single round of counting. With 383 valid votes, the quota to be reached was therefore 192 votes. Dame Caroline Dinenage was elected Chair with 198 votes. She will take up her post immediately, and I congratulate her on her election. The results of the count under the alternative vote system will be made as soon as possible in the Vote Office and published on the internet.

I call the Chair of the Business and Trade Committee.

15:46
Darren Jones Portrait Darren Jones (Bristol North West) (Lab)
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I declare my interest as set out on the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am grateful to the Government for having reflected in the Bill so many of the recommendations in my Committee’s report on post-Brexit competition and consumer law policy. Although I am grateful to the Minister and shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), for thanking me for my work, I should humbly put it on record that there would be no report were it not for my colleagues on the Committee, my Clerks, and the witnesses who gave evidence.

I will not test the patience of the House by listing all the Committee’s achievements in this respect, but I will focus on one area that our report talked about—oversight of the Competition and Markets Authority and other regulators that operate in the digital market space—where provisions are missing from the Bill. The CMA is an independent regulator, but it is directly accountable to Parliament for the performance of its functions and duties. Only yesterday, we welcomed its chair and chief executive officer to the Business and Trade Committee to answer questions on topical cases, its annual plan, the draft strategic steer from the Department and, indeed, this Bill.

In practice, Committees such as mine only really scrutinise regulators, agencies and arm’s-length bodies on their day-to-day performance perhaps on an annual basis at best, or once there has been a failure. We recognised that ourselves in respect of issues at the energy regulator, Ofgem, which we only uncovered once there had been a multibillion-pound failure in the market. We gave ourselves an action in that report, as well as in our post-Brexit competition and consumer law report, to enhance our oversight of the CMA and other regulators to avoid this happening again.

It is not a new problem. As many Members will know, the noble Lord Tyrie, who chaired the Treasury Committee during the banking crisis, has written and spoken extensively about this issue. It is a challenge for most Committees. Gov.uk helpfully lists the number of agencies and public bodies sponsored by each Department, and that of my Committee has 21, including the Competition and Markets Authority, the Land Registry, Companies House, the Insolvency Service, ACAS, the Financial Reporting Council, the Trade Remedies Authority, and the Pubs Code and Groceries Code Adjudicators. That does not even include the Post Office or the British Business Bank.

Bim Afolami Portrait Bim Afolami
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I agree with everything the hon. Member has said so far. Does he agree with the proposal of the Regulatory Reform Group, which I chair, that there should be a specialist Committee to look at the regulators on an ongoing basis, in addition to the work that his and other Select Committees do in this House?

Darren Jones Portrait Darren Jones
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If I answered shortly with the word “Yes” it would ruin the rest of my speech, so I am going to keep reading through my notes. However, the hon. Member, having asked that question, will understand the direction of travel.

The Minister was pointing at himself, I think noting for the House that he of course has responsibility for all those organisations. He will know, from our Committee perspective and the role that Parliament has in the oversight and scrutiny of the Minister’s performance and that of his Department, that we can have capacity challenges. Other Committees have the same problem: the Culture, Media and Sport Committee covers 42 agencies and public bodies, while the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee covers 33, and so on. The Bill before the House, which I welcome, is a great example of an agency being given new powers, a wider remit, more work to do and the job of taking ever more wide-ranging decisions, but there is nothing in the Bill about enhanced accountability and oversight of the CMA. The challenge there is that we have to get the balance right.

Parliament will want the CMA to be effective in its core duty of promoting and delivering competition. In our evidence session yesterday, there was an interesting tension about whether we deliver effective competition by regulation and intervention, or by deregulation and getting out of the way. I think that illustrated the interesting tension between oversight of the Competition and Markets Authority and its independence. While the regulator must take clear decisions based on its legal duties and the required technical assessments, what will Parliament think if, over time, a number of interventions taken together paint a picture of the UK as not being a good place to start, scale up or exit a business? How will we know in this House if that is the case, and how can regulators be held to account for the impact of their decisions over time?

This friction came up again only today. We took evidence yesterday on the Microsoft and Activision case, which is a major intervention by the Competition and Markets Authority, and I understand the Chancellor has said this afternoon, about the Competition and Markets Authority, that

“I do think it’s important all our regulators understand their wider responsibilities for economic growth.”

If the regulator does not already understand that and if the Chancellor does not have confidence in the regulator, we have a problem. What view should Parliament therefore take in the context of this Bill going through the House?

Clearly, independent regulators should not be interfered with by Parliament in making their day-to-day decisions. Parliament should be crystal clear that it is not our job to take those decisions. Expert regulators should not be told what they should do or think by, with the greatest respect to many colleagues in the House, generalist Members of the House of Commons. However, with increased powers and responsibilities—not least following our exit from the European Union, where there was inbuilt enhanced scrutiny in the European Parliament of these decisions—it is crucial that this Parliament steps up to provide the enhanced accountability required.

In short, the right to exercise independence and the requirement to be accountable are not mutually exclusive. As we have heard, there is a certain cross-party support for this position and an increased demand for reform, but there is not much in the Bill or from the Government that I have heard to facilitate that. There have been suggestions, which I generally support, that either we have enhanced capacity and resources for existing Select Committees to do more work in holding regulators and arm’s length bodies to account for their day-to-day work, or that we set up a new specialist Select Committee that takes on the job of having oversight of regulators across Whitehall. Some people will be concerned by the suggestion of additional Committees, either because of the perceived need for regulators to have to engage, inform and appease parliamentarians on a day-to-day basis and the amount of time that may take, or because of the influence that lobbyists may have on a fixed number of parliamentarians on the Committee tasked with oversight of the regulator.

John Redwood Portrait John Redwood
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Is there not a clear distinction? We and the Government should not intervene in individual decisions that under the law are in the regulators’ remit, but Parliament and Ministers should take a timely and regular interest in the overall achievement—the cost, whether they need more resource or less resource, and whether we need to change the legal framework under which they operate—which should be a regular review item.

Darren Jones Portrait Darren Jones
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I find myself in the unusual situation of being in complete agreement with the right hon. Gentleman, and perhaps that shows the cross-party support for the points I am making about the Bill.

John Penrose Portrait John Penrose
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I echo the points about the need for a careful balance between not interfering from this place, while also ensuring accountability. I believe—parliamentary historians will put me right if I am wrong—that about a decade ago there used to be a Regulatory Reform Committee in this place. It was rarely attended and was basically dropped because it failed to command much interest—let me put it that way. May I caution the hon. Gentleman that more committees might not always be the right answer? Perhaps tightening up some of the statutory duties that we apply to economic and non-economic regulators could be a way to ensure that the powers we are handing over, which as he rightly points out can mushroom, are properly applied. That would give Parliament a clear a brief to say “We want you to use these powers in this way,” and Select Committees would have a clear way to gauge whether such powers were being used in the way that Parliament has set.

Darren Jones Portrait Darren Jones
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I do not claim to be a parliamentary historian, but the Regulatory Reform Committee is very modern history. About two years ago I got a call from the Government Chief Whip, telling me that the Government were collapsing the Regulatory Reform Committee and merging it with mine, but that I should not ask for any additional resource. The Business and Trade Committee now holds, by legacy, responsibility to scrutinise good regulation across the whole of Government. That is the problem. We do not have capacity to do that effectively beyond the remit of our own Department for Business and Trade. The hon. Gentleman is right that if we were to end up with a new Select Committee, being clear about what good outcomes or performance means, how that should be measured, and how regulators should be held to account against those measures, is an important conversation for us to have. If there were to be a new committee, there should be a requirement for it to meet and do that work, and it should be clear about how it was performing those duties.

The concerns that some have expressed about additional Committee oversight, administrative demand on regulators, or the influence of lobbyists, can be anticipated and mitigated. As we have discussed, the House is perfectly capable of drafting Standing Orders that make clear the powers and remits of a Select Committee, and the Committee would not be able to change or interfere with decisions of the Competition and Markets Authority. That clarity would, in turn, reduce the impact of lobbying that some people might be concerned about, and Members would need to declare their interests in the normal way. Even if a Joint Committee of both Houses—I will come to that in a second—were tasked with the oversight of regulators and other agencies across Whitehall, its capacity would be limited to a certain extent because of how many bodies and agencies it would need to look at. The amount of inevitable workload for an individual organisation would be fairly self-contained.

If there were to be a new Committee, I would have the normal expectation of collaboration and co-operation between Committees. Departmental Select Committees would still be able to call and engage with regulators when looking at particular issues, but we would be able to work with it to extend the scope of day-to-day co-operation. I am therefore most worried about whether the House, and by extension the Government, would support establishing such oversight and giving it sufficient resource to do the job properly. We would need additional budgets for additional staff and specialists to do that work; some have suggested that a smaller version of the National Audit Office could be one solution.

It is not only the Competition and Markets Authority that operates as a regulator in the digital market space. That is why a number of regulators have created the digital regulation cooperation forum, which is a welcome intervention and allows for co-ordination between digital regulators. Some have called for that to be on a statutory footing, but my Committee thought that was not necessary. Which Committee of this House is the DRCF directly accountable to? I do not think there is a clear answer. What is the cumulative impact of regulatory interventions in digital markets across digital regulators who are collaborating on their interventions? When I served on the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee for the Online Safety Bill, we recommended that the House should consider a Joint Committee of both Houses. A number of noble Lords in the other place have great interest in this topic, and that could provide a space to consider such issues.

As I have mentioned on a number of occasions, any such enhanced scrutiny to assist Parliament in understanding the consequences of broader remits and decision-making regulators would require the support of Government, because we would need additional capacity to do so. I hope that when he sums up the debate, the Minister might be able to share the Government’s view in that regard.

While I have said that there is insufficient capacity and I have called for additional capacity, of course my Committee and I take our work on behalf of the House seriously. To mark our own performance, in recent years we have taken evidence from 11 of the current 21 and three of the previous additional 14 agencies and public bodies within our remit. I hope that hon. Members concur with my conclusions and that we can persuade the Government to take further action in this space.

16:00
Matt Warman Portrait Matt Warman (Boston and Skegness) (Con)
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I enjoyed the Minister’s opening gambit about how much the internet has changed our lives over many years. He is right, but the House has now been regulating the internet and its effects for many years as well, and this is in some ways a long-overdue Bill. When I was the Minister, my great fear was that Back Benchers would treat it like a Christmas tree and try to add many great ideas of their own. Now that I am on the Back Benches, that is precisely the approach that I intend to take.

I hope that the Minister—and you, Mr Deputy Speaker—will indulge me on a few issues that are somewhat in the weeds of the Bill as well as on two broader points. This is fundamentally a welcome Bill. It is hugely consequential in the effects that it will have on the digital landscape and Britain’s ability to regulate in a new and different, fundamentally pro-competition way in an age that will be affected by markets that operate very differently online from those that we have been used to regulating.

There are a couple of relatively small issues. First, on subscription traps, we have heard a little from other hon. Members about auto-renewal. I think that it should simply not be the default. That is worth looking at. The Minister may take the view that it is for the CMA or the DMU to look at that rather than for the Government to take a view, but that fundamentally could protect consumers.

Secondly, the Minister has made really welcome moves on protecting consumers from online scams. Such scams operate fundamentally differently from the scams of the past, so his new approach is welcome. There is, however, a key interaction in scams and unsafe goods. People who knowingly sell unsafe goods online are surely, by some definition, scammers, yet the Bill does not appear to do quite the whole job. He may be able to offer reassurance on that.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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My hon. Friend raised a fair point. A fair and level playing field is important for our wider economy and opportunity. Alongside the Bill, we are keen to bring forward the product safety review, which looks at online marketplaces and how they sell and distribute products compared with our normal high-street locations, which have far more stringent product safety requirements. So a body of work is going on alongside this one.

Matt Warman Portrait Matt Warman
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I welcome that. The Minister will know that that body of work has been going on in parallel with this one for some time. It is welcome, and I hope that its results will be presented relatively quickly.

The new judicial review standards for CMA and DMU decisions have been welcomed by the Coalition for App Fairness, which is a good and credible group. But, simultaneously, this is a big shift and we need to be confident that it will genuinely protect both larger operators in the right way and smaller operators. I think we will hear more about that from hon. Members in this place as well as in the House of Lords.

I have two larger points. First, it is DMU mission creep, which we heard about briefly from my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), that we should fundamentally be most nervous about. It was certainly my concern a little while ago that the Bill gives the regulator the flexibility it needs to deal with the modern world in the right way. That is absolutely the right approach and I am pleased that it has persisted, but it is important that it is appropriately regulated—if I can use that word about a regulator—so that it does not end up potentially going further than any Minister or Government might wish. It is important that the CMA and the DMU operate in the way that this House intends, with all the independence that this House also intends.

My final broader point is that the Bill does some excellent work on interoperability of software. What it does not do, at least on the face of the Bill, is consider that interoperable software is fundamentally linked to interoperable harm. If I can try to turn that into real terms, it is obviously great that operators such as Apple are able to build their own superb and unique ecosystems. The same goes for Android and so on—there are other equivalent versions. What would be useful to try to guard against, probably via the DMU rather than directly via Government, is the current situation whereby, to take one example, the way we use iMessage or video calls is fundamentally limited if we seek to do it on a different platform. We have all seen the different blue and green bubbles on Apple iMessage. That is partly because of the interoperability of hardware and software. I am somewhat conflicted about whether that should be a point of differentiation for Apple, Android, WhatsApp or other operators, or whether we see it as part of a problem within emerging monopolies. I therefore suggest it is exactly the sort of thing that an independent regulator might wish to take a view on.

We heard, furthermore, about the metaverse. What we do not want, surely, is a series of emerging and conflicting metaverses—if that were to be the case—that fundamentally embed monopolistic behaviour, because they will be some of the largest economies of the future. Again, it is potentially hugely beneficial to have a unique and brilliant metaverse under the personal command of Mark Zuckerberg and one under the personal command of Tim Cook, as a competitor. However, a regulator may take a different view and it is important that we think through these emerging opportunities. The Bill is a place where we may start some of that work. It is right that it seeks to be future-proofed against some of those interesting challenges, but at the moment there are a small number of potential opportunities that the Minister may yet seek to seize—shall we put it like that?—rather than allow them to pass by and have to address them later on.

Fundamentally, I welcome the Bill. It already embodies some huge opportunities to make real progress and there are some more that we may be able to take forward. I look forward to supporting its passage through the House.

16:07
Sharon Hodgson Portrait Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab)
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As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on ticket abuse, I believe the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill has real potential to overhaul the secondary ticketing market, which is rife with fraud and scamming, affecting consumers every day.

The Minister will be aware of the issues in the ticketing market. They are far from being rectified by current legislation, with tickets being obtained in large quantities from the primary market using specialised software and fraudulent means, and regular consumers missing out before then being fleeced on the secondary market. That is why I was concerned last week to read that the Department for Business and Trade had, after sitting on it for 19 months, decided not to implement the proposals from the CMA’s 2021 report, which would have improved its capacity to enforce legislation and made life much harder for professional touts, and made the CMA’s consumer enforcement powers sufficiently strong enough to tackle illegal bulk-buying and speculative selling. But instead, sadly, the Government effectively gave the bad actors a free pass, ignoring the overwhelming evidence of the uncontrolled black market, with unlawful practices still rife on websites such as Viagogo and StubHub.

There is enough available evidence to indicate that consumers are still being ripped off and harmed as a result, and still will be, sadly, after this Bill becomes law in its current form. For example, three particular Viagogo sellers attempting to speculatively sell thousands of festival tickets that they had not bought; or the Golden Circle, an online rent-a-bot group illegally buying masses of tickets for Eurovision, Beyoncé and others, resulting in less availability at face value for genuine fans, who are then priced out when the touts put these ill-gotten tickets for sale on the secondary platforms—blatant profiteering.

The Government’s recent approach, ignoring the recommendations of the CMA, seems to rely on the conviction of just two touts some three years ago as a deterrent. This conviction—important and groundbreaking though it was—actually relied upon the Companies Act 2006 and the Fraud Act 2006, not the purpose-built Consumer Rights Act 2015 that I was involved in, or the Digital Economy Act 2017. That suggests that the actual enforcement of legislation is insufficient—something that this Bill must surely look to fix. I will say more about that later in my remarks.

Even in a negative outlook whereby we might believe that ticket touting will never be completely eradicated, the fact that artists and fans are equally appalled by how touting goes unchecked must surely put fire behind the need for policymakers to take further action. Otherwise, we should assume that the Government want to control the loopholes, corruption and profiteering that is rife within this marketplace.

The Government are failing consumers, as bad-faith actors and harmful practices continue to harm them with industrial-scale touting. I worry that this is because of a widespread lack of knowledge of the industrial scale of touts and the bad-faith actors engaged in the practice. The fact is that between 1,200 and as many as 1,600 professional touts still operate, committing the exact same offences that those two were convicted for. That is an appalling track record, and not at all evidence that the current laws or law enforcement in this area are working, regardless of what the Minister would have us believe.

Consumers face an unfair market in primary sale, before then being ripped off in the secondary market. Most of us in this House will know the injustice that fans feel. At times, we are those fans who miss out when we try to get tickets. As MPs, we see the often heartbreaking letters from constituents who have been ripped off. This is genuine consumer detriment—exactly what this Bill is supposed to try and fix. It is detriment and harm that this Bill will not help or bring to an end in its current form, as the Government have refused to implement the small but much-needed proposals requested by the CMA in this area.

It is important to point out that these activities also pejoratively affect the live music industry and the value chain, with knock-ons for not only consumers but that vital part of the UK economy. Touting is not limited to live music or theatres; it affects sporting events too. Take football, for example, where touting is already supposed to be illegal. There are, on average, 20 to 30 active touts selling tickets for premier league fixtures with impunity. This is illegal. Let us bear in mind that the inconspicuous nature of touting means that this number is likely to be a large underestimation. According to Home Office figures, yearly arrests of football ticket touts have been decreasing, dropping from 107 arrests in 2011-12 to only 28 in the 2019-20 season.

What real assessment would the Government make of the capacity of enforcement agencies, such as National Trading Standards, Action Fraud or even the police, to clamp down on this malpractice? Two prosecuted touts is hardly the bragging rights that the Minister thinks.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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I certainly do not ask for any bragging rights. May I thank the hon. Lady for the work she does on the all-party parliamentary group on ticket abuse? On the case she refers to, she is right to say that it is three years since the conviction took place, but the confiscation order, which was for £6.1 million, took place only in December last year. Does she think that sends a strong message to the cohort of people she refers to that there are strict and strong penalties for people who engage in that kind of activity?

Sharon Hodgson Portrait Mrs Hodgson
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We would all like to think that it would with right-minded people, but I do not think professional touts think like the Minister or any of us in this House, so they probably have not seen it as a deterrent. From what I am hearing from the experts I work with, it is still going on—it is business as usual for the touts. We really need more enforcement in this area. More laws are good, but laws without enforcement just do not work.

The UK is rightly proud of its live event industry, but do the Government really know what the consumer experience often is? I would be interested to learn which experts, campaigners or live music representatives the Government worked with or consulted when they rejected the CMA’s advice so firmly. I have written to the Minister to ask him that, so he can respond in writing if he does not have that information to hand or in his memory from those meetings.

The Minister rejected the advice on this area, saying that resale sites like Viagogo may

“still provide a service of value to some consumers”.

The many tens of thousands of victims of Viagogo may disagree. That misses the point entirely. Resale sites allow touts to commit fraud every single day and permit them to charge inexplicably high prices for such tickets. Illegal activity is happening on those sites right now, as we sit here discussing the issue. Such sites are profiting from that, and the CMA has no power to do anything about it, which is why the Bill needs additional measures. I hope the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology will take a different approach to its forerunner Department, because the Bill is a perfect and timely opportunity to rectify the situation.

If, as the Minister has said, broader changes to consumer law are the priority, I look forward to learning what changes to the proposed legislation his Government will allow. At present, despite the enhanced consumer protection in the Bill, which he spoke of in his opening remarks, it will not be able to tackle all the problems in the online secondary ticketing market, as the enforcement is just not there. Speak to any National Trading Standards officer: they want to go after the touts, but their budget of circa £16 million is for everything they need to do and is not sufficient. I am sure they could spend that on enforcement against illegal ticket touting alone.

The Bill looks to provide the CMA with stronger tools to investigate competition problems and take faster, more effective action, including where companies collude to bump up prices at the expense of UK consumers. Is that not exactly the case in the secondary ticketing market, where sites like Viagogo allow individuals, as well as themselves, to profiteer from a manner of resale that contradicts legislation? As part of the Bill, will the Government take the necessary steps to make sure that laws, including those in the Bill, are upheld and enforced properly?

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response on this matter. Our cross-party group, the all-party parliamentary group on ticket abuse, would be delighted to work with him and his Department to strengthen the legislation and to protect consumers from the abomination of ticket abuse.

16:18
Andy Carter Portrait Andy Carter (Warrington South) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to be called to speak on Second Reading of this important and much anticipated piece of legislation.

I will start by making one or two comments from a consumer perspective. I particularly welcome the steps to address rip-off scams and rogue traders. For too long, they have been allowed, and in some cases encouraged, by platforms that have not always policed this area in a proactive manner. They have been able to post fake reviews online and to tie people into subscription contracts when they simply did not know that they had signed up. Every Member will have received correspondence from constituents who have been caught in such traps, and I welcome the steps that the Bill takes to address this issue.

I am keen for us to improve consumer rights and, at the same time, the enforcement of those rights, which I hope will drive competition and spur growth. I see the Bill as a welcome addition that will facilitate the right market conditions to encourage innovation, while protecting consumers from modern harms. This morning, I met representatives of Amazon here in Parliament, and I was struck by the fact that although it has been in the UK for only 25 years, over that period it has transformed retailing in the digital space and people’s engagement with media on digital platforms. However, its impact on global dominance has consequences, and it is therefore right that we introduce legislation to respond to that changed market.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary media group, I want to say a little about how the Bill addresses issues in the media publishing industry. I was very struck by the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), but I do not intend to repeat them because he made them incredibly well, and that will allow me to shorten my speech somewhat. The media publishing sector has for some time considered the need for legislation, and I have chaired a number of sessions examining the Digital Markets Unit and the impact that it can have within the sector.

I should make it clear that I welcome much of what is in the Bill. I want it to be passed without delay and, crucially, without any watering down of its provisions. It is needed to ensure that British businesses and consumers do not remain at the mercy of super-companies which, while providing services for consumers, can stifle growth and innovation in the UK economy. The Competition and Markets Authority estimates that Google and Meta together made excess profits of about £4 billion in 2021 alone, and I am sure that the figure for 2022 will be even higher. Big tech platforms extract these excess profits not by being the best businesses on the basis of free-market competition, but by leveraging their market power.

Digital markets are particularly susceptible to tipping, whereby one firm becomes dominant and entrenched with little prospective challenge. I am therefore pleased that the Bill allows the Digital Markets Unit to designate the very largest digital firms with substantial and entrenched market power as having strategic market status. The DMU will be able to enforce conduct requirements tailored to the business models of those strategic market firms, which will ensure that big tech firms act in a way that ensures fair dealing, trust and transparency in their interactions with smaller businesses and individual consumers who rely on their services.

It would be helpful if the Minister could provide further clarity on a couple of specific points. I am keen to explore the interaction between news publishers and organisations such as Google. As my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe pointed out, local newspapers are particularly challenged. The final offer mechanism will allow the DMU to select bids from a strategic market firm and a publisher for the value of news content. That will be a very protracted process. Will the Minister consider introducing interim measures to avoid the risk of local newspapers going bust before some form of resolution is agreed? Will he also consider a requirement to ensure that the final offer mechanism is initiated and completed at an early stage?

I urge the Government to look at ways of expediting the processes, which would enable the DMU to prioritise platform-publisher disputes in the interests of ensuring a sustainable news media industry. In other jurisdictions, platforms have either restricted or threatened to restrict news content to avoid payments, and there is evidence that Google has reduced the share of domestic news sources on its platforms, particularly when the content can be replaced with English language alternatives, as is the case with international news. Will the Minister provide an assurance that the fair dealing objective and the conduct requirements that allow the DMU to prevent a service from being withdrawn in a discriminatory way could be used to prevent Google or Meta from withdrawing or reducing the volume of UK news to reduce the value of deals with news publishers?

Getting really into the weeds, it is important that the countervailing benefits exemption in clause 29 should not be drawn too broadly. The exemption allows designated SMS firms to continue conduct that contravenes the conduct requirements if they can prove that it has an overriding public benefit. I gently suggest to the Minister that if the exemption is too broad, SMS firms will be able to regularly avoid complying with conduct requirements by citing things such as security and privacy claims, as well as, frankly, by spamming the CMA with numerous studies, thus diverting resources to addressing those studies rather than tackling the issues at hand. This would undermine the entire regime by severely limiting the efficacy of the conduct requirements.

I am keen to ask the Minister if he would be willing to consider placing a non-exhaustive list of acceptable grounds for exemptions in the Bill. While the great advantage of the Digital Markets Unit is its agency and ability to write tailored conduct requirements for SMS firms, that leaves it open to regulatory capture. Can the Minister can give me an assurance that there are adequate provisions requiring the DMU to consult third parties so that SMS firms are not able to write their own conduct requirements or construct their own remedies in cases of conduct requirement breaches?

I welcome the measures the Government have brought forward in the Bill. This is strong, forward-looking digital market regulation and it will ensure that digital markets can live up to their potential, allowing consumers to enjoy the full benefits that technology can deliver. It is also important that we look at this Bill alongside the media Bill, because so many of the issues that are addressed across the wider digital industry are covered in the two Bills and it is good that this legislation is coming through hand in hand with that Bill. By giving the Digital Markets Unit new powers to tackle the dominance of monopolistic big tech platforms, we will be able to unlock the growth and innovation that have been stifled by a severe lack of competition, which will hopefully give start-ups and smaller firms proper access to markets and consumers.

16:27
Rebecca Long Bailey Portrait Rebecca Long Bailey (Salford and Eccles) (Lab)
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I want to limit my comments on the Bill to how it affects journalism. The National Union of Journalists has long called for the enforcement of levies on tech giants that unfairly consume editorial content without contributing to its production. That point was highlighted in the Cairncross review:

“Publishers frequently complain that the relationship is excessively weighted in favour of the online platforms. In most cases, the latter do not directly remunerate news publishers for placing their content on their platforms, although there are some exceptions.”

The review went on to state:

“Platforms are not subject to the same press rules of accuracy and fairness as news publishers are. And in all these ways, argue publishers, the increasing grip of certain platforms over news distribution channels is threatening the future of high-quality news.”

Without adequate regulation of news provision beyond the regulated news titles or compensation for publishers whose content is used, we risk a wild west of news provision that is chopped, coiffured or skewed without a publisher’s consent and outside the scope of normal news regulation. That should worry us all, because journalism is critical to upholding democracy, to holding local and national politicians like myself to account, and to holding Government and local government to account.

None the less, the Bill’s provisions that will provide a mechanism for payments to publishers from tech giants are welcome. They have been called for by the NUJ, including in its news recovery plan. I also welcome the Bill’s efforts to provide publishers with data that allows for a better understanding of how content performs on platforms. I stress that these provisions must be implemented without any further delay or weakening of conditions, but I fear that the Government will already be under pressure. Indeed, Google and Meta have attempted to ward off similar negotiations in Australia and Canada by restricting or threatening to restrict access to trusted domestic news.

The News Media Association has said:

“Denying citizens access to reliable information to avoid payment serves only to emphasise the primacy that these firms place on profits rather than citizens’ interests. The government should not give in to similar threats in the UK.”

I stress that the Government must not bow to pressure to water down these provisions—in fact, quite the opposite. There are a number of areas where they could strengthen the Bill or provide much-needed clarity. The hon. Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) highlighted a few areas where we are on the same page, so there is clearly cross-party support.

First, there appears to be a protracted process to reach the final offer mechanism in the Bill that allows the Digital Markets Unit to select bids from a strategic market status firm and a publisher for the value of a news contract. That means that, even if an SMS firm has no intention of complying with a conduct requirement to negotiate with a news publisher, it could take years from the issuing of such a conduct requirement for the final offer process to be initiated and completed. What will the Government do to expedite this process?

Secondly, as I have already mentioned, in other jurisdictions, platforms have restricted or threatened to restrict national news content to avoid payments. What assurances can the Minister give today that the fair dealing objective and the conduct requirement that allows the Digital Markets Unit to prevent a service from being withdrawn in a discriminatory way, could be used to prevent a platform from withdrawing or reducing the volume of UK news sources to reduce the value of payments to UK publishers?

Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman gently suggested it, but I am strongly suggesting that clause 29 is not satisfactorily drafted. It allows for a firm with significant market status to continue conduct that contravenes a conduct requirement if it can prove the conduct has an overriding public benefit, but that overriding public benefit is not defined in the Bill. This presents a glaring loophole that could be significantly abused. I hope this is just an oversight on the Minister’s part, and that the clause is not deliberately drafted in that way, but will he clarify this by adding a clear list of acceptable grounds for exemption?

Finally, as we have heard, there is a concern that, although the DMU is able to write tailored conduct requirements for firms with significant market status, not consulting a wider stakeholder base risks leaving it open to regulatory capture. Like the hon. Member for Warrington South, I would be grateful if the Minister considered adding provisions to the Bill to require the DMU to consult third parties to avoid such risks.

The Bill will go some way towards rectifying a murky quagmire, but there is much more beyond the scope of this Bill that needs to be addressed. Members will no doubt be aware that BBC members of the National Union of Journalists will walk out on strike on 7 and 8 June over plans to cut local radio provision. Cuts to local news provision matter because local journalism is vital to democracy by enabling people to hold local government and public services to account at a time when national news outlets primarily focus their attention on the latest Westminster scandal. Local journalism matters because it helps to build strong, happy communities by allowing local people to hear about the things that matter in their area and by giving them a voice to raise things about which they are unhappy. Local journalism matters because it supports local economic activity by celebrating local businesses and giving young journalists a chance to cut their teeth and gain the skills they need for a career in broadcasting.

Sadly, we know what happens when local news services are eroded. We have watched as the local, community-driven newspaper sector has collapsed over the past 10 years. In my constituency, we no longer have a dedicated Salford newspaper, and when publicly funded news providers such as the BBC also start to curtail their local offering, there is a risk of there being no democratic scrutiny or local news coverage at all. So the Government must recognise that, although the Bill is a welcome step forward, they must urgently turn the tide and act upon the local journalism sustainability recommendations made this year by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. If they do not do so, we risk continuing centralisation of news coverage and erosion of democratic scrutiny, where only the most sensational—

Andy Carter Portrait Andy Carter
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Will the hon. Lady give way?

Rebecca Long Bailey Portrait Rebecca Long Bailey
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I am coming to the end of my comments—I do apologise. Where only the most sensational news stories that drive the most clicks make it to our computer screens.

16:35
Bim Afolami Portrait Bim Afolami (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con)
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It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) and I cannot think of a subject that would generate more clicks than digital markets and the CMA. With that in mind, I mention that David Lloyd George, a long-serving and respected Member of this place, was known to remark to young Members who asked him in his later years how they should get on, make a speech and behave, that he had one main rule: Cabinet Ministers can make three points in a speech, junior Ministers can make two and Back Benchers can make one. So I shall try to make one fundamental point in my speech, which is about the accountability of the CMA.

Many Members, on both sides of the House, including the Chair of the Select Committee, have said—there was a session for Members of Parliament earlier this week at which I made similar points to the Ministers on the Treasury Bench—that, when we give power to an arm’s length body, we have to very careful about the use of that power. Members of Parliament, and the Government, must make sure it is exercised in the right way, as intended by primary legislation and by the policies of the Government of the day, in broad strategic terms. I do not mean we should do that day-by-day, decision-by-decision, where we second-guess our regulators. If we were to do that, we would get the worst of all worlds. Nobody sensible thinks that that is a good idea.

I chair the Regulatory Reform Group and I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. In recent weeks and months, my colleagues on that group and I have been thinking seriously about the broader regulatory system and how it can be improved to get the best outcome for our economy, and for individuals and businesses in this country. This is a good Bill. It does important things. I welcome the more flexible, less dogmatic, less box-ticky approach embodied in the Digital Markets Unit. That is a good thing. The Government are right to have taken into account a lot of work and thinking that has been done by many different people, both in this House and outside, over the past 18 months or so, and they should be commended for that.

However, I am worried about giving a lot more power to the CMA, if it is not checked. If it is not held to account more by this House and by the Government, we could inadvertently—the CMA has brilliant people who are trying to do their best job for the country—create an image of this country, or indeed of digital markets or any other market, that is not to the overall benefit of this country in comparison with our competitors.

In particular, I am thinking of the appeals mechanism. The Bill contains an appeals mechanism that is given a judicial review standard. That will mean—I can see two former Lord Chancellors next to me, who will correct me if this is wrong—that any appeal has to be broadly on judicial review grounds, which are on process, illegality and various other aspects that do not relate per se to the merits of the decision. In effect, if the Competition and Markets Authority has made a decision, having followed the correct process, not been irrational or done something illegal, and a party or parties do not agree with that decision, that decision cannot be challenged on its merits.

This suggestion has been pushed back in previous Bills that have come to this House when there has been discussion about whether the appeal standard should be a judicial review or a merit standard. In previous iterations, the House has always decided to take a merit standard. In this instance, we have taken a judicial review standard. That sends a subtle, but very important, signal to companies and investors outside of this country. They will say, “If something goes awry with the regulator in Britain, what is our appeal right?” They may feel that that appeal right is not sufficient compared with, say, the European Union, Singapore, the United States or wherever it is they are also thinking of investing. If they compare the two and we come off unfavourably, that will have a damaging impact on this country. That particular aspect of the Bill—the accountability—is very important.

Robert Buckland Portrait Sir Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con)
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I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker, for not being able to join the debate until now.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one problem is that there seems to be a bit of a misreading from Ofcom to this appeals mechanism? The Government will have to look again at merit-based appeals, because judicial review principles are just too narrow, in order to deal with the potentially powerful and wide remit of the CMA. On the point about undertakings and breaches of undertakings, it seems that, on the current reading of the Bill, this will have a retrospective effect on undertakings prior to this legislation coming into force. I support the legislation, but does he agree that this needs very careful reading to make sure that we do not have either unintended consequences, or too big a reach for what will be a very important process?

Bim Afolami Portrait Bim Afolami
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I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for those points, which he made incredibly well. Retrospective decision making is worrying—reaching back to decisions that have already been made, notwithstanding whatever the future holds. That, again, goes to my central point about the impact of the Bill and the impression of this country as somewhere to invest and to do business in areas where the CMA will have considerable power.

To go back to the Lloyd George maxim and the one point that I want to make in this speech on accountability, a key part of the work of the Regulatory Reform Group, to which the Chair of the Select Committee referred, is to point out that this Parliament—both Houses—needs to have an enhanced view in looking at our regulators. We need to consider, on a day-by-day basis, how the regulator is performing. Is it applying the strategic policy statement that the Government have given it? Is it doing things in the right way? How is it dealing with stakeholders? We should not just have what happens currently: a Select Committee gets involved and calls the big boss—the chief executive officer, or the chair—when there is a big mistake, a mess-up, and it is in the newspapers. That is not sufficient. We need to enhance that. Both Houses should be involved. We have made some detailed proposals as to how to do that in our first report and we will continue to do that.

This point of accountability may seem academic, it may seem legal, and it may even seem political at times, but it is fundamentally about the economy and the competitiveness of this country. If we can have greater accountability, our excellent regulators’ authority will be enhanced because they will know, business will know, people will know and consumers will know that we have a better functioning system. In that context, with those changes, I strongly support the Bill.

16:40
Sarah Olney Portrait Sarah Olney (Richmond Park) (LD)
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The Liberal Democrats warmly welcome the measures in this Bill that will enable the Competition and Markets Authority to counter the dominance of big tech firms and encourage real competition and dynamism across the sector. It is a real pleasure to speak in such a good debate on well-drafted legislation that has broad support from across the House. Credit is due not only to the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) and the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), who are not in their places but who have worked very hard on this Bill, but to the Competition and Markets Authority for all its work throughout the consultation stages and in designing this pro-competition regime.

I am pleased the Government have acted on the CMA’s recommendations and are introducing this Bill to the House. The Liberal Democrats want to see a thriving British tech sector, where start-ups can innovate, create good jobs and launch new products that will benefit consumers, and a strong competition framework that pushes back on the dominance of the tech giants is essential for that.

For too long, smaller, dynamic start-up companies have been driven out of the market or swallowed up by big tech firms that see the existence of other players in the market as a potential threat. We are therefore pleased to see greater powers awarded to the CMA to investigate the takeover of small but promising start-ups that do not meet the usual merger control thresholds, as well as the other key pro-competition interventions. The update to the competition framework provided for in the Bill is also particularly important for growth industries such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality, which are in their infancy but have great potential both for positive contributions to our economy and for competition disadvantage.

Consumer protections form another part of the Bill; the new rules and powers awarded to the CMA to protect consumers in parts 3 and 4 of the Bill are well overdue and will benefit many of our constituents. In particular, like many hon. Members who have spoken already, the Liberal Democrats are pleased to see the measures designed to tackle subscription traps by increasing transparency, making it easier for consumers to end those sorts of contracts and clamping down on fake reviews.

While we are glad that most of the CMA’s recommendations are included in the Bill, we have concerns over certain aspects that would benefit from further consideration and clarification. I think I join with the hon. Members for Warrington South (Andy Carter) and for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) —we have proper cross-party agreement here—when I say that I am very concerned about the Bill’s countervailing benefits exemption. It might allow some large tech firms to get away with anti-competitive practices and to evade conduct requirements by arguing that the benefits to users outweigh the negative consequences for competition. The broad nature of the exemption risks significantly undermining the entire regime by limiting the efficacy of the conduct requirements. We will therefore seek to tighten the definition of what benefits are valid as the Bill progresses through the House.

The Liberal Democrats are also concerned that the Digital Markets Unit will designate firms as having strategic market status based on an assessment of their entrenched market dominance five years into the future. Future dominance is hard to predict and we have seen rapid change in the tech sector over the past 20 years. We would never have imagined in the late ’80s or early ’90s the dominance that firms such as Google and Apple would have in the market at the turn of the century.

We are concerned that that ambiguity could allow firms wide scope to challenge their SMS designation and fall outside the Digital Markets Unit’s regulatory framework. Above all, we urge the Government to resist pressure to water down the measures in the Bill, which could allow tech giants to continue anti-competitive behaviour. In other countries such as Canada and Australia, we have seen how firms such as Google have responded to tougher regulation of big tech by restricting access to domestic news on their platforms. It is imperative that the UK Government do not bend to any such pressure and reject attempts to water down legislation or weaken it through loopholes.

As the Bill progresses, we must also ensure that there is no ambiguity in its drafting that could be open to exploitation. It is important to remember that it is not only tech companies that require a level playing field to operate in the digital economy; small businesses across the country are increasingly moving their operations online, and many now rely on digital platforms such as online marketplaces, yet current unfair market practices mean that many find themselves vulnerable to exploitation, causing economic harm and stifling innovation. Unlike larger firms, many small and microbusinesses do not have the resources to take action when they are treated badly, and Trading Standards is powerless to act on their behalf due to a significant lack of resource and an outdated operating model still based on local authorities.

One key concern of small businesses operating online, and the best example of that power imbalance, is infringement of intellectual property rights. Intellectual property rights are absolutely central to the success of small businesses and individual creators, protecting the integrity of original work and ensuring that individuals are fairly compensated. However, IP theft is all too common in the digital environment, which causes significant economic harm.

Yasemin Guzeler, a constituent of mine, has been a victim of such infringement and has allowed me to share her story. Yasemin owns her own small business, Blooms of London, which sells bespoke umbrellas featuring trademarked designs. Around October last year, Yasemin noticed that the manufacturer of her products, based in China, had copied her designs and was selling the items directly via online platforms at half the price of the original items. Yasemin has since faced a momentous battle with online platforms such as Amazon to try to remove counterfeit links. After months of emails, complaints, referrals and untold financial and emotional distress, there remain almost 40 counterfeit links on Amazon. Yasemin’s business is now facing bankruptcy, and there is seemingly nowhere else she can turn for help and no mechanism through which she can effectively enforce her rights against Amazon.

I am therefore pleased to see

“effective processes for handling complaints and disputes with users”

listed under

“Permitted types of conduct requirements”

for SMS firms, but much more must be done to protect our small businesses and individual creators and uphold their intellectual property rights when they engage in digital activity. I would like an explicit reference to “intellectual property theft” in the Bill, and for reducing economic harm on their service to be included in the list of permitted types of conduct requirements for SMS firms in clause 20. I would also welcome further comment from, and engagement with, the Minister on how we can best protect small business owners such as Yasemin when they operate online. It is essential that we get this right to support our entrepreneurs and small businesses, and allow them to remain competitive in the digital economy.

The Liberal Democrats are pleased that the Government are finally acting on the CMA’s recommendation and bringing forward measures that will allow the regulator to prevent tech giants from putting our digital sector in a stranglehold. We hope that the Government will be robust in their defence of the Bill against lobbying by tech giants, and we hope to see the Bill progress through the House without being watered down or weakened through the addition of loopholes that might be ripe for exploitation. I hope that the Minister will also reflect on my comments about the additional measures needed to support small businesses online. I would welcome further opportunity to engage with the Government on that. Although competition is crucial for Britain’s tech sector, we hope that the Government will move to tackle the fundamental issues that are holding it back, such as the skills gap, a shortage of skilled workers and weak investment.

16:52
James Wild Portrait James Wild (North West Norfolk) (Con)
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I am pleased to have the opportunity to talk about the Bill, which will drive innovation, growth and productivity by reforming digital market regulation, the competition regime and consumer protection.

Let me begin with the digital market elements. Technology permeates every aspect of our lives. The businesses that develop and apply new technologies—be they social media platforms, online marketplaces or innovation-driven firms—create huge benefits for consumers and make a major economic contribution. As the Chancellor frequently reminds us, the UK is the only country outside the US and China to have a tech sector with companies valued at more than £1 trillion—companies that have developed their businesses and attracted customers.

We must always be mindful that regulation and intervention in markets come at a cost. My starting point is to trust the invisible hand of the market as much as possible to drive competition, but markets require rules, and where those rules exist, they need to be enforced. We must be careful in how we approach regulation, and not penalise firms for being successful.

As has been said, digital markets have features, including the importance of data and network effects, that tend towards a few large players. It is certainly not the case, however, that having a small number of players with large market power is in itself a bad thing—it can represent the reward for innovation and investment. However, the CMA concluded in its review of online advertising that Facebook and Google’s market position meant that consumers and businesses faced increased costs, there was less innovation, and consumers had unfavourable terms imposed on them owing to competition.

The Bill will give the CMA the tools to designate firms with that strategic market status and apply conduct requirements for fair dealing, open choices and trust, which all sounds reasonable—for example, ensuring that there is a clear appeal process if a user’s marketplace access is terminated, or giving consumers choices and the ability to easily switch between services. However, it could easily become a burdensome requirement, so we must ensure that the regime is proportionate and that the cumulative impact of such requirements is regularly reviewed. Perhaps the Bill could be further improved by including something on its face to require the CMA to do so.

As a member of the Regulatory Reform Group, ably chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami), I share his concern about the accountability of regulators and the systematic underperformance that we see. Given the significant power that regulators wield and the impact of their decisions on the lives of our constituents, they must be accountable for those decisions. My hon. Friend set out very clearly and powerfully the case for our first report’s recommendations to promote greater accountability, as well as introducing standardised metrics so that we can judge regulators’ performance. I hope those recommendations will be taken forward.

I will briefly focus on the consumer regulation part of the Bill. Where companies breach consumer protection rules, there should be swift and proportionate action, but currently that does not happen, as the CMA lacks the powers to rapidly act: it has to go to court when it considers there has been a breach of consumer law. Which? has pointed out that a lack of powers meant that it took nearly six years to get the online secondary ticketing market to change its practices, although as we have heard from the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), there are still problems in that sector. That is why the new powers in the Bill are to be welcomed: there will be a direct enforcement regime, so that the CMA can investigate suspected breaches and issue enforcement notices and fines. That brings us into line with other major jurisdictions.

Others have referred to subscription services. About £30 billion is spent annually on those services, and consumer groups have identified that as another area of potential abuse. We will all have had different experiences: in some cases, it has been simple to unsubscribe from a service, and in others, it has been far more difficult—perhaps deliberately so, to make customers stick. Sky has raised concerns about the level of prescriptiveness on the face of the Bill regarding this issue, and has pointed out that in some cases, the requirements are more onerous than those that apply in regulated sectors. I hope the Minister will carefully consider those concerns, while ensuring that it is simple for customers to unsubscribe from services they no longer wish to pay for.

The final element I will focus on is that of fake reviews, and the detriment they cause to consumers and businesses. According to research by Which?, fake reviews make consumers more than twice as likely to choose poor-quality products, and people can be put off from making choices, whether about restaurants or about somewhere to stay. That is a particular issue for my constituency of North West Norfolk, which has a vibrant tourism and hospitality sector. UKHospitality welcomed the Bill’s helping to deliver fairness for hospitality venues and customers in that area, so I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed when the consultation he has referred to, which will get into the detail of how we tackle fake reviews, will be published so that we can act rapidly to close down those unfair practices.

To conclude, I support the intention of the Bill: to give the CMA powers to act rapidly against breaches of consumer law, to strengthen competition, and to crack down on abuses.

16:57
John McDonnell Portrait John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab)
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Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker; I will be relatively brief. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), I am a member of the National Union of Journalists’ parliamentary group—in fact, I am its secretary. It is really pleasing that there have been so many references to the issues around journalism and publishing from the hon. Members for Warrington South (Andy Carter), for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) and for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney), as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles.

The NUJ welcomes the Bill wholeheartedly; Members who may not have been interested in the journalistic or publishing side of this issue will want to understand why. My hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles has described the way in which there has been erosion of local media and local press, as well as national cutbacks. While journalists have been losing their jobs, what has infuriated them is that where they are producing work—quality, reliable, regular news—that news is then being effectively ripped off on to other platforms and used to attract customers to advertising, and they get no recompense whatever. Members can understand why there is a depth of anger that has built up, and why the NUJ welcomes the Bill. We have been working with the News Media Association as well, which also welcomes it, because we see it as restoring some elements of the balance of power between the big tech giants and the journalists and publishers themselves.

To a certain extent, I agree with the hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) about the importance of the accountability of regulators and ensuring that they can play their role effectively. Part of the problem on regulation at the moment is the forest of regulators that we have and their accountability. About five years ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles and I commissioned a report from Lord Prem Sikka. I will send the hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden a copy, because it identified something like 50 different regulators in the finance sector stumbling over each other, not being held particularly to account by this place. I see the solution as being more about shifting the balance of power not to regulators, although they should be held accountable, but to the journalists and publishers themselves. That is why part 3 of the Bill is key for us. It demonstrates a firmness of purpose by the Government in ensuring proper regulation and the restoration of the balance of power, but the devil will be in the detail of the implementation of these regulations and clauses in particular.

I am anxious, like others, about clause 29. It just looks like a gaping loophole that could emerge in the coming period. The NUJ stands ready to engage in any discussions and consultations on the implementation of all the clauses in part 3, particularly in regard to guidelines, the final offer mechanism, the issues around timescales of the implementation and, if necessary, the sanctions that could be brought forward for any individual organisation that is dragging its feet and delaying an agreement on the final offer so that people are properly rewarded.

The hon. Member for Richmond Park raised the issue of intellectual property. That is an issue not only for journalists and others, but for performers. It has been raised with Equity, and Equity stands willing to engage in the discussions with the Government on these matters.

Overall, the significance of this legislation, for us and for the NUJ in particular, is that it could be another brick in the wall of restoring some of the infrastructure and architecture that we had for quality journalism in this country. In that sense, that is why we welcome it. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles that it is one part and much more needs to be done, including investment in the BBC and elsewhere, such as local radio services. Instead, we have this dispute.

We also need to ensure proper investment in local journalism. There have been some developments under this Government to support local journalism. Money has been hived into particular support for community journalism, but there is a lot more to do, and that is why the union wishes to engage in a full consultation with the Government about the long-time future of quality journalism in this country. With those few remarks, I welcome the legislation. We will work on the detail. As I say, we and the unions stand ready to involve ourselves in the consultation on the guidelines for implementation.

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
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I call the shadow Minister.

17:02
Alex Davies-Jones Portrait Alex Davies-Jones (Pontypridd) (Lab)
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As ever, it is an honour to close this debate on behalf of the Opposition. I thank colleagues from all parts of the House for their contributions in what has been a genuinely interesting and insightful debate. I thank in particular my hon. Friends the Members for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) and for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), but also the hon. Members for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami), for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman), for Warrington South (Andy Carter) and for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) for their contributions. The strength of cross-party feeling in the House today shows that there is a lot we can do together to enhance the Bill, to make it work and to make it effective, and I look forward to pressing further in Committee many of the issues that have been raised this afternoon, with cross-party support from all Members.

We all know that there is a need for change and that regulation of the digital market is vitally needed. That is why Labour supports and welcomes this Bill in principle, delayed though it may be. Since the intentions of this Bill were first mooted in the Queen’s Speech back in May 2022, we have seen the digital world continue to change, to grow and to expand at an incredible rate. We have seen sustained growth in AI technology hitting the mainstream, and tech continues to be a central feature of our homes, workplaces and social lives. At the same time, stories depicting the dominance of social media and online platforms continue to hit headlines on what feels like a daily, if not weekly basis. This Government have failed to keep up, let alone rise and face the challenges of competition in digital markets, and consumers and businesses are left in a state of flux.

Just last year, Google was hit by the largest-ever fine by a European court for thwarting competition and pre-installing its Chrome search engine and apps on handsets as a condition for carrying its Google Play app store. The penalty was colossal, amounting to over €4 billion—the largest ever fine for an antitrust violation.

This failure to encourage more competition in our online space is having a significant impact on both businesses and in terms of stifled opportunities for innovation and consumers, who are now paying the price of online scams and fraud becoming a persistent risk. The cost of this Government’s inaction is significant. That is why Labour broadly welcomes this Bill and will support its progression. If pro-competition legislation is done correctly, the Bill could change the online space for the better, but it is crucial that we first dismantle our understanding of exactly what the digital market even is.

As we have heard this afternoon, businesses operating in digital markets range from social media platforms, such as Meta and Twitter; marketplaces, such as eBay, Tripadvisor and Amazon; and tech-driven companies, such as Google and Apple. We can all agree that we are living through a digital and tech revolution, and the digital economy is transforming how we live our lives. In fact, I am confident in saying that all of us in this place regularly interact with these companies on a daily, if not hourly, basis—it is almost impossible not to. While their business models and innovations change at pace, it is vital that our legislation keeps up too.

Make no mistake: Labour recognises that our lives are clearly enhanced in many ways through digital developments. For one, consumers can seemingly make more informed decisions with greater access to information, and businesses can easily reach mass markets at lower cost. But we are also clear that competition is vital to ensuring that companies continue to innovate, and that markets do not become saturated by monopolies. Ultimately, we all want to ensure that consumers can access legitimate information about, and fair prices for, the goods they buy online.

Businesses operating in digital markets contribute a significant amount to the UK economy each year. They are market leaders, and have more often than not been at the heart of historic innovation and modernisation. Indeed, the Government’s own impact assessment suggested that the UK’s digital sector accounted for more than 1.8 million jobs in 2021 and contributed over £150 billion to the UK economy in 2019. We also know that online platforms typically seek to attract consumers by offering their core services—whether a Google search or a profile on a social media platform—for free. Once they have attracted a significant number of users, or consumers, these businesses then seek to make money from users on another side of the platform, commonly through advertising revenues. It is here that the significant dominance and subsequent need to regulate these digital markets is most obvious.

The CMA’s own research into online platforms and digital advertising from 2020 found that around £14 billion is spent on digital advertising each year in the UK. In the search advertising market, which encompasses search services such as Google and Microsoft’s Bing, Google enjoys more than 90% of the £7.3 billion UK market. It is a similar picture across the display advertising market, where Facebook has more than 50% of the £5.5 billion market. Those incredibly high figures present a clear picture when it comes to the significant market dominance that a few companies have and maintain in the digital space, yet these are relatively unsurprising truths.

I see from my own behaviour, and from talking with colleagues and constituents, that all of us are spending more and more time online and that includes our shopping habits, such as buying tickets. I pay tribute here to my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West for all the work on fair ticketing that her all-party parliamentary group on ticket abuse has done. I look forward to pressing the Government further on some of her points, because there is a definite need to act in this space.

The Under-Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), will know that I have a lot to say when it comes to the Government’s failures to keep us all safe online, but perhaps I will keep those comments for another day when the Online Safety Bill finally returns to this House. Unfortunately for him, much of Labour’s frustration with this digital markets Bill are similar to those that we have with this Government’s approach to regulating the online space more widely. Change and regulation of digital markets is much needed, because the current model, which sees tech giants able to dominate across multiple fields, is entirely unsustainable. I urge the Minister to consider what message this Government are sending to start-ups that are struggling to break through in the market. In fact, I do not need him to consider it, because I can tell him directly now.

As I have grappled with this overly complex Bill over the past few weeks and months, I have, like the Minister, met with a huge range of stakeholders. A common theme is that many of the small and medium-sized enterprises that currently have no option other than to rely on the market opportunities afforded to them by the likes of Amazon and Google fear negative consequences if they are seen to be speaking out against them. That is an incredibly unique situation, but ultimately it points to the real dominance that certain companies have over a huge range of sectors. From Amazon’s power in the book, e-book and audiobook market, to Apple’s stronghold on gaming and app development, we certainly do not have to look far to see examples of exactly how dominant a few of the big giants truly are.

In 2021, the CMA found that Apple and Google were able to earn more than £4 billion of profits that year from their mobile businesses in the UK over and above what was required to sufficiently reward investors with a fair return. That is an incredible figure and—make no mistake—it is only going to get worse as these companies seek to dominate new industries well into the future. That is why Labour welcomes this Bill, and it is good and right that it is making progress today.

However, we do have significant concerns that the legislation could be watered down later on, as has been expressed by hon. Members on all sides of this House. First, we know the dominance that big companies have in our markets and economy, but their dominance absolutely should not extend to writing our legislation. As with so many other policies announced by this Government in recent years, I have genuine concerns that this Bill will be watered down during its passage, and that small businesses and consumers will continue to pay the price because the Government are simply too scared to do the right thing.

I share the concerns of Members on both sides of the House—namely, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West and the hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden—about parliamentary scrutiny and oversight of the regulatory body. It is absolutely vital that the CMA has a direction from this Parliament of what policies should be in its primary focus, and I am keen to explore that further in Committee. I hope the Minister can give us some reassurance on this particular point, because I know it is a concern that, as I have said, is shared by many Members.

Secondly, I am also keen to seek some reassurance from the Minister that the Digital Markets Unit will be empowered to draw on the work that has been done in the past few years, so that once this Bill is finally on the statute book, it can hit the ground running. As the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), stated, the Government first established a digital competition expert panel tasked with examining competition in digital markets way back in 2018, which is over five years ago. None of us wants to see any more time wasted, so I hope the Minister can assure us all that he will work hard to enable this regime to get going from day one.

Thirdly, there is some ambiguity in this Bill about how effective the appeals process is in its current form and whether it will actually force change at the heart of big tech companies. I am keen to hear why he has chosen not to place a statutory time limit on the appeals process. We know that the big tech companies are often able to buy time for themselves, so I am interested to hear why the Bill has failed to introduce a formal time constraint to ensure total compliance by those at the heart of Silicon valley.

Lastly, thanks to the Government’s delay in bringing forward this Bill, the sector is unlikely to see any real change for some time to come. Even once this is over the line having reached Royal Assent, the regime will likely take another 12 months, as a minimum, to truly start having an impact. This cannot be news to the Minister. Given how much time has passed and how much this Government have previously pandered to top bosses in Silicon valley, he must do more research and do more to reassure us that this Bill really will have the teeth to change and dismantle the digital monopolies. We recognise that this is difficult—it is a difficult balance—but a pro-competition regime is urgently needed, and that need not be mutually exclusive of an appreciation and understanding of the huge contributions that platforms such as Google and Amazon have had in our daily lives.

To conclude, as with issues related to online harm and data regulation, it is a shame it has taken so long for the Government to act on yet another issue that we all knew of many years ago. This Bill is needed, but we need to make sure that it looks to the future and is sufficiently well future-proofed and flexible to deal with the incredibly fast-paced industry that it seeks to look at. I look forward to working with colleagues to address some of these serious shortcomings in Committee, and I look forward to working with Ministers as the Bill progresses.

17:13
Paul Scully Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology (Paul Scully)
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It is a pleasure to follow what has been an excellent debate. We have had some great contributions from the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood), the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson), my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), my right hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker)—he made an important intervention, which I will come back to in a minute—my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman), the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter), the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami), the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney), my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (James Wild), the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and, of course, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones).

I will cover some of the issues, but I just want to say that it is great that we are holding this debate on the 100-day anniversary of the formation of the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology—and indeed on the Secretary of State’s birthday. That gives us the sharp focus we need as we bring in this important legislation, which I am glad to say has been welcomed right across the House. It is no exaggeration to say that the world is looking on at us in this forum. Yes, the European Union has the Digital Markets Act, but we have a less prescriptive, more flexible approach that other countries are looking at. If we get this right—it is important that we get it right, but also that we bring the Bill in quickly so that we get its effects quickly—hopefully there will be fewer regulatory environments around the world and we will give businesses certainty, rather than having 120 different regulatory environments, which makes it even more confusing for companies in adhering to them.

We heard Labour’s position on subscription traps, and my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk gave the other side of the argument in saying that our approach to subscription traps was a little too prescriptive. The Government analysed consultation responses from last year, and we believe we are implementing measures that best balance the benefits to consumers and the associated cost to businesses. We have drawn the delegated powers as tightly as possible, and any broad or major change to the law will be subject to the draft affirmative procedure and must be laid before Parliament and approved by both Houses—we have been careful about that.

The hon. Member for Gordon raised a couple of measures including the right to redress. A range of consumer-related measures come under the scope of the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, but the core protections in the Consumer Rights Act 2015 continue to apply. We have been careful and clear that we maintain measures that are necessary to fulfil our international commitments, and that will definitely apply to consumer protection. We have always set the highest standards for consumer protection.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about greenwashing and drip pricing. Under current legislation, the CMA is able to tackle those harms, and it is committed to doing so. For example, it has issued guidance to help businesses comply with their existing obligations under consumer protection law when making environmental claims, and in recent years it has acted on drip pricing, particularly in the holiday and travel sectors. The Government are undertaking research to understand the prevalence of drip pricing and its impact on UK consumers. The power to add to the list of banned commercial practices in the Bill will allow us to act swiftly to tackle specific online harms should there be sufficient evidence to warrant further action on specific practices in future.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley, who is not in his place, intervened to ask about charity lotteries. In that instance, because a consumer donates regularly to a charity but does not have receipt of a good, a product or digital content in return, that will not meet the definition of a subscription contract. Therefore, those charitable donations do not need to be included in the exclusions set out in schedule 19, as they are not in scope in the first place.

The hon. Member for Bristol North West spoke about growth duties. Driving innovation, investment and growth should be at the heart of what our regulators do. The growth duty does not currently apply to Ofwat, Ofgem and Ofcom, which regulate sectors that account for 13% of annual private UK investment. As I announced on 10 May, in the coming months the Government intend to consult on reforms to regulation with economic regulators, and on how best to promote growth with utilities regulators. That might include consideration of a growth duty, or it may be done via other routes. The hon. Gentleman also asked about the digital regulation cooperation forum, and regulators that comprise the DRCF are already accountable to the Government and Parliament on an individual basis. We engage closely with them at every level through official channels to understand and inform its strategic priorities and identify opportunities for collaboration and knowledge sharing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness spoke about the possibility for mission creep at the CMA and about interoperability. I agree that interoperability is important for making digital markets more competitive. Conduct requirements in the Bill could be used by the DMU to set clear expectations about interoperability and to prevent an SMS firm from restricting it between designated digital activities and products offered by other firms. If there is evidence of a specific competition problem, pro-competitive interventions will allow the DMU to design targeted interventions. It could, for example, require an SMS firm to allow app stores other than its own to be downloaded and used on its mobile devices.

John Redwood Portrait John Redwood
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Do Ministers as a matter of course invite in leading regulators for at least annual reviews of corporate plans, budgets and performance?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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Many of the regulators will be under the remit of the Under-Secretary of State for Business and Trade, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake). Indeed, that is something that I did—

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

indicated assent.

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I just heard the verbal nod from him to say that he continues to do that.

I will come to the CMA in a second. In answer to the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West, whom I congratulate for the APPG’s work, the CMA is continuing to monitor the online secondary ticketing market, including the issues that have been reported about refunds and cancellations as a result of the pandemic. The Government welcome the CMA’s report, but we believe that we have the measures in place to ensure that consumers have the information that they need to make informed decisions on ticket resales. The Bill will give the CMA significant new civil powers to tackle bad businesses ripping off consumers, so we do not see the need for additional regulatory powers. However, I agree with her that enforcing the existing regulations is key. I thank her for her work in this area.

I will briefly cover some of the other issues. On judicial review, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden, we have heard that the entire purpose of the Bill is to ensure that we tackle an area where a small number of companies have dominance in many parts of our lives. That is not necessarily a bad thing, so this is not an attack on big tech. None the less, some of the challenger firms mentioned by the hon. Member for Pontypridd, although they may be household names, are rightly scared because of the relationship they have with big tech. We must get the balance right by ensuring that there can be an appeal on judicial review standards, but it must not be something that a company with deep pockets can extend and extend. Because the harms happen so quickly in a tech business, the remediation needs to take place as quickly as possible.

Bim Afolami Portrait Bim Afolami
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister give way?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will finish the point and then I will happily give way. Judicial review will still subject decisions to careful scrutiny. The CMA will have to justify how it arrives at its decisions, and the competition appeal tribunal will be able to quash decisions if there have been flaws in the decision making or if processes have not been adhered to. There will be a participative approach to regulating the sector, with SMS firms being consulted formally and informally to help ensure that actions are reasonable and proportionate. The CMA will also be required to publish guidance on how it will take major decisions and publicly consult before making decisions such as designating a firm with SMS, making PCI orders and imposing conduct requirements. Indeed, companies will be able to make a full merits appeal should there be a penalty. Does my hon. Friend wish to intervene?

Bim Afolami Portrait Bim Afolami
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

indicated dissent.

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The CMA remains accountable to Parliament. That will not change. The CMA already has to present its annual plan to Parliament following a consultation, and that will continue. The CMA’s board and staff may also be called to give evidence before parliamentary Select Committees. The Government will continue to appoint the CMA’s key decision makers, including its board, as well as providing the CMA with a strategic steer, highlighting key areas of focus. It will continue to be accountable for its individual decisions via appeals to the competition appeal tribunal, the specialist judicial body with existing expertise, and, in relation to its new powers to inform consumer protection laws, via appeals to the High Court. I have talked about how the CMA is operationally independent, but if the DMU is seen or felt to be going off track, the CMA’s board is accountable to Parliament, so it will be responsible for all decisions in the new regime.

Dominic Raab Portrait Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I certainly support the Bill. The Minister is talking about the importance of checks as well as agility in how the CMA operates. It is unclear, and there are different views about, whether AI will increase concentration in the digital and tech sector or increase competition. Is he confident that the CMA will have the tools to deal with whatever effect AI has on the market in five to 10 years’ time?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Indeed, we have to keep this under review because AI is moving at such a pace. The AI White Paper is under consultation at the moment, and we are looking at its impact and how we will regulate it. The Bill has the flexibility to be able to cope with a number of issues, but clearly we must keep this area under review. Indeed, the DMU must be able to cope with that as well. Many people asked about that.

There are currently about 70 people working in DMU roles, with many more working on digital markets issues across the CMA. The CMA itself will continue to assess what level of staffing it will need. It has the data, technology and analytics unit, which is a world leader in technical expertise and has invested heavily in building its capability ahead of the new regime coming into force. I therefore think it has the expertise, know-how and wherewithal to be able to respond to AI and so on.

Finally, I will quickly address some of the other issues that have been raised. One question from a number of Members was whether technology giants could avoid anti-trust action if they proved that their behaviour benefits consumers and whether the DMU is being given sufficient powers. The DMU will combine a participative approach with the use of formal enforcement powers. The conduct requirements are tailored rules that govern how the most powerful tech firms designated with SMS are expected to behave. The conduct requirements will prevent practices that exploit consumers and businesses, or exclude innovative competitors. Where urgent action is needed on a suspected breach of conduct requirements, the DMU will have the power to make an interim enforcement order to protect consumers before irreversible harm occurs, so a court injunction is not always necessary. If a firm fails to comply, the DMU will be able to use a robust toolkit of financial, reputational and legal mechanisms to deter and punish non-compliance, so we do not have to stretch out the timescale right to the very maximums.

I think we have the balance right, but I look forward to working with colleagues throughout the passage of the Bill. We want to get it right, but we have to get it in place as quickly as possible so we can operationalise it and really see the benefits. There is innovation that is at risk of being lost if we do not allow, as best we can, challenger techs to have a level playing field to proceed in the years to come.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill (Programme)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),

That the following provisions shall apply to the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill:

Committal

(1) The Bill shall be committed to a Public Bill Committee.

Proceedings in Public Bill Committee

(2) Proceedings in the Public Bill Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on Tuesday 18 July.

(3) The Public Bill Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it meets.

Consideration and Third Reading

(4) Proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which proceedings on Consideration are commenced.

(5) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.

(6) Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings on Consideration and up to and including Third Reading.

Other proceedings

(7) Any other proceedings on the Bill may be programmed.—(Julie Marson.)

Question agreed to.

Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill (Money)

King’s recommendation signified.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order. No. 52(1)(a)),

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of:

(1) any expenditure incurred under or by virtue of the Act by the Secretary of State or the Competition and Markets Authority; and

(2) any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable under or by virtue of any other Act out of money provided by Parliament.—(Julie Marson.)

Question agreed to.

Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill (Ways and Means)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order. No. 52(1)(a)),

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill, it is expedient to authorise:

(1) the charging of a levy by the Competition and Markets Authority in connection with the regulation of competition in digital markets; and

(2) the payment of sums into the Consolidated Fund.—(Julie Marson.)

Question agreed to.

Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill (Carry-over)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order. No. 80A(1)(a)),

That if, at the conclusion of this Session of Parliament, proceedings on the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill have not been completed, they shall be resumed in the next Session.—(Julie Marson.)

Question agreed to.

Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill (First sitting)

The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chair: Mr Philip Hollobone
Carter, Andy (Warrington South) (Con)
† Coyle, Neil (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (Lab)
† Davies-Jones, Alex (Pontypridd) (Lab)
Dowd, Peter (Bootle) (Lab)
† Firth, Anna (Southend West) (Con)
† Ford, Vicky (Chelmsford) (Con)
† Foy, Mary Kelly (City of Durham) (Lab)
† Hollinrake, Kevin (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business and Trade)
† Malhotra, Seema (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op)
† Mayhew, Jerome (Broadland) (Con)
Mishra, Navendu (Stockport) (Lab)
† Russell, Dean (Watford) (Con)
† Scully, Paul (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology)
† Stevenson, Jane (Wolverhampton North East) (Con)
† Thomson, Richard (Gordon) (SNP)
Watling, Giles (Clacton) (Con)
† Wood, Mike (Dudley South) (Con)
Kevin Maddison, John-Paul Flaherty, Bradley Albrow, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
Witnesses
Sarah Cardell, Chief Executive, Competition and Markets Authority
George Lusty, Senior Director for Consumer Protection, Competition and Markets Authority
Will Hayter, Digital Markets Unit, Competition and Markets Authority
Rocio Concha, Director of Policy and Advocacy & Chief Economist, Which?
Matthew Upton, Acting Executive Director of Policy & Advocacy, Citizens Advice
Public Bill Committee
Tuesday 13 June 2023
(Morning)
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill
09:25
None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

We are now sitting in public and the proceedings are being broadcast. I have a few preliminary announcements that Mr Speaker has asked me to draw to your attention. Hansard colleagues will be grateful if Members could email their speaking notes to hansardnotes@parliament.uk. Please switch electronic devices to silent.

Today, we will first consider the programme motion on the amendment paper. We will then consider a motion to enable the reporting of written evidence for publication and a motion to allow us to deliberate in private about our questions before the oral evidence session. In view of the time available, I hope that we can take those matters formally, without debate.

Ordered,

That—

1. the Committee shall (in addition to its first meeting at 9.25 am on Tuesday 13 June) meet—

(a) at 2.00 pm on Tuesday 13 June;

(b) at 11.30 am and 2.00 pm on Thursday 15 June;

(c) at 9.25 am and 2.00 pm on Tuesday 20 June;

(d) at 11.30 am and 2.00 pm on Thursday 22 June;

(e) at 9.25 am and 2.00 pm on Tuesday 27 June;

(f) at 11.30 am and 2.00 pm on Thursday 29 June;

(g) at 9.25 am and 2.00 pm on Tuesday 4 July;

(h) at 11.30 am and 2.00 pm on Thursday 6 July;

(i) at 9.25 am and 2.00 pm on Tuesday 11 July;

(j) at 11.30 am and 2.00 pm on Thursday 13 July;

(k) at 9.25 am and 2.00 pm on Tuesday 18 July;

2. the Committee shall hear oral evidence in accordance with the following Table:

Date

Time

Witness

Tuesday 13 June

Until no later than 9.55 am

Competition and Markets Authority

Tuesday 13 June

Until no later than 10.25 am

Which?; Citizens Advice

Tuesday 13 June

Until no later than 10.55 am

Chartered Trading Standards Institute; National Trading Standards

Tuesday 13 June

Until no later than 11.25 am

News Media Association; Publishers Association; DMG Media

Tuesday 13 June

Until no later than 2.45 pm

Professor Jason Furman, Harvard University; Professor Philip Marsden, College of Europe; Professor Amelia Fletcher, University of East Anglia

Tuesday 13 June

Until no later than 3.30 pm

The Consumer Council; Consumer Scotland; National Consumer Federation

Tuesday 13 June

Until no later than 3.45 pm

Professor Geoffrey Myers, London School of Economics and Political Science

Tuesday 13 June

Until no later than 4.00 pm

British Retail Consortium

Tuesday 13 June

Until no later than 4.15 pm

Open Markets Institute

Thursday 15 June

Until no later than 11.45 am

techUK

Thursday 15 June

Until no later than 12.15 pm

Coalition for App Fairness; Geradin Partners

Thursday 15 June

Until no later than 1.00 pm

Match Group; Gener8; Kelkoo

Thursday 15 June

Until no later than 2.30 pm

XigXag; Paddle

Thursday 15 June

Until no later than 2.45 pm

Google



3. proceedings on consideration of the Bill in Committee shall be taken in the following order: Clauses 1 to 36; Schedule 1; Clauses 37 to 59; Schedule 2; Clauses 60 to 121; Schedule 3; Clauses 122 to 124; Schedule 4; Clause 125; Schedule 5; Clauses 126 to 131; Schedule 6; Clause 132; Schedule 7; Clauses 133 to 136; Schedules 8 to 10; Clause 137; Schedule 11; Clause 138; Schedule 12; Clauses 139 to 142; Schedules 13 and 14; Clauses 143 to 200; Schedule 15; Clauses 201 to 207; Schedule 16; Clause 208; Schedule 17; Clauses 209 to 217; Schedule 18; Clauses 218 to 247; Schedule 19; Clause 248; Schedule 20; Clauses 249 to 276; Schedule 21; Clauses 277 to 287; Schedule 22; Clauses 288 to 292; Schedule 23; Clauses 293 to 300; Schedule 24; Clauses 301 to 308; Schedule 25; Clauses 309 and 310; Schedule 26; Clauses 311 to 317; new Clauses; new Schedules; remaining proceedings on the Bill;

4. the proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 5.00 pm on Tuesday 18 July.—(Kevin Hollinrake.)

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

The Committee will therefore proceed to line-by-line consideration of the Bill on Tuesday 20 June at 9.25 am.

Resolved,

That, subject to the discretion of the Chair, any written evidence received by the Committee shall be reported to the House for publication.—(Kevin Hollinrake.)

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Copies of written evidence that the Committee receives will be made available in the Committee Room and circulated to Members by email.

Resolved,

That, at this and any subsequent meeting at which oral evidence is to be heard, the Committee shall sit in private until the witnesses are admitted.—(Kevin Hollinrake.)

09:27
The Committee deliberated in private.
Examination of Witnesses
Sarah Cardell, George Lusty and Will Hayter gave evidence.
09:29
None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Before we start hearing from the witnesses, do any Members wish to make declarations of interest in connection with the Bill? No.

We will move straight on then to hear oral evidence from the Competition and Markets Authority. This morning, we are privileged to have a trio of stellar CMA executives: Sarah Cardell, the chief executive; George Lusty, the senior director for consumer protection; and Will Hayter from the digital markets unit.

Before calling the first Member to ask a question, I remind all Members that questions should be limited to matters within the scope of the Bill, and that we must stick to the timings in the programme motion that the Committee has agreed. For this session, we have until 9.55 am. Could I ask our three witnesses, starting with the chief executive, to introduce themselves for the record?

Sarah Cardell: I am Sarah Cardell, chief executive of the CMA.

George Lusty: I am George Lusty, senior director for consumer protection at the CMA.

Will Hayter: I am Will Hayter, senior director for the digital markets unit at the CMA.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you very much for coming today to give evidence. We very much appreciate your time. The CMA has supported this legislation, and there has been quite a lot of talk about how it provides a different approach to how the EU has taken forward legislation in this area. Do you think we have got the balance right, and why do you think a more flexible approach is helpful? You may have an example that you might want to use from your experience of a shadow digital markets unit.

Sarah Cardell: I will start off, and Will might come in with a specific example. We are talking here specifically about the provisions around digital markets in the Bill. What we have got with the design of the provisions here is exactly as you say—something that is really quite bespoke, quite targeted and flexible. I think that is really important. When we look at the issues that we are seeking to tackle in digital markets, there are many benefits that come from them, but there are real competition concerns. We see a concentration of market power. We see the characteristics of these markets, where there are substantial economies of scope and of scale, and the aggregation of data, and that results in potential harm, both for consumers, in terms of their ability to access a broad range of products and services, and for competing businesses that want to be able to compete and grow and innovate on a level playing field.

What does the Bill do? The Bill enables us to tackle those concerns in a very targeted way. That is critical. You asked about the comparison with the European Union’s Digital Markets Act. In terms of the underlying concern, what we have in the EU is designed similarly—there is no fundamental difference there—but it is a more blanket approach, with a blanket list of prohibited conduct, whereas what we have here is a Bill that enables the CMA to designate particular companies in relation to particular activities, and then to design conduct requirements to manage their market power in relation to those specific activities. That is a much more bespoke system from the outset—it is targeted at the individual company and the individual conduct that is a cause of concern.

I think this Bill also has a greater degree of future-proofing. That is obviously critical in these markets, because they evolve so rapidly. The system in the EU is a slightly more static approach. You have a set of provisions that prohibit certain conduct as things stand at the moment. What we will have is the ability to bring in new conduct requirements if we see new concerns emerging, and to vary those or remove them when they no longer apply. That means that the system over time will be much more responsive and much more future-proofed. Will might want to come in with a couple of specific examples.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q We have quite a lot to get through, so let me just ask a follow-up question. There has been some criticism that the approach of regulating firms with strategic market status would be a discouragement to business investment and confidence in the UK technology sector. What would your view be?

Sarah Cardell: My view is that it is entirely the opposite. Competition and open competitive markets are the foundation of an economy that encourages investment, innovation and growth. We see that from a vast range of economic literature and economic research. The work that the CMA already does is very much tied to driving innovation, investment and growth.

So the starting point is that open competitive markets are good for innovation, good for investor confidence and good for growth. We then need to make sure that the design of the regime delivers that, and that the implementation of the regime, by the CMA, delivers that. I think the design does, for the reasons that I broadly outlined, and obviously the scrutiny is then, rightly, on the CMA to make sure that in practice we deliver the regime in a way that inspires that confidence.

I think we will do that in a number of ways. The first is to look at the outcomes that we deliver, which will ensure that businesses, large and small, are able to grow, invest and thrive in these markets. The second way is to make sure that we have really strong stakeholder engagement. This is not a regime where we want to operate behind closed doors. The whole design of the regime is a participative approach where we will engage with a broad range of stakeholders, businesses and consumers as we consult on designation, design the conduct requirements, and then enforce against them.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q The Government have not taken forward the recommendations from the CMA on tackling consumer detriment in the secondary ticketing market. Do you think that that was a mistake and that that should be in the Bill? Finally, huge new powers are going to the CMA. Do you think that the accountability mechanisms have the right balance? That will be a concern for Parliament. Mr Lusty and Mr Hayter might want to come in.

Sarah Cardell: If I quickly take accountability, George might come in on secondary tickets. Accountability is key. The Bill gives us greater responsibility and power, and with that must come greater accountability. That comes in a number of forms. Parliamentary accountability is critical. We are accountable to Parliament. We do that already through a number of appearances and engagement with Committees, but I am sure that there is more that we could do in the design of that, and we are very keen to work with colleagues in Government and across Parliament to ensure that that happens. Accountability for our decisions through the courts is another important element, and accountability to stakeholders, going back to the previous point, is key as well.

George Lusty: On secondary tickets, the CMA has taken a lot of action in this area. It has taken Viagogo to court. We found ourselves up against some of the inherent weaknesses in the existing consumer protection toolkit when we did that. We effectively had to initiate an attempt to start contempt of court proceedings to get Viagogo to comply with the court order that we had secured. We think that many of the changes in the Bill will address those weaknesses directly by giving us civil fining powers for the first time. We set out specific recommendations back in August 2021 about other things that we think could be done, but ultimately it is a matter for the Government to decide what they want to include in the legislation.

Paul Scully Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology (Paul Scully)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q How will the enforcement powers accelerate your enforcement action in particular? Remediation needs to come quickly in digital markets, especially with the appeals process, which has been a topic of conversation. Why do you believe that judicial review is sufficient to give proportionatality for people to push back and for keeping the speed up?

Sarah Cardell: On digital markets, the design works very well, because you have an engaged approach where we will work with businesses to secure compliance with the conduct requirements. We hope that that will be a constructive engagement, and that much of that compliance will be achieved without any enforcement activity. That is the aspiration and the goal. Of course it is important to have enforcement as an effective backstop and that that enforcement happens rapidly for the reasons that you stated. The Bill envisages a six-month time limit for enforcement, which is important so that everybody knows that that timing is ringfenced.

On appeals, let me take a minute to talk through the JR standard and why I think that it is effective, because there has been a lot of debate about that. It is critical that the CMA faces effective judicial scrutiny for our work. That should go on the record. We think that the JR standard achieves that. The JR standard applies to much of our work already, including our merger control and market investigations. It applies to a number of regulators for their regulatory work already, so there is an established approach for JR.

What JR is not, certainly in our experience, is a very light-touch procedural review. It looks at process questions, but it also looks fundamentally at whether we have applied the right analytical approach, the kind of evidence that we have reviewed, how we have weighed that evidence, and the rationality—the reasonableness—of our decision making. Take the example of the Competition Appeal Tribunal review of our merger decision, which was a review of the acquisition by Meta of Giphy. We had 100-plus pages in that judgment, with 50-plus pages looking at our analytic framework, how we looked at the effect on competition, the kind of evidence that we took into account and whether we weighed it effectively. It was a very detailed critique of our assessment.

What JR does not do is start a full merits from first instance court process. It does not say, “Back to the drawing board—we are going to set the CMA’s decision to one side and then conduct the process all over again.” That is much more similar to the full merits review that we have at the moment on Competition Act 1998 cases. Our experience there is that it results in very protracted litigation—we often have cases that are in court for five or six weeks. But, fundamentally, it also changes the incentives to the parties that we are engaging with, because all eyes are on that litigation process. That means that, in our process and our own investigations, it is a lot harder to reach constructive, collaborative outcomes, because every point that we are investigating is thrown into an adversarial contest. It means that we have to turn every stone, check every piece of evidence and make sure that every point is covered, which means that our investigations themselves are more protracted and the litigation is much longer.

The benefit of judicial review in this process is that it provides absolutely robust and effective scrutiny, but it also supports an environment that is aligned with the aspirations of the Bill more broadly—to encourage engagement early on and to encourage constructive, collaborative outcomes. Then, of course, parties absolutely have the right to challenge and appeal our decisions and, where they do so, that is resolved effectively through a JR process.

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q So you believe this is the right balance between being robust enough for those with strategic market status and being speedy enough for remediation for challenger tech.

Sarah Cardell: Absolutely.

Alex Davies-Jones Portrait Alex Davies-Jones (Pontypridd) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Good morning. We have talked a lot this morning about accountability to Parliament. That was highlighted quite heavily on Second Reading by Members from across the House. One of the other things that we have already discussed is the need for the CMA’s strategic priorities to be directed and advised by Parliament. Could you expand on your thoughts on that point? Also, where do you see the priorities for the Digital Markets Bill? That is not intended to be a loaded question.

Sarah Cardell: I will give a high-level response, and Will might come in on some of the specific priorities for the DMU. It is really important to highlight the difference between accountability and independence. The CMA is independent when we take our individual decisions, but, as you say, it is absolutely accountable for those decisions, both to Parliament and to the courts. That is accountability for the choices that we make about where we set our priorities, accountability for the decisions that we take when we are exercising our functions, and accountability for the way that we go about doing that work. I think it is important to have accountability across all three areas.

On the strategic priorities, since I came into the role as chief executive and our new chair, Marcus Bokkerink, came into post, we have put a lot of focus on really setting out very clearly what our strategic priorities are, looking at impact and beneficial outcomes for people, businesses and the economy as a whole. We see those as a trio of objectives that are fundamentally reinforcing, rather than in tension with one another.

We also take account of the Government’s strategic steer. That is in draft at the moment. You can see that there is a lot of commonality between our own strategic priorities that we set out in our annual plan and in the Government’s strategic steer. That sets a very clear framework for our prioritisation.

Will might want to come in on how we will set the priorities for the DMU.

Will Hayter: We are obviously thinking very carefully about where to prioritise action under the strategic market status regime. We cannot jump too far ahead with that, because Parliament is going through this process now and we have to see where the Bill comes out, but, as Sarah says, we will be targeting our effort very firmly at those areas where the biggest problems and the biggest current harmful impacts on people, businesses and the economy are likely to be.

You can get a bit of a sense of what those areas might be from the areas we have looked at already, particularly the digital advertising market, search, social media, interactions between the platforms and news publishers, and also mobile ecosystems. We did a big study there, where we see a range of problems stemming from the market power of the two big operating systems.

We will continue to update our thinking as we go through the next year-plus, building on our horizon-scanning work and understanding of how developments in the markets are shaping up and what that might mean for where the problems are.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business and Trade (Kevin Hollinrake)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q First, thank you for the work that you do. You are obviously an independent body and you make difficult decisions. You receive more scrutiny than we have ever seen before, with the CMA’s higher profile, and at times that must put you under quite a lot of strain. I appreciate the work that you do. You make the decisions as you see fit, of course, but those often come with criticisms, so thank you.

My question is about innovation. If you speak to some of those who are likely to be designated SMS—strategic market status—businesses, many of them might say, “Well, this will inhibit innovation from our businesses.” I think part of that is about the power to look ahead at where this may take us. What do you say to that? If one of those platforms was opening a new type of supermarket, for example, it might be claimed that this would limit innovation. How would you respond to that?

Sarah Cardell: I have a couple of points, and Will might come in. The general point is that this regime is very much pro-competition and pro-innovation, both from the major platforms, which are likely to be designated in relation to some of their activities, and across the economy. It is important that we encourage innovation that supports competing businesses, large and small. You can have innovation that supports an incumbent by allowing that incumbent to offer additional services, but sometimes at the cost of entrenching their market position. We want to ensure that we have an environment that enables those major players to continue to innovate, sparked and incentivised by the competitive pressure that they are facing, but equally allows smaller competitors to thrive and innovate too. That is the broad point.

As we have said, it is a very targeted and bespoke regime. We will be focusing only on areas where there is substantial and entrenched market power already. Therefore, the principal point is that businesses, large and small, will continue to be free to innovate and to develop their products and services. Of course we want to ensure that that happens in a way that does not reinforce positions of market power. Will, you might want to come in on that.

Will Hayter: As Sarah says, this is all about creating a fertile environment for innovation, and you can think about that at at least three levels. First, it might be that those companies are innovating on top of the platforms that we are talking about here—in mobile ecosystems, through app stores, mobile browsers, and so on. Secondly, there are companies that are seeking to compete directly against some of the big platforms, and we want to ensure that there is a possibility that the current incumbents will be knocked off their perch by tomorrow’s innovators. Finally, increasing competition should increase the pressure on the incumbents—the most powerful firms—to innovate further themselves, in a way that delivers the greatest benefits for people, businesses and the economy.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Would you therefore say that those kinds of worries are ill-founded and that that is not something that would prohibit an SMS organisation from innovating?

Sarah Cardell: I do not think that there is anything in the Bill that prohibits innovation. The fundamental design, and certainly the way that we would intend to operate it, is entirely pro-innovation. We want to ensure that, as the designated companies continue to seek to develop and grow their businesses—of course they will want to, and that brings many benefits—that happens in a way that does not entrench their position, which is disadvantageous either to consumers or to competing businesses. That does not inhibit innovation, but it puts some guardrails around that innovation to ensure that the impact of that is beneficial and positive.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

We now come to a quick-fire round. We have six minutes left and four Members seeking to ask questions, so we want quick questions and quick answers.

Neil Coyle Portrait Neil Coyle (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Do you have the resources to take on the new powers?

Sarah Cardell: The short answer is yes. We are well funded in terms of our budget. We are carrying out significant recruitment, and we have a good breadth of expertise, which is particularly important to developing our digital data technology expertise. We have done a lot of that already, but it remains a key focus.

Neil Coyle Portrait Neil Coyle
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Do you have an in-house legal team, or will you be taking on additional lawyers, given that it has taken legal action against some companies even to get to this point?

Sarah Cardell: We have very substantial legal resources internally. We have a legal directorate of around 150 people. We will be growing our resource by more than 200 people over the next two years, and growing substantially outside London, which will be key for us.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

We will have to move on, I am afraid.

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford (Chelmsford) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q I want to ask what success is and what it looks like. Is success giving my consumers greater choice and lower prices, and my businesses ensuring that the UK is an attractive place to invest compared with other markets? If that is the definition of success, how do you measure it both domestically, compared with what has happened in the past, and internationally, compared with other markets?

Sarah Cardell: The brief answer is that in our annual plan we set out our measure of outcomes: benefits for people in terms of great choices and fair deals; benefits for businesses in terms of enabling them to compete, innovate and thrive; and benefits for the economy as a whole in terms of growing productively and sustainably. That applies across the new suite of roles, powers and responsibilities. If you are looking at outcomes for people, what is the impact on prices and choice? Can people access their data? Can they move between services more effectively? What is the impact on businesses? Can they get fair and reasonable terms when they are reliant on the infrastructure of some of these major players in order to innovate and grow? Are we seeing innovation coming from smaller businesses as well as the incumbents? When we look at the benefit for the economy as a whole, do we see the flow-through of greater competition, improving productivity and improving growth? We have our “State of UK competition” report, which reports on that, and that will continue to be an important metric.

We are taking on responsibility for an annual consumer protection study, again looking at areas of consumer concern and the impact of interventions we are taking. You mentioned international benchmarks; I think that is really important. Obviously, a lot of these issues, especially on the digital side, are international in nature. We want to see benefits in terms of changes in international trends—there is a real opportunity here for the UK to set the model for positive regulatory intervention in digital markets, and for that to be adopted by others—and real benefits for UK businesses in terms of their ability to grow and innovate, and the investment that that attracts from overseas.

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Really quickly—will you be watching our market compared with what is happening in other markets?

Sarah Cardell: As one of our factors, absolutely.

Jerome Mayhew Portrait Jerome Mayhew (Broadland) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q You say that open, competitive markets are good for growth. I totally agree, but we are one market among a global series of markets. Building on what Vicky Ford just said, where do you see this regulatory innovation sitting? You have referenced the EU and what it is doing, and there are other things going on in the US. Will this draw investment into the UK in this sector, or will it make people say, “Hmm, I’m not sure”?

Sarah Cardell: I firmly believe it will draw investment in. Will, do you have a couple of examples of people you have spoken to?

Will Hayter: You have app developers who are wanting to provide a service through these mobile ecosystems that have pent-up business—I think you are talking to one of them later—waiting to be invested in and to grow. There is also a UK-based search engine looking for opportunities to expand. Those are exactly the kind of businesses that are trying to grow and want this kind of regulatory infrastructure to create the conditions to do that.

Dean Russell Portrait Dean Russell (Watford) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q When I go back to my constituency in Watford tonight and speak to people on the street, what can I tell them will make a difference to their lives, in the simplest terms?

Sarah Cardell: It is opening up choice; it is opening up access to the fullest range of services. It is enabling them to have confidence that their data will be used in an effective way and that they can move between different products and services so that they do not get locked in. When we think about the consumer side, daily we hear and see so much about consumer detriment. We are working as hard as we can to address that, but the consumer reforms will enable us to take a massive step up in terms of the impact we can deliver, the speed with which we can tackle their concern,s and the effectiveness with which we can deliver improved outcomes for people.

Dean Russell Portrait Dean Russell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Will they see that happen, or will they need to be involved in the process to report where there are issues?

Sarah Cardell: Both. On engagement, we work very much with bodies such as Which? and Citizens Advice, which I know you are hearing from shortly, so we have a lot coming in. That is really important, because when we make the choices about the work we are doing, they need to be informed directly by consumer concerns, not be something that we just think is the right thing to do. We want to deliver that visible impact.

George Lusty: I think your constituents will see the CMA directly taking decisions. When we find that something has broken the law, they will find that we are taking direct orders to get their money back for them, and we will be imposing deterrent fines on the firms that do not do the right thing.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

I thank our three stellar witnesses very much indeed for their time this morning. We wish you continued success at the CMA.

Examination of Witnesses

Rocio Concha and Matthew Upton gave evidence.

09:54
None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

I welcome Rocio Concha, director of policy and advocacy and chief economist at Which?, and Matthew Upton, acting executive director of policy and advocacy at Citizens Advice. Thank you for coming this morning. Would you be kind enough to introduce yourselves to the Committee for the record?

Rocio Concha: I am Rocio Concha, the director of policy and advocacy, and the chief economist at Which?.

Matthew Upton: I am Matthew Upton. I am the acting executive director of policy and advocacy at Citizens Advice.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you for coming to give us evidence today. I have a couple of questions. First, will you outline how you see the Bill delivering consumer benefits, and how you will seek to measure that impact? Secondly, the Government announced with much fanfare that the Bill would tackle the practice of fake reviews, but they are not mentioned in the legislation; they are instead left to a delegated power. Do you think that more action is needed on fake reviews, and how concerned are you that the Bill will not deliver on the changes needed?

Rocio Concha: Let me start by saying that we are fully supportive of the Bill. We think that it will modernise competition policy and consumer policy in the UK, and that it will deliver clear benefit for consumers, businesses and the economy.

We are very supportive of part 1 of the Bill, which you discussed with the previous panel and which is about the additional powers to introduce a pro-competition regime. That is very important and we think that the regime will be proportionate and flexible, and will deliver benefit to consumers by providing more choice and lower prices.

One thing to say is that it important to look at the regime in its totality. The CMA explained that the regime is very proportionate and consultative. For it to work, it is important that the appeal process is on a judicial review basis, which is what is proposed in the Bill. That should be maintained as the Bill goes through Parliament. Obviously, we are very supportive of the new powers for the CMA to fine directly companies that breach consumer law. Why? Because that is a stronger deterrent to those businesses that may decide to ignore the law.

We are also very supportive of the Secretary of State having the power to act on the practices set out in schedule 18 that are clearly unfair. Why? Because we need a flexible system, particularly in the digital space where things move very quickly. We need that flexibility in the system as we identify additional areas.

You mentioned fake reviews. We welcome the commitment to include fake reviews in the Bill, but basically the commitment is that that will be introduced by the Secretary of State. We do not think that we should wait. Clearly, fake reviews are harmful, so the buying, selling and hosting of fake reviews should be included in schedule 18. We think that drip pricing is another practice that is very harmful. There is a lot of evidence that that is the case, and it should be included on the face of the Bill.

How will we measure this? When we look at our work and at the areas we want to focus on, we do quite a lot on consumer detriment; we also work with the Government and the CMA to see what the big areas of detriment are. We expect to see changes in the behaviours of some companies that decide not to follow the law. With the previous panel, you talked about, for example, the measures that the CMA took in the past on secondary ticketing companies, such as Viagogo. That took six years—six years of harm for consumers. We expect that, after the Bill becomes an Act, we will see action and that all those crimes that do harm will be resolved more quickly.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you very much. This question may be more for Mr Upton. The Bill goes some way towards tackling the problem of subscription traps, but it does not go as far as what Citizens Advice has called for, or indeed the Labour party’s policy of making subscription renewals opt in rather than opt out. Why do you think that the legislation needs further safeguards? Why, in the light of your experience, is that important for protecting consumers from harm?

Matthew Upton: We have been asking for action on subscription traps for a long time. Any action is positive, but we are seeing this in the context of a cost of living crisis, where anything that takes cash out of people’s pockets stops them getting by from day to day. To be honest, we think that the intent is right, but this is potentially a huge missed opportunity for action on subscription traps. We have to understand how high the incentive is for firms to trap people in subscriptions. There is a huge amount of money to be made, to the extent that it changes the whole incentive structure so that for many firms, rather than thinking about how to provide a quality subscription, the rational thing to do is think about how to design the worst possible customer journey and to trap someone, whether through an online process that makes it difficult to cancel something—you will all have experience of this—or, to give a slightly facetious example, a process whereby you can cancel only when you ring between 2 and 2.30 on a Tuesday and you have wait for 45 minutes in the queue.

Obviously, we want to change that incentive structure so that we have a flourishing subscription economy, which should be encouraged, where consumers want to stay in subscriptions and firms focus on providing quality subscriptions. We do not think that the Bill as it stands will do that. For example, it says that exit has to be timely and straightforward. We do not think that that will work. We have been here before, if we think back to utility bills four or five years ago, when there was a big push to stop people rolling on to expensive contracts and to get them to switch. Regulators were focused on trying to dictate what went into letters to consumers about their renewals. Firms could make so much money by obeying the letter but not the spirit of the regulation that they would find ways round it, and switching rates did not go up. We think that the same will happen here.

The specific change that would make a huge difference and is legislatively straightforward is to provide that, at the end of an annual trial subscription, the default is that the consumer opts out. That is not about things like car insurance, where there is a detriment to people opting out, but for basic subscriptions, opt-out should be the default. That would allow firms to use all their ingenuity, power and influence to persuade consumers to stay in. They could go for it—send as many reminders as they wanted; that is absolutely fine. If the subscription is good, a consumer will stay in. That change will make the difference. We have done some polling on this and about 80% of people agree that that should happen. We think that it will put millions of pounds back in people’s pockets, that it is proportionate and that it will encourage a flourishing subscription economy.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Rocio, on your point about including fake reviews on the face of the Bill, our intention is to legislate in this area. I do not know whether you have seen the evidence from Trustpilot, which was submitted as written evidence. It rightly points to the fact that most of the discussion around fake reviews thus far has been about products rather than services. Does not that illustrate that we need to consult properly about that to ensure that we get the legislation right? Isn’t there a risk that we could get it wrong by rushing to stick this on the face of the Bill?

Rocio Concha: A provision on fake reviews in the Bill should apply to both products and services. There is evidence to show that fake reviews also harm services. I do not think that there is a major risk. We and the CMA have produced a lot of evidence about how fake reviews are endemic on some sites. We have demonstrated the harm that they cause. It is clear what is needed. We know that we need to look at selling, buying and hosting. I do not see a risk to including such a provision on the face of the Bill. Then, in secondary legislation—

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Even though there might be some things we have not thought about at this point in time. That would be a good example in terms of Trustpilot’s evidence.

Rocio Concha: If there is something that needs to be improved, you can always do it with the Secretary of State’s power later. There is quite clear evidence to provide a clear steer on what is an unfair practice. Obviously, as with anything in schedule 18, you have that power to modify, to add to the practice as more evidence comes in. We will provide enough evidence to the Committee to show that it can be introduced on the face of the Bill.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Sure, okay. Mr Upton, on subscription traps, do you not feel that the powers that the Bill affords the CMA on civil penalties will address some of the concerns you highlight of people trying to get around the rules, for example? Would that not be something it could act on when it sees gratuitous behaviour such as what you describe?

Matthew Upton: I think it could, but we worry that it will not in reality. It is quite difficult to decide, for example, what constitutes easy and timely exit from a contract. You cannot necessarily measure it incredibly specifically, and I could imagine enforcement being really complicated. I could imagine firms dragging their feet, despite the way powers would speed up the ability of the CMA to act, as I say, because the incentive structure is so great.

One reason for the growth of the subscription economy is that it is a great way to provide services, but another is that it is such an easy way to make money by trapping people in. That is our firm belief and what our evidence shows. I just think a simple default would be much more effective than basically having the CMA chasing its tail and chasing firms. It would not be of any detriment to good firms who want to provide really solid subscriptions that people should want to stay in.

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q The EU has a right to redress for consumers, and there is a schedule in the Bill that would allow the Secretary of State to introduce that again in future through secondary legislation. Do either of you have any sort of sense of the extent to which UK consumers might be at risk of being at detriment compared with their EU counterparts while that secondary legislation is not in place?

Rocio Concha: Our view is that it should be on the face of the Bill. We do not know why the right to redress has not been transposed into the Bill. From our perspective, we do not want to leave it for the Secretary of State to decide once we have an Act. It should be included.

The other thing is that the right of redress does not cover all the practice in schedule 18, only misleading practice and aggressive practice. It does not really cover all the list of unfair practice in schedule 18. I think that the right to redress should also cover that.

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q On fake reviews, the challenge that came up at Second Reading was about how we might define, judge and act on them. How do you think it is best to tackle the problem of fake reviews? Have you any suggestions while we are engaged in this consultation?

Rocio Concha: You mean how—

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

How could we legislate create the framework by which the problem of fake reviews could be best addressed?

Rocio Concha: I think it needs to be in the list on schedule 18, and there is a very simple way to draft that amendment. We are going to suggest an amendment to help you with that, so I do not think that it is a major difficulty to include it on the face of the Bill.

Dean Russell Portrait Dean Russell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q You are both at the coalface for consumers in terms of the challenges around all the issues addressed by the Bill. Can you briefly share some real-life examples of why the Bill is so important and what difference it will make to consumers?

Rocio Concha: I can give you some examples from the past so that you can see what consumers face. I already talked about the secondary ticketing problem, but I will give you another example. During covid, there were a lot of issues about people getting their refunds that they were entitled to by law. Many people could not really get them. I will give you another example on the digital side—that was on the consumer side.

At the moment, as you have heard from the CMA, digital advertising is basically controlled by two companies, Google and Facebook. Google has doubled its revenue from digital advertising since 2011 and Facebook used to make less than £5 per user—more recently, it has been around £50 per user. Google charges around 30% more for paid-for advertising than other search engines. All that cost translates into the products that we buy. We expect that once this pro-innovation, pro-competitive regulatory framework is put in place we will see it translate into prices.

We will also see it translate into more choice, in particular on data. At the moment, it is very difficult for consumers to have a choice on how much of our data is used for targeted advertising. You will have seen examples of that. When we talk to consumers in particular on the issues surrounding data, they feel disempowered. When we talk to consumers about the problems that they face in some of the markets where there are high levels of detriment, they also feel disempowered.

Matthew Upton: To be clear, there is a lot of good in the Bill. I echo Rocio’s first comments that there are a lot of positives. It has been a long time coming, and is a testament to the civil servants in the Department who have stuck with it. The main lens through which we see the impacts of the potential changes in the Bill is the cost of living. It is not exactly headline news that people are struggling with their bills. One of the main measures that we look at is whether one of our clients is in a negative budget: whether their income meets their essential outgoings. About 52% of our debt advice clients can no longer meet their essential—not desirable—outgoings with their income.

There are two areas where the Bill can make a real difference. One of the frustrations is that a debt adviser will go in detail through someone’s income and where they spend their money, helping them to balance their bills, and so on. You see the impact of other Government interventions, such as energy price support, putting money in their pockets and uprating benefits. You are combing through their expenditure and you find something like a subscription trial taking £10 a month—a huge amount for a lot of our clients—unnecessarily out of their account. They did not even know that it was there. Often, it is people who are not online, are not savvy, and are not combing their bills every month because they have a lot on. That is hugely frustrating, and things like this, especially if strengthened, could tackle that.

You will see similar things where people are just about balancing their monthly income with their expenditure and they get hit by some big scam bill or are let down by a company. Such companies are too often not held to account in the right way. It is a bit of a tangential example in some ways, but the hope is that the CMA’s increased ability to act and, in effect, to disincentivise poor behaviour towards consumers will lessen such instances as well.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

We have 12 minutes left, and five Members are seeking to ask questions, so we need to increase the pace.

Neil Coyle Portrait Neil Coyle
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Electrical Safety First and the British Toy & Hobby Association have described Amazon and other online platforms as a bit of a wild west when it comes to product safety for consumers. I appreciate that you both support the Bill as a step forward, but what is missing for consumers when it comes to product safety? Is it a new sheriff for the wild west?

Rocio Concha: Definitely. Legislation is required to ensure that online platforms take responsibility for the products that they sell on their platforms. We have done lots of reviews and gathered evidence that shows that consumers in the UK can buy very unsafe products on those platforms. Online platforms should be doing more to tackle that issue. The issue probably requires separate legislation, but I want to make it clear that we need legislation, and we need it now.

Neil Coyle Portrait Neil Coyle
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q So this is a missed opportunity. There is nothing within clauses 67 to 82 on the investigatory powers that would allow for sufficient tackling of unsafe products, including toys reaching children.

Rocio Concha: No, I do not think that what is in the Bill will really tackle the issue.

Neil Coyle Portrait Neil Coyle
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That is disappointing.

Matthew Upton: I have nothing to add.

Jerome Mayhew Portrait Jerome Mayhew
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Mr Upton, I want to come back to you about subscription traps. You are saying that the requirement in the Bill that subscription cancellation should be a timely process is not sufficiently detailed. I declare an interest: in a former life, I used to help write European regulations. Is it not an absolutely basic tenet of writing regulations that you design outcomes— you do not list processes unless you absolutely have to, because things change? Given that point, are the Government, or the drafters of this Bill, not correct to focus on the outcome required and leave the process alone?

Matthew Upton: In a sense, I disagree with you because I agree with your point about it being outcomes-focused. In a sense, you are right; it leaves it fairly open, which gives some space for people to interpret, but I think what will end up happening is that firms will get around those provisions in various ways. They will tweak the subscriptions to find other ways to find people to step in. We will have a game of whack-a-mole, where we chase around trying to clamp down, a little bit like we had in the utility-switching space of four or five years ago. Ultimately, whether people agree or not, that led to much heavier intervention in the market.

Just taking one step to move towards opt-out—in a sense, you are right; it is a process step—is incredibly simple in terms of aligning the incentives. I think that would mean you would have to do less of the tweaking, constant interventions and prodding of firms. It just sets up the incentives in a much more simple way.

Jerome Mayhew Portrait Jerome Mayhew
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Is the intervention not actually the exact opposite of what you are suggesting, in that, if you have a stricter requirement within the regulations, people find ways to get round that strict interpretation, but if you have an outcomes-focused statement as is currently in the Bill, the onus is on the companies to demonstrate compliance, and the CMA, with the fining power of 10% of global turnover, has the stick with which to enforce it?

Matthew Upton: I disagree, because I think the simplicity of simply saying, “You opt out at the end of a period” gives clarity. I think it is easier for firms to interpret. In reality, under the current set-up, I do not think you will see a lot of firms thinking in a positive way about how to interpret it. I think they will think about how they can push as far as possible.

Customer journey design is so complex—this is the challenge of emerging digital markets. It is not a case of being able to say, “You have two click-through screens versus three,” so that constitutes easy or hard. There are incredibly subtle ways to make it difficult. I think a lot of firms would continue to put their efforts into thinking about how they can stay as close as possible to the law to avoid CMA sanctions, while effectively still making it psychologically and in reality difficult for consumers. An opt-out would just simplify it, and would take that thought process off the table for firms.

Alex Davies-Jones Portrait Alex Davies-Jones
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q You mentioned schedule 18 already and some of the missed opportunities that you see there. Some things that have been highlighted are drip pricing and misleading green advertising. Can I push you a bit further on the missed opportunities in schedule 18?

Rocio Concha: In what respect? On why we want them there?

Alex Davies-Jones Portrait Alex Davies-Jones
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Yes. What you would like to be in there.

Rocio Concha: As I said, we would like to see fake reviews and drip pricing included, because there is clear evidence on them. There is also this issue of greenwashing. That should also be considered to be put in schedule 18 —we feel that we know enough to include it there. We have not done as much work in that area as we have on drip pricing and fake reviews, but we would be very supportive of including it in schedule 18.

Why do we want these areas in the Bill, versus them being included later under the Secretary of State’s powers? If they are not in the Bill, they will not be criminal offences, and they should be, because that will be a more credible deterrent for stopping these practices.

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q When the CMA was answering Dean Russell’s question about how consumers will feel the benefits, one of the things it pointed to was its greater powers to fine companies that are misbehaving. Do you not think that the threat of fines on companies will have a trickle-down benefit to the consumers, and that it will mean that companies will think harder about not acting in ways that are to the detriment of consumers?

Rocio Concha: Absolutely. That is one of the powers of that power. Basically, companies will know that they will not be able to drag the system for years, as happened with Viagogo and some anti-virus subscriptions. They will know that the CMA will be able to act directly. Hopefully, that will make businesses that do not want to comply with the law think twice.

Matthew Upton: I really agree. I cannot share a specific example, but we have had a lot of conversations with regulators and competition authorities after we have uncovered bad practice. We have said, “Listen—go after them.” We were met with a frustrated shrug of the shoulders—“There’s no point because they will run rings around us for a huge amount of time and we will end up with nothing. We have to use our powers where we can more clearly have impact.” As you say, that should now end. In a sense, we are more positive about the disincentive for poor behaviour than the fines themselves.

Rocio Concha: There is an opportunity in the Bill to make that deterrent even stronger. At the moment, in part 1 of the Bill there is the opportunity for private redress, which will allow businesses or consumers to apply to the court for compensation from companies that have breached the conduct requirements in part 1. It is very unlikely that consumers like each of us or a small business will use that power in the courts. But if we allowed collective redress—the co-ordination of consumers and businesses to get redress—that would be for those companies a credible additional deterrent against breaking the law. That is in part 1, in relation to competition.

There is also the opportunity to include a provision within the breaches of consumer law. At the moment, collective redress is allowed for breaches of competition law, but not for breaches of consumer law.

Anna Firth Portrait Anna Firth (Southend West) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

You have given us a simple, practical way to end subscription traps through the opt-out. Do you have any other simple, practical amendments in the locker that would help better protect my consumers in Southend-on-Sea?

Matthew Upton: I have a very simple one, which echoes what Rocio said earlier: to add drip pricing to the list of banned practices.

Rocio Concha: For me, it would be fake reviews. As I said, we will suggest the drafting of amendments, to make that easy to include in the Bill.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

I thank our witnesses very much indeed for your precious time this morning; we appreciate it.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Mike Wood.)

10:23
Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.

Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill (Second sitting)

The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chairs: † Rushanara Ali, Mr Philip Hollobone, Dame Maria Miller
† Carter, Andy (Warrington South) (Con)
† Coyle, Neil (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (Lab)
† Davies-Jones, Alex (Pontypridd) (Lab)
Dowd, Peter (Bootle) (Lab)
† Firth, Anna (Southend West) (Con)
† Ford, Vicky (Chelmsford) (Con)
† Foy, Mary Kelly (City of Durham) (Lab)
† Hollinrake, Kevin (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business and Trade)
† Malhotra, Seema (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op)
† Mayhew, Jerome (Broadland) (Con)
Mishra, Navendu (Stockport) (Lab)
† Russell, Dean (Watford) (Con)
† Scully, Paul (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology)
† Stevenson, Jane (Wolverhampton North East) (Con)
† Thomson, Richard (Gordon) (SNP)
† Watling, Giles (Clacton) (Con)
† Wood, Mike (Dudley South) (Con)
Kevin Maddison, John-Paul Flaherty, Bradley Albrow, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
Witnesses
Professor Jason Furman, Aetna Professor of the Practice of Economic Policy, Harvard University
Professor Amelia Fletcher CBE, Professor of Competition Policy, University of East Anglia
Professor Philip Marsden, Visiting Professor, College of Europe
Noyona Chundur, Chief Executive, The Consumer Council
Peter Eisenegger, NCF Board Member, National Consumers Federation
Tracey Reilly, Head of Policy and Markets, Consumer Scotland
Professor Geoffrey Myers, Visiting Professor in Practice, London School of Economics and Political Science
Graham Wynn, Assistant Director for Consumer, Competition and Regulatory Affairs, British Retail Consortium
Max von Thun, Europe Director, Open Markets Institute
John Herriman, Chief Executive, Chartered Trading Standards Institute
David MacKenzie, CTSI Lead Officer, Chartered Trading Standards Institute
Owen Meredith, CEO, News Media Association
Peter Wright, Editor Emeritus, DMG Media
Dan Conway, CEO, Publishers Association
Public Bill Committee
Tuesday 13 June 2023
(Afternoon)
[Rushanara Ali in the Chair]
Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill
14:00
None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Good afternoon, everyone. I need to call the Government Whip to move a motion to amend the Programme Order agreed this morning. The purpose of the motion is to enable us to hear from the witnesses who were unable to give evidence earlier today.

Ordered,

That the Order of the Committee of 13 June 2023 be varied by the insertion of the following words at the end of the Table in paragraph 2—

Tuesday 13 June

Until no later than 4.45 pm

Chartered Trading Standards Institute

Tuesday 13 June

Until no later than 5.15 pm

News Media Association; Publishers Association; DMG Media



(Mike Wood.)

The Committee deliberated in private.

Examination of Witnesses

Professor Jason Furman, Professor Amelia Fletcher CBE and Professor Philip Marsden gave evidence.

14:04
None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Good afternoon, everyone. Could each of the witnesses introduce themselves, please? One witness is in the room and two are joining us virtually.

Professor Fletcher: I am Amelia Fletcher, Professor of Competition Policy at the University of East Anglia. I should mention that I am also a non-executive director of the Competition and Markets Authority; I know you heard from our chief executive officer this morning. I am very much here, I believe, with my academic hat on and because of my role on what has become known as the Furman review, which kicked all this off.

Professor Furman: I am Jason Furman, Professor of Economic Policy at Harvard University; I am jointly at the Harvard Kennedy School and in the economics department. I was chair of the expert panel on digital competition, and I am thrilled to be with you—this morning for me, and this afternoon for you.

Professor Marsden: I am Philip Marsden, Professor of Law and Economics at the College of Europe in Bruges. I am deputy chair for enforcement at the Bank of England. I was a member of the panel here and was formerly inquiry chair at the Competition and Markets Authority.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Thank you all very much for joining us. I call shadow Minister Alex Davies-Jones to kick off with questions.

Alex Davies-Jones Portrait Alex Davies-Jones (Pontypridd) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q30 Good afternoon professors and thank you for joining us today. We have had a lot of chatter about whether the Bill will help or hinder the growth of innovation in the UK’s digital market. What are your opinions about that and do you feel that the Bill goes far enough?

Professor Marsden: In the branch of legislation being considered internationally in this area, this is the only Bill with a pro-innovation approach written into it. That was our original intention in the Furman review—not to sacrifice any innovation by large tech platforms, but simply to unlock the opportunities for innovation from smaller, more diverse firms so that there were more ideas and more flow. I do not see any correct arguments at all that this will hinder innovation; if anything, it will do the opposite.

Alex Davies-Jones Portrait Alex Davies-Jones
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Q Professor Fletcher?

Professor Fletcher: I fully endorse that. When we did the review, we spoke to a lot of firms that were seeking to innovate in the digital space but were struggling. We heard that they really needed access to a whole number of things such as data. They needed access to customers and to be interoperable with systems out there. They needed access to finance. They found, essentially—some of them, at least—that the way in which the biggest platforms were working was making all that very difficult. They were concerned that although there had been a huge amount of innovation, at that point—and still, I think—firms’ ability to innovate was being gradually increasingly stymied by the conduct of the biggest tech platforms. We very much saw the Bill as a pro-innovation piece of regulation.

Professor Furman: This question is so fundamental. This legislation would have benefits for consumers in terms of price and choice, but far and away the most important benefit would be innovation. It was designed with that in mind; our recommendations, which the legislation took on, established firms with strategic market status. They would fall under these rules, which would give a lot of leeway to small and medium-sized UK businesses to really innovate and come up with their own models rather than being constrained. More competition would help innovation by the large platforms as well.

The other thing that is so important is that the speed in the digital sector is just so much faster than in other parts of the economy, so traditional anti-trust rules just take too long: by the time a case is settled or decided, everyone has moved on. Getting there at the front end and having something that is much more flexible and faster is critical in this sector.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business and Trade (Kevin Hollinrake)
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Q Thank you very much for your answers. Amazon has recently said the complete opposite of what you are saying. It has said that the Bill will stop it from innovating. It has started these new stores where you can go and shop and there are no staff—people just go in, take the stuff off the shelf and walk out. Amazon says that this Bill would have stopped it from taking forward that kind of innovation. What particular areas in the Bill is Amazon referring to? Do you recognise those as valid concerns?

Professor Fletcher: Amazon would have to be more precise about what it thought in the Bill would stop that. I think the Bill has trod a very careful, innovation- focused line between stopping the biggest tech platforms from inhibiting innovation by third parties and facilitating them to innovate themselves. The Bill is designed to only address the very biggest platforms in the first place, but also only to address the elements of their business where they have very strong market positions and entrenched market power. I think that way is the right way. As far as I know, Amazon would not be inhibited by the Bill from setting up those stores.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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Q There is a forward-looking provision, is there not, for the CMA to look five years into the future and decide whether a company will have entrenched market power then? Is that what Amazon is referring to? Is that their concern, and would that be valid?

Professor Fletcher: I think the concern is to ensure that it is entrenched market power that we are addressing. The CMA recognises, as do we, that these are intrusive measures and you do not want to do them unless you are trying to address entrenched market power.

Professor Marsden: Personally, I agree that there is an aspect where the five-year period, which I find a bit too long, can be gamed by some of the potentially SMS—strategic market status—firms, but I understand why it is in there. I probably would have been more comfortable with a two or three-year period, because that is traditional for competition authorities and as far as they can look ahead in terms of crystal ball gazing. But I understand why it is there.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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Q How would they game the system, Professor Marsden? What do you mean by that?

Professor Marsden: They could game the system in the sense of one thing being done by just slowly walking backwards, for example—“We are introducing so many innovations and having so many thoughts and thanks from various small businesses.” They could drown the CMA with a range of evidence that actually does not go to the point, which is: who is being excluded, who is being locked out and what are we as consumers and citizens missing by relying only on three or four types of seed in the environment, as opposed to a whole globe of seeds? That is the metaphor I would like to use.

Professor Fletcher: It is worth highlighting that if you compare the UK regulation with the equivalent in the EU, the EU has taken a less bespoke, less evidence-based approach. It basically gets a quantitative presumption, and that presumption is going to be relatively hard to shake. What we have done is much more evidence-based, bespoke and proportionate. Whenever you do that, it makes it slightly less administrable and slightly harder to actually make stick.

Again, I think a very delicate balance has been trodden, and it is the right balance. I think all of us would agree on that, and on the fact that Brussels has made it easier for itself, but it is arguably then not proportionate nor sufficiently bespoke. It is a very delicate thing, but I think it is in the right place.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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Q Professor Furman, I saw your hand up. Do you have any comments?

Professor Furman: Look at the tools that the Digital Markets Unit would have under these provisions; the conduct requirements, such as fair dealing and open choices, are not brand new inventions. They largely draw on existing roles under anti-trust measures. It is just that they would be more explicit and clearer up front, and enforced more quickly. To some degree, at least in terms of the conduct requirements, this is not about imposing some brand new set of rules; a lot of it is about taking existing things and ensuring that they can be enforced in a clear and transparent manner.

None Portrait The Chair
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I call shadow Minister Seema Malhotra.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op)
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Q Thank you very much for coming today. I want to pick up on the argument that the legislation will enhance innovation. In your excellent report, which underpins much of our work, you mention hearing from businesses that were finding it hard to innovate.

Some conversations that we have had have been more explicit about the increased costs of innovation, and the difficulties when there is no interoperability or access, and increased costs being passed on to customers. Is that consistent with your experience, and what are the likely economic benefits to businesses and consumers of this legislation? I will take Professor Fletcher first, and then we will come back to Professor Furman and Professor Marsden.

Professor Fletcher: That was exactly our experience. We heard about the importance of interoperability with systems, and access to data and consumers, and how all those things were not always effective. Some innovation was fostered by big tech and some was less fostered by it, but the point is that they were in control of what happened in a way that we felt was not right for a proper, innovative environment, and certainly not right if you want to see real, disruptive innovation coming through—and I think that is what we do want to see.

We also thought that interoperability, data portability and data access were all pretty intrusive interventions. Therefore—unlike what has been done in the EU, where they have particular rules that require interoperability and require data portability on a fairly widespread basis—we instead thought that that should not be part of the core code of conduct, and that the aim could be achieved via pro-competitive interventions that were evidenced, bespoke and really well targeted. Again, that has been taken through into the Bill’s design, and shows that it is targeted at the barriers to innovation that we identified.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
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Q Professor Furman, I would be interested to know whether you think the Bill strikes the right balance. Does it give the CMA too much power? Does it put the right amount of power in the new digital markets regime?

Professor Furman: The short answer is yes, I think it gets it right. It strikes what my colleagues have described—and I agree—as a delicate balance. It depends on who is the head of the DMU and who is the head of the CMA.

In general, my experience with the regulators in the UK is that they are very thoughtful in understanding the importance of markets, competition and taking evidence seriously. The legislation gives them a certain amount of discretion. As my colleagues have testified, that is unavoidable; in a market and an environment where things are changing very rapidly, it would be very difficult to try to write into the legislation every single detail. This sets the standard for what the world should do. Frankly, part of the reason I agreed to do this project is that I would love to see the United States following legislation like this. I hope the UK serves as a model for the world in this regard, and I think it is doing so.

On innovation, I agree with Amelia that what we heard from businesses and reviewed in the academic research is that it is not just a question of how much innovation, but what type of innovation. Are you trying to innovate so you can be acquired by Google or are you trying to become the next Google? There is one thing that motivated us. It is very hard to see the future of this space, but four years ago we thought the next big thing would involve artificial intelligence and machine learning. Unlike the past waves of innovation—where IBM was dominant, and then it became about PCs so it was Microsoft, and then it was about the internet so it became Google, and we saw one wave after the next displacing the previous—we were very worried that because artificial intelligence required large amounts of data, it would not necessarily lend itself to a new upstart competitor, but would instead entrench the power of the existing ones. So far, what we are seeing with OpenAI and the role that Microsoft plays in it, and with what Google is doing in this space, is that it is largely playing out along the lines that we were concerned about. That is partly motivating us looking forward.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
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Q Thanks for those responses. Professor Marsden, how much we will need some global leadership to ensure this legislation has the impact it needs to have? Some of these issues and the companies’ operations do not stop at borders. To what extent are there tools in the legislation and more widely for the CMA to operate with sister regulators abroad?

Professor Marsden: Let me take your first point with respect to evidence related to economic benefits. We had a natural experiment before this, called open banking. You will have heard things about this before. No matter what hopes or disappointments people had about open banking, we seemingly had the power at the time to investigate a market that had competitive problems but no anti-trust violations, so there was nothing we could address with anti-trust law. We identified certain competitive structure problems, and there was an expectation on us perhaps to break up the banks, and we hear that with respect to some platforms.

That power is there in the Bill, but with the Furman review and this Bill, which has been kindly carried forward by the excellent civil servants, our emphasis is on the idea of opening up these markets with the same kinds of ex ante obligations on the larger platforms that we imposed on the big banks. Did we break up the banks? No. Did we see massive amounts of switching from one bank to another? No, but we have evidence that British people switch their spouse more frequently than they switch their bank.

What we want is more engagement. We want customers, users and small businesses to be engaged with their platform—with their bank—and that is what we will be seeing. We saw new offers coming in without the extensive capital requirements to bring in a full new entry, but there were new services offers in real intermediation and disintermediation of various products. If anything, open banking allowed consumers and users to—I hate this term—have affairs. It allowed them to check out where they could get the best mortgage, the best loan and those kind of things. That disciplines the incumbents, especially HSBC and Barclays, to provide competitive offers themselves. That is an example, to me at least, about how a pro-competitive, ex ante set of rules on very large platforms with a lot of data can help diversify the economy without harming the platforms. If anything, it puts a little bit of heat under them. I think that was a good achievement, whatever people think politically about it. It was supposed to be a balanced, gradual attempt to try to fix a market that had competitive structure problems, and I believe that is what the Bill does here.

In terms of global leadership, the UK is definitely still leading, despite a bit of a delay. It is the most bespoke, nuanced and balanced bit of legislation that has been proposed so far that I have seen, as we have already discussed this afternoon. At the same time—I completely understand your jurisdictional point—there is a real zeitgeist politically around the world to introduce measures like these of some sort. Of course, they depend on the economic, political and legal backgrounds of the society, but I cannot imagine like-minded authorities and Governments not trying to work hard or co-operate in this space.

We are seeing some examples of that already in the digital space. It is not really an area where there is a competition of competition laws; it is more that this is a regulated solution that we are putting forward in various jurisdictions through a democratic process. It does not depend too much on the discretion of the authority. It depends on the process that the authority undergoes to understand the markets and to then work with the tech platforms to find out which remedies would be available. That participative nature is a very important part of this, rather than an adversarial nature where we just chase after the companies after they have done something that is alleged to be wrong.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
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Professor Fletcher and Professor Furman, do you want to add anything?

Professor Fletcher: A lot of jurisdictions around the world are looking at this space. We talked earlier about how some of what we will achieve through this is stuff that can be achieved through competition law, and almost all jurisdictions have competition law. In a way, the more jurisdictions that have regulation, the easier it becomes for other jurisdictions to achieve some of the same things through competition law, because it changes the costs and benefits for the firms to change their business model.

The firms have quite an interesting decision to make on a global basis anyway about how much they do the same thing globally as they are required to do locally. I think it will vary depending on what thing it is. If it is terms and conditions, they can easily change that on a local basis. If it is interoperability, it is quite hard or rather more hard to design a system so that it has different interoperability standards in different places. We may well see an extraterritorial effect—not a deliberate one—because of the cost considerations and reputational considerations of the firms themselves. That will have a positive benefit in terms of providing a more consistent framework globally for the third parties that we are hoping to innovate. The more consistent global framework they have to compete upon, the better it is for innovation.

Professor Furman: The ideal thing would be if the whole world sat down and agreed how it was going to approach this problem and there was a single global system, or lots of countries co-ordinated and did the same thing. In practice, that is impossible, so what one should aspire towards is having essentially correlated actions in different countries, where different countries have similar rules and are looking at each other and learning from each other.

This puts the UK in a position to be a leader in that global process, and that, frankly, is the way mergers work already. It is not like there is a single global merger authority; there are merger authorities in economies around the world, but they use similar rules, are looking at similar evidence, come up with similar decisions and all, to some degree, talk to each other. That is what this is—an emerging correlation of approach.

We have seen in the United States in both the House of Representatives and the Senate legislation being put forward and in some cases being passed out of Committee that would accomplish some of the different pieces of what this legislation would do, frankly, more comprehensively than anything I have seen in the United States.

Paul Scully Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology (Paul Scully)
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Q Thank you for coming before us. You are right: you cannot have a monopoly of monopolies commission. That would be wrong, but if we can have more regulatory certainty across the globe, that is good. There are three areas that I can see the different interests pushing on. There is the appeals system, whether it is judicial review or a full merits review, the final offer mechanism and the countervailing benefits exemption. On appeals, do you think judicial review is sufficient, proportionate and fast enough? That is what we are trying to do here—is it fair and fast to get that remediation? It would be interesting to hear your comments.

Professor Fletcher: I know this is something that Philip cares a great deal about. I will come in first and then let him have a go. We have talked about it being a delicate balance. I discussed the EU regulation, where they have gone very far towards ensuring administrability and enforceability by having the rules set out in the legislation with quantitative thresholds. That is how they have dealt with the need for administrability and enforceability.

We have tried to be more bespoke, as I have said, and more evidence based, but there is a real risk in terms of administrability and enforceability that we end up in the same place as we have been with competition law, whereby the cases get hugely burdensome and hard to bring to a conclusion within a sensible timescale, and there are insufficient agency resources really to do everything that is needed.

I think there is a real risk that if you play around with what might seem like tiny changes to the legislation, that could really threaten the administrability and enforceability of it, and we could lose the benefits of it over competition law and put us in a bad place relative to the EU—whereas at the moment I think we could show ourselves to be better in terms of getting the right balance by being more bespoke and evidence based. The appeals standard goes to that point. I strongly support the JR appeals standard because if we went for a full merit standard, it would be too far and would become inadministrable. I am sure the CMA would find a way to try to administer it, but I do not think it would be the right balance. I feel the same way about the customer benefits exception.

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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Professor Marsden or Professor Furman, do you have any views on that? Professor Marsden, your screen has frozen. Professor Furman?

Professor Furman: That is unfortunate because everything I know about this topic has come from him. [Laughter.] I do not have anything to add.

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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Okay. Thank you.

Dean Russell Portrait Dean Russell (Watford) (Con)
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Q Professor Fletcher, imagine I am a growing business: I am successful, I have an online presence, I am doing lots of great stuff and I am a challenger to the global big businesses. What does the Bill mean to me? What difference will it make?

Professor Fletcher: It would make quite a lot of difference, but quite small differences. It would depend on the business that you were in. You might be an app developer. First of all, at the moment we have categories of rules rather than specific rules, so I cannot say exactly what it would do. For example, it could give you fairer access to app stores. If you were a seller through Amazon, which we were talking about earlier, it could give you fairer access to your own data on your own sales. I could probably talk for a long time about all the things that it could do, but I will highlight that you are, in that role, exactly who the law is targeted at helping.

Dean Russell Portrait Dean Russell
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Thank you. I notice that we have lost one of our witnesses, so I will go to Professor Marsden—I mean Professor Furman. My apologies; I forget my own name sometimes!

Professor Furman: Fair dealing, open choices, and trust and transparency are three of the main conduct requirements. They are all designed to make sure you could not have a search engine hiding searches from your business, and that you could not have them preferencing themselves and directing to themselves instead of to you. You might benefit from some of the interoperability and data access by being given access to the data or access to a system that you could operate on, which right now one of your bigger competitors is doing, so I think it is preventing harmful and unfair things being done to you, but also affirmatively opening up some options. By the way, all that is good not just for innovation but for the consumer, because it will make things easier and more streamlined for them.

Dean Russell Portrait Dean Russell
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Q Excellent. If I may follow up and spin that question on its head, Professor Marsden—hopefully I have the right person. I was asking before about what difference the Bill will make to a small business or growing business, but what will it mean for big businesses—the global giants—especially those that work in the online space? What will it make them better at doing? What will it stop them doing that might be harmful to competition at the moment?

Professor Marsden: I will deal with that first, then I can go back to the appeal point, if you would like my views.

The Bill will make those big platforms compete, basically for the first time. You will hear a lot of guff about how they are in some sort of monogopoly competition with each other all the time, and some of that might be true, but they are not really—they really are not. We see that in the competitive structure of the market, in the profits and in the concentration levels and so on. We are not trying to reduce profits or anything like that; we are trying to allow others to have a chance. If anything, like with open banking, that will light a fire underneath some of the big platforms, which are telling you they are innovative, and they are, but they are usually innovative in a way that makes us more dependent on them. We are not that fond of dependence in such markets; we are fond of diversity, choices and allowing competition on the merits—for products to rise and fall based on their merits, rather than on whether they have satisfied the terms and conditions of a particular platform.

On appeal, briefly—I am sorry for cutting out; Zoom might not be a platform of strategic market status—I have heard many advisers to tech platforms that might be subject to the Bill argue that the appeal issue is not just a small thing in the legislation, but absolutely fundamental. I agree with them on two things: first, the Bill itself and the ex ante approach that we have been discussing are absolutely fundamental—that is the big change. Secondly, the change with respect to ex post enforcement—the review of the conduct requirements, the investigations, anything imposed on the platforms and so on—to me involves such an involved, open and participative process between the platform, the digital markets unit and other entities that it gives me a lot of comfort about due process. If anything, if there were a full appeal standard, we might as well move to a prosecutorial approach, where the DMU is a prosecutor and everything is adversarial, and takes 18 years in court.

That is kind of what we have now so, if anything, this is an opportunity really to understand the business models, to put in bespoke requirements, to test ably the remedies—that is an important aspect—and to release remedies if they are not working or if they need to be tightened up. That therefore shows internationally what the UK thinks about such practices, which might help with the global spread that Amelia was mentioning. However, I have to state firmly that I believe that judicial review takes a lot longer than a substantive appeal, and I think that if the Bill were amended to allow a substantive appeal or even a few years of substantive appeal, we might as well have not done the study at all and might as well not pass the Bill in respect of the digital prior arrangements, because it will just return us to what we have seen before, basically.

In contrast, the European Commission is allowing substantive appeal rights. If anything, I think that means that they will code for prohibitions. As Amelia said, the law is not as bespoke, so we are going to see: “Here’s your general obligation. I don’t think you are satisfying it.” Then there will be an appeal to the Court and a wait of 18 years for Luxembourg to make a ruling. Here, those issues we hope will be dealt with at the administrative stage, and whether the authority of the DMU or the process itself was fair and reasonable is something that the courts should obviously review. We welcome that scrutiny. In fact, if I were involved in any of this, I would very much welcome that kind of scrutiny at the judicial review level, which is itself a very intense form of review, so it feels perfect to have this JR standard, but I appreciate that you will have already heard a lot against that and will in future.

None Portrait The Chair
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Thank you, professor. I have a follow-up from the Minister.

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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No, that is fine.

None Portrait The Chair
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Okay. In that case, I will bring in Jerome Mayhew.

Jerome Mayhew Portrait Jerome Mayhew (Broadland) (Con)
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Q I understand the evidence that you have given about the need under clause 194 to have a JR approach to the appeal process. What that does, however, is underline the power that the CMA has. Professor Furman, you mentioned earlier in evidence that it really matters who the leader of the CMA is. The area that I want you to comment on is whether you think that, under this process, there is sufficient political accountability for the decisions of the CMA. Such organisations are big, with the potential to have a huge impact on the economy of this country. Inevitably, they are deeply politically sensitive—or it is foreseeable that they will be—so are we not in danger of passing the buck too much to an arm’s length organisation like the CMA? Perhaps we should recognise that the decisions are inevitably political and that we therefore need a greater sense of political accountability. Professor Furman, could you start off on that?

Professor Furman: Political accountability is very much the broad approach. It is important that you have a body that approaches this transparently and predictably. I have a lot of respect for the role that you all play in the political system. You think that you should set the goals for consumer choice, innovation and so on, but it is important that what ultimately gets done is done in a much more judicial, regulatory way so that it is predictable for all the parties involved and does not change dramatically over time. In that, there is obviously the appeals process that was just discussed. That is not a political appeals process; it would be within the legal system.

I confess that I am not familiar with exactly how things would work in the UK. In the United States, Congress would have the head of the Federal Trade Commission, or whatever body was charged with this, up to testify. Generally, Congress would not ask, “Why did you bring that case yesterday?” but “Why aren’t you being more aggressive?” or “Why aren’t you being less aggressive?” They would try to oversee things at a strategic level, while leaving each case, decision and regulation to the regulator. Something like that system—I do not know exactly how you would do it in the UK—would be ideal.

Jerome Mayhew Portrait Jerome Mayhew
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Q Professor Fletcher, you are nodding. Would you like to expand on that?

Professor Fletcher: I fully agree. I can see why there is concern about discretion, but the CMA has shown that it takes its responsibilities seriously. It also understands that it is answerable to the Government of the day on a strategic level, rather than on individual cases.

To follow what Philip said, JR is not a walk in the park. It is a pretty serious test, which the CMA has faced occasionally in the past. It is a very serious expectation on the CMA. I support the view that if you want investment and open and competitive markets, you must have a transparent, consistent framework, which has lots of legal certainty. I worry that too much political intervention risks undermining that.

None Portrait The Chair
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Thank you. We have time for one more question, so I call Andy Carter.

Andy Carter Portrait Andy Carter
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Q Professor Fletcher, picking up on something that you mentioned earlier, I want to look at innovation and investment. You said that we are leading the world in the some of the work that we are doing. Can you quantify how that work will benefit UK plc? I am conscious that that is a big question, but has any work been done on our approach and the benefits to our economy that we might see?

Professor Fletcher: I have to confess that I am not aware of work that has specifically been done on that. It is worth seeing this as a global thing, and we are trying to play our part in creating a global environment that will foster global innovation. I think that by doing it here, we will set rules that foster much of that innovation and encourage it to come here. There will be people who have made estimates; my hunch is that most of them will be pretty back-of-the-envelope, but I confess that I have not seen them.

None Portrait The Chair
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Thank you very much. That brings the allotted time for this witness panel to an end. On behalf of the Committee, I thank you all very much for giving us your time.

Examination of Witnesses

Noyona Chundur, Peter Eisenegger and Tracey Reilly gave evidence.

14:45
None Portrait The Chair
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We will now hear from our next panel of witnesses. We have Noyona Chundur, chief executive of the Consumer Council; Peter Eisenegger, board member, National Consumer Federation; and, via Zoom, Tracey Reilly, head of policy and markets, Consumer Scotland. May I ask you to introduce yourselves for the record?

Noyona Chundur: I am the chief executive of the Consumer Council.

Peter Eisenegger: I am the director of the National Consumer Federation with responsibility for the digital perspective in the consumer world. From the nature of our response, you will see that we have also commented a lot on the standards world, so I think it is appropriate that I indicate my background there: I have participated in digital standardisation in the UK through the British Standards Institution, in Europe through CEN and CENELEC, and internationally through the International Organisation for Standardisation. We do our best to represent the consumer voice in those arenas.

Tracey Reilly: I am head of policy and markets at Consumer Scotland.

None Portrait The Chair
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Thank you. I invite shadow Minister Seema Malhotra to start the questions.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
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Q Thank you for coming to give evidence. Perhaps I could start with you, Ms Chundur, and then others may wish to come in. Do you think that this Bill will adequately address consumer detriment in digital markets? Are there areas where the legislation could go further?

Noyona Chundur: Thank you for the great question. Perhaps I can start with a little bit of context. We believe that confident consumers will drive competitive markets. There is a lot that the Bill does really well. It is great progress, and I commend the work of colleagues in the Department, as well as partners in the CMA and Tracey from Consumer Scotland for their input in getting us to this point. There are eight areas that could be strengthened or clarified. There is building consumer confidence. There is the potential risk of only the CMA having direct enforcement powers. It is around the supervision of enforceable standards, practice and conduct of businesses. It is the ability to add and remove—

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford (Chelmsford) (Con)
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Slow down!

Noyona Chundur: Sorry, would you like me to step through each one? Would that be easier?

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
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You are going through them quite well, but could you go you through them slightly more slowly, because colleagues will want to write them down?

Noyona Chundur: The first thing for us is building consumer confidence as a priority, because prioritising consumer protection to build the foundations that create confidence in competitive markets will benefit both the consumer and the economy. We are looking at this through the prism of the cost of living crisis and through the heightened prism of vulnerability. In the packs that we provided, you can see that vulnerability has certainly increased in the last 12 months. The Consumer Council has dealt with over 33,000 consumers, and they are showing increasingly more complex and multifaceted needs. Income in Northern Ireland has—

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
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Q Sorry: your list of eight things was quite useful, so would you be able to go through those—as you were before, but just a bit slower?

Noyona Chundur: Understood. Did I get to adding to or removing from the list of banned practices in the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008?

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford
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I wrote down the first one.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
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Could you start the list again?

Noyona Chundur: Okay. Building consumer confidence is a key priority for us. The second thing is the potential risk of only the CMA having direct enforcement powers. The third is perhaps expanding the Bill in some way to include the supervision of enforceable, standards, practice and conduct. The fourth is adding to or removing from the CPR list of banned practices.

Next is establishing enforceable minimum standards to alternative dispute resolution schemes. We welcome the mandatory accreditation as part of the Bill, but we would like to take it a step further. Then there is a question around better regulation of firms that exploit behavioural bias or nudge techniques for negative effect. Finally, we recommend going further on subscription traps with opt-in clauses after the trial or end-of-contract period.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
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Q Thank you—that was very helpful. On subscription traps, you will have evidence for recommending opt-in rather than opt-out. Could you talk us through the impact of the opt-out?

Noyona Chundur: The key thing for us comes from research that the Government have published. I think the Department for Business and Trade estimated that 81% of UK households signed up to at least one subscription last year, and consumers are spending £1.6 billion per year on subscriptions that they do not want. That is a huge amount of money that a lot of consumers do not have in the current cost of living crisis. Our own research highlights the lived experience. In the online detriment research that we carried out, one consumer told us that they signed up for a 30-day trial but it took them six months to get the subscription cancelled. In the light of that, I think that it is appropriate for us to recommend that legislating for opt-in clauses after the initial trial or end-of-contract period is reasonable. I also believe that that may deliver the most immediate and material benefit to consumers in the short term, given the vast quantities involved.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
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Q Mr Eisenegger, are there any gaps that you would argue for, and what is your view on fake reviews and whether they are being sufficiently addressed in the legislation?

Peter Eisenegger: Our overall approach here, at the more strategic level, is that the Bill contains lots of good stuff. It is a significant step forward. What we do not want is, as has happened with the Online Safety Bill, for it to hang around forever and not enter law. Our view is that we can talk about improvements in some areas. You mentioned one—the way that fake reviews are handled. To delve into that detail, however, would just prolong the process of getting it into law. We recommend that the Bill gets enacted as soon as possible, that we recognise it as a step forward, and that the CMA and this Committee look at areas of improvement beyond it. There is something that would relate to online reviews in terms of whether the information being provided is accurate, but it is good enough. Let us press on and get it done.

That said, I have not heard a discussion about the role of standards and supporting regulation. We are in the digital world, and an awful lot of regulation is supported by standards. You will find that General Data Protection Regulation is leaning very heavily on work in Europe to adapt and put some final European tweaks on the work that has gone on at the ISO level, and similarly with AI. If you want to be a leading player in this area, particularly an innovative one, from our perspective—we play in international, European and UK standards—you have to be very well aware of, and participating in, all those arenas.

To make an innovation comment—having spent two thirds of my career in product management and innovation, I am now doffing the consumer cap and putting the real-life innovation one on—good innovation practice is to look at what other people are doing and pinch as many legitimate ideas as you can from them. Quite honestly, the fact that the EU has the same sort of intent but a slightly different approach is great. Just keep an eye on its members to see whether there is good stuff. To be fair, I will say the same to them, because I am participating in the AI standardisation at the moment.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
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Q In the interests of time, I will move on to Ms Reilly. What is your view of how this will affect/benefit consumers in Scotland? Are there any other specific issues that we should consider in relation to Scotland?

Tracey Reilly: Broadly speaking, we welcome the Bill. As your previous panellists said, it has lots of good stuff in it. It should provide the CMA with more flexible powers, which can be used in a more responsive and timely way to prevent detriment. On how the Bill will affect individual consumers, we hope that it will lead to consumers experiencing lower levels of detriment and being less subject to unfair, misleading or aggressive trade practices so that if and when such practices occur, they can be stamped out more quickly and easily, and it is easier for consumers to seek redress through ADR systems that are appropriately regulated and standardised.

In terms of how the Bill will affect Scottish interests, in many ways the level of detriment experienced by consumers across the UK is similar. The consumer protection survey is UK-wide and the patterns of detriment for Scottish consumers are generally not hugely different from those experienced in the rest of the UK. That said, there are obviously differences between the two nations in the regulatory enforcement and judicial landscapes, and it is important that we understand and pay attention to them. Equally, I understand that the Department has been engaging with Scottish stakeholders. We welcome that and would obviously like that to continue through the implementation process.

Some markets operate differently in Scotland, either because they are entirely devolved because there are fewer providers and therefore lower levels of competition, or because consumers access services differently, for example, due to geography. It is important that, within the overall UK framework, the system can respond to those regional differences or local issues. We hope that the additional levels of flexibility granted to the CMA under the Bill will allow for a more flexible and targeted response, particularly if any local practices cause detriment. We look forward to liaising with the CMA on that. Noyona may wish to make additional comments, given that she is in Northern Ireland.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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Q Noyona, you mentioned that you felt that the CMA should not be the only enforcement body that oversees the legislation. Who else do you think has the experience and expertise to perform some of those significant obligations?

Noyona Chundur: There is a heightened risk, Minister, if the new direct enforcement powers sit only with the CMA. Ultimately, the purpose of those powers is to be much more agile, flexible and responsive to consumer detriment in the market. Is there a heightened risk that enforcement will default to the CMA because perhaps it may deliver a solution that is much more agile and responsive and much more in keeping with the pace of detriment in the marketplace compared with a courts-based system? The sector regulators and trading standards could therefore have the same or similar powers. The question is about agility and responsiveness to detriment, which is exploding in the marketplace. We see it increasingly, particularly in digital markets, which evolve so quickly. That is our perspective.

Neil Coyle Portrait Neil Coyle (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (Lab)
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Q The Bill aims to protect consumers and challenge unfair competition online, but one significant disadvantage for British companies and consumers is counterfeit goods sold on platforms such as Amazon. For example, the British company that holds a licence to make Peppa Pig toys has the trademark and the patent, and meets the standards, including safety standards, but counterfeit goods, particularly those imported from other countries such as China, are dangerous and do not meet safety conditions. Will the Bill help end that situation for consumers and companies here? Is it an opportunity to do so or, if not, is it amendable to achieve that?

Peter Eisenegger: The Bill has clauses that allow us to address that in terms of, “Has the information put before the consumer been complete and accurate?” If something does not comply with safety standards, that has been omitted. It is a question of interpretation that we would have to nail down and make clear.

Neil Coyle Portrait Neil Coyle
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Q Would the Bill allow for a company here to say that? Amazon’s excuse is that that is for the producer in China, for example, to do that, rather than for Amazon. Does the Bill address that gap or not?

Peter Eisenegger: This is an area where I have had a lot of conversation with Electrical Safety First, which is very concerned about it. We have started to outline, at a very preliminary stage, what constitutes an online market set of functionality for which people should be held responsible and—what do you know—Amazon fits that. We find that online retailers do not perform all the functions, but they perform enough to be reasonably interpreted as having a retailing responsibility in the traditional physical world. But they have to do the heavy lifting of getting stuck into the detail and mapping it out.

I am afraid I come back to the standards world, which tends to be set up to provide that level of detail for the regulation to lean on. There are standards for complaints handling, for alternative dispute resolution, for dealing with vulnerable consumers and for online reviews—all issues that touch on what we have said. They are there, and mainly my UK consumer colleagues in British Standards either instituted them or were very influential in getting them taken forward.

A personal expert view? Yes, I think it can be interpreted that people like Amazon have a retail responsibility. To provide the evidence and analysis to support that position, however, is work that we have started with Electrical Safety First, but we are a bit busy and neither of us has had the time to finish it off.

Neil Coyle Portrait Neil Coyle
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Q Thank you for your work. Perhaps the Government will pick up on some of that. Noyona, I think you were going to come in.

Noyona Chundur: May I add something? Electrical standards are not my area of expertise, unlike consumer expectations around standards generally, so I will make a comment about that. Consumers expect minimum standards, particularly in new markets. It is worth saying that when we are talking about new digital markets, everyone is vulnerable, so there is no “vulnerable consumer” per se.

An interesting point to make is that we did a joint project with the Utility Regulator for Northern Ireland on what consumer expectations might be of future regulation and decarbonisation. Consumers were very clear that, in addition to trusted accessible information and concerns about costs or financial health, they wanted absolute protection from safety fraud, obsolescence or mis-selling, but they also wanted clear and robust standards on certification, registration and standards for installers, and protection against damage and disruption during installation. That is moving away from something that is perhaps more price-led and economic to where we need to have a minimum enforceable standard that works for everyone, so that we bolster the safety net and create confidence in markets. The more that we do that, the more consumer spending we have in the economy, which is good for everyone.

Peter Eisenegger: May I make a comment about enforcement? A backstop is in action at the moment: the class actions that our law now allows for the consumer world. My colleague Arnold Pindar, the chair of the NCF, is part of an advisory group that is taking on Mastercard at the moment. Another colleague, Julie Hunter, is fronting the case against Amazon about the way it presents its own products unfairly in its online marketplace. These names are in the public domain; I would not mention them otherwise. To a certain extent, the powers being provided to the CMA to be a bit more responsive and active make sense where we have class actions, which really is a major “after the horse has bolted” situation. We hope that the CMA will prevent more horses from escaping. Thank you for the opportunity to comment.

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford
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Q Could you give us examples of where the industry has set standards in the digital space that have helped to address particular holes? You have given us a list of standards for online reviews and alternative dispute resolution, but can you give us a way to explain to our constituents why these industry-led standards help to underline good behaviour in this market, and why it is important that they are set in an international sphere for these players?

Peter Eisenegger: Okay. The industry-led—

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford
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Are they industry-led?

Peter Eisenegger: You only get good standards when you have proper stakeholder engagement—that is a comment that we address in our supporting paper. You need standardisation bodies that actually work hard at getting their stakeholders involved. BSI is good at that, and the European system is pretty good. In the digital area, because there are so few of us with the right background and expertise, you find that the consumer voice is not getting through. I have two consumer colleagues who are on the BSI mirror committee for AI; they feel that the international standard is not reflecting what they are trying to input, because we do not really have anyone effective at the international level on the consumer side.

You need very careful insight into where there is decent stakeholder engagement and where there is not. Where there is, you are quite right: I have worked on a number of committees where the good guys and gals from industry have just been saying the right thing, and you end up just tweaking a little of what they already understand in their industry is good practice. There is no problem with working with the good people in industry, but—particularly in the digital space—you do get the big players coming in and influencing things, whereas the small and medium-sized enterprise stakeholders are not as fully represented. When a standard is put forward, careful understanding is needed of who the people are who are really contributing to it.

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford
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Q I think you said that you sometimes see the standardisation process in the digital world being used by larger players to put barriers in the way of smaller players getting involved.

Peter Eisenegger: Exactly.

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford
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Q Can you give an example where you have seen that?

Peter Eisenegger: Yes, I can. It was a consumer-initiated standard on complaints handling. If you want the number, I can blind you with it: it was ISO 10002. It was initiated by the consumer side of ISO. It is clearly written for the big company: it has lots of good practice where you divide all the responsibilities, the analysis of the complaints and things like that. There is an annex for SMEs. I have been through the main part of the document and counted the number of requirements: there are more than 250. For the SMEs, there are eight.

Where you look at the consumer and it is your small local trader, you go, “That’s fine,” because they know you personally—you know where they live, basically, and that changes the whole local relationship. But you do not really see that many standards where the practicalities for the smaller company are reflected. I am quite pleased that the consumer world did a decent job for the SMEs there, because they are very important to us in terms of local service and providing competition to the big guys.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
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Q I want to come back to some areas that we have picked up on in previous evidence sessions. Schedule 18 to the Bill sets out a list of commercial practices that are to be considered unfair, but a number of arguably unfair commercial practices are not included. Examples might be drip pricing or misleading green advertising, which is an increasing consumer concern. Do you consider those omissions to be something that needs more attention during the passage of the Bill so we do not miss this opportunity?

Peter Eisenegger: Do as much as you feel you can make time for, while getting the Bill implemented as quickly as possible. I come back to the key clauses that relate to the appropriateness of the information provided. Is it complete? Is it misleading? As a charity, we have looked at how heat pumps are being advertised at the moment. About 80% of the online information did not provide the right contextual information for your heat pump decision; some did not even mention it at all, and a few hid it away behind several layers of interaction with the website before you found it out. That would fall under the incompleteness clause, but again, you are going to come back. The CMA would be able to apply an interpretation, which would probably go through some sort of intense dialogue with the industry people concerned, but if you do not have time to cover all those other aspects as explicitly as you would wish in the Bill, I think there is a clause that gives the CMA some capability for addressing it.

Noyona Chundur: Maybe I can add to that. This talks to the point in the earlier session on how quickly or whether fake reviews should be automatically added to the list of bad practices, or should we go through full consultation. In all these things, we need to have appropriate consultation and the appropriate due diligence carried out. It needs to be done as quickly and thoroughly as possible so there is no doubt. I am completely supportive of what was said earlier today that there is a lot of detriment as a result of fake reviews, and the sooner that is resolved, the better. None the less, we need to be careful about setting the right precedents. We need to have consistency in procedural application. For all those things—I believe we are all in agreement that drip pricing is of huge concern, as are misleading green claims—we need to follow the right process and get through it as quickly as possible.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
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I think Ms Reilly wants to come in as well.

Tracey Reilly: I simply want to endorse much of what Noyona said. There are issues around fake reviews, drip pricing and greenwashing that we all want to see addressed, and for that to happen as soon as possible. However, there is also a need to ensure that the definitions are right and the provisions are effective. We would hugely support the Secretary of State having the power, which is in the Bill, to amend the schedule by regulation. I realise that is a Henry VIII clause, which is not always popular, but in this case I think it is an acceptable use of that power, and it comes with appropriate safeguards in terms of the affirmative statutory instrument procedure and the requirement to consult first.

Touching briefly on greenwashing in particular, we acknowledge that existing regulators have powers to tackle that and that there are existing programmes of both education and enforcement. However, greenwashing claims are hugely prevalent and there is a lot of work to be done. It is an issue that, for us, has real risks associated with the net zero transition, because we are going to get consumers to make quite different choices around what they eat, what clothes they buy, how they heat their houses and what vehicles they drive. Some of those are quite big-ticket items in terms of cost, so there is a real risk for consumers and a real need for them to be able to trust the information they are given, which links back to the points my colleague Noyona was making about consumer confidence.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
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Q In relation to support for consumer organisations, how do you think the CMA and the Government can better support consumer organisations that are supporting consumers on the frontline?

Tracey Reilly: Just a couple of quick points. There is a need to produce very clear guidance on the new plans and have very clear referral processes to the CMA for the use of those plans, so that advocacy and advice bodies have almost a direct line, if you like, into the points of contact. Essentially, it is about pathways and signposting, and ensuring that the routes from an individual consumer experiencing detriment to those who are able to take action on it are as quick and flexible as possible.

Noyona Chundur: From my perspective, I would ask for two things. The first is greater connectivity across the ecosystem. We all have a lot of data; we all have a lot of intelligence; we all have a lot of on-the-ground insights that should be shared and published in a more connected and co-ordinated way. Ultimately, that is more holistic, but it gives the level of granularity we need on a four nations basis. The other is greater focus on the broader issues of online behavioural bias and the exploitation of behavioural bias—you know, nudge techniques—to negative effect. To my mind, the Bill does not adequately cover that, so I believe this is an area of potential development.

As has been touched on already, vulnerability is not just about personal characteristics or social circumstances; the behaviour of organisations can cause harm and put you in a vulnerable position. That is a key area that we would love to see explored in more detail as the Bill passes through scrutiny.

Peter Eisenegger: In terms of support, having mentioned standards, there is a Government mechanism for providing the consumer arm of BSI with money to support its experts. Keep a careful eye on that, and work with BSI and its consumer arm to ensure that that is suitable for the level of really important issues we need to address.

There is another area of the consumer world, which is about the smaller, really voluntary charities, such as ourselves and the Child Accident Prevention Trust, which have no regular income and live hand to mouth. We have been on the brink of extinction every now and then, and although we have managed to haul ourselves back, it is a very precarious position. When we and others in a similar position contribute to this sort of arena or talk to regulators, our voice is valued and has something to offer, but we are very precarious. If Parliament looks at the people who really represent the grassroots and different perspectives and are without a regular income, and if something can be done, that would be extremely useful. Some of these voices drop out.

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford
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Q I want to come back to schedule 18 and ensure that I absolutely understood what Tracey said. This morning, I think Which? said that they thought fake reviews should now be put in schedule 18. I have had constituents who have suffered from fake reviews for services they have given, and the fake review has been very damaging to their business. We all know about fake reviews on books, which can be very damaging. Are you saying, Tracey, that we need to ensure we get the wording of how it goes into schedule 18 right—have the consultation and get the wording right—but let the Government introduce it through Henry VIII powers later, rather risk delaying the Bill by trying and maybe not getting the exact wording right now?

Tracey Reilly: I think that is a very difficult question. Without remotely passing the buck, I think that ultimately it is a judgment for your Committee to take as to whether it considers there is sufficient clarity in the definitions proposed during the amending stages to allow for those decisions to be made now. If the Committee is confident that there is sufficient clarity, and the soundings you are receiving from stakeholders indicate that they are content, it is a matter for the Committee to decide. Ultimately, our position is that we want to see it as soon as possible, but we also want to see it done correctly, because as we all know it is very difficult to amend primary legislation once that is in place.

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford
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Q So “get it clear” is what you are saying to us.

Tracey Reilly: It is a very complicated area, not just in terms of how you define fake reviews but in terms of the precise powers that regulators need in order to determine where, how and when fake reviews are occurring. AI will make that an even more complicated picture, so it is important to get that right.

Jerome Mayhew Portrait Jerome Mayhew
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Q Ms Chundur, you gave a very interesting stat earlier: £1.6 billion per year is spent on subscriptions that people do not want. One of your eight areas of concern is an opt-in clause for the subscription trap issue. You are in good company, because Citizens Advice came up with the same recommendation in this morning’s evidence session. However, we will hear later today from the News Media Association, which expressed exactly the opposite view in its written evidence: that the current wording of clause 252(1), which is essentially that you should be able to unsubscribe with one click without any unreasonable additional steps to go through,

“may hinder the provision of improved subscription offers that are in the best interest of the consumer”.

Can you comment on that? I will test the NMA if no one else does regarding what exactly it meant by that, and ask for examples of how it might hinder improved consumer engagement, but if the NMA can substantiate that, would you accept that it has a point?

Noyona Chundur: Perhaps, but I agree with what Citizens Advice said this morning: if your product is good enough and consumers want it, they will seek it out. Another point made this morning was that the consumer journey sits across multiple markets and is quite complex. That is where we are coming from. We are looking at the end-to-end consumer journey. In that context, consumers also want minimum standards. If you do not have minimum standards—if the default position is that you are just rolled on to another contract, and there is no opportunity to review whether that contract is the best for you, has the best price, is the best product or suits your particular circumstances—I am afraid that that does not necessarily give the consumer the best deal from a price or quality perspective.

Jerome Mayhew Portrait Jerome Mayhew
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Q Do you also recognise that there are people like me out there who signed up for a contract, and to be asked every single time, “Do you want to renew it?” when it is a core level of services that I benefit from, year in, year out, would be less constructive for my wellbeing? That is poor English, but you know what I am trying to say.

Noyona Chundur: Respectfully, I would say that most people will want the reassurance that the deal that they are getting every year is the best deal possible, is coming at the best price, is being delivered with the best service in mind and meets their needs, rather than the assumption that an algorithm or someone else has made that decision for them. Certainly the consumers we speak to want transparency, accessible communication and more choice. This is one way of giving them exactly what they want. I echo the sentiment of what was said this morning: if the product or service is good enough, people will sign up to it. It is nothing to fear, but it will raise standards and make for better competition and a more sustainable economy. Those are all good things, because they are being viewed through the prism of consumer accessibility and affordability.

Andy Carter Portrait Andy Carter
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Q Tracey, you mentioned in your opening statement that a number of markets operate differently in Scotland. I wonder whether I could ask you to expand on that a little. What particularly were you referring to, and where does the Bill need to be amended to accommodate those markets operating differently?

Tracey Reilly: I probably had two or three examples in mind. One would be legal services, which are entirely devolved, so they are regulated entirely differently. Key parts of that market around complaints are regulated differently. Another would be one that we share in common with Northern Irish colleagues: the prevalence of off-grid heating systems. There may be ones where how you access services is simply different according to where you live; for example, there is the perennial issue of postal delivery in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Those were the types of thing that I had in mind.

We have regular and very constructive dialogue with the CMA about local issues, and about regional and sub-national issues. We hope that the Bill’s provisions will enable the CMA to deal flexibly and responsibly with those concerns. The framework that they operate, as with any body that has limited resources, makes prioritisation decisions on a UK-wide basis. We would like to ensure that regional and national differences, and differences for specific communities within the nations, can be dealt with as part of that. I think Noyona would probably welcome coming in on that point.

Andy Carter Portrait Andy Carter
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Q Do you want to pick up on that from a Northern Ireland perspective?

Noyona Chundur: Absolutely. A key regional difference, both for Tracey and for me, is the microbusiness economy. In Northern Ireland, 89% of our businesses employ 10 people or fewer. We are absolutely a microbusiness economy. We know that the experiences of many consumers and of many small businesses and microbusinesses mirror each other in multiple markets. Tracey’s point is about ensuring that the prioritisation principles, or the applications of how the Bill is operationalised on the ground, need to be mindful of the diverse experiences that can happen among the four nations.

Andy Carter Portrait Andy Carter
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Q I have one further question. You touched on nudge techniques. Can you expand on that and on what action you think needs to be taken?

Noyona Chundur: It is when you are pressurised into purchasing a product or service without even knowing that it is being served up to you because of an algorithm.

Andy Carter Portrait Andy Carter
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Can you give me an example of where that is happening?

Noyona Chundur: It can happen in retail; it can happen in any digital market; it can happen in telecoms. It is a technique that is growing, and there needs to be further investigation and exploration of what that means for regulation. That is not just the job of the CMA; it will need sector regulators to play a part. It needs the whole ecosystem to coalesce, but also trading standards and trading standards in Northern Ireland.

Andy Carter Portrait Andy Carter
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Sorry to pressure you on this, but I want to understand what you mean by a nudge technique. If I go on to a website and then I get an email afterwards, is that a nudge technique? What do you mean?

Noyona Chundur: That is probably an algorithm. A nudge technique is perhaps a little bit more sinister than that: it is where you are being prompted to purchase products and services that you never thought you might need, based on your previous purchasing patterns and purchasing decisions. That may not come at the best cost or the best specification, and it certainly may not be the best offer to use.

Andy Carter Portrait Andy Carter
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That is really helpful. Thank you.

None Portrait The Chair
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I call Dean Russell to ask a brief question.

Dean Russell Portrait Dean Russell
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Q I have two, but they are really quick. First, will the consumer be expected to do anything in order to see benefits from the Bill, in your view? Will they benefit from all the wonderful things we have talked about, or will a communications campaign be needed alongside the Bill to tell them what their new rights are so that they can report back and make complaints, as it were?

Noyona Chundur: A communications campaign is fundamental. The language that is used, how the messaging is framed and how it is targeted to the various consumer groups will be key, as will consistency of messaging across the regions, not just from a UK perspective. It needs to be mindful of how consumers absorb information and who they engage with, as well as being mindful of communities. Consumers want clear, transparent information in plain English, so we need to make it simple for them. We need to be careful not to just push the onus on consumers to make decisions. The job of the Bill, and of Government, is to make lives better, so that is what we want to do.

Dean Russell Portrait Dean Russell
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I will leave my second question, because I am conscious of time.

None Portrait The Chair
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Thank you.

That brings us to the end of the time allocated for this witness panel. On behalf of the Committee, thank you all very much for taking the time to give evidence.

Peter Eisenegger: Thank you for listening.

Examination of Witness

Professor Geoffrey Myers gave evidence.

15:30
None Portrait The Chair
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