Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill Debate

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Department: Department for Business and Trade

Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Excerpts
Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Tyrie, and I will come to his theme of accountability later in my remarks, but I am very grateful to my noble friend the Minister for setting out in his introductory speech just how successful the UK’s tech sector is to date, because it really is a huge success. I was delighted to learn that Nottingham, my home city, is one of only a small number with two unicorns—billion-dollar tech start-ups. I did not know that, so that was good to hear.

Although we have been successful so far in the tech sector in this country, we have the talent and the potential to do so much more. But we have a problem, as we have already heard, which is that our digital markets are not working properly. The financial clout and sheer computing power of the US tech giants are creating significant, often insurmountable barriers to entry for alternative providers. I want to be clear that the Bill should not be about bashing big tech. We should not penalise these businesses because of their size. Their success and innovation also create other business opportunities, providing products and services that millions of people use and love. But that does not mean they should control the way markets develop and who else gets the chance to succeed. Like most, if not all, of my noble friends on the Conservative Benches and my erstwhile noble friend Lord Tyrie, I believe that free markets drive growth when they allow for effective competition. When markets are not creating that competitive landscape on their own, Governments should step in—hence the Bill before us.

Noble Lords have already heard that the Communications and Digital Select Committee, which I am privileged to chair, has started to call for legislation to empower the CMA with a new ex ante regime under the chairmanship of my predecessor and noble friend Lord Gilbert of Panteg. Through several committee inquiries, we have heard evidence of many things— we have heard about some of them today—including: unfair dominance and control of the immensely powerful and increasingly important digital advertising market; non-negotiable fees and terms applied by Apple and Google on thousands of businesses that rely on app stores, even though the terms of trade prevent some of those businesses providing a more streamlined experience and cheaper prices for their customers; and big players using their dominance in one part of the digital market, such as search, to damage the prospects of a potential competitor in another, such as online shopping or travel bookings. In our committee, we also continue to learn more about the failing of our digital markets as more firms, previously reluctant, are now willing to speak publicly about their experiences. So, as much as I would rather that the Bill was not necessary, the case for it is clear.

Once the Bill had been published and introduced to the Commons in the summer, my committee held hearings on Parts 1 and 2. I shall speak on only those parts today, but I have been interested to hear noble Lords cover other issues, to which we will no doubt return in Committee. I am grateful for all the briefings that I have received on all parts of the Bill.

I come back to the focus of my remarks. Overall, we as a committee found the Bill’s objectives and principles to be sound and a good basis for regulation. In our subsequent formal letter to the Secretary of State, we highlighted three important measures that we considered proportionate. My noble friend the Minister acknowledged that that is what we said, but he has not acknowledged something else we said: that these measures should not be diluted during the passage of the Bill. The three measures that we highlighted were the appeals process, the countervailing benefits exemption and the leveraging principle.

We knew from our evidence sessions that the big tech firms would lobby hard for changes in these areas. When all is said and done, they are successful businesses that will understandably fight hard to retain their positions. So, in the face of considerable pressure from them over the past few months, there was some relief when the government amendments tabled on Report in the Commons were less extensive than many had feared—but they are changes none the less.

Not only would any further dilution to these measures be unacceptable; the government amendments that have been made deserve proper scrutiny and debate to resolve the uncertainty that they have created. What I mean by that is that, in two or three years’ time, when the Competition Appeal Tribunal is considering an appeal, we need to be sure that judges will be in no doubt as to what the Government and Parliament intended by this legislation. We must avoid delays and outcomes that undermine the purpose of this Bill.

In his opening remarks, my noble friend the Minister anticipated some of my remarks. As he said today, and as the Government have shown in other ways, the Government have been at pains to stress that none of these changes affect the substance of the legislation. I am grateful for the reassurances that my noble friend has been able to offer. However, the fear is that these changes create loopholes for those with the deepest pockets to protract and extend a legal claim. We may require the publication of some new Explanatory Notes to provide that clarity and certainty. From noble Lords’ comments in today’s debate, I feel that we may need to table some amendments to at least probe and get firmly on the record the clarity that we need.

I will explain what I am talking about, which has already been highlighted by others. It is good that judicial review remains the procedure for any appeals against CMA decisions. But can we be sure that the new merits procedure for large firms to appeal against financial penalties will not lead to the CMA’s findings on conduct being reopened? My noble friend Lord Vaizey raised that question.

Indeed, why has the requirement for the CMA to ensure that its decisions are “proportionate” been spelled out in the Bill, when it is already a fundamental requirement of it as a regulator? Why has the decision been made to swap the word “indispensable” for a new form of words in the context of countervailing benefits? As we have heard, “indispensable” has precedent in case law and is well understood by the courts.

The Government have also added a new requirement that any guidance produced by the CMA in relation to Part 1 of the Bill should be subject to Secretary of State approval. I understand why the Government want to ensure sufficient oversight of the CMA, given the very substantial additional powers provided by this legislation, but my main concern with this change is that it will give the big tech firms another chance to lobby and delay. If this new requirement is to stay, we should at the very least include a short deadline in the Bill for the Secretary of State to grant her approval.

There are two other important principles for us to keep in mind here. First, the UK’s new digital competition regime is considered better than Europe’s because it is more flexible, but it will work only if the most dominant players participate in the process from the start to help the CMA decide best how strategic markets should work so that, in the end, all players get fair terms. The word “participatory” has been coined to describe this approach; “co-operative” would have done just as well. The point is that we must avoid deterring the kind of behaviour from big tech that is critical to the regime’s success.

The second principle—this is where I come to some of the comments that were made by my erstwhile noble friend Lord Tyrie—is accountability to Parliament. When it comes to the strategic oversight of the CMA and the work of its Digital Markets Unit, parliamentarians have an important role. Some noble Lords may recall that I raised the importance of accountability and parliamentary oversight during the passage of the Online Safety Bill. My committee, and the Online Safety Bill’s pre-legislative committee, both recommended a Joint Committee of both Houses be established to oversee digital regulation, because of the increasing power and remit we are giving to regulators. The Government, though, did not respond with any enthusiasm. We must return to this, and I thought that other speakers today might raise similar points.

This House passed a Motion only yesterday to establish a new committee of your Lordships’ House to oversee financial regulators. This was news to me yesterday, but I understand that it came about because of a government amendment to the Financial Services and Markets Bill. My noble friend Lord Tyrie suggested something different from what I have in mind, but the creation of this new committee sets a precedent, which is worth further consideration and study.

I support the Bill. It allows the big firms to continue to operate and innovate while ensuring that they do not use unfair tactics to suppress competition and stifle new challengers before they have had a chance to get going. In other words, it creates the level playing field that is critical to effective and fair competition. Ultimately, that is good for the UK economy, businesses of all kinds and sizes, and British consumers. I hope the Bill will pass swiftly because, as others have said, it is long overdue.

Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Excerpts
Viscount Colville of Culross Portrait Viscount Colville of Culross (CB)
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My Lords, I tabled Amendment 32 in my name, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for adding their names. I also thank the organisations that helped me work on these amendments. Amendment 32 to Clause 20 would stop the Secretary of State from revising the criteria for the conduct requirement process. These criteria are already very broad, but subsections (4) and (5) give the Minister huge scope to alter the types of behaviour expected from the SMS as part of the CR process.

Amendment 22, in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, aims to respond to government concerns about removing Clause 20(4) and (5), which are that it will prevent the Minister future-proofing the CR criteria by allowing the CMA leeway to alter criteria in Clause 19, which will open the way for the imposition of conduct requirements.

I also support attempts to encourage interoperability between user and digital activity in any way possible, so I support Amendment 20, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, and Amendment 21, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones.

On my Amendment 32 in Clause 20, the conduct requirements for the process will be hard-fought by the tech companies. The collaborative nature of the Bill will mean that the SMS will be very involved in setting up the regime, but it will also be following every possible avenue to ensure that the requirements are not burdensome to its businesses. However, subsection (4) gives the Secretary of State broad and unlimited time to be subject to lobbying and to change the nature of the contact requirements.

I have already given an example in my speech on Amendment 7 to show the lengths to which tech companies will go to affect the decisions of politicians in establishing an SMS designation. This amendment will have a similar effect of thwarting their attempts to interfere in the CR process. Over the last decade, a number of cases have been brought against the big tech companies by the EU anti-competitive regimes. As part of that process to rectify the anti-competitive behaviour, the regulators have laid out behaviour for the companies under investigation. These are sets of rules aimed to force the companies to change their conduct and reduce their dominance in the market.

The process is very complicated, and small tweaks can make the difference between success and failure of the rules and their ability to control anti-competitive behaviour. Implementation takes time. Consultation on the rules between the DMU, the SMS and other stakeholders can mean it takes up to six months to put into action, then it takes another several months before the market study on how the new conduct regime criteria are working can be assessed. In the meantime, the SMS continues to make huge profits, while the smaller competitors continue to suffer the loss of market activity.

My concern about the clause is that, even if the CMA comes across a new type of harm and can see clearly what remedy would apply, it cannot create its own remedy under the clause. This is most unusual for a regulatory body. Usually, the breach of law is investigated, and the remedy tailored by that body to proportionately fit the harm identified. The regulator is usually granted the power to craft the remedy itself.

The Government are keen to build a system which is speedy and effective, and so there is the list of tools that can be used as remedies in Clause 20, which is useful, but, instead of a speedy, sensible mechanism which would be in the hands of the expert regulator of digital markets, an additional step has been put in place. That additional step—going back to the Secretary of State to create regulations—is a slower and more complicated way to craft this remedy. The DMU must be left to use its professional expertise to set these rules.

At a later stage, we will be talking about the suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, to have some parliamentary committee involvement. I wonder why on earth we cannot have parliamentary committee involvement when looking at these particular Secretary of State powers and the way that the DMU would use them.

To deal with the concerns that the Minister might have about the lack of future-proofing, I also tabled Amendment 22. Its aim is to respond to claims by the Government that the removal of Secretary of State powers in Clause 20 will stop the future-proofing. Noble Lords know that, in the fast-changing digital world, even the most comprehensive list of criteria might not include all possible eventualities; my amendment deals with those concerns. It stems from the powers of the CMA to look at the objectives of the conduct requirements in Clause 19(5), which are comprehensive: they cover “fair dealing”, “open choices” and “trust and transparency”. Only conduct requirements of the permitted type in Clause 19(5) can be imposed under Clause 20 on the CR regime.

Clause 20 is currently a permitted list for the regime; in future, the CMA may want to change the criteria needed to achieve the objectives of Clause 19(5) as markets inevitably change. I suggest to noble Lords that Amendment 22 will achieve that. I have argued that the fear of the Secretary of State succumbing to the lobbying powers of the big tech companies is something to worry about. This small amendment will solve that problem and give flexibility to the CR process, without the danger of political interference.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, as this is the first time I have spoken in Committee, I declare that I chair the Communications and Digital Select Committee—but I am speaking in a personal capacity. This is quite an eclectic group of topics; it makes me wonder what will be in the group labelled “miscellaneous”.

I will talk about the leveraging principle, but before doing so, I acknowledge what has already been said about parliamentary accountability and the fact that I have an amendment in a later group. To pick up a point that the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, just made about his amendment to Clause 20, if we were to have a new Select Committee, there is no reason why, in the course of its business, it would not look at regulations being brought forward. I would expect there to be that sort of role for a Select Committee, but it would not replace the role of the Secretary of State in this context. We will come back to that when we get to the specific amendment.

The amendment on copyright is very interesting to me, not least because the Communications and Digital Committee is currently carrying out an inquiry on large language models. We are in the final stages of that inquiry and will publish our report very soon. We will have, I hope, some interesting things to say about copyright at that time.

I turn to my point on the leveraging principle; in particular, I will pick up on Amendments 26 and 27 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. When the Communications and Digital Committee carried out our scrutiny of the Bill and held hearings in the summer, we looked at the leveraging principle and concluded that what was in the Bill was adequate; we did not propose any further changes being necessary. Noble Lords may remember that, at Second Reading, I raised concerns about how the Government had diluted various bits of the Bill that we, as a committee, had said, “Do not do that”. As I understand it, they have not diluted the leveraging principle. However, I am a great believer in judging people by their actions rather than by what they say. Over the last few weeks, I have been very interested in the various representations that have been made to me and others from the different challenger firms and industry bodies in this area. I see and am sympathetic to their concerns on this topic.

Only today, I was interested to read the Bloomberg daily newsletter on tech matters, which refers to the recent case in the US in which Apple has been forced to make some changes to its 30% fee policy. It has already started introducing things that make that almost meaningless to those who might benefit from it. The newsletter explains what people have to do to use a different payment system from Apple’s and avoid the 30% fee. It says:

“In order for developers to include a website link in their apps to an outside payment system, they’ll first need to submit a request form to Apple. If approved, the link can only be displayed once within the app. It must look like a text URL—meaning it can’t be a candy-colored button that says ‘Use PayPal’—and the text itself must match one of seven templates”.


It continues:

“When clicked, the link will surface a warning from Apple about the risks of transacting with third-party websites, with ‘continue’ or ‘cancel’ buttons. The website has to open in the device browser, rather than from a pop-up within the app, where, depending on the type of service, a user can sign in or register for a new account”;


in other words, you will not bother by the time you have got through all that.

That was a long-winded way to say that I am minded to support what the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, is seeking to do with the leveraging principle here. A safeguard is necessary, but, as I said at the beginning, I am speaking in my own personal capacity.

Lord Vaizey of Didcot Portrait Lord Vaizey of Didcot (Con)
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My Lords, I will slip in here quickly, since I have Amendment 25 in this group. I follow my noble friend Lady Stowell in supporting tightening up the leveraging principle as much as possible. We would have a lot more fun in this Committee if we stopped referring to the leveraging principle and started referring to the whack-a-mole principle, which is the same thing. From now on, that is what I will do.

As my noble friend said, it is absolutely critical to the success of the pro-competition regime. We all know how it works and may have used it in our own commercial lives. After years of litigation, you concede a point to the competition authority and reduce the headline prices you are charging for the app to appear on your platform, and then you slip in a new way of charging, as was so ably set out by my noble friend Lady Stowell. You find a different way to charge in order to generate exactly the same revenue.

I tabled Amendment 25 simply to strengthen the anti-whack-a-mole conduct requirement so that designated undertakings cannot shift their anti-competitive behaviour to non-designated activities, even if their ability to do so is directly linked to their strategic market status in a designated activity. Without this change, there is a danger in the current drafting of the CMA having to constantly designate new activities and play catch-up with the SMSs—or it may not be able to combat anti-competitive behaviour in any way at all.

The key point here is that Clause 20 allows the CMA to intervene only when an SMS firm’s conduct

“is likely to materially increase the undertaking’s market power”.

It is too narrow, and it gives these SMS firms broad opportunities to avoid compliance. For example, if Apple News was not designated, as things currently stand, Apple could impose unfair terms on news publishers via contracts, circumventing the terms where it holds the market power, where the action has been taken which would be in the App Store. To appear in Apple News, you would go one step behind, in terms of the contracts with the news publishers, and therefore avoid any remedy.

My amendment seeks simply to close potential loopholes. As I said, my noble friend Lady Stowell has ably set out what the whack-a-mole principle is all about: generating exactly the same revenues but being very creative in how you do so as you play this game with the competition regulator.

Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Excerpts
Baroness Fookes Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Fookes) (Con)
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I add at this point that, if Amendment 16 were to be agreed, I could not call Amendment 17 by reason of pre-emption.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, I am hugely grateful to my noble friend Lord Faulks, if I can still call him that—in real life, he is my friend, even if he now sits on another Bench—both for tabling his amendments and for the incredibly comprehensive and thoughtful way in which he has introduced this group. To have the noble Lord’s expertise on this topic is incredibly valuable. I have signed his Amendments 16 and 53 but have also tabled my own in this group: Amendments 17 and 54. I am grateful to the noble Lords who have signed mine.

By way of some background to add to what the noble Lord has said, as I mentioned on the first day in Committee, and indeed at Second Reading, the Communications and Digital Select Committee held hearings on the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill during the summer of last year. We took evidence from the large tech firms as well as a range of challenger firms. We focused on Parts 1 and 2 of the Bill, which is what we are discussing at this time.

As my noble friend the Minister acknowledged when he spoke at Second Reading, we as a committee found that the Bill as it stood at that time—as introduced to Parliament—struck a careful balance. We felt that, overall, it was proportionate and would deliver on the outcomes that we were seeking to achieve and all felt were necessary for this legislation—namely, a level playing field for the various different businesses that now seek to operate in digital markets. We were careful to acknowledge that striking that balance was hard to achieve; it was not an easy thing. We commended the Government for that. We were also clear, however, that any further changes, particularly to some contentious areas, such as the appeals process, could cause significant problems.

As the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, said, we will come on to the question of appeals in a later group. The insertion of the word “proportionate” in the Bill, in the context of the conduct requirements that the CMA may impose, or the specific pro-competition interventions, has the potential to create a question and introduce a loophole that could be exploited during the appeals process. This is making people nervous—it is certainly making me nervous.

The noble Lord’s amendment would change the Bill back to its original wording. I have signed the amendment based on the way he, as a legal expert, has explained it, which seems to me to be the best way forward. However, my Amendments 17 and 54 try to make it clear to any tribunal hearing down the line that, by including the word “proportionate”, Parliament has not intended to create any new, novel or different opportunity for anybody to interpret what the CMA should always be doing, which is being proportionate in the way in which it goes about its duties. My amendments are, if you like, a safeguard, but I think what the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, has proposed is clearer and neater. Like him, I look forward to the Minister’s reply. This is an area which is causing quite a lot of concern and on which we need a clear response from the Government.

Baroness Harding of Winscombe Portrait Baroness Harding of Winscombe (Con)
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My Lords, it is an honour to follow such an esteemed legal brain and parliamentary brain. I am neither, but I have put my name to my noble friend Lady Stowell’s two amendments and I want to make two points in support of her arguments.

The common-law concept of proportionality is important in this legislation. I am not supporting these amendments in any spirit other than wanting to make sure that we are proportionate in the way we regulate the technology sector. After our first day in Committee, I was reflecting a little that perhaps all of us got a bit carried away—certainly I did—with some of our oratory about the importance of mitigating the downsides of the technology sector. I want to put it on the record that I recognise the upsides, too. Therefore, a proportionate path is important. I sit on the Communications and Digital Select Committee that my noble friend so ably chairs and, as she said, we felt that the Bill as introduced into the Commons got that proportional balance right.

We have been in this place before, having a very similar argument. A number of us here today are part of the Online Safety Act gang. I had a look at Hansard and on 19 July, during the last group on Report on the Online Safety Bill, I proposed a group of amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, which sought to clarify how non-content-related harms would be captured in the Bill. The argument made by the Minister, my noble friend Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, was that, by trying to define it in the Bill, we would create legal uncertainty because that concept was already defined. Now we find ourselves on the opposite sides of the same argument, where I think I am hearing the Government say that there is no intention to bring in any different definition of proportionality than that which already exists—that the CMA is already mandated to give significant consideration to proportionality—yet they want to put the word back in the Bill in the way that they resisted firmly in the Online Safety Bill, when a number of us were seeking a different form of clarification. I do not think that you can have it both ways quite so quickly in related legislation. Either the Government mean something different from the existing requirements of proportionality that the CMA is under, or we should simply take out this additional complexity and reduce the risk of further legal disputes once the Bill is enacted.

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Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, I support Amendments 39 and 40 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, which are about countervailing benefits. I have added my name to them. Before I make my remarks about those amendments, it is worth noting that my noble friend Lord Black gave quite a compelling argument in support of Amendment 48, describing how it would not drive a coach and horses through what the Bill is trying to introduce by virtue of the final offer mechanism but would strengthen it further. I will be interested to hear what my noble friend the Minister has to say in reply to that.

In response to the debate on a previous group of amendments, my noble friend the Minister said that, by virtue of the process of parliamentary scrutiny, or just making laws, we should improve Bills, in the sense that the way in which they are first introduced to Parliament does not mean that they cannot be changed. He is absolutely right: doing our jobs should lead to stronger, better and more effective legislation.

In the few amendments I have tabled I have tried not to unpick what has already been changed in the Commons but to add clarification where I felt that the changes were going in the wrong direction. On the topic of countervailing benefits, I added my name to Amendments 39 and 40, which revert Clause 29 back to its original wording at the point of the Bill’s introduction to Parliament, because I could not think of another way to secure the important purpose of Clause 29.

If I may, I again return to the way in which the Communications and Digital Committee scrutinised the Bill when it was first introduced. Countervailing benefits was one of the topics that we identified as an area of contention. In the course of our hearings, we heard a range of views on this clause. As other noble Lords have voiced in this debate, some wanted to see Clause 29 removed and others wanted it strengthened. The committee found that it should remain as it was; that it did not need to be changed and should remain in the Bill. We noted that the countervailing benefits exemption is

“designed as a backstop rather than an initial enforcement measure: the CMA is expected to take consumer benefit into account throughout its work”.

In conclusion, we said that the exemption

“provides a proportionate backstop as long as the threshold for using it remains high. The Government should resist any changes that would lower the threshold”.

Contrary to those who argued either to take out Clause 29 or to raise its threshold even further, my view is that, as it stood, it was fair and proportionate. Some of the big tech firms did not like it at all, but we thought none the less that it was an appropriate measure. Therefore, it would be fair to all parties for us to revert to the original text.

Baroness Harding of Winscombe Portrait Baroness Harding of Winscombe (Con)
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My Lords, I, too, wish to speak to Amendments 39 and 40, to which I have added my name. First, it is worth dwelling briefly on what the countervailing benefits exemption is: quite a “get out of jail free” card. To be clear: the company in question will have been found to have SMS, conduct requirements will have been imposed and the company will have been found to be breaching them and be on its way to jail. The countervailing benefits exemption is a “get out of jail free” card because the benefits that the new product or functionality brings are so good that it is worth breaching this set of fundamental competition principles.

That exemption is a really powerful tool that gets you completely out of jail. It can also enable you to simply slow down the process by arguing that it should be used, even if you will not succeed in getting out of jail. The process of slowing down being sent to jail is also very powerful for the big tech firms. This is a big weapon in the Bill.

However, I can also make the case, as many of the tech companies did at our Select Committee—as my noble friend Lady Stowell just said—that the exemption is an important tool to have in the Bill because we do not want to live in a world where large monopolists are not encouraged to innovate at all. There is an argument that we need to find the Goldilocks spot, if noble Lords will forgive me mixing my metaphors. I sit on my noble friend’s committee and, as she said, we have heard from the companies that would like this removed and from the companies that would like it strengthened. I share her view that the Bill as introduced to the House of Commons got that spot just about right.

Does my noble friend the Minister think that the new wording, introduced at a late stage in the Commons, of

“could not be realised without the conduct”

is the same as “indispensable”, or does it set a higher or a lower threshold to be able to use the “get out of jail free” card? I do not think he is going to argue that it sets a higher threshold; I think it is either the same as or a lower threshold. If it is a lower threshold, why do we really think that we need to make it easier for people who are on their way to jail to get out? If it is the same then we are right back to where we were two hours ago. Why do we need to define something differently that is already well enshrined in law as “indispensable”?

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Viscount Camrose Portrait Viscount Camrose (Con)
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Again, in my opinion, the two sentences are indistinguishable in their meaning.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, one of the arguments that has been advanced—I did not make it in my remarks because I forgot—is that part of the problem with changing the word from “indispensable” to what is now in the Bill is that the current phrase has not been tested in the courts, whereas “indispensable” has. The argument that changing from “indispensable” to what we have now provides clarity is one that is really hard for people to accept, because the clarity it is providing is not, seemingly, in everyone’s interests. That is part of the problem here.

Viscount Colville of Culross Portrait Viscount Colville of Culross (CB)
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If “indispensable” and purely “benefit” are the same, why was the change made on Report in the Commons?

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Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to support the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, in this amendment, which he has proposed extremely clearly; I can therefore be relatively brief. However, I probably have the most difficult feat of advocacy ahead of me. Normally in these circumstances one is trying to persuade the Minister to depart from the written brief in front of him, but now I have to persuade him to depart from the written brief which he has already read out, so I feel as though we know the answer to the question I am about to pose. None the less, I will proceed. I refer to my interests in the register as a practising barrister, including, as I will mention in a moment, practising in the Competition Appeal Tribunal, popularly known as the CAT.

It is a fundamental principle of the rule of law that there ought to be an effective means for legal rights to be vindicated. Having a legal right without the ability to vindicate it is not of much use. There are areas of law where a breach of legal duty may affect many consumers, but it is likely to affect each of them minimally. Although such affected consumers can in theory bring a claim for damages, it is rarely worth their while because of the small amount of each individual claim. The irrecoverable legal costs—I again declare my interest—will swamp any damages recovered, even if the claim is successful. There is also the risk of an adverse costs order if the claim fails. The real-world effect is that these claims are brought only by large claimants who have suffered large losses. That means that legal rights are not in practice vindicated. That is, in effect, a gap in our justice system.

In order to make access to justice possible for consumers in these cases, and to create a means of effectively enforcing competition law, a class action regime was introduced into the Competition Act 1998, in Section 47B. That section does not create any new rights; it creates a new process for the more effective enforcement of existing rights. It does this by enabling individual claimants to pool their claims and have them brought by a class representative. The class representative does the running in terms of preparing, funding, and bringing the action. The individual class members tend to have very little to do, other than to receive their damages when they are awarded. Importantly, there is no exposure to adverse costs orders.

This regime has been very successful. There is a high degree of expertise, both procedural and economic, in bringing such claims, and for that reason, the Competition Appeal Tribunal is the only forum in which such claims can be brought. I am instructed in such cases in the CAT, both for potential claimants, through the class representative, and also for defendants. While there are a few rough points which need to be smoothed out, as in any new jurisdiction, there is no doubt that the jurisdiction is bedding down extremely well. There are specialist judges sitting in the CAT, and there is now a range of specialist practitioners, in London and elsewhere, who appear in it.

Clause 101 creates a new data right, which is unlikely to see much use, I suggest, unless it is collectivised—in other words, brought subject to the same regime so that right can be vindicated in the same way. The main thrust of the amendment to which I have added my name is that the class action regime in Section 47B be expanded to include such claims, which would benefit from better access to justice, and, really importantly, would avoid leaving claimants with a right but with no effective remedy.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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I wanted to intervene briefly. I do not have an amendment in the group, I have not signed my name to any, but I wanted to piggyback on the introduction of the issue of private litigation to ask a question that has been put to me by one of the big tech firms. I thought it was a reasonable question, even though it was not one I felt moved to table an amendment on. I suggest to my noble friend the Minister that he might find it easier to reply by means of a letter to me that he can put in the Library of the House, rather than taking up time.

The question is why, in this Bill, if somebody wants to bring a private litigation, there is no provision for the CMA to be required to give consent before an action can be taken by way of private litigation. In contrast, in the Communications Act 2003, Ofcom’s consent is required before private litigation is taken on a matter that refers to conditions imposed on the various companies that come under its auspices. The relevant part of the Communications Act is Section 104, where claimants must obtain permission from Ofcom to bring private enforcement claims alleging a breach of the conditions that have been set by Ofcom: they cannot simply file a claim whenever they wish. The Act says:

“The consent of OFCOM is required for the bringing of proceedings by virtue of subsection (1)(a)”.


The purpose of this is to give Ofcom a sort of gatekeeping role and prevent overlapping, or private litigation happening while something is being carried out by the regulator.

I thought it was a worthwhile question and I am happy to ask it. The other issue that has been raised with me is that in these private litigations, the contentious countervailing exemption that we discussed in an earlier group is not available to the big tech firms in the same way that it is available to them in the procedure that is set out in the Bill.

I have given the Bill team notice of these questions. I know that they have some very good answers, and I suggest to my noble friend that he asks his officials to convert that into a letter that he can put into the public domain.

Lord Fox Portrait Lord Fox (LD)
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My Lords, the hyperactive pen of my noble friend signed up to this amendment as well. It is a great pleasure to support the noble Lords, and particularly to get cover from the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson—it is not usually like that. I am very happy to support this amendment, or the principle of this amendment: if not these words, some others.

Just to emphasise, when I was speaking to the last group of amendments, I set out a group of the major tech companies and said that in 2022, they had a revenue of nearly £400 billion, which is twice the size of the Ukrainian economy. That is the scale of the opponent that we are asking citizens to take on. To deny them the opportunity to band together, which in itself would still be a formidable challenge, is really to deny them justice. It is unrealistic to expect any individuals bar a few—and they are probably the ones who own the companies in the first place—to have sufficient resources to take on businesses of this scale. I would like the Minister at least to acknowledge that point. Perhaps we can go away and work out the best way to enable the reality of individuals being able to bring cases, because at the moment it is merely an idea; it cannot possibly happen.

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Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, I will speak in particular to my amendment in this group, Amendment 66, which does what it says quite clearly in its explanatory statement. This amendment would make it clear on the face of the Bill that

“the only CMA decisions subject to full merits review in Part 1 of the Bill are the decision to impose a penalty, the level of the penalty, and the timing of the penalty”.

Before I go on, may I please also thank all noble Lords who have added their names to my amendment? They are the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and my noble friend Lord Black of Brentford—no, Brentwood; sorry, they are quite different, I think. I will say something shortly about the other amendments in this group.

Noble Lords will know that I was very public and vocal in airing not just my own concerns but those of the Communications and Digital Committee that the essential judicial review process for appeals against CMA rulings that is in the Bill might be overturned by the Government in the face of lobbying by big tech. As I said at Second Reading, there was much relief that the Government did not go as far as we feared they might, but the introduction of a merits appeal on penalty still causes alarm, because it is hard to see how such an appeal will not reopen the substantive finding.

My amendment seeks to prevent that happening, but we need to look at the practicalities of this, which is where I would also include the other amendments in this group that seek effectively to reverse the Bill back to its original wording. If a firm appeals the penalty, how will a complete rerun of the basis for the CMA intervention be avoided? I have had a conversation with my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, because he is the legal expert—I am not at all. He made a couple of points to me that are relevant for me to air in my remarks.

I would like my noble friend the Minister to tell us what would be relevant for a firm to appeal on its merits, because once we start to look at the practical differences between an appeal on the penalty and one via the merits process, as opposed to a JR test, what worries me is that it will not simply be an argument that the penalty was excessive, as in when people say, “The prisoner should have got five years when he got seven”. How will the Government, by virtue of the changes they have made to the Bill, avoid a complete rerun of the basis for the CMA’s original intervention? I fear it will be argued, when it brings an appeal on the merits of the penalty, that this is also all relevant to an appeal on the merits of the substantive finding. Basically, we will find that the whole decision starts to get reopened.

As I said to my noble friend the Minister last week, with the amendments I have tabled in Committee, I have tried to avoid repeatedly unpicking what the Government brought forward at Third Reading in the Commons. At the very least, there must be further clarification in the Bill if the merits appeal on fines is to stay. However, to satisfy this Committee—and, ultimately, your Lordships’ House—against reverting the Bill to its original wording, my noble friend the Minister must convince us of the practicalities of how the merits appeal on fines system will work in practice, and that it will not undermine the JR process for substantive CMA rulings.

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The whole point of this legislation is to create a level playing field between big tech and challenger companies. Subsection (4)(b), which was only added on Report in the other place, gives enormous and overmighty power to the Secretary of State to control, and possibly hinder, the whole rollout and updating of the CMA anti-competition process. It exposes the process to being watered down by the very companies it aims to rein in.
Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, I speak to my Amendment 77 in this group. I thank the noble Lords, Lord Tyrie and Lord Clement-Jones, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, for adding their names to it.

I do not support what the Government did in the Commons, which the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, described and which his amendment seeks to overturn. However, I think that I understand why they did it, and I have some sympathy with their reasoning, if it is, as I assume, about increasing oversight of the CMA. Where I differ is that I do not believe that this is a job for the Secretary of State. In saying that, it is important to add that this is not just about a turf battle, for want of a better expression, between the Executive and Parliament. It is quite dangerous for the Secretary of State to position herself in this way, because she will become the subject of intense lobbying if she has the power to approve the CMA guidance on how Part 1 of the Bill will operate. That lobbying will be done in private—it could go on for weeks, as the noble Viscount said—and any change made as a result of that activity would be subject to massive rows, if not legal challenge. For me, nothing makes sense about the solution to the problem with which I have some sympathy.

As I have said on several occasions, the need for regulators to be independent can sometimes be over-argued. I very much believe that their regulatory decisions should be made independently without fear or favour or any kind of political interference. What I am most concerned about is that they must be accountable, even though they are independent. We are giving the CMA substantial new powers, so we must also ensure that we—Parliament—oversee its use of them properly.

I will come to parliamentary accountability and how we might improve on that in another amendment in my name, which relates to this group but is in another, for the reasons that the noble Viscount set out. But here, my Amendment 77 proposes that, instead of the Secretary of State approving the CMA guidance, the CMA must

“consult the relevant Parliamentary committees … and publish its response to any recommendations”

made by the committee at the same time that it publishes the final version of its guidance. That approach would ensure oversight of the guidance before it is implemented. It would also make sure that there is scrutiny of the CMA, that the CMA is properly accountable to Parliament and that any debate about the guidance happens in the open and not behind closed doors.

I am pleased to say that I have received widespread support for my proposal from many stakeholders and trade bodies, from all angles. I am not exaggerating when I say that what is proposed by way of Amendment 77 serves everyone’s needs and shared objectives, whether that is big tech, challenger tech, Parliament or the Government. I am grateful to my noble friends—both the Ministers—for our meeting to discuss this matter, which we had a couple of weeks ago. When my noble friend comes to respond—having already, I hope, discussed my amendment with colleagues in Whitehall—I hope he is able to express some support for what is proposed here. This is an important amendment to the Bill and I hope very much that he, speaking for the Government, feels able to accept it and make it their own.

Lord Black of Brentwood Portrait Lord Black of Brentwood (Con)
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My Lords, I want to support Amendment 76, to which I have added my name, with some brief remarks because the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, has put the case with great power and eloquence. I also support Amendment 77 in the name of my noble friend Lady Stowell, which is a clever solution to the issue of accountability.

I support Amendment 76 in particular, both because I do not believe the requirement is necessary and because—this is a consistent theme in our Committee debates—it builds into the legislation a completely avoidable delay and poses a very real threat to the rapid enforcement of it. Quite apart from the issues of principle, which are significant, this is also intensely practical. The CMA’s guidance on the Bill, published earlier this month, set out the expected timetable for the consultation phase on the Bill’s implementation, running through to October 2024, which could be a very busy month. It is almost certainly when we will have a general election or be in the midst of one.

It seems highly unlikely that the Secretary of State will be able to approve guidance during the purdah of an election campaign and if, after the election—whoever wins it—we have a new Secretary of State, there will inevitably be a further delay while he or she considers the guidance before approving it. The Bill therefore ought to be amended to remove the requirement for the Secretary of State’s approval, or, at the very least, set a strict timetable for it, such as the draft guidance being automatically approved after 30 days unless it is specifically rejected. That would ensure that there is not unnecessary delay, which could run into many months, before the new regime takes effect—especially if there is, as a number of noble Lords have made clear, intense lobbying of the Secretary of State behind the scenes.

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During the passage of the Online Safety Act, the Joint Committee on the draft Bill, chaired by Damian Collins MP, who was for a short time a Minister in the department, felt passionately that we should have a Standing Committee of both Houses to look at digital regulation in the round and keep regulators in its eye. I understand that the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, is suggesting something much more modest than that on this occasion, but we keep coming back to this need to oversee powerful new regulation. In this case, for the reasons given by my noble friend Lord Colville, the noble Lord, Lord Black, and the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, we have to find routes for transparency and a role for Parliament in this equation. Fundamentally, the last-minute amendments in the other place through which the Government are seeking a balance have upset the balance. They have upset what was a broadly welcomed Bill to give too much power to the regulated and not enough oversight to the regulator.
Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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I urge the noble Baroness to stay for the debate on the next group of amendments, in which we will talk about parliamentary accountability. I think she will find that the committee I am proposing is perhaps not quite as modest as she has just described it.

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Lord Bassam of Brighton Portrait Lord Bassam of Brighton (Lab)
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My Lords, we now move on to the second debate about accountability. We have two amendments in this group—in moving this amendment, I will speak also to the other—relating to the accountability in various forms of the CMA, the Secretary of State and Parliament. With these amendments, we seek to strengthen parliamentary oversight over the CMA by obliging the Secretary of State to bring before Parliament an annual report on the work of the DMU and the CMA. We are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for their support for this amendment.

This is a common device exercised by parliamentarians to try to improve the quality of accountability to Parliament. I have almost lost count of the number of times I have seen similar amendments moved by Members on either side of the House—from a Labour Government and from a Conservative Government—but they are nevertheless important because they remind us all of the value of Parliament and why we are here. They also oblige the Secretary of State to make it clear in their annual reporting how the work of a particular regulator is progressing and the content of that work.

Additionally, we want Parliament to have an opportunity to debate and discuss the workings of the DMU. We also want to ensure that the DMU has sufficient financial support and staff to do that work—that is, the work that Parliament has ultimately asked it to do in protecting the public interest and promoting competition that is beneficial to consumers. There are already some concerns that both the CMA and the DMU might lack the resource and clout to undertake their work in tackling the giants that dominate the digital marketplace. That is why we have tabled Amendment 83: to focus attention on this concern.

The question of resources is important because, unlike many other regulators, the CMA is funded not by a levy on the firms it regulates but by a grant. We are not seeking to change this with our amendment, but does the Minister have any concerns that the CMA and the DMU may lack the certainty enjoyed by other bodies such as Ofcom? Does he have any worries that the CMA’s funding arrangements could have an impact on its ability to scale up certain operations and ensure that investigations take place as quickly and efficiently as possible?

We argue that this must be a primary concern from the outset. The history of regulators is littered with examples of underpowered institutions lacking the ability to tackle the big issues of the day. The water industry is a critical example of what can go badly wrong when an infrastructure regulator cannot cope. Digital infrastructure is key to the nation’s future economic success and prosperity, so this is every bit as important. For those reasons, I beg to move Amendment 79.

While I am on my feet, I would like to address Amendment 81 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell. It goes to the heart of the issue in requiring the regulator or regulators to report to the relevant parliamentary committees; this is consistent with the noble Baroness’s Amendment 77 in the previous group. For the reasons argued in our debate on that group, we support Amendment 81.

Amendment 82 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Fox, seeks to inquire whether the CMA will be able

“to play a proactive role in promoting international standards of digital market regulation”.

It would be most odd if it were prevented doing so. Although this amendment is of interest for good trade reasons, I would also be interested to hear from the Minister how the Government view the international regulatory field and the CMA’s role, part and place in it.

I look forward to the Minister answering some of those questions and points.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, I speak to my Amendment 81 in this group. I am very grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Tyrie and Lord Clement-Jones, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, for adding their names. My amendment reflects the increasing power of some of our most important regulators in the context of digital markets and online activity; and the need for greater parliamentary oversight as a result.

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Baroness Stowell of Beeston Excerpts
While I am on my feet, it might help if I address some of the objections that Ministers would have heard to this amendment.
Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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I am sorry to interrupt my noble friend—if he will allow me to call him that—who is making some incredibly important points. I know that he is a stickler for these things, but this was just about how much time we have and length of speeches. That is all. I am sure that he does not want to underplay the power of his argument.

Lord Tyrie Portrait Lord Tyrie (Non-Afl)
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I have to ask the noble Baroness to bear with me for just a short while. I am being asked to speak to two amendments simultaneously, both of which are quite important, particularly the one that we are on now.

I said a moment ago that I would address some of the objections that Ministers may have heard from the department. One will have been that the CMA’s mission statement and underlying purpose implant a focus on consumers into its bloodstream. It is true that the consumer interest forms part of the CMA’s mission statement—it was found on the walls of its offices when I joined—but it is certainly not in its bloodstream. Few organisations with a responsibility to protect consumers have ever been more remote from consumers than the CMA. The intellectual framework behind the statute that it is trying to enforce is similarly abstract and technical. A consumer duty will put the consumers’ interests firmly into the CMA’s bloodstream.

A second argument against the duty that I think the Ministers will have heard will no doubt be that if the CMA takes action on competition, the consumer will always pick up the benefit. In its pure form, this is straight back to the Chicago school justification for competition policy—the approach rolled out across the world 25 years ago. A heap of academic work has now cast doubt on it. In any case, we do not need the academics, as the evidence is all around us that acting on competition alone has not been enough to stop a growth of consumer detriment and a rise in concentration ratios.

A third argument that no doubt will have been put to Ministers is that a consumer duty will get in the way of the Government’s growth objective, but that is based on the mistaken assumption that there is a trade-off between consumer protection and growth—between a healthy, functioning market with caveat emptor and a nanny state. One might characterise this as the free marketeer case against the consumer duty. I am a free marketeer. Many of our markets are not free at the moment; that is the problem. We have a massive and growing asymmetric power in many markets. Nudge, sludge, drip pricing, loyalty penalties and other rip-offs are on the rise everywhere. It is true that we can reduce these abuses by bringing more competition to these markets and that action is overdue, but it has not been strong enough so far to quell the detriment. On the contrary, abuses of market power, both digital and otherwise, have been growing.

The arguments for some form of consumer duty have been set out over the years by those at the sharp end of dealing with detriment for a very long time, not least the consumer groups. I recognise—this will be a relief to the noble Baroness—that the case I have put has touched on only a very small proportion of the arguments that they have developed in great detail over the years. I am strongly tempted, now I have been provoked, to supply her orally with a few of these, but I will resist the temptation. In any case, I have set out a summary of those arguments in numerous forms in writing in 2019-20, and then again just over two years ago. Not much has changed since then, so I will not rehearse those arguments, but I will end by summarising them.

First, a duty will greatly bolster and increase the effectiveness of the duty of expedition and the scope for interim measures that other parts of the Bill will give the CMA. The effect of all three acting together will be much greater than the sum of the parts. Secondly, it will facilitate a change of mindset that is essential for many of our competition regulators, including the CMA. The mindset of the last quarter of a century—that the CMA should restrict itself to acting directly only on competition—was a lot better than nothing, but it has also caused a lot of problems and been partly responsible for the rise in detriment that we can now see around us. Thirdly, a consumer duty will force the courts, particularly the CAT, to give the CMA more scope to act quickly and directly in the consumer interest. Fourthly, unlike most of what we are doing here, it would give us a better prospect of enabling the Government, of whatever political complexion, to have an opportunity to send a clear message to the public that they can expect powerful, independent bodies such as the CMA to act on their behalf.

Lord Holmes of Richmond Portrait Lord Holmes of Richmond (Con)
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My Lord, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Tyrie. The Committee certainly benefits from his expertise and experience and he is certainly never hypertrophic.

I shall speak briefly to my Amendment 106, which proposes a new clause entitled: “CMA permission for private enforcement claims”. It is a fairly simple and straightforward amendment and does exactly what the title says. Claimants have to seek permission from the CMA to bring private enforcement claims to the CAT or the High Court. The reason is clear. It is so that when we get to the end of our deliberations the operation of which forum, at what time and by whom is clear and does exactly what Parliament intended. Without this amendment there is potential to bring actions in various fora with different approaches at the same time, potentially muddying the waters and steaming up the windows and not bringing the clarity of procedure which we are seeking to achieve with the Bill.

It is a very clear amendment to have clarity and certainty about which forum at which time and to give the CMA the right to ensure that there is not muddying within the procedure, which is completely avoidable at this stage. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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I shall speak to Amendment 106 in the name of my noble friend Lord Holmes. Before I do, I should just reinforce my sincerity in saying that I think the noble Lord, Lord Tyrie, is making some really important points in his amendments. My concern was only to make sure that he did not lose us in his exposition, which was brilliant. I felt that some noble Lords were starting to drift away, and I did not think that was doing him any service. I want him to know that I am very interested and was tuned in the whole way through.

The reason I want to speak on Amendment 106 is that last week I raised the issue of private litigation and asked why the so-called Ofcom model had not been adopted for the Bill. Just to recap, I point out that the Ofcom model is a measure in the Communications Act which requires private litigants to seek Ofcom’s permission before making a claim to the courts or a tribunal. Its purpose is to avoid the regulator and the courts considering the same issues simultaneously and reaching conflicting findings, as my noble friend Lord Holmes has just colourfully described.

Since I raised this last week, I am very grateful for the Minister’s letter, which has been circulated to all Peers and is now in the Library, which outlined the Government’s reasoning for not adopting the measure in this digital markets regime for the CMA. As noble Lords will have seen from that letter, the Government argue that it would risk politicising the CMA because decisions about whether to approve someone taking a case to the tribunal or the courts would be appealable through judicial review, in the Government’s mind reducing certainty and clarity for stakeholders. They also argue that these issues are less prevalent for breaches of requirements imposed by Ofcom, as the primary route for redress is through the Communications Ombudsman and there is no equivalent function in the digital regime.

The Minister may make the same arguments in response to my noble friend Lord Holmes’s Amendment 106. The reason why I want to raise this again and am taking the opportunity today of doing so is because, even after getting his letter and having further conversations, I remain concerned that leaving the Bill as it stands threatens the participatory approach of the firms designated SMS, because it would disincentivise them to co-operate with the CMA. That participatory approach is critical to the success of the new regime and one of the ways in which it is considered better than the European model. It is also worth knowing that the Digital Markets Act—in other words, the European Commission’s version of this regime—includes a provision to avoid conflict between national courts and Commission rulings.

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Baroness Stowell of Beeston Excerpts
Working out the dividing line between personal and non-personal data is very complicated. I hope the Minister will agree that the solution will be to ensure that all the digital content created by the user during the subscription to the digital service should be retrieved and controlled by the user. As we know, digital companies can be ruthless with the way that they deal with consumers’ content. Only last December, Sony, the owner of Discovery, cancelled all the content bought by subscribers to PlayStation. Suddenly those subscribers found that the content that they had paid for had been deleted from their libraries and there was nothing they could do about it. I ask the Minister to take seriously my concerns over non-personal data not being covered at the termination of a contract. The aim of the Bill is to give protection to consumers of digital services. In this area, they are not protected, and that needs to change.
Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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I have not been involved in Part 4 of the Bill and the Communications and Digital Select Committee did not include it in the work that we did to study the Bill last year, so I must say from the outset that I am speaking in a personal capacity.

Like other noble Lords who spoke on the previous group, I have received a lot of correspondence from various media and tech firms that rely on subscriptions as part of their business model. I am concerned on their behalf to guard against overly prescriptive measures which could threaten their sustainability, especially in such a competitive arena, which is why I have sought to familiarise myself with the Bill and have listened to what has been put forward. I should also declare that I am a vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Customer Service and take a keen interest in the frustrations people experience at the hands of service providers, especially when they feel that the channels of communication available to them for queries and complaints, or to cancel, are designed for the benefit of businesses, not their fee-paying customers on whom businesses rely for their income and survival.

In his response to the first group, my noble friend the Minister referred as an example to consumers who take out limited-time free or discounted subscriptions online and then get caught in full subscriptions which they cannot cancel unless they telephone a number that they have probably struggled to find online. Then, when they get through, they enter into a battle of wills with a telephone handler who just will not let them go. I have sympathy with that experience, having endured it, but if I do not want to stay, I make sure that I do not continue to subscribe. I also recognise that it is important for consumers to have a place to go to negotiate when they feel that they could get a better deal, as my noble friends Lord Black and Lord Vaizey identified. I will come back to that in a moment.

Having listened and looked at the Bill so far, my conclusion is that, concerned as I am to make sure that we get the right outcomes for consumers, I am not convinced by some of the solutions in the Bill. My noble friend Lord Black’s argument in favour of secondary legislation to address some of these issues has merit, as there appears to be significant and understandable concern from a range of subscription businesses about changes to the cooling-off period. There seem to me to be conflicting shifts in different directions—of both vague and detailed new methods for cancellation at the same time—in the Bill, so I think that more time to get this right could be justified.

I was struggling to follow what my noble friend the Minister said about consultations in response to the last group, but what is proposed does not seem that convincing to me when we are writing things into the Bill before completing the consultations necessary to get it right. What I do not want, as a result of the Bill becoming an Act, is consumers being irritated because of the frequency with which they start receiving computer- generated messages asking if they want to renew a contract or, perhaps worse, because they are no longer able to telephone a firm to threaten to cancel in order to negotiate better terms, if they no longer have that facility because of something else that has been offered to them.

Two basic things seem critical to me. The first is the guaranteed facility that if you subscribe online, you can cancel online. That is one of the most annoying things in what consumers feel at the moment. The second is that phone lines for customer service, whether the issue is a query, a complaint or somebody wanting to cancel something, have numbers that are readily available and that the lines themselves are staffed by people trained and equipped to assist individuals to the customer’s satisfaction—and for their benefit, not the benefit of the firms.

That is what we ought to be trying to achieve through this legislation and, at the moment, I am not convinced that that is where we will end up. I am not a business figure myself, but I know that the best way for any business or public service to succeed is for its customers to get the service they are paying for, to be treated with the respect they deserve and to be satisfied that they have got a fair deal as a result. I just feel that we are losing sight of this.

Perhaps I may finish with one small point about the proposed cooling-off measures. My noble friend Lord Vaizey ran through various examples of when a consumer might take out a subscription and take advantage of that subscription in a cooling-off period, without paying any fee at all. One of the examples he gave was of a consumer taking out a newspaper subscription to read just one article, or a day’s edition, for free. Clearly, that would be wrong. Journalism is expensive and the best of it cannot be done for free, but not everybody who wants to read a newspaper or an article wants to take out a subscription. To many consumers, subscriptions are another bill—and they do not want another bill. I urge all newspaper publishers to put in place, as soon as they can, a mechanism for consumers to buy just one day’s edition or 24 hours of access to the website, without them having to take out a monthly subscription.

Lord Vaizey of Didcot Portrait Lord Vaizey of Didcot (Con)
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My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Black on his amendments and will respond to the excellent remarks made by my noble friend Lady Stowell. It is interesting how she ended her remarks, because I read in a free email newsletter this morning that, apparently, a lot of newspapers—led in fact by Will Lewis, who was obviously educated when he was at the Telegraph by my noble friend Lord Black —are looking at a mix of models now. Some people are saying that the freemium model, or free with ads, is dead but also that the subscription model may be dead, and that there will be a mix in how people can, effectively, find a way of paying for what is normally excellent content online from reputable brands. Things are developing, so perhaps my noble friend Lady Stowell is wrong to say that she does not have experience of business; clearly, she has an instinct for it. Anyway, I digress.

I must say that I have thoroughly enjoyed being in this Committee. What has emerged from the six days in Committee is that there are clear areas at which the Committee is asking the Government to look again, but not in a hostile way. This is about an element of detail, an element of getting it right and, funnily enough, an element of both the critique and the Government having exactly the same aims. As my noble friend Lady Stowell pointed out, we want to see a world where the consumer has absolutely clear rights and an easy customer experience in taking out a subscription and in cancelling it. At the same time, we do not want to burden businesses with too much bureaucracy, but to give them a chance to develop the flexibility to grow their business models in what remains a fast-changing environment. So, my noble friend Lord Black’s argument seems clear to me.

There is a paradox in my noble friend’s argument: we are asking the Government not to be prescriptive in one area while asking them to be more prescriptive in another. On the non-prescriptive part of the argument, my noble friend’s point is clear: it seems silly to put in primary legislation exactly how often a subscription business should remind a customer that their contract is coming up for renewal. The essence of customer service is for the business to get right its relationship with the customer, so long as it is under an obligation to remind the customer clearly that their contract is coming up for renewal and they are free not to renew it.

To flip the argument, on the cancellation methods, my noble friend is again right to say that the Bill words far too vaguely the way a consumer can cancel. I previously christened an amendment on appeals against decisions of the regulator the “Whac-A-Mole amendment”; I will now christen this amendment the “carrier pigeon amendment”. It is drafted in such a way that, in theory, I could cancel my subscription to the Times—which I would never do, obviously—by sending a carrier pigeon to News UK at London Bridge and say with a straight face that I had done it authentically.

There is, again, a happy medium. It should be very straightforward to cancel a subscription. Nobody wants the situation my noble friend Lady Stowell described, which does exist: having to find a telephone number—which is hidden—and contact a call centre, and then being given the runaround. I said at Second Reading that I had in fact done exactly that. I took out a subscription to a newspaper to read an article, but I could not cancel it. It was just my luck that I happened to know the chief executive of the newspaper, and I had to ring him and ask him to cancel it for me. That is obviously unacceptable. As a Conservative, I hesitate to suggest the creation of a quango, but there must be some way for a regulator to be aware of complaints and concerns about how an organisation is behaving, and to be able to intervene to make it clear that it is not operating within both the letter and the spirit of the law.

My noble friend’s amendments take account of the business needs of subscription businesses. I understand that people will fall on one side or the other of this argument. It is an interesting point that these businesses would like a way to engage with a departing customer, and they should be able to ask, “Why are you leaving? Can we tempt you to stay?” I spend quite a lot of my time unsubscribing from the endless emails and newsletters I have subscribed to, which tend to be free. Even then, particularly if you use a service such as Mailchimp, you are asked to fill in a little questionnaire on why you have decided to unsubscribe. It is not very onerous, and I understand—even though it is a slightly odd argument —why these businesses would want the opportunity to engage with a departing customer to gather information on what was wrong with their service and how they could improve it, or to provide an improved offer to tempt the customer to stay. Certainly, as we all know from having been lobbied, many of these businesses say that, often, the initial desire to cancel a subscription is based on an irritation with the service, which can be addressed once the customer gets in touch with the provider of the subscription service.

It is important to probe the Minister on both these issues in order to get clarity on the Government’s position, while also looking at some amendments that could genuinely improve the Bill.

Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill Debate

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Department: Department for Business and Trade

Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Excerpts
Lord Faulks Portrait Lord Faulks (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, Amendments 13 and 35 are in my name and those of the noble Baronesses, Lady Stowell and Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones.

The Bill has been welcomed across the House and it represents a crucial step forward in regulating the digital market. I pay tribute to the level of engagement that has taken place with Ministers and officials. We have had some excellent and well-informed debates in Grand Committee. However, good though this Bill is, it is capable of improvement. I refer to my interests in the register. I am not a competition lawyer, but I do have experience of judicial review and of the operation of the Human Rights Act. I was also chair of the Independent Review of Administrative Law, which reported a few years ago.

My Amendment 13 is concerned with the use in the Bill of the word “proportionate”. Despite some heavy lobbying of the Government by big tech, the right to appeal against an intervention by the CMA will engage the judicial review test, rather than a merits test, except as to penalty. Later amendments will probe the appeal test further.

The original adjective in the Bill was “appropriate”. The word “proportionate” replaced it at a late stage of the Bill’s progress through the Commons. Why? I am afraid I have yet to receive a satisfactory answer. In Grand Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, referred to a letter from the Minister about the change. However, it did nothing to allay concerns that the change was a response to lobbying by big tech.

According to one view, it is an innocuous change; indeed, one would expect an intervention to be proportionate. The word also has a reasonable legal pedigree: for example, you can defend yourself against attack providing your response is proportionate to the attack. Whether your response is proportionate will be a question of fact, or for a jury to decide.

Judicial review, however, is not primarily concerned with the facts of a decision but with the process whereby the decision is made. Classically, the courts got involved only if a decision was so unreasonable that no reasonable public body could have reached it. The scope of judicial review has expanded to include challenges based on, for example, irrationality or failure to take into account relevant considerations. There are other grounds, but all are concerned with how the decision is reached rather than whether the court agrees with the factual findings.

Since the enactment of the Human Rights Act, the concept of proportionality has entered the law in relation to judicial review, but only in limited circumstances. I will quote the most recent addition of De Smith’s Judicial Review, as I did in Committee, which is generally regarded as the leading textbook in this area:

“Domestic courts are required to review the proportionality of decisions and enactments in two main categories of case: cases involving prima facie infringements of Convention rights and cases involving EU law”.


There are those who think that proportionality should be the test in all cases of judicial review, but that is not the law.

I cannot immediately see why an appeal in the context of the Bill should involve a convention right, but they have a habit of appearing in all sorts of places. If convention rights are engaged, proportionality comes into the analysis anyway. I understand that the Government consider that an appeal may well involve A1P1—Article 1 of the first protocol of the ECHR—which is concerned with the arbitrary inference with property rights.

To speak of human rights in the context of enormous companies such as Google, Apple or Meta is certainly counterintuitive; I do not think that that is what the framers of the European convention had in mind after the Second World War. Last week, Apple was fined €1.8 billion under the European Union’s regulation on market abuse, and there is an appeal. That perhaps gives us an idea of the context of human rights in this area.

If—and this is a big “if”—the courts consider that the convention is engaged, there will be considerations of proportionality. Amendment 35, which I believe is consequential to Amendment 13, raises precisely the same point in a further context. In choosing to put the word “proportionality” into the legislation, a court might well conclude that Parliament had deliberately used the word to widen the scope of judicial review challenge, even when no convention right is engaged. For my part, that is a risk that I do not think should be taken. Your Lordships’ House is well aware of the expensive and time-consuming nature of appeals, which of course favour larger organisations with a large legal spend. The noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, spoke at Second Reading of long and expensive battles and death by lever arch files—although he did not quite put it that way. Large companies have the resources.

A proportionality test is far closer to an appeal on the facts than one based on conventional judicial review principles. The issue as to whether an intervention is proportionate or not gives the court much greater scope for looking at those facts at greater length and greater expense and with a more uncertain outcome. I would therefore much prefer to revert to the word “appropriate”, as was originally in the Bill, which does not carry the same legal charge and does not risk expanding the basis of appeal.

In the Media Bill, criticism has been made of the use of the word “appropriate”, but, as many judges have said before, context is everything, and here it is the right word. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response and explanation behind the change in wording.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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Now that my friend the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, has spoken, I am happy to stand, because I hoped that he would cover all the technical aspects of his amendment, to which I have put my name.

Before I turn to the amendment, at the start of Report it is worth me reminding noble Lords and my noble friends the Ministers of something, because there are an awful lot of amendments in this group and they cover quite a bit of ground. The Communications and Digital Select Committee, which I have the privilege to chair, endorsed the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill as it was introduced in the Commons. We held quite a few hearings on the Bill last year, which came after a long period of campaigning for this legislation, and so it was one that we cared deeply about. Indeed, we applauded the Government for striking the right, careful balance on some difficult issues covered in Part 1 of the Bill, especially the appeals process, the countervailing benefits and the leveraging principle.

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Viscount Camrose Portrait Viscount Camrose (Con)
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As ever, I start by thanking all noble Lords who spoke so compellingly during what has been a fascinating debate.

Amendments 13 and 35, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, seek to remove the explicit statutory requirement for conduct requirements and PCIs to be proportionate. I appreciate that this is an issue about which many noble Lords have expressed themselves strongly, and I am grateful for the thoughtful discussions I have had with noble Lords about this, both in Committee and since. I thank my noble friends Lord Black, Lord Wolfson and Lady Stowell for their comments on this today.

We are, as has been observed, giving extensive new powers to the CMA. It is important therefore that we also include safeguards around those new powers. A proportionate approach to regulation supports a pro-innovation regulatory environment and investor confidence. That is why we have decided to make the requirement to act proportionately explicit in the Bill. This requirement reinforces the Government’s expectations on the CMA to design conduct requirements and PCIs to place as little burden as possible on firms while still effectively addressing competition issues. The Government’s view is that, for the vast majority of interventions, the DMU would have needed to ensure that they were proportionate even without this explicit provision, as Article 1 of Protocol 1 to the European Convention on Human Rights will apply to interventions that affect property rights of SMS firms, regardless of their size.

The proportionality provisions both make this explicit and ensure that it will apply in all cases, not just those where A1P1 applies, such as when future contracts are affected. The Government have considered case law about the standard of review when proportionality is under consideration by the CAT in competition cases. We do not share the view that the inclusion of these two requirements will raise the standard of review in a way that makes it materially easier for SMS firms to successfully challenge CMA decisions.

As my department has shared with the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, the CAT has held, in BAA v Competition Commission, that it must show particular restraint in second-guessing the CMA’s judgment, and also give a wide margin of appreciation to the CMA. The Supreme Court has also stressed the caution that appellate courts must take before overturning the expert economic judgments of the CMA. We remain of the view that the courts will accord respect to expert judgments of the competition regulator in relation to economic matters and will not seek to overturn DMU judgments lightly.

I hope and believe that all of us, regardless of which Benches we sit on, agree that the UK being a place of proportionate regulation, where it is attractive to start and grow businesses, should be an aim of the Bill. I hope the noble Lord and my noble friend agree and will not press their amendments.

Amendments 43, 44, 46, 52 and 51 from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, seek to revert the appeals standard of digital markets penalties back to judicial review principles. As I outlined in Committee, the Government believe it is important that the CAT can consider the value of a fine and change it if necessary, as the penalties that the CMA can impose are likely to be significant. Parties should be able to have penalty decisions reviewed to ensure that they are fair and properly applied. Additionally, only the requirement to pay a penalty is automatically suspended on an appeal. Any other remedies put in place by the CMA would remain in place, addressing the competition harm right away. An SMS firm would be expected to comply with them regardless of the outcome of the penalty appeal.

Amendment 45 from my noble friend Lady Stowell seeks to clarify that only penalties, not the decision to impose the competition requirement or the decision that a breach has been made, would be heard on their merits. I appreciate that the intent of this amendment is to improve clarity, but we feel that its drafting does not currently address what I understand my noble friend seeks to achieve. It would currently address only breaches of conduct requirements and not PCIs or enforcement orders. Amendment 55, also from my noble friend—

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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I am grateful to my noble friend for giving way—I hope he will forgive me for interrupting him at a critical moment as he was about to say something about another of my amendments. He said that my Amendment 45 was inadequate because it did not cover sufficient bases. Would the Government consider it as a way forward if they were to expand it in a way that did cover all the bases?

Viscount Camrose Portrait Viscount Camrose (Con)
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Yes, we very much understand the spirit and intent of the amendment, so I would be very happy to consider that if we could expand it to cover the bases, as my noble friend sets out.

Amendment 55, also from my noble friend, would remove the role of the Secretary of State in approving the CMA’s guidance on the regime and replace it with consultation with certain parliamentary committees. I agree with her that oversight of regulators by both government and Parliament is vital, but the Government have responsibility for the effectiveness of regulators and the policy framework that they operate in. As such, it is appropriate that the Secretary of State approves the guidance under which the CMA will deliver the regime. The CMA must already consult during the production of guidance and parliamentarians can respond to these consultations as they see fit. The Government therefore believe that this amendment is not necessary to permit parliamentary engagement with the drafting of guidance.

My noble friend Lady Stowell’s Amendment 57, also discussed in Committee, requires additional reporting from a number of regulators, including the CMA, on the impact of the digital markets regime on their activities. As each of these regulators already provides annual reporting to Parliament detailing its operations and effectiveness, we feel that additional reporting would be duplicative and create unnecessary administrative burden for regulators. The named regulators also participate in the Digital Regulation Cooperation Forum, which also produces reporting on digital regulatory issues.

Amendment 56 from my noble friend Lord Lansley would add a statutory timeframe to the approval of guidance by the Secretary of State, requiring a response within 40 days. I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and my noble friend Lord Black for their remarks and our conversations on this issue. While the Government agree that it is important that the approval of guidance takes place in a timely manner and are committed to the prompt implementation of the regime, we do not think it is necessary to amend the Bill to achieve this outcome. The Government are committed to the prompt implementation of the regime. The introduction of a deadline for the approval of guidance, while supporting this objective, could cut short productive discussion and reduce its quality.

Amendment 59, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, introduces a duty on the CMA to further the interests of citizens as well as consumers when carrying out digital markets functions. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for her remarks on this. As I outlined in Committee, the Government believe that the CMA’s existing statutory duty provides the greatest clarity for the regime, people, businesses and the wider economy. The CMA already manages the interactions between competition in digital markets and wider policy on societal issues under its existing duty and through its work with the Digital Regulation Cooperation Forum.

For example, the CMA’s market study into online platforms and digital advertising considered press sustainability and media plurality among the broader social harms to consumers. The CMA and Ofcom have also published joint advice on how the new regime could govern the relationship between online platforms and news publishers.

The Bill incentivises close co-operation with key digital regulators through the explicit regulatory co-ordination provisions. The CMA will have a duty to consult Ofcom on any proposed interventions that might affect Ofcom’s competition functions for the sectors for which it has responsibility, such as broadcasting and telecoms. It would allow Ofcom to raise wider implications for media plurality.

The CMA has a clear mandate to act for the benefit of consumers in the broadest sense. The meaning of citizens in this context is unclear and risks reducing the clarity of the CMA’s core competition remit and its role in the wider regulatory landscape.

Amendment 49, in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, would enable private actions relating to breaches of the digital markets regime to be brought on a collective basis. It would also require the Secretary of State to produce a report on other types of claims which might be brought on a collective basis. We commit to reviewing the provision of collective claims in a post-implementation review. It is likely they will play an important role in protecting individuals and incentivising compliance in time.

I agree that, in time, collective actions would also help increase access to redress, recognising the significant legal resources SMS firms will have at their disposal and the costs involved in bringing private actions. However, our view is that making further procedural provision for claims will not bring the best outcomes for consumers and businesses while the regime is bedding in. Consumers and small businesses will benefit most from a public-led enforcement approach.

Under the digital markets regime, the CMA—

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Lord Black of Brentwood Portrait Lord Black of Brentwood (Con)
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My Lords, I refer to my entry in the register of interests. I will speak to my Amendment 34, the effect of which would be to allow the final offer mechanism to be initiated by the CMA after a conduct requirement of the type allowed under Clause 20(2)(a)—to

“trade on fair and reasonable terms”—

has first been breached and the other conditions in Clause 38 are met. This includes the condition that

“the CMA could not satisfactorily address the breach within a reasonable time frame by exercising any of its other digital markets functions”.

I am very grateful to noble Lords who have added their names to my amendment.

As I explained in Committee, I am concerned that the final offer mechanism must be a credible incentive to negotiate rather than such a distant prospect that the big tech firms can delay and frustrate enforcement. The whole point of the Bill is to reduce the limitless ability of big tech to leverage its huge market power and financial and legal clout. Yet, if Google or Meta believes that the FOM will never be reached, they will happily offer publishers and content creators suboptimal deals and elongate the negotiation process, and publishers—I think particularly of the hard-pressed local press—may well be compelled to accept suboptimal deals out of commercial necessity.

It is important to note that the amendment would not rush a publisher or platform into the FOM unnecessarily. If the CMA judges that its other enforcement mechanisms would bring a swift resolution to any dispute on commercial terms, it could proceed with those remedies. Therefore, the amendment seeks merely to give the CMA a wider range of tools at an earlier stage, rather than mandating which tools it should select.

We need only to look to Australia, the first country to introduce final offer arbitration, to see just how determined some firms are to avoid fair commercial deals for the trusted content that is the antidote to a new wave of AI-generated disinformation. Less than two weeks ago, Meta, with weary inevitability, announced that it would close Facebook’s news tab feature in Australia and would not renew any of the deals made with publishers after the news media bargaining code was put on to the statute book.

At a minimum, there must be assurances that the CMA will be able rapidly to move through the enforcement stages prior to the FOM, setting short deadlines for compliance and being ready to swiftly set new or more prescriptive conduct requirements of the type allowed in Clause 20(2)(a) if the initial requirements are inadequate.

We must also be sure that, under Clause 20(2)(a), the CMA will be able to require SMS firms to share information necessary for publishers to calculate the value of their content. Without this information, publishers will inevitably be at a severe disadvantage in initial negotiations, making it nigh on impossible for “fair and reasonable terms” to be agreed. In parts of the Bill dealing with the FOM itself, it is explicitly stated that the CMA can use an information notice to require an SMS firm to give information to the CMA, and for that information to be shared with a third party, such as a publisher. Although this precise mechanism may not be appropriate for negotiations outside the FOM, if the CMA’s conduct requirements were not able to encompass a requirement for the necessary information to be shared, we would end up in a situation where the FOM was the only means to facilitate “fair and reasonable” commercial terms. Robust reassurances on this matter from my noble friend the Minister would be most welcome; I am waiting to see whether he writes “robust” down.

Finally on my amendment, I note that although this legislation ultimately cannot prevent global monopolies denying their users access to all trusted news content, the conduct requirement in Clause 20(3)(a) prevents SMS firms

“applying discriminatory terms, conditions or policies”.

We must have clarity that the CMA would be able to use this requirement to prevent the withdrawal of a service by an SMS firm—including ending the hosting of news content—if it is done in a discriminatory manner. Such discriminatory behaviour could include the removal of news content from UK news publishers in an effort to avoid payment while promoting news content from English-language titles based in other jurisdictions. That must not happen. Again, I hope the Minister can provide reassurance.

I will say very briefly that I support Amendments 23 and 24, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, which would reintroduce the indispensability standard to the countervailing benefits exemption. When the Bill was first published, the committee chaired by my noble friend Lady Stowell found that this exemption, as drafted, constituted a “proportionate backstop”, provided that the threshold for its use remained high, and stated explicitly that the Government should not lower the threshold.

We have been told by the Minister before that the changes made in the Commons do not lower the threshold but are an effort to add clarity. Yet, Cleary Gottlieb, a law firm which has represented Google in competition cases, has itself admitted that the new standard “is arguably lower”. Unfortunately, if these amendments are not adopted, it seems highly likely that the courts will reach the conclusion that Parliament explicitly moved away from one set of words to another, the clear implication being that it wishes to create a new and novel standard, and one which would seriously undermine the whole purpose of the legislation.

On the issue of precision, it is hard to see how a move away from a well-established and understood legal concept can add clarity in this area. Since its adoption in the Competition Act 1998, as my noble friend Lord Lansley said, the indispensability standard has been tested extensively, meaning that designated firms, third parties and the CMA alike would have a huge amount of precedent to draw on if it was reintroduced into the legislation. Why on earth would we tamper with that?

As my noble friend Lord Lansley’s amendments demonstrate, it is questionable whether the stand-alone exemption is necessary at all. Therefore, given that the changes made in the Commons may well have lowered the threshold required to access the exemption and the fact that they only reduced clarity—neither of which was the Government’s stated intention—there seems no sound policy reasons not to return Clause 29 to its original form, and I will support the amendments from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, I assure noble Lords that, having spoken at length in the first group, I will be very brief in this group, not least because my noble friend Lord Black has made my argument for me on the countervailing benefits issue, which Amendment 23, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, addresses. I support that amendment because, as my noble friend just said and as I referred to in my remarks on the first group, there were several issues in the Bill that your Lordships’ Communications and Digital Select Committee was clear were important and should not be changed, one of which was countervailing benefits. I therefore support the amendment, which would reverse what has been changed in the Bill back to its original wording. As has been said, we know from the evidence of the last few weeks since the Digital Markets Act has been in force in Europe, and other cases have been brought against some of the respective large tech firms, that those firms will take any and every opportunity there is to exploit potential weaknesses or loopholes in legislation. That is why it is important that the language remains in its original wording.

I also support my noble friend Lord Black’s remarks about his Amendment 34. I too look forward to my noble friend the Minister giving him some assurance in robust terms.

Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill Debate

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Department: Department for Business and Trade

Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Excerpts
Moved by
67: After Clause 146, insert the following new Clause—
“Foreign power acquisition of news media organisations(1) A foreign power (as defined in section 32 of the National Security Act 2023) may not acquire a news media organisation or publisher of news in any form ("a publisher") where the publisher's primary place of business is in the United Kingdom, unless the conditions in subsections (2) to (4) are met.(2) Investigations by the CMA under sections 44 and 45 of the EA 2002 and by OFCOM under section 44A of the EA 2002 have been completed.(3) The Secretary of State has made and published their decision under section 54 of the EA 2002 stating that there are no competition-related or consumer-related concerns.(4) Where the conditions in subsections (2) and (3) are met, the Secretary of State must by regulations approve the acquisition.(5) Regulations under subsection (4) are subject to the affirmative procedure.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would prevent the acquisition of a UK news media organisation by a foreign power without the approval of both Houses of Parliament, where competition or consumer-related concerns have been raised.
Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, I will also speak to the consequential Amendment 158 in my name. I thank noble Lords who have signed my amendment: my noble friend Lord Forsyth and the noble Lords, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen and Lord Anderson of Ipswich. I am grateful to them all for their support and expertise, which have been invaluable in getting us to this point. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, is unable to be in the Chamber today because of other responsibilities overseas, but he has asked me to restate his support.

I am also grateful to my noble friend the Minister and Julia Lopez, his ministerial colleague in the other place, for their constructive and generous engagement with me on this matter over the past week. I have consciously not been in contact with the Secretary of State, Lucy Frazer, mindful of her current quasi-judicial responsibilities. I will return in a moment to what action the Government might take.

I am sure your Lordships agree that freedom of the press is fundamental to a functioning democracy. Freedom of the press means freedom from government: the freedom of the media to scrutinise and hold to account those of us in Parliament on behalf of the electorate, who get to choose who governs and every Government’s fate. Upholding that unbroken principle, which we have protected for centuries, is what has prevented any UK Government owning or controlling the press. It is surely inconceivable, then, that we would sanction a foreign Government or state power to do what no UK Government have ever done or would ever do.

I want to be clear that I have no problem with foreign businesses or individuals owning UK media organisations. Today’s foreign UK media owners are a large reason why we have a thriving media environment that is financially independent of government, and I recognise the importance and value to our economy of foreign inward investment to a range of different sectors. The stark difference between foreign businesses and foreign Governments is that if the latter were allowed to own our news media, it would raise big questions about foreign policy, editorial independence and the relationship between an outlet’s owners and its coverage.

We cannot ignore that public trust in news, Parliament and the political class has fallen significantly in recent years, and allowing foreign Governments to own such a critical and sensitive part of our nation would damage public confidence in all of us yet further if it was allowed to happen. Only yesterday, Lord Ashcroft published a poll showing that two-thirds of the British public do not support foreign government ownership of UK media. The same poll showed that this is not a partisan matter, with a similar percentage of voters who support all the major UK parties sharing the same view. The British people might not always love the British media and all that it does, but the principle of press freedom certainly matters to them. This principle is in jeopardy because of the proposed takeover of the Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph and the Spectator magazine by RedBird IMI, a fund that is 75% backed by the UAE.

The action taken to date by the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the instructions she has issued to Ofcom and the Competition and Markets Authority to investigate the takeover are very welcome and demonstrate that the Government recognise the well-evidenced concerns about the potential for editorial influence and the risk of censorship by the UAE Government. My concern, which I know that many noble Lords and Members of the other place share, is not just about the potential acquisition of those important newspaper titles. This situation has exposed that in law there is nothing that clearly prohibits the acquisition of a UK news organisation by a foreign power or organisations under significant foreign government control. So although we are relying on the Culture Secretary to reach the right decision and uphold our press freedom, nothing in the current legal framework provides certainty that she can and will do so. This is particularly worrying at a time when some parts of the UK news media face significant economic challenges.

My amendment seeks to close that gap in the law. In simple terms, my amendment would prevent the acquisition of a UK news media organisation by a foreign Government or power without the explicit approval of Parliament. If passed, it would provide an additional and vital barrier of protection for press freedom in this country. The consequential Amendment 158 would ensure that the proposed new clause in Amendment 67 would take effect immediately that the Bill receives Royal Assent.

As I said, my noble friend the Minister and Julia Lopez, the excellent Media Minister, have devoted significant time for discussions with me since I tabled my amendment. I do not doubt their commitment to finding a way to provide the legal certainty that we are currently lacking, and I know that they and officials have been working very hard on this over the past week or so.

From our most recent discussions, I expect my noble friend the Minister to set out an alternative solution when he responds to this debate. I will listen carefully to what he has to say. I am not wedded to the detail of my amendment or the procedure that it sets out, and I will be pleased if the Government propose something that is better and tighter than what I have been able to bring forward. The only question for me is whether the Government’s way forward meets a clear and simple objective: preventing a foreign Government representative or foreign state-controlled entity owning or controlling our news media.

I will not pre-empt what my noble friend might say, nor how I might respond to what he says. However, to be clear, I will have no hesitation in pushing my amendment to a vote if necessary. But I think we all recognise the gravity of the matter before us—the Government included—and I am confident, from the reaction and strong support I have received from noble Lords around the House and from Members of another place, that there is a collective desire to meet that simple objective. Indeed, we must meet it, because if we do not, the freedom of our press is at stake. I beg to move.

Lord Robertson of Port Ellen Portrait Lord Robertson of Port Ellen (Lab)
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My Lords, I added my name to this amendment, and I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, for the energy and effectiveness of her campaign. Just before the debate started, my mobile phone produced a Sky News newsflash, which said that, at 4 pm, the Government will make a decision to accept the basis of the noble Baroness’s amendment. That is a nice piece of news to get just before you stand up to speak.

I was delighted to join the noble Lords, Lord Anderson and Lord Forsyth, in adding my name to this. Unusually, we are on the same side of the argument, although at Question Time the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, threw out some remarks that other Members of the House will not have recognised but which were designed as an insult to previous positions I have taken on other issues.

Yesterday, I was in Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic, congratulating it on 25 years since its entry into the NATO alliance. I made the point, as many people at the conference did, that 25 years ago the Czech Republic joined NATO, having overthrown the communist system and regained freedom after all the years in serfdom to the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union. The point was made that freedom is not an abstract concept but something that is very clear and precise, and it includes free speech and a free press. That is why I believe that a very significant principle is involved at this point.

As the noble Baroness said, there is no provision in the legal framework of this country at the moment to prevent a foreign Government gaining control or ownership of our media outlets. To the vast majority of the public, that would seem to be outrageous. As Lord Ashcroft’s poll showed, the fact is that a large majority of the population do not agree with the idea of a foreign Government owning our media outlets. That should come as no surprise to anybody in this House or in the other place; it seems almost self-evident. Yet we do not have that legal provision, and we should.

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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No, it is just to newspapers and periodical news magazines.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken for their support and for the powerful speeches that they have given, and I am very grateful to my noble friend for his clear and comprehensive explanation of the Government’s position, and their firm intention to bring back an amendment at Third Reading to address that simple objective that I outlined at the start of this debate.

Because my noble friend covered such a lot of ground and this is quite complex stuff, for the benefit of other noble Lords and anyone else following this debate, I shall play it back at him a little bit, perhaps in plainer English, if I may—although noble Lords must forgive me if some of it is not as plain as it would be if I was speaking outside the House.

What we have heard is that the Government will bring forward an amendment at Third Reading that will expand the definition of foreign power beyond that in the National Security Act to include individuals who might not otherwise be adequately captured. That is something that has been of particular interest and concern to some of the legal noble Lords who have been following and commenting on my amendment. The amendment will expand the definition of “newspaper” in the Enterprise Act to include news magazines explicitly. The amendment will give the Secretary of State a new power to issue a foreign state intervention notice if she is notified or becomes aware at any time of possible foreign state involvement to own, control or influence a newspaper or news magazine. Once her order is issued, the CMA must investigate and, if it establishes that it is a foreign state, as newly defined, any investment or takeover will be blocked—or, if the investment has already happened, the Secretary of State will have the power to unwind that investment. All that will come into force once the Bill gets Royal Assent, and it will apply to any live regulatory case alongside the existing procedure that the Secretary of State is following.

In addition, at Third Reading, the Government will bring forward an amendment to create secondary legislation, which will be subject to the affirmative procedure. Those regulations will define what kind of indirect foreign state entity might be allowed to make a passive investment, such as a sovereign wealth fund of a democratic state, and include a very low threshold below which such an entity could invest. The purpose of those regulations will be to preserve the opportunity of legitimate foreign investment in news media. For example—and I think that it helps to get an example to understand what we are talking about here—it has been pointed out to me that the Norwegian state investment fund has single digit investments in News Corp, Reach, which is also known as the Mirror Group, Paramount Global, which owns Channel 5, and Comcast, which owns Sky.

To me, what my noble friend has outlined today, on my simple interpretation of it, makes sense. I am very grateful to the Minister for emphasising the very low-level investment that the Government are considering for the secondary legislation that will come forward, but the precise percentage will matter. I know that he will not be able to commit now to bringing forward the regulations in draft at Third Reading, because there is a lot of work for officials to do between now and then, but I hope that he can commit to doing as much as he can at Third Reading to provide the detail that we will need to be properly satisfied that what then follows will meet all our concerns.

Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Department for Business and Trade

Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Excerpts
Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay) (Con)
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My Lords, I am here to speak to the amendments in this group which stand in the name of my noble friend Lord Offord of Garvel, and I am happy to update your Lordships’ House on the work that has taken place since our debates on Report to implement a regime to ban foreign state ownership of newspapers and news magazines. As I noted on Report, we have heard the strength of concerns expressed in Parliament, and from my noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston in particular, about foreign state ownership of UK newspapers and news magazines.

His Majesty’s Government agree that the importance of these publications to our democracy cannot be overstated: newspapers have always been, and must continue to be, free to develop relationships with their readers and develop editorial lines supporting different positions. The plurality of views across different newspapers ensures that there is a wide range of views supporting a culture of argument, debate and challenge, which in turn contributes to a healthy democratic society.

His Majesty’s Government are therefore taking steps to preserve the freedom of the press, recognising the risks that foreign state ownership of, or control or influence over, the UK’s newspapers and news magazines could pose to democracy and to free speech. Foreign state ownership, if used to develop or control narratives which align with another state’s interests, may over time corrode trust in our media as a whole. That is why many countries already have laws limiting foreign state ownership, and why we are creating a new regime which will prevent foreign states having any stake in a UK newspaper or news magazine.

These amendments will amend the Enterprise Act 2002 to create a new foreign state intervention regime for newspapers and news magazines, I am delighted that my noble friend Lord Forsyth of Drumlean has put his name to Amendment 1, which leads the amendments in this group. Getting from a regret amendment on the Media Bill to joint signatures on this Bill in a matter of weeks is testament to the collaboration we have had across your Lordships’ House in our discussions, and I thank him for that.

Under the new regime, the Secretary of State will be obliged to give the Competition and Markets Authority a foreign state intervention notice where she has reasonable grounds to believe that a merger involving a UK newspaper or news magazine has given, or would give, a foreign state or a person associated with a foreign state ownership, influence or control. The CMA will be obliged to investigate and provide a report to the Secretary of State on the merger or potential merger. If it concludes that the merger has resulted or would result in a foreign state newspaper merger situation, the Secretary of State will be required by the statutory provisions to make an order to block or unwind the merger.

Our amendments expand the definition of “foreign power” to capture a wide variety of actors, including senior members of a foreign Government and officers of a governing political party acting in a private capacity. The legislation will also apply to mergers involving persons associated with a foreign power to ensure that we are capturing all possible ways in which a foreign state could seek control or influence over a UK newspaper or news magazine. Direct investment in newspapers of any size will be banned in future under this new regime.

It is, however, essential that these new measures do not have undesired effects in relation to wider business investment in UK media. We will therefore introduce an exemption for investments where the stake is below 5% of the total investment being made. This would apply to passive investments by established and pre-existing sovereign wealth funds, pension funds or similar.

We will introduce this threshold by regulations made under the affirmative procedure, giving noble Lords and Members in another place the opportunity to scrutinise the detailed proposals. We will bring these regulations forward after Royal Assent to this Bill. My colleagues and I would be very happy to engage with noble Lords as we do so.

I make it clear that the regime brought about by these amendments, and the exemption which will be provided for in secondary legislation, applies only to newspapers and news magazines in order to safeguard our free press from government involvement, whether domestic or foreign.

As I have set out before, we already have a robust media mergers regime, which enables the Secretary of State to intervene if she believes that public interest considerations are, or may be, relevant to a merger. This new foreign state ownership regime works in parallel and complements the existing regime. Our focus is not on foreign investment in the UK media sector in general but is targeted specifically —noble Lords have rightly made the distinction—at foreign state investment in newspapers and news magazines.

Of course, the Government remain committed to encouraging and supporting investment into the United Kingdom. We recognise that investors deploying capital into this country rely on the predictability and consistency of our regulatory regime. The UK remains one of the most open economies in the world, and investment is crucial to our plans for growth and jobs, and for our prosperity. The UK has the highest stock of foreign direct investment in Europe. The recent Global Investment Summit signalled investors’ confidence, with nearly £30 billion in investment commitments being made. These amendments will not change the UK’s investment potential. As I said, we are targeting foreign state investment in a narrow but important part of the UK market to safeguard the health of our democracy.

As I noted on Report,

“the Secretary of State is currently considering a live merger case under the Enterprise Act regime on which I cannot comment further today. With regard to any live case, if it is still ongoing when the changes come into effect, the Secretary of State will continue to follow the process set out in the existing regime and will also apply the new measures”.—[Official Report, 13/3/24; cols. 2042-43.]

In tandem, I can confirm to your Lordships’ House that we will be consulting on expanding the media mergers and the new media foreign state ownership regime to apply to online news websites. This will bring the regimes up to date in order to reflect modern news consumption habits and better protect the freedom of our media.

I am grateful to my noble friends Lady Stowell and Lord Forsyth, to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, and to others opposite and from across the House for their constructive engagement and collaboration on these amendments. I hope that they will enjoy your Lordships’ support.

Finally, I will briefly mention Amendment 4, tabled by my noble friend Lord Offord, which is not related specifically to foreign state ownership of media enterprises, but which is part of this group. Amendment 4 is a minor and technical amendment relating to other amendments made by Schedule 4 to the Bill. It clarifies how certain sections of the Enterprise Act 2002 are applied for the purposes of deciding if a special merger situation has been created under the special public interest merger regime. I beg to move.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, I thank my noble friend and his officials for the time and attention they have given this matter since Report. I know that officials have worked very hard, including over weekends, so I am truly grateful to them. I also pay tribute to the Media Minister, Julia Lopez. When I first met her to discuss my amendment three weeks ago, she gripped the issue immediately. I believe it is because of her energy and support for the clear objective of protecting press freedom that the Government have got behind her in bringing forward amendments in such a short space of time. Julia Lopez deserves much credit.

On the Government’s amendments, for me, the best way to understand their proposed way forward is to see it in two stages. Stage 1 deals with the block to foreign powers owning, controlling or influencing UK news. Stage 2 is the exemption for investment in UK news from legitimate foreign state investment funds. Both those stages, or parts, are important to the sustainability of the UK news industry.

I support the Government’s amendments as they relate to stage 1, and noble Lords will see that I have not retabled my own amendment. I am satisfied that they are in line with the promises my noble friend made from the Dispatch Box two weeks ago. In my view, they deal with the legal uncertainty that the RedBird IMI-proposed deal to buy the Telegraph titles and the Spectator has exposed when it comes to the involvement of foreign powers in our news media. It is worth restating that, as concerning as the UAE financial backing via IMI in that case is, the issue is bigger than that one deal and is a matter of principle.

As I understand the government amendments and what my noble friend has just said, the Government have broadened the definition of “foreign power”, and any individual or entity now captured by that definition will be blocked completely from owning, controlling or influencing our newspapers or news magazines. These provisions will take effect immediately once the Bill receives Royal Assent. Once completed, stage 1, as I might describe it, protects press freedom from the control or influence of foreign powers. Stage 2, which provides the exemption for legitimate, indirect foreign state investment funds to make passive investments in our news industry, will be covered by secondary legislation to follow once the Bill is enacted.

This exemption is important for obvious reasons, as my noble friend has already said. The news industry needs investment just like any other, and we must not exclude perfectly legitimate foreign state investors such as sovereign wealth funds or state pension funds that are not directly government controlled. As I said on Report, foreign state investment funds such as the Norwegian sovereign fund already invest in some of our news organisations.

I think I heard my noble friend set out the Government’s commitment to the threshold for this category of foreign state investors in the news industry being set at 5%. It is worth reflecting on that, because, at 5%, it is still above the approach of such funds which typically invest around 1 to 2% in corporations within any sector, yet it is a lower threshold than what is permitted by the CMA to prevent material influence, reflecting the fact that we are seeking to prevent any foreign state influence in UK news. I welcome the 5% threshold.

Obviously, we have yet to see the details of the secondary legislation, and Parliament will have to scrutinise that carefully before it can be approved. I welcome my noble friend’s commitment to engage Parliament before those regulations are laid. I think I heard my noble friend correctly, but can he reassure me that my understanding is correct that any individual or entity blocked at stage 1 will not qualify for exemption at stage 2? In other words, the exemption at stage 2 is for an entirely different kind of entity from that which will be blocked at stage 1.

I am pleased that my noble friend has reminded the House that any live regulatory case will be captured by the new legislation once it is enacted, and I am also pleased that he has confirmed that foreign state ownership of online UK news websites will be dealt with swiftly, also via secondary legislation and the affirmative procedure, once the Government have completed their consultation. There remains the question of foreign state ownership of our commercial public sector broadcasters and other commercial UK news channels. That said, of course, there are some regulatory protections already in broadcasting because of the Ofcom licensing regime. It would none the less be helpful if my noble friend could say whether the department is reviewing policy in this area also.

In conclusion, I will make three simple points. First, none of these legislative changes affect general foreign investment in or ownership of UK newspapers or news magazines, which is and will remain very welcome. Secondly, the exemption for legitimate investment by foreign state investment funds is important to the financial sustainability of our news industry. Finally, just to be clear, the UK remains open for business in the same way it has always been. All that Parliament is doing by making these changes is ensuring that our fundamental principle of press freedom is not up for sale.

I look forward to my noble friend’s replies to my questions, and we will, of course, review the secondary legislation carefully once it is ready. But, overall, I commend my noble friend on the Government’s work in recent weeks and I thank him for it.

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Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Portrait Lord Forsyth of Drumlean (Con)
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Before my noble friend sits down, when can we expect the secondary legislation to appear?

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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Can I ask a question as well, to save the Minister from getting up several times? I do not think that he said anything about broadcasting. Where is the department on reviewing policy in that area?

Lord Bassam of Brighton Portrait Lord Bassam of Brighton (Lab)
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Can the Minister also clarify the point about online publications? Will these be included within the statutory instrument?

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Lord Offord of Garvel Portrait Lord Offord of Garvel (Con)
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My Lords, I add my thanks to all noble Lords who have been involved in the diligent scrutiny we have given the Bill in recent months. The Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill will drive innovation and deliver better outcomes for consumers by addressing barriers to competition in digital markets and tackling consumer rip-offs. I am very grateful to noble Lords for the dedication, attention and time that they have given to the Bill before your Lordships’ House.

I want to express my particular appreciation to Members on the Front Benches, including the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, Lord Bassam of Brighton, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Fox, for the courteous and constructive manner in which they have engaged with me on the Bill. I wish to extend my sincere thanks to my noble friends Lady Stowell and Lady Harding of Winscombe, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for their invaluable contributions and clarity of views both during the debate and outside it. I emphasise my gratitude to the noble Lords, Lord Faulks, Lord Tyrie, Lord Kamall, Lord Holmes of Richmond, Lord Lansley, Lord Vaizey of Didcot, and the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, for their detailed consideration of Part 1 of the Bill. I am very grateful to them all; they have asked important questions and given much time and energy to the Bill, and it is a better Bill for that.

My noble friend Lord Lindsay and the noble Baronesses, Lady Crawley, Lady Bakewell and Lady Hayman, have championed consumer issues, for which I am most grateful. I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for raising the important issue of net zero.

On Report, the Government made a number of amendments to the Bill with regards to subscription contracts. I thank my noble friends Lord Black of Brentwood and Lord Lucas for their engagement and collaboration on these issues. I am also most grateful to my noble friend Lord Mendoza for his work in highlighting the Bill’s impact on the ability of charities to claim gift aid.

On the issue of foreign states acquiring UK news organisations, to which my noble friend Lord Parkinson has spoken, I again thank my noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston and the noble Lords, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean and Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, who so passionately highlighted the principle of freedom of the press.

I conclude by recording my gratitude for the invaluable support and assistance of my noble friend Lord Camrose. I put on the record my thanks to the Bill team, my private office, and all the officials and lawyers in the Department for Business and Trade, the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, and the Competition and Markets Authority, who have provided such thorough support and expertise. I beg to move that the Bill do now pass.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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I hesitate to rise, because I realise I am probably testing the patience of the House, having already spoken in Third Reading. I just wanted to say a couple of things.

I thank my noble friends Lord Camrose and Lord Offord on the Front Bench for their work on this Bill. As they will know, this is legislation for which the Communications and Digital Committee has been calling for several years—it started under the chairmanship of my predecessor, my noble friend Lord Gilbert. It is something that I have been pleased to take a very active involvement in, and I am very pleased to support it passing.

As we think about what this Bill is trying to achieve and why, it is worth also remembering why we in the UK are forging a different path from the ones that Europe and the US are on. In the last few days, we have seen the US DoJ launch a major anti-trust lawsuit against Apple. In the EU, the Commission is taking serious measures against some of the big tech firms to make them comply with the spirit and letter of its new Digital Markets Act. Both situations have an ominous sense of being exactly the kind of lengthy legal battles that favour big tech, which we are trying to avoid.

The House has rightly voted on a number of measures to try to ensure that our regulation can work as it is meant to, in a timely, proportionate and less confrontational manner. That is what the Government are seeking to do with this legislation.

As the Bill leaves here and enters its final stage, I emphasise two measures from among the amendments passed by this House. First, the deadline for the Secretary of State to approve CMA guidance is key in keeping things on track and avoiding concerning delays. Secondly, if the Government and the Commons cannot accept the amendments to revert the appeals process on fines back to JR standard, I hope that my noble friends within government will consider putting a clarification in the Bill that the appeals process on fines cannot be changed in ways that undermine the JR standard or open up avenues for more expansive and protracted legal challenge.

That aside, I am grateful to the Government for bringing forward this important legislation. It will mark out our regulatory regime as different from those in other parts of the world that are having such a big impact—and not necessarily in good ways.

Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell. I agree with a huge amount of what she said.

I reiterate the welcome that we on these Benches gave to the Bill at Second Reading. We believe it is vital to tackle the dominance of big tech and to enhance the powers of our competition regulators to tackle it, in particular through the new flexible pro-competition powers and the ability to act ex ante and on an interim basis.

We were of the view, and still are, that the Bill needs strengthening in a number of respects. We have been particularly concerned about the countervailing benefits exemption under Clause 29. This must not be used by big tech as a major loophole to avoid regulatory action. A number of other aspects were inserted into the Bill on Report in the Commons about appeals standards and proportionality. During the passage of the Bill, we added a fourth amendment to ensure that the Secretary of State’s power to approve CMA guidance will not unduly delay the regime coming into effect.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, said, we are already seeing big tech take an aggressive approach to the EU Digital Markets Act. We therefore believe the Bill needs to be more robust in this respect. In this light, it is essential to retain the four key amendments passed on Report and that they are not reversed through ping-pong when the Bill returns to the Commons.

I thank both Ministers and the Bill team. They have shown great flexibility in a number of other areas, such as online trading standards powers, fake reviews, drip pricing, litigation, funding, cooling-off periods, subscriptions and, above all, press ownership, as we have seen today. They have been assiduous in their correspondence throughout the passage of the Bill, and I thank them very much for that, but in the crucial area of digital markets we have seen no signs of movement. This is regrettable and gives the impression that the Government are unwilling to move because of pressure from big tech. If the Government want to dispel that impression, they should agree with these amendments, which passed with such strong cross-party support on Report.

In closing, I thank a number of outside organisations that have been so helpful during the passage of the Bill—in particular, the Coalition for App Fairness, the Public Interest News Foundation, Which?, Preiskel & Co, Foxglove, the Open Markets Institute and the News Media Association. I also thank Sarah Pughe and Mohamed-Ali Souidi in our own Whips’ Office. Last, but certainly not least, I thank my noble friend Lord Fox for his support and—how shall I put it?—his interoperability.

Given the coalition of interest that has been steadily building across the House during the debates on the Online Safety Bill and now this Bill, I thank all noble Lords on other Benches who have made common cause and, consequently, had such a positive impact on the passage of this Bill. As with the Online Safety Act, this has been a real collaborative effort in a very complex area.