New Clause 5 - Collective submissions

Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:43 pm on 20 November 2023.

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“(1) Where the CMA considers that—

(a) the conditions in section 38(2), (3) and (4) are met in relation to a single transaction between the designated undertaking and two or more third parties, and

(b) the third parties are capable of acting jointly in relation to final offer payment terms relating to the transaction,

the CMA may exercise the power in section 38(1) to invite the third parties (the “joined third parties”) to make a single submission to the CMA of final offer payment terms that the joined third parties collectively regard as fair and reasonable for the transaction.

(2) Where the CMA proceeds in reliance on subsection (1), sections 39 to 43 apply as if—

(a) in section 39(4) references to “the third party” were to any one or more of the joined third parties;

(b) all other references to “the third party” were to the joined third parties.

(3) Where the CMA considers that—

(a) the conditions in section 38(2), (3) and (4) are met in relation to two or more transactions between the designated undertaking and two or more third parties,

(b) the same terms as to payment are capable of applying to the transactions, and

(c) the third parties are capable of acting jointly in relation to final offer payment terms relating to the transactions,

the CMA may exercise the power in section 38(1) to invite the third parties (the “grouped third parties”) to make a single submission to the CMA of final offer payment terms that the grouped third parties collectively regard as fair and reasonable for the transactions (the “grouped transactions”).

(4) Where the CMA proceeds in reliance on subsection (3), sections 39 to 43 apply as if—

(a) in the following provisions, references to “the third party” were to any one or more of the grouped third parties—

(i) section 39(4);

(ii) section 40(2)(b);

(iii) section 41(1)(b);

(iv) section 42(2);

(b) all other references to “the third party” were to the grouped third parties;

(c) in section 42(1) and (2), the reference to “the transaction” were to any one or more of the grouped transactions;

(d) all other references to “the transaction” were to the grouped transactions.”—(Saqib Bhatti.)

This new clause (which would be inserted into Chapter 3 of Part 1 of the Bill) provides for two or more third parties to make a single collective submission of final offer payment terms.

Brought up, and read the First time.

4.43 pm

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this it will be convenient to discuss:

Government new clause 6.

New clause 23—Digital Markets Unit and CMA: annual statement to House of Commons

“(1) The Secretary of State must, once a year, make a written statement to the House of Commons giving the Secretary of State’s assessment of the conduct and operation of—

(a) the Digital Markets Unit, and

(b) the CMA as a whole.

(2) The first statement must be made by 1 February 2024.

(3) A further statement must be made by 1 February each subsequent year.”

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to make a written statement about the conduct and operation of the DMU and CMA.

New clause 27—Appointment of senior director of the DMU—

“The senior director of the Digital Markets Unit must be appointed by the Secretary of State.”

This new clause provides that the senior director of the DMU must be appointed by the Secretary of State.

New clause 28—Duty of the CMA: Citizens interest provisions—

“(1) The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 is amended as follows.

(2) After section 25(3) insert—

“(3A) When carrying out its functions in relation to the regulation of competition in digital markets under Part 1 of the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Act 2024, the CMA must seek to promote competition, both within and outside the United Kingdom, for the benefit of consumers and citizens.””

This new clause would give the CMA a duty to further the interests of citizens – as well as consumers – when carrying out its digital markets functions under Part 1 of the Bill.

Amendment 176, in clause 2, page 2, leave out lines 20 and 21 and insert—

“(b) distinctive digital characteristics giving rise to competition law concerns such that the undertaking has a position of strategic significance (see section 6).”

This amendment is linked to Amendment 182.

Amendment 206, page 2, line 25, after “Chapter” insert “, taking account of analysis undertaken by the CMA on similar issues that have been the subject of public consultation.”

This amendment aims to ensure that the CMA are able to draw on previous analysis on issues relevant to the regulatory regime.

Amendment 177, page 2, line 25, at end insert—

“(5) The CMA must publish terms of reference setting out a summary of the evidence base for making a finding of substantial and entrenched market power or of a position of strategic significance.

(6) The terms of reference must include a detailed statement of the competition law concerns arising from these characteristics and the relationship between the designated digital activity and other activities.

(7) Activities with no reasonable prospect of adverse competitive effects linked to digital activity must be referred to as unrelated activities and the terms of reference must expressly state that unrelated activities are not covered by the designation.”

This amendment would require the CMA to publish terms of reference summarising the evidence base for a finding of substantial and entrenched market power or a finding of strategic significance.

Amendment 178, in clause 3, page 2, line 28, after “service” insert “predominantly”

This amendment clarifies that the provision of a service predominantly by means of the internet would be a digital activity.

Amendment 179, page 2, line 34, leave out subsection (2)

This amendment is linked to Amendment 178.

Amendment 180, in clause 5, page 3, line 28, at end insert—

“(c) are not assuaged by evidence of competition arising beyond the activities of the undertaking, and

(d) demonstrate that the perceived market power will be improved compared with the scenario in which the designation does not occur.”

This amendment makes additions to the definition of substantial and entrenched market power.

Amendment 181, in clause 6, page 3, line 31, leave out “one or more of” and insert “both”

This amendment is linked to Amendment 182.

Amendment 182, page 3, line 33, leave out paragraphs (a) to (d) and insert—

“(a) significant network effects are present;

(b) the undertaking’s position in respect of the digital activity would allow it to extend its market power.”

This amendment changes the definition of the term “position of strategic significance”.

Amendment 183, in clause 7, page 4, line 17 at end insert “arising from the designated activities”

This amendment limits the turnover condition in relation to UK turnover to turnover arising from designated activities.

Amendment 184, page 4, line 19, at end insert “to account for inflation on the CPI measure”

This amendment ensures that the sums used to determine whether the turnover condition has been met can only be amended to account for inflation on the CPI measure.

Amendment 194, in clause 11, page 6, line 36, at end insert—

“(c) give a copy of the statement to those undertakings that have not been designated as having SMS that are most directly affected.”

This amendment ensures that challenger firms are able to access information about the regulatory framework on an equal basis to designated firms.

Amendment 195, in clause 12, page 7, line 9, at end insert—

“(5) As soon as reasonably practicable after giving a notice under subsection (2), the CMA must give a copy of the notice to those undertakings that have not been designated as having SMS that are most directly affected.”

See the explanatory statement to Amendment 194.

Amendment 196, in clause 14, page 7, line 36, at end insert—

“(5A) As soon as reasonably practicable after giving an SMS decision notice, the CMA must give a copy of the notice to those undertakings that have not been designated as having SMS that are most directly affected.”

See the explanatory statement to Amendment 194.

Government amendments 2 and 3.

Amendment 197, in clause 15, page 8, line 41, at end insert—

“(6) As soon as reasonably practicable after giving a revised SMS decision notice, the CMA must give a copy of the revised notice to those undertakings that have not been designated as having SMS that are most directly affected.”

See the explanatory statement to Amendment 194.

Government amendments 4 to 7.

Amendment 193, in clause 19, page 11, line 15, at end insert—

“(9A) A conduct requirement must be imposed within 3 months of an undertaking being designated as having SMS under section 2.”

This amendment ensures that a time frame of three months is imposed for the CMA to enforce conduct requirements on designated SMS firms.

Government amendment 8.

Amendment 190, in clause 20, page 12, line 9, after “to”, insert “harm competition in the relevant digital activity or the other activity,”

This amendment would ensure that the CMA can tackle anti-competitive conduct in a non-designated activity, provided that the anti-competitive conduct is related to a designated activity.

Amendment 191, page 12, line 11, after “activity”, insert “, provided that the conduct is related to the relevant digital activity”

See the explanatory statement to Amendment 190.

Government amendments 9 and 10.

Amendment 192, in clause 25, page 14, line 7, at end insert—

“(e) whether to take action in accordance with Chapter 4 (Pro-competitive interventions) in respect of the extent to which it is complying with each conduct requirement to which it is subject and the effectiveness of each conduct requirement to which it is subject.”

This amendment would ensure that the CMA considers the efficacy of existing Conduct Requirements when considering whether to make Pro-Competitive Interventions.

Government amendments 11 and 12.

Amendment 198, in clause 26, page 15, line 3, at end insert—

“(7) As soon as reasonably practicable after giving a conduct investigation notice, the CMA must give a copy of the conduct investigation notice to those undertakings that have not been designated as having SMS that are most directly affected.”

See the explanatory statement to Amendment 194.

Amendment 187, in clause 27, page 15, line 8, at end insert—

“(2) The CMA may have regard to any significant benefits to users or potential users that the CMA considers have resulted, or may be expected to result, from a factor or combination of factors resulting from a breach of a conduct requirement.”

This amendment would ensure that the CMA considers any significant benefits to users resulting from the breach of a Conduct Requirement when it is considering representations from designated undertakings as part of a Conduct Investigation.

Amendment 199, in clause 28, page 15, line 20, at end insert—

“(5) As soon as reasonably practicable after giving a notice under subsection (2), the CMA must give a copy of the notice to those undertakings that have not been designated as having SMS that are most directly affected.”

See the explanatory statement to Amendment 194.

Amendment 188, page 15, line 21, leave out Clause 29.

This Amendment is consequential to Amendment 187.

Government amendment 13.

Amendment 186, in clause 29, page 15, line 31, leave out subsection (c) and insert—

“(c) the conduct is necessary for the realisation of those benefits based on the best available evidence reasonably obtainable, and”

This amendment would change the circumstances in which the countervailing benefits exemption would apply.

Government amendment 14.

Amendment 209, page 15, line 37, at end insert—

“(4) The CMA may only consider that the countervailing benefits exemption applies if it has reached such a consideration within six months of the day on which the conduct investigation notice is given to the undertaking.

(5) In subsection (2), a “benefit” means any benefit of a type set out in regulations made by the Secretary of State in accordance with the procedure under subsections (6) to (9).

(6) The Secretary of State must, within six months of this section coming into force, lay before Parliament draft regulations setting out the types of benefit that apply for purposes of subsection (2).

(7) A Minister of the Crown must make a motion in each House of Parliament to approve the draft regulations within 14 days of the date on which they were laid.

(8) Subject to subsection (9), if the draft regulations are approved by both Houses of Parliament, the Secretary of State must make them in the form of the draft which has been approved.

(9) If any amendments to the draft regulations are agreed to by both Houses of Parliament, the Secretary of State must make the regulations in the form of the draft as so amended.”

This amendment would introduce a 6 month time limit on the duration of investigations into countervailing benefits claims, and specifies that the Secretary of State shall introduce further legislation for Parliamentary debate providing an exhaustive list of the types of countervailing benefits SMS firms are able to claim.

Amendment 200, in clause 30, page 16, line 13, at end insert—

“(4A) As soon as reasonably practicable after giving the notice, the CMA must give a copy of the notice to those undertakings that have not been designated as having SMS that are most directly affected.”

See the explanatory statement to Amendment 194.

Government amendments 15 and 16.

Amendment 201, in clause 31, page 17, line 3, at end insert—

“(7A) As soon as reasonably practicable after making an enforcement order (including a revised version of an order), the CMA must give a copy of the order to those undertakings that have not been designated as having SMS that are most directly affected.”

See the explanatory statement to Amendment 194.

Amendment 202, in clause 32, page 17, line 35, at end insert—

“(6A) As soon as reasonably practicable after giving a notice under subsection (5), the CMA must give a copy of the notice to those undertakings that have not been designated as having SMS that are most directly affected.”

See the explanatory statement to Amendment 194.

Amendment 203, in clause 34, page 18, line 36, at end insert—

“(4A) As soon as reasonably practicable after revoking an enforcement order, the CMA must give a copy of the notice to those undertakings that have not been designated as having SMS that are most directly affected.”

See the explanatory statement to Amendment 194.

Government amendments 17 and 18.

Amendment 189, in clause 38, page 21, line 7, leave out “breached an enforcement order, other than an interim enforcement order” and insert “breached a conduct requirement”

This amendment would allow the CMA to initiate the Final Offer Mechanism after a Conduct Requirement of the type permitted by clause 20(2)(a) has first been breached, provided that the other conditions in clause 38 are met.

Government amendments 19 to 30.

Amendment 204, in clause 47, page 26, line 8, at end insert—

“(4A) As soon as reasonably practicable after giving a PCI investigation notice or a revised version of the PCI investigation notice, the CMA must give a copy of the notice to those undertakings that have not been designated as having SMS that are most directly affected.”

See the explanatory statement to Amendment 194.

Amendment 205, in clause 50, page 27, line 28, at end insert—

“(6A) As soon as reasonably practicable after making a pro-competition order, the CMA must give a copy of the order to those undertakings that have not been designated as having SMS that are most directly affected.”

See the explanatory statement to Amendment 194.

Government amendments 31 to 56.

Amendment 185, in clause 102, page 61, line 10, leave out subsections (6) and (7) and insert—

“(6) In determining an application under this section—

(a) for any application made within a period of three years beginning on the day on which this Act is passed, the Tribunal must determine the application on the merits by reference to the grounds set out in the application;

(b) for any application made thereafter, the Tribunal must apply the same principles as would be applied—

(i) in the case of proceedings in England and Wales and Northern Ireland, by the High Court in determining proceedings on judicial review; and

(ii) in the case of proceedings in Scotland, by the Court of Session on an application to the supervisory jurisdiction of the court.

(7) The Tribunal may—

(a) for any application made within a period of three years beginning on the day on which this Act is passed, confirm or set aside the decision which is the subject of the application, or any part of it, and may—

(i) remit the matter to the CMA,

(ii) take other such steps as the CMA could itself have given or taken, or

(iii) make any other decision which the CMA could itself have made;

(b) for any application made thereafter—

(i) dismiss the application or quash the whole or part of the decision to which it relates. and

(ii) where it quashes the whole or part of that decision, refer the matter back to the CMA with a direction to reconsider and make a new decision in accordance with a ruling of the Tribunal.”

This amendment changes for a three-year period the mechanism by which the Tribunal would determine applications for review.

Government amendments 57 to 67, 83 and 84, 106, 108, 111, 148 and 149.

Photo of Saqib Bhatti Saqib Bhatti Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I am honoured to have been appointed as the Minister with responsibility for tech and the digital economy, and as one of the Ministers with responsibility for the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill. When I was appointed last Tuesday, many helpful colleagues came up to me to say, “You have been thrown in at the deep end,” but it is a blessing to have responsibility for taking this legislation through the House.

In that vein, I thank my hon. Friend Paul Scully for his tireless work to get the Bill to this stage.

I am aware of the importance of this legislation and the sentiment across the House to deliver the Bill quickly. The benefits of the digital market measures in part 1 of the Bill are clear to see. They will bring about a more dynamic digital economy, which prioritises innovation, growth and the delivery of better outcomes for consumers and small businesses. The rise of digital technologies has been transformative, delivering huge value to consumers and businesses. However, a small number of firms exert immense control across strategically critical services online because the unique characteristics of digital markets, such as network effects and data consolidation, make them prone to tip in favour of a few firms. The new digital markets regime will remove obstacles to competition and drive growth in digital markets, by proactively driving more dynamic markets and by preventing harmful practices such as making it difficult to switch between operating systems.

I turn now to the Government amendments. When the Under-Secretary of State for Business and Trade, my hon. Friend Kevin Hollinrake first stood in the House, he stated that the legislation would unleash the full opportunities of digital markets for the UK. That intention has not changed, and our amendments fully support that. The Government’s amendments to part 1 will provide greater clarity to parties interacting with the regime, enhance the accountability of the regulator and make sure that the legislation is drafted effectively and meets its aims. I will address each of those themes in order.

This new regime is novel. To maximise certainty, it is critical that its parameters—the scopes of the regulator’s functions and the rights and obligations set out in the legislation—are clear. Therefore, the Government have tabled a series of amendments to further clarify how the digital markets regime will work in practice. The amendments relate to how legally binding commitments provided by firms within the scope of the regime will work in practice, the Digital Market Unit’s ability to amend certain decision notices, and how in certain circumstances the DMU may use its investigatory and enforcement powers after a firm is no longer designated.

Two important sets of clarifying amendments are worth covering in more detail. The first relates to conduct requirements. Consumer benefit is a central focus of the digital markets regime. The DMU must consider consumer benefit when shaping the design of its interventions. To reinforce that central focus, we are clarifying how the DMU will consider consumer benefits when imposing and enforcing conduct requirements. Amendment 7 requires the DMU to explain the consumer benefits that it expects to result from a conduct requirement, ensuring transparent, well-evidenced decisions. Amendments 13 and 14 simplify the wording of the countervailing benefits exemption, while critically maintaining the same high threshold.

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright Conservative, Kenilworth and Southam

I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Let me take the opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend Saqib Bhatti on his appointment. Does he recognise that it is important to be clear—and for the CMA and the DMU to be clear—that there could be a conflict between the interests of current consumers and those of future consumers? Therefore, it is important that the interests of both are balanced in what the CMA and the DMU eventually decide to do.

Photo of Saqib Bhatti Saqib Bhatti Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. As I make progress, I hope he will be reassured that the regime will take both those things into account.

Together, amendments 13 and 14 will make sure that consumers get the best outcomes. Amendment 14 makes an important clarification on the role of third parties in the final offer mechanism process. New clause 5 and related amendments will clarify when and how third parties may make collective submissions in relation to the final offer mechanism. That is vital, as collective bargaining can help to address power imbalances during negotiations. We expect that third parties, especially smaller organisations, may seek to work together when negotiating payment terms and conditions.

My second theme is the accountability of the regulator. The discretion afforded to the CMA and its accountability to Government and Parliament have formed a large part of the debate—quite rightly—during the passage of the Bill. I will take time to address that.

The digital markets regime is flexible in its design, with the CMA requiring a level of discretion to deliver effective outcomes. While that is common for ex ante regulation, that does not negate the importance of taking steps to maximise the predictability and proportionality of the regulator’s actions. For that reason, the Government are introducing an explicit requirement for the CMA to impose conduct requirements and pro-competition interventions only where it considers that it is proportionate to do so.

That will make it clear to firms in scope of the regime that they will not be subject to undue regulatory burdens. Firms will be able to challenge disproportionate obligations, and the Competition Appeal Tribunal will, in its consideration of any appeals, apply the principle of proportionality in a reasonable way, as it always does. To complement that, and to ensure consistent senior oversight and accountability of the regime, amendments 57 to 60 require enforcement decisions, including the imposition of penalties, to be reserved to the CMA board or its committee.

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee), Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee)

I welcome my hon. Friend to his position, and congratulate him on his role. The Government amendments relate to the proportionality test for conduct requirements. Why did the Government feel that there was a need for those additional tests? Was there a concern that the CMA would use the power disproportionately, and if so, what might such a use have been?

Photo of Saqib Bhatti Saqib Bhatti Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution to the House on these matters, and for that question. The aim of the amendments is to provide clarity and give certainty—clarity that we will always ensure that the consumer is at the heart of what we do, and certainty because that is what business always needs. I will happily give further clarity in my closing remarks. To ensure robust oversight of the DMU’s implementation of the regime, we are also requiring that the Secretary of State approve the publication of guidance relating to part 1 of the Bill.

Photo of Rebecca Long-Bailey Rebecca Long-Bailey Labour, Salford and Eccles

On the issue of clarity, the Minister knows that the final offer mechanism should be an issue of last resort, and before that there should be a mechanism by which negotiations can take place. Can he assure the House that there will be a mechanism to ensure that big tech firms do not drag out negotiations unnecessarily, because it is not clear so far?

Photo of Saqib Bhatti Saqib Bhatti Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

The whole mechanism is designed to ensure that smaller firms have a say in this. That is why the final offer mechanism is there. I hope that that that gives the hon. Member some reassurance.

Finally, the regime has the potential for significant financial penalties to be imposed, so we have tabled amendments to allow any party subject to a penalty to appeal decisions about the penalty on the merits, rather than on judicial review principles. An appeal on the merits allows the Competition Appeal Tribunal to consider whether it was right to impose the penalty, and to consider the penalty amount. Where appropriate, it also allows the Competition Appeal Tribunal to decide a different penalty amount.

Photo of John Penrose John Penrose Conservative, Weston-Super-Mare

I join the queue of people congratulating the Minister on his new role, which is well deserved. I think that I am right in saying that any appeal against a fine from another economic regulator, such as Ofwat or Ofgem, is made to the CMA on the basis of the JR standard, yet we seem to be creating a different, and arguably more complicated, special deal for large tech platforms. Can he explain the Government’s thinking behind that?

Photo of Saqib Bhatti Saqib Bhatti Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I do not think that there is, as my hon. Friend puts it, a special deal; it is about taking a balanced approach to ensure that firms with penalty decisions that have less direct impact on third parties have the opportunity to challenge them, and take a view on them according to the regime.

Photo of John Penrose John Penrose Conservative, Weston-Super-Mare

The Minister is being very generous. I just want to understand why the approach differs from that taken in identical appeals by other companies against other economic regulators.

Photo of Saqib Bhatti Saqib Bhatti Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

Given the huge size of the fines, it is only right that that approach is put in place to ensure the penalties are applied appropriately, but it does not apply to decisions that are not made by the CMA.

The regime has the potential for significant financial penalties to be imposed, so we are introducing amendments to allow any party subject to a penalty to appeal decisions about that penalty “on the merits”. An appeal “on the merits” allows the Competition Appeal Tribunal to consider whether it was right to impose the penalty and to consider the penalty amount. Where appropriate, it allows the Competition Appeal Tribunal to decide a different penalty amount. The DMU’s other decisions, including the decision as to whether a breach of the regime occurred, would remain subject to an appeal on judicial review principles.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Conservative, North East Somerset

I join in congratulating my hon. Friend on his appointment and on this very wise amendment. It is fundamental to the rule of law that people who are fined large amounts of money have some proper form of appeal; we must not put too much trust in unaccountable and unelected regulators.

Photo of Saqib Bhatti Saqib Bhatti Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

My right hon. Friend is always a thoughtful contributor to debates in this House. We believe that the amendments ensure consumer benefit is at the heart of what we are doing and any appeals will be carried out appropriately. Adopting these amendments would bring the digital markets regime into closer alignment with existing CMA mergers and markets regimes, where penalty decisions can be appealed on the merits. As in those regimes, all other decisions are appealable on judicial review principles.

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright Conservative, Kenilworth and Southam

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again. He will appreciate that we are all trying to get clarity, so we understand what the proposals really mean. In relation to the appeal standard that he describes, for cases that are not specifically related to fines, he mentioned the proportionality addition earlier in his remarks. When it comes to an appeal, are we right to understand that the question of proportionality applies when the CMA originally makes its decision to require an intervention and does not apply to the JR standard that is used to determine an appeal?

It is important to be specific about that, because there are those who would argue that proportionality should be a part of the appeal process. I think the Government amendments say that proportionality applies at an earlier stage and that when it comes to considering whether the CMA has behaved in a proportionate way in making its decisions, the assessment will be made by the Competition Appeal Tribunal on JR principles. Am I right about that?

Photo of Saqib Bhatti Saqib Bhatti Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I agree that that is exactly what we are saying. I am happy to provide further clarity in my closing remarks.

Critical to accountability is, of course, transparency. The Government are committed to transparency and bringing forward amendments that will require the CMA to set out its reasons for imposing or varying a conduct requirement. That will improve transparency around CMA decision making and increase consistency with other powers in the Bill where similar justification is required. It also reinforces the CMA’s existing responsibility to consider likely impacts on consumers when deciding whether and how to intervene.

The third theme is to ensure the legislation is drafted effectively. Therefore, we have tabled further technical amendments to ensure that the Bill’s text meets the Government’s original intended aim. They relate to the scope of conduct requirements, specifically the application of the materiality threshold contained in clause 20(3)(c), the maximum penalty limits imposed on individuals, the mergers reporting duty and the service of notices on undertakings overseas in certain circumstances.

It is worth noting that there are a small number of cross-cutting amendments contained in parts 5 and 6 of the Bill that will also impact the digital markets regime. I want to ensure that there is plenty of time for hon. Members to debate the Bill at this important stage in its passage. I appreciate a collaborative approach from across the House. I am sure that there will be many different views on some of the amendments, but I look forward to a constructive and collaborative discussion.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Tech and Digital Economy)

It is a true privilege to be back in the Chamber once again, on behalf of the Opposition, to open the third debate in recent months on Report stage of this incredibly important Bill. I welcome the Minister to his place: he is joining this brief at a very exciting time, and I look forward to working with him in the months ahead to get the Bill finally over the line. I pay tribute to his predecessor, Paul Scully. We may not always have agreed on the detail, but I was always grateful for his collegiate and open-minded approach to getting the Bill to a good place, where it needed to be.

I speak on behalf of colleagues across the House when I say that the Bill must be passed without delay, and without significant changes that would water down the provisions. If this is done well, it has the potential to create a world-leading regulatory framework that will update and modernise the UK’s competition and consumer law. By promoting greater competition, we will finally address fundamental problems in UK markets so that they work better for all consumers.

Labour has long called for measures to protect consumers, enhance innovation and promote competition in digital markets, in order to unlock growth and level the playing field for smaller businesses. That could not be more important in the midst of a Conservative cost of living crisis.

Photo of Margaret Greenwood Margaret Greenwood Labour, Wirral West 5:00, 20 November 2023

People often find it difficult to get out of internet provider contracts. They may spend hours on the phone, or communicating via a bot, and when they do get through to someone, that person tries to talk them out of what they are trying to do. It seems to me that it would be very straightforward to require providers to have on their websites a simple and prominent “cancel my contract” button, easily visible to anyone who is logged in. That, surely, would save people acres of time and a huge amount of frustration.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Tech and Digital Economy)

My hon. Friend has made an important point about an issue faced by all our constituents who are struggling to get out of contracts that do not give value for money, and subscription traps, which we will discuss later this evening. These are issues that should have been dealt with in the Bill, and could have been had it been afforded parliamentary priority. Sadly, many opportunities have been missed and will need to be returned to, and we will be urging the Government to do that in due course.

The Conservatives have needlessly delayed the introduction of the Bill. Their focus on infighting and general chaos has prevented them from presenting suitable legislation. The Bill was first promised in Parliament more than a year ago, and since then, owing to Tory delay, we have fallen behind our European neighbours in this vital policy area. Failure to act against gatekeepers to access points in the digital economy—from web browsers to search engines, and from mobile operating systems to app stores and broadband contracts—is having a huge impact on business growth and consumer prices. Let us be clear: a failure to regulate and level the playing field is having a huge impact on consumers, who ultimately pay the price.

This is a complicated Bill, which has rightly received substantial coverage in the media since it was first published. It is only appropriate for me to begin my consideration of the first group of amendments by raising particular concerns about the Government amendments relating to the countervailing benefits exemption—notably, amendments 13 and 14. As we all know, the countervailing benefits exemption allows the Competition and Markets Authority to close an investigation of a breach of a conduct requirement if a big tech firm can demonstrate that its anti-competitive conduct produces benefits that outweigh the harm. These amendments change the test for the exemption from indispensability—a recognised competition law standard that ensures that a big tech firm cannot proceed with anti-competitive conduct without good reason—to an untested, potentially ambiguous standard. There is a danger that this new, untested standard could allow big tech firms to evade compliance and continue with conduct that harms UK businesses and consumers. They might also inundate the CMA with an excessive number of claims of consumer benefit, diverting its limited resources away from other essential tasks.

The Minister must be realistic. It is highly unlikely that anti-competitive conduct on the part of regulated firms will ever have a consumer benefit. The amendment creates an unnecessary loophole that Labour colleagues and I find very concerning. I would also be grateful if the Minister could clarify whether these amendments create a new legal standard that could allow regulated companies to evade compliance. There is also the question of how the amendments will protect the CMA from being inundated with claims of countervailing benefits from regulated companies. Labour is concerned by these amendments, and I therefore urge Members across the House to support amendments 187 and 188, tabled in my name, which seek to undo the Government’s mismanagement.

I will turn now to the changes in the appeals mechanism. The Minister knows about, and will have heard, the concerns of colleagues on the Conservative side—on all sides, actually—about the changes in the appeals process, as outlined in Government amendment 51 to 56. We have all heard the passionate calls from businesses that have risked their reputations and market share by sticking their heads above the parapet to warn of the risks of watering down the appeals process. It is testament to their hard work that we are at this point today.

As colleagues will be aware, the Government amendments would change the appeals process and standard for penalty decisions to full merits only. As we know, penalties such as fines are the most significant deterrent to prevent short message service firms from breaking the conduct requirements established by the CMA. Although timing—a key concern when considering the impact of full merits on other parts of the Bill—is not of paramount importance when it comes to fines, it is foreseeable that full merits appeals could allow SMS firms to reduce significantly the size of penalties, thus reducing their incentive to comply.

The Minister will come to learn that collegiate, sensible agreement has been a common theme as the Bill has progressed, particularly in line-by-line scrutiny in Committee. Indeed, we broadly welcome the Government’s decision to maintain the judicial review standard for appeals on regulatory decisions. Labour feels that will ensure that the Competition and Markets Authority has the tools to act and is not bogged down in complex, lengthy and costly legal wrangling, which would render the new regime completely ineffective.

However, the Minister must clarify how the amendments will not impede the CMA’s ability to keep pace with rapidly moving digital markets. The regulator must retain the flexibility to construct remedies that target the harms to UK businesses and consumers stemming from big tech’s dominant position in digital markets. Looking back on the contributions of the Minister’s predecessor in Committee, we were all assured with a level of certainty that there would be no changes to weaken the appeals process, so it is a frustrating reality to see yet another U-turn from this Government—sadly, we have all become more than used to their slapdash way of governing and making law.

As we know, introducing full merits appeals for all regulatory decisions would have allowed complex, lengthy and costly legal wrangling, which would render the new regime ineffective. It must therefore be clarified that the Government’s amendment allows full merits appeals only for the level of the fine and for the decision to issue a fine. It must not permit a review of the CMA’s decision to create a conduct requirement or implement pro-competitive intervention, or of the CMA’s decision on whether a conduct requirement has been breached and how to remedy that breach. I would therefore be grateful if the Minister clarified exactly whether that will be the case.

I am conscious of time so I will push the Minister to clarify a number of important points. Government amendment 64 gives the Secretary of State the power to approve CMA guidance, which will be critical to regulated firms, particularly on how they should comply with the conduct requirements placed upon them. What is unclear is when and how, and in what timeframe, guidance must be submitted to the Secretary of State. I know that many of us would be grateful for some straightforward clarity from the Minister on that issue.

Lastly, I am keen to highlight Labour amendments 194 to 196, tabled in my name, which aim to improve the consultation rights of challenger firms. Under the current drafting, firms with strategic market status will have far greater consultation rights than those that are detrimentally affected by their anti-competitive behaviour. The amendments would give third parties the ability to provide critical information for the CMA’s consideration, and feedback on its work. That is vital, particularly for challenger companies whose growth may see them captured by the regime at a future point. I hope that the Minister will consider the merits of introducing similar amendments in the other place. He would have widespread support from colleagues across the House if he were to go ahead and do so.

We have heard the concerns of Members across the House about how the changes have been implemented, so I urge the Minister to listen carefully to the debate as it progresses and to do the right thing by working collegiately for the benefit of good legislation.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Conservative, South Swindon

In rising to address the House, I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I am an independent adviser in a collective action being brought in the Competition Appeal Tribunal for alleged anti-competitive behaviour relating to cryptocurrency. Although I will not address my remarks to any part of the Bill that might be perceived as relevant to the funding of litigation relating to such actions, I thought it right to be comprehensive in my declaration.

I wish to couch my remarks in this way: I am a firm supporter of the need to provide effective regulation in a market that is vulnerable—and, some would say, prone—to monopolistic abuse of market power. It is clear that regulation is not only desirable but essential when it comes to representing the interests of the consumer, and that is the place from which we all need to start.

In the sturm und drang that has accompanied some of the coverage of the Bill, it is perhaps inevitable that focus has been placed on the interests of one sector, as opposed to those of another—the large-scale enterprise against the small start-up. In all that, we risk forgetting the essential truth of why we are legislating in this way, which is first and foremost to ensure that any regulator is working in the interests of the consumer. My amendment deals precisely with that issue, by imposing an overarching and paramount duty on the regulator, and indeed the courts, to serve the interests of the consumer. Accompanied with a duty of expedition, that underlines the thrust of why I have decided to speak in this debate and to table amendments. Much needs to be done in the process of dealing with competition issues, which of course means the operation of the CMA and the Competition Appeal Tribunal. This debate—indeed, this whole process—can be a moment for us to reflect, and to take action and ensure that the way such disputes are dealt with in future will be more efficient, more speedy and in the interests of the consumer.

Ex-ante regulation is very difficult; it is all about predicting the future. Indeed, I am glad to see my hon. Friend Damian Collins in the Chamber. He followed that market very carefully and knows its ever-changing nature. It is difficult to predict what the world will look like in six months, let alone in five years. It is right to remember that the basis of the Bill, and of today’s debate, goes back four years to the Furman review, which rightly set out the parameters that have led to the development of this much-needed legislation.

In one respect, the review has been somewhat prayed in aid in a way that is potentially misleading. Recommended action 12 of the Furman review speaks about the ability of an affected company to appeal a decision—this is relevant to amendment 185 to clause 102. The review states:

“To facilitate greater and quicker use of interim measures to protect rivals against significant harm, the CMA’s processes should be streamlined.

The ability for an affected company to appeal a decision or an interim measure is a vital safeguard of their rights, and a check on the quality of CMA decision-making. Appeals processes need to strike a balance between protecting those affected by any unjustified decision and ensuring that CMA powers can be exercised effectively to protect those who would be left exposed by underenforcement or undue delay.”

It goes on:

“The competition framework would be improved for digital markets by focusing appeals on testing the reasonableness of CMA judgement, that procedure has been appropriately followed, and that decisions are not based on material errors of fact or law—a standard more closely relating to that of judicial review.”

As I read it, that is an invitation to ensure that there is not a completely unbridled merits-based approach. It is a world away from suggesting that somehow, in this world of ex-ante regulation, we should be immediately narrowing down the options of any court or applicant relating to potential claims on merit.

Ex-ante review work is not easy, but it is not unprecedented in United Kingdom regulation. We have had telecoms regulations for a long time, with the work of Ofcom in policing that. In that area, for a long time the decision making and the appeals process were allowed to be based on merit, before a reversion or a narrowing down to judicial review principles. Indeed, that was laid out for a long time—much longer than the period I envisage in my amendment—in order to reflect the importance of achieving maximum clarity as early as possible. I do not want to see anything that creates uncertainty in this market, because that will lead to a lack of investment, and perhaps a reduction of the sorts of investments that we want to see domestically and internationally in this important and vital market for the future of our British digital services industry.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Justice Committee 5:15, 20 November 2023

My right hon. and learned Friend is making an important and eloquent speech. Can I emphasise the point that he makes about certainty, and return to the intervention by my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Jeremy Wright about the importance of having clarity on what the test will be and at what stage it applies? We all understand proportionality tests, and we certainly all understand classic judicial review tests, but it is important in this emerging market that people know at which stage which test applies. I appreciate the Minister saying that he will clarify that later in his speech, but I am not sure that the wording proposed by the Government gives us that clarity. Will my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Robert Buckland consider what more needs to be done around that?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Conservative, South Swindon

What my hon. Friend outlines is precisely what we are seeking. In making these arguments, we are not in some way the friends of big tech; we are not here to represent a particular sectoral interest. My amendment was drafted by me and by senior counsel from Monckton Chambers, including Philip Moser KC, who regularly appears both for and against big tech in these matters. I thought it right to seek some independent pro bono advice on the operation of competition law to make sure that, in developing the law in this way, we do not create entirely untested mechanisms that would—guess what?—require litigation to clarify.

The point is that we should be seeking to minimise more interpretive language that will require to be tested in the courts. That is why I take slight issue with what was said by Alex Davies-Jones, whom I respect very much. In amendment 186, I seek to replace the word “indispensable” with “necessary”, because I think that is a much clearer term that everyone would understand and that would, in itself, be a high threshold for the affected company in demonstrating consumer benefit in the countervailing consumer benefit test.

I think that, rather than trying to use and develop new language, we should look back and learn from the experience of telecoms regulation. One of the problems in, in effect, handing considerable power to the new digital markets unit is that the legal landscape relating to this activity is unformed. Unlike the landscape that underpinned the Competition Act 1998, we do not have the advantage of years of EU and UK court interpretation that was then applied by guidelines issued by the CMA.

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Labour, Easington

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is articulate in presenting the case and knowledgeable about the issue, but may I distil it down to an issue of fairness that everyone can understand? Before our very eyes, the landscape is changing. Long-established titles, newspapers and publications are disappearing and retrenching. Thousands of journalists are losing their jobs. Is it not a matter of basic fairness that people who create the content should be properly compensated?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Conservative, South Swindon

The hon. Gentleman is right to make that point. That is why in other jurisdictions we have seen agreement reached between big tech and newspaper titles to ensure that there is that element of fairness. I agree with him; I want to see similar fairness and equity applied across the market. What I and others who agree with me are trying to do is to ensure that, in creating this brave new world of energetic and efficient regulation, we do not as a Parliament upset the balance by giving too much power to a particular regulator. A lot of us in this place have watched with concern the failure of other types of regulation—in our water industry or our energy industry, for example. I do not think anybody would deny that, at times, we have got regulation wrong. That is why it is important that we have this debate.

There are people outside this place who have put pressure on us by saying, “The Bill is in perfect order. There is no need for you to look at it any more; great minds have thought about it.” I say to them that it is for this place to make those decisions. I do not look kindly on comments made by the chief executive of the CMA about the merits of what this place is considering while the Bill is in Parliament. I absolutely accept the independence of the CMA and the important role that it plays, but we should not confuse independence with lack of accountability. That is a point that I will warm to in a little while, when I address the relationship between regulators—in this case, the CMA—and Parliament. At the moment, that relationship is wholly inadequate.

I was making the point that, unlike the Competition Act 1998, there is a relative lack of worked-out court interpretation of this Bill’s subject matter. That has led to distinguished commentators—no less than Sir Jonathan Jones, former Treasury counsel—making the point in evidence to the Committee that, in effect, the DMU would be able to decide who was going to regulate, set the rules that apply and then enforce those rules. The phrase “legislator, investigator and executioner” was used. While that is colourful language—perhaps too colourful for a dry debate about competition law—it is important that we reflect on the view of that former Treasury solicitor and be very careful that in going down this road, we are not making false comparisons.

A lot has been said about Ofcom and its decisions, and comparisons have been made, but we must not forget that those Ofcom decisions were heavily governed by EU framework directive 2002/21. Article 4 of that directive says that on ex-ante telecom appeals,

Member States shall ensure that the merits of the case are duly taken into account and that there is an effective appeal mechanism.”

That is a bit different from the provisions in the Bill. A simple JR-type review is precisely that, and no more.

I listened with interest to the intervention made by my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Jeremy Wright, who made a really good point that needs answering. We need to understand where proportionality comes into this. If the principle of proportionality is being used in the first instance, that is all well and good, but we need to understand how that fits with the provisions of the Bill: whether it implies that the courts deem every decision made by the DMU to be proportionate, or whether there is a way to challenge a particular decision by saying that it was not made according to the DMU’s own principles, acting in a proportionate way.

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright Conservative, Kenilworth and Southam

It seems to me—I would be interested in my right hon. and learned Friend’s view—that on the basis of the Government’s proposed wording, it is more likely that a firm will be able to challenge whether the CMA has applied its proportionality test appropriately, but the means by which it will do so will be under JR principles on appeal, rather than on a merits basis. It is not that proportionality is not subject to challenge, but that that challenge is limited by JR principles at the appeal stage. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Conservative, South Swindon

That is what we need to bottom out. The primary worry that a lot of us have about the JR principle is that it means that any challenge will probably be vanishingly small, which is not good for ensuring that the regulator is working in the best way. None of us wants to encourage incontinent litigation—or incontinent legislation, bearing in mind the importance that we place on it—but sometimes, challenge is essential to create greater certainty. There will be ambiguities; there will be occasions where there needs to be a test. We should not be frightened of that.

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee), Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee)

I am following what my right hon. and learned Friend says carefully. Does he agree that we have to consider the nature of this business landscape? For these firms—some of the biggest companies in the world—litigation is a cost of doing business. Their track record shows that they use almost all grounds there are to challenge any decision made by any regulator. Not even a regulator is resourced sufficiently to be able to contest those challenges, and the people who seek to bring them know that they will take years and cost a huge amount of money, and that the business may even be closed by the time a resolution has been found.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Conservative, South Swindon

I fully take on board my hon. Friend’s concern. He is right to say that, which is why this should not just be about what might happen in terms of raw dispute; it has to be the culture of the new regulator to work with any potential subject—any company that might be a subject of an investigation—in a co-operative way. That raises the issue of how open the parties are with each other about the basis of their assertions and of how data is shared—that goes right into the Competition Appeal Tribunal itself. A lot of people would be surprised that the disclosure rules in the CAT are not as open as one would expect them to be if one is challenging a decision. We have to work our way through that, in order to change that attitude and reduce the amount of potential litigation by making sure that there is agreement.

I accept that the Government have moved on the JR test with regard to penalty, but a potential problem could result from the Government’s amendment on that: there will not be a change of culture, there will be a readiness by big tech to admit breach and then all resources will be thrown into contesting the penalty. There we will get the litigation, the real argument and the high-stakes money. To paraphrase my hon. Friend, we will get the actuarial calculation that it would be worth throwing a lot of money at litigation to reduce a penalty that could be a big percentage of turnover. We are potentially talking about huge penalties for these companies.

That issue does worry me and I hope that it demonstrates to the House why I am properly sensitive about the need to make sure that we do not just open the door to abuse by another means. I am a huge follower of Theodore Roosevelt and a great believer that his approach to fighting the J.P. Morgans and the Standard Oils of his day is exactly how we should operate in the monopolistic markets of today and tomorrow. My hon. Friend is right to say that this market is fast developing. When the Furman report was produced, we were looking at a different world in big tech. With the rise of artificial intelligence, we are seeing it evolve further.

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee), Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee)

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for giving way, particularly as we are on the subject of Theodore Roosevelt. Does he agree that we have to be careful when considering consumer detriment in this case? The argument was not successfully made in the United States that J.P. Morgan could say that he may have a railway monopoly but the ticket prices were relatively low and so there was no consumer detriment. That was not considered to be a binding argument, so because the cost of an app in an app store might be low, that does not mean to say that the company can get away with overcharging.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Conservative, South Swindon

Again, I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is right: there is a danger that in regulation we focus on the cost of the good or service, rather than on the overall environment and quality of the market. Some would say that that has been a particular issue in the way that regulation has operated in the water sector. That is why this is a good moment for all of us, as a House, to pause and reflect on where we have gone wrong with regulation in the past and how we can get it right from here on in.

There are some options the Government can look at when dealing with the JR standard. I have mentioned the importance of making sure that there is accountability, but we should not just be looking at the sunset option that I have set out in my amendment; we should look again at whether the clarification of the proportionality test could help everybody to understand precisely how the JR principles will work. If we miss the opportunity on this occasion to get this right, I am not sure we will be doing anybody any favours, least of all the consumer and especially not the DMU itself, which needs to develop in a way that is truly accountable.

The thrust of some of my amendments relates to the regulator’s accountability to this place, which is why they include a requirement to report regularly to Parliament and to Ministers. New clause 12 relates to the appointment of the senior director of the DMU, which I think should be done directly by the Secretary of State. That is not a challenge to the independence of the body; Ministers regularly appoint independent directors and inspectors, for example, and it does not undermine the integrity and quality of their role. However, through those amendments I am seeking to make the case that we should not confuse independence for lack of accountability. I do not use that word as a way of avoiding a greater accountability to this place.

That is why, when it comes to how such regulators will be accountable to Parliament, we should strengthen our own scrutiny. It is a matter not for the Minister, but for this place to amend Standing Orders to create either a Committee of this House or perhaps a joint Committee to summon regulators directly to account. Such a Committee could have powers akin to those of the Public Accounts Committee, to allow the directors of all the regulators to answer to Members of Parliament and to Peers. A supported Select Committee focused on that work could really make a difference and improve the quality of that regulation. That is something I urge not only on my hon. Friends on the Front Bench, but on the business managers who might be listening and the Leaders of both Houses. As a matter of urgency, in this Session, they should come forward with proposals to amend the Standing Orders to create such a scrutiny structure.

I will briefly deal with the other amendments tabled in my name in this part—

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means) 5:30, 20 November 2023

Order. I have to get five more speakers in, plus the Minister. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman will shortly have been on his feet for nearly 25 minutes, this is just a quick reminder that he needs to give others time to speak.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Conservative, South Swindon

Of course. I have just cleared my throat, Madam Deputy Speaker, and by my standards this is a very short speech.

I will deal in summary with the other amendments. What I am seeking with those amendments is to ensure that, in using definitions, we do not end up creating mission creep for the DMU. I want the DMU to focus on the emerging digital economy; I do not want it to end up dealing with, for example, supermarkets such as Tesco, which will increasingly use online services to allow customers to shop. I do not think that is the intention of those proposing the Bill, but we need to make it clear in the Bill that that sort of mission creep will not be part of how the regulator develops.

I also want to make the point that, when looking at entrenched market power, focusing purely on size can sometimes be deceptive. Rather small enterprises can often have a disproportionate effect on a market. They do not necessarily need to be big. While we rightly understand that generally the bigger the entity or organisation, the bigger the impact it has, it is not always the elephant that makes a difference; it is sometimes the mouse. That is why focusing on market power rather than size is a better way of dealing with effective regulation.

In summary, I want to hear from my hon. Friends on the Front Bench a response to the challenges that I have laid out. I do not seek to press the amendments to a vote this evening, but I am sure that they will be returned to in the other place. Surely it is in the interests not only of the people we serve, but of the wider British economy that in passing such pioneering legislation, which in many ways puts Britain in a different place from other jurisdictions, we do not end up disincentivising the sort of investment that I know is part of the Prime Minister’s aspiration to make this country a world leader in artificial intelligence and machine learning safety and a place where digital businesses will want to invest. It is as simple as that. That is why it is vital that in this Bill we strike as perfect a balance as we can, because in this complex, ever-changing market it is very difficult to predict what the future will be.

Photo of Richard Thomson Richard Thomson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Trade), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Business)

My party broadly welcomed the Bill at its introduction and through Committee, and broadly speaking we still do. However, for our liking there remain too many gaps in consumer protection. The Bill does not include an equivalent to the EU’s consumer rights to redress when consumers are misled, and it does not baseline the protections that we had previously, which we think is a serious omission. Many consumers found that to their cost when their travel arrangements went haywire through chaos at the channel ports over the summer.

The Bill does not do enough to tackle greenwashing. As we have heard, there is a systemic failure to tackle drip pricing and subscription traps. We are also still unclear about how the Government intend to tackle the scourge of fake reviews; although secondary legislation could be introduced, the scope of the sanctions that could be brought to bear against the perpetrators would inevitably be restricted.

Rather to my surprise, we have 175 Government amendments to the Bill. That seems rather a lot to be bringing in. It can be gently elided over that this is a Government who have been listening carefully to all the arguments put, but, to be perfectly honest, I think it shows that this has become something of a Christmas tree Bill. It would have been better to have had much more parliamentary scrutiny in Committee of some of the things we now find coming in, no matter how well-intentioned they are.

A number of amendments to the Bill do cause me concern, including the series of amendments that changes the mechanism for appealing the Competition and Markets Authority’s decisions. In our view, Government amendments 6, 7, 10 and 30 will water down the Bill’s effectiveness, allowing tech companies described under the Bill as the most powerful firms and dynamic digital markets to be able to challenge the CMA’s decisions if they do not believe that they are proportionate.

Government amendments 51 to 53, 55 and 56 also have that effect, since they will prevent certain appeals by big-tech firms of decisions made by the CMA from being held to the judicial review standard. I am unpersuaded by the arguments that we have heard so far about that. We fear that, in practice, when a decision is taken that is not, for whatever reason, to the liking of big-tech companies with rather large budgets—to take one entirely at random, we have Apple, which makes profits and turnover yields that are bigger than most countries’ GDPs—they will inevitably be able to tie those decisions up in the courts for quite some time, all the while being able to secure whatever advantage they had which the CMA had judged they got unfairly. The CMA has warned that changing the appeal mechanism could lead to such a set of drawn-out legal battles and quite an adversarial relationship with the firms that it seeks to regulate, which I would venture is far removed from the Bill’s original intention.

It is unusual that I should ever pray in aid the other place in a political argument, but last month the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee called on the Government to maintain the JR standard for all appeals. It is therefore worrying, if not entirely surprising, that the extensive lobbying that some of the bigger tech companies have subjected us to seems to have found the ear of the Government.

If the UK Government’s amendments 6, 7, 10 and 30, which seek to allow firms with strategic market status to appeal against CMA decisions, are accepted, that will essentially undermine the CMA’s job and ability to protect consumers. Those amendments would allow big tech firms to appeal against decisions taken by the regulators on significant issues such as blocking mergers and issuing fines simply on the basis of their feeling that they may not be proportionate. As I say, they can certainly afford to spend huge amounts of money on legal representations to quibble with these decisions, particularly if the fines or deprivation of the opportunity to make lots of money mean that they feel it is worth spending that money whatever the eventual chances of success are.

This is in addition to the letter that Baroness Stowell wrote to the PM last month warning that the UK Government must not “undermine” the Competition and Markets Authority, noting that these amendments would

“favour those with an interest in delaying regulatory intervention” and give greater power to avoid scrutiny to the tech firms

“with the greatest resources”.

The UK Government should not be ignoring these warnings, and we believe that this is a detrimental addition to the Bill. This position was also backed up by Which? in April last year. In our view, these amendments show that the Government have done the exact opposite of sticking to their guns on this.

I am mindful of the time—as are you, Madam Deputy Speaker—so I shall come to the amendments that I believe we will be voting on later. Labour amendments 187 and 188 would enable the Competition and Markets Authority to consider any significant benefits, due to a combination of factors, that might result from a breach of the conduct requirement. We think that strikes a reasonable and fair balance on where we would like the outcomes to be, and should the amendments be pressed to a vote, the SNP will be supporting them.

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee), Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee)

Listening to this debate, I was reminded of remark attributed to a major United States tech investor who said that it had always amused him that people thought competition and capitalism were the same thing. While competition can be a great driver of economic growth, the acquisition of capital and the creation of new markets, there are equally plenty of capitalistic enterprises that have grown wealthy on the back of a lack of competition, through market domination. That is why this legislation is so important.

Superficially, it is tempting to look at the landscape of the digital economy and say that the fact that there are a number of very big companies is evidence of effective competition between those companies. Those companies, including Amazon, Apple, Google and Meta, may compete for the provision of some services, but they largely dominate markets where they are the central player. We have heard throughout the passage of the Bill that even major businesses seeking to sell their goods through, say, Amazon as an online retail platform cannot afford to have a public dispute with that platform, because their relationship with that company is fundamental to the success of their business. Major publishing companies have talked about the fact that contract renegotiation with companies such as Amazon can come with big costs attached, but that ultimately they have to do business through them.

Cloud storage, which is currently an area of investigation for the CMA, is going to be a vital piece of business infrastructure for anyone who operates in the digital economy, but again, it is dominated by one or two companies, principally Google and Amazon. There are only two operating systems for our mobile phone devices. One is Android, which is owned by Google; the other is Apple’s iOS system. They both have app stores, and there is a lack of interoperability between them. We therefore have app store markets that are actual monopolies. This has been investigated by the CMA and it has billions of pounds of consumer detriment in overpricing and variable pricing attached to it.

We know that these anti-competitive forces exist. In its recent ruling on the proposed Microsoft-Activision merger, the CMA was right to highlight that if a company that creates video games that people like to play is allied to a cloud system owned by a dominant company, people might only be able to access the service if they pay that cloud provider—the storage gatekeeper or guardian of that service—which could have consumer detriment down the line.

We are already seeing examples such as market domination and self-preferencing. Google has been investigated by the European Commission over self-preferencing. This is where companies are not just creating an easy-to-use service across multiple products for people, but doing so in a way that excludes others from that market. In the long run we must be concerned about the consumer detriment of market power being consolidated into the hands of a relatively small number of companies. An example that Members will probably all be familiar with is the mobile mapping app market. It used to be quite a vibrant market with a number of players in it, but it is now largely dominated by two, Google and Apple. That is not to say that the interest of companies is always against the consumer interest, but we should be mindful of the fact that in many of these markets, monopolistic conditions can easily be created, so we should be concerned about abusive market power. There is already some evidence of that.

We also need to be concerned about the likelihood of litigation being a cost of doing business, as I said earlier to my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Robert Buckland, because that has been the track record of the market so far. The Information Commissioner has been challenged consistently by tech companies when it has given data notices. We need to be concerned, too, about the challenge from companies to online safety legislation. In Europe, where the Digital Markets Act is new, we already see legal challenges and appeals on the designation of gatekeeper status for some big companies. Last week, both Meta and TikTok stated that they were seeking to challenge the European Commission on the designation of some of their services as gatekeeper services, so we already see evidence of the challenges that are likely to come. We have seen it in the past, so we should be mindful of the impact now. That is principally why I want to speak about proportionality, which has been raised and is very important.

If a company challenges the conduct requirements imposed on it by the regulator, or the regulator’s decision, on proportionality grounds, what could that include? Does the CMA merely have to demonstrate that it considered the proportionality of its actions, as my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Jeremy Wright suggested? I think we would recognise that as being similar to the judicial review requirement. Or would there be grounds for challenging whether the regulator has considered all the information it should have considered when reaching its decision? If a conduct requirement was set because the regulator believed that consumer detriment arose from a company’s behaviour, could the company say, “Well, yes, but the prices are still very low,” or “It is not clear what the cost to the individual consumer will be, so we challenge the grounds for that action”?

In this country, we do not have a culture of class action law suits, so one of the big complaints in the tech sector is that what often stops an individual or business taking action against a big platform is that even if it won, it would be after a lengthy legal process, and the damages won would be so small that it would not have been worth doing. Typically, we do not really allow class action law suits here, but they would allow a different kind of approach; an organisation would be able to seek redress on behalf of a large number of consumers.

The question of how the proportionality test will be applied is very important for understanding how the measures will work. It will widen the grounds for litigation considerably if we allow “proportionality” to be interpreted more widely—if it is not simply a question of whether the CMA has done what it is required to do, and if the test effectively allows for, through the back door, an on-the-merits appeal process, in which any number of factor can be considered that may have been thought important when deciding whether an action is proportionate. That is particularly important up front, when the regulator is setting the conduct requirements.

As we already see in the European Union, the early decisions will be challenged by companies. They may consider the cost of litigation a relatively small price to pay, and think that they have relatively little to lose. That has certainly been the experience so far. We could end up with a system that quickly becomes unwieldy. Where the incentive for the regulator to take action is limited—it will not have the resources to fight robustly every challenge brought—it will probably decide in advance not to pursue the action, because of the cost of litigation that could come back its way. That is why the Minister and the Government were right to resist the call from many of the big tech companies for a full on-the-merits appeal system, which would have bogged the whole thing down in litigation.

It is important to understand the Government’s intention in introducing the proportionality test. A fundamental principle of proportionality applies to all EU law. In this case, we are writing the principle into the Bill. Obviously, the EU proportionality test will no longer apply here, so what is the intention behind introducing such a test? What is the certainty we seek to give? Can we be absolutely certain that there will be no unintended consequences, and that the test will not be used to widen the basis for appeal, given that so many factors could be considered in a fairly subjective test of proportionality? Is the definition clear enough and proof against abuse, so we can be confident that the judicial review standard, not a wider on-the-merits system, will be the basis of appeals?

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Labour, Easington 5:45, 20 November 2023

I, too, welcome the new Minister to his place and congratulate him on his appointment. We all recognise that this is important, long-overdue legislation, so I wish him well in piloting it through the House. I also declare an interest: I am co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the National Union of Journalists. I receive no pecuniary advantage, directly or indirectly, and the NUJ is not affiliated to the Labour party or any other party, but it none the less makes some valid points, which I wish to raise today.

We face immense challenges and significant technological changes in the UK, and indeed globally, given the development of social media and the increasing use of artificial intelligence. In an era of fake news, there are few sources of news trusted more than our national, regional and much-loved local titles, which have stood the test of time and have deep roots in our communities. I have participated in a number of debates on the subject in Westminster Hall, and debates on the decline of our local newspapers and the need to support them are always over-subscribed.

It is important to be aware that professional journalism in the UK is in crisis. Reach PLC, the publisher of titles including The Mirror, the Daily Star and the Manchester Evening News, has announced a third round of redundancies, putting at risk as many as 800 journalist jobs. If we do not find means of fairly compensating established publishers and trusted sources of journalism, we will suffer from a less diverse media landscape, job losses, and the promotion of voices delivering fake news guided by hidden agendas.

Big tech continues to exploit its market dominance in digital advertising; it uses news content from professional journalists without giving any payment or compensation to the publishers who produce the content. This Bill is a positive step, which I welcome. It is welcomed by the NUJ, journalists and publishers. A functioning media market requires regulators to address the power imbalances that have emerged between major tech companies and the journalism industry in recent years.

Our established news titles and publishers are essential to democracy; they scrutinise Government and contribute to an informed society. Their content is being used to generate revenues for tech giants. They—the creators—must be guaranteed a fair share of revenues. Without quality news content on online platforms, the overall standard of information that we all consume will decline. It is in the collective interest of our Government, of all citizens of the country, and even of major tech companies to ensure the continued presence of quality journalism. That is relevant to the part of the Bill that allows the Competition and Markets Authority to initiate a final offer mechanism, which was referred to by my hon. Friend Alex Davies-Jones—I support Opposition amendments 187 and 188 for the reasons she gave. The final offer mechanism must be used only as a last resort, and not by big tech companies to bypass meaningful negotiations.

I also wish to reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend Rebecca Long Bailey: meaningful and fair negotiations are vital if big tech companies are not to continue to exploit the current power dynamic, and place undue influence on smaller publishers in a way that does not recognise the true value of the original content that they produce. British journalism is valuable, and its value is quantifiable. News content used by tech giants is estimated to be worth around £1 billion a year in the UK. That revenue is essential to the health and wellbeing of professional journalism in the UK.

I welcome the stance of the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee on the timely implementation of the Bill, and its recommendation that the Government

“resist pressure to weaken some of the Bill’s measures”.

I also echo what the NUJ and the News Media Association say about maintaining the option of judicial review for appeals against regulatory decisions.

Government amendments must be clarified—a number of Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd, have asked for this—to ensure that the Competition and Markets Authority can retain the flexibility to construct remedies for problems that arise, and to keep up with rapidly changing digital markets, especially when big tech has such a monopolistic position.

I urge the Minister to uphold a high threshold for exemption from penalties when tech firms breach the rules, so as to prevent misuse of exemption provisions by well-funded companies that employ expensive legal teams. The example of Everton Football Club comes to mind. It seems to me—not that I am an expert in these matters—that it is being heavily penalised. Other football clubs in the premier league that seem, on the face of it, to be guilty of far greater abuses have managed to avoid the penalties. It is crucial that we eliminate loopholes that could be exploited by big tech.

Whether we like it or not, people consume a lot of their news from the big tech giants. Research conducted by Ofcom found that Facebook is the third most popular place to consume news; a higher proportion of people go there than to the BBC or Sky News channels. Meta recently discontinued Facebook News in Europe, and that has a potential impact on news consumption. With almost half of news consumers relying on social media, it is imperative to ensure fair compensation for quality content on social media platforms.

Looking ahead, the NUJ seeks extensive engagement with the Government—I hope that the Minister will respond to this—on safeguarding the future of journalism, and on recognising the multi-faceted threats that it faces, including from emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence. It is imperative that this legislation quickly progress through Parliament, so that we can safeguard the integrity of UK news titles and publishers, and protect them from undue influence from big tech lobbyists who wish to water down much-needed reforms.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Conservative, North East Somerset

I am delighted to support the amendments in the name of my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Robert Buckland. It is important to get the balance right, and not to worry too much about phantasms and fears that will not arise. It is worth recalling that, in the 1970s, the Federal Trade Commission was on the cusp of opening an investigation into IBM for its monopoly in typewriters. Technology is changing so rapidly, and an over-zealous regulatory mechanism is more likely to damage and hold back innovation than advance it.

Think of the names that have come and gone over the past few years. Who now has a BlackBerry? We once again think of blackberries as a fruit, rather than a mechanism for communicating. Or a Nokia telephone? In the 1980s, Nokia made Wellington boots. It is probably now back to making them, as its telephone has come and gone and been overtaken. That is the thing about the sector that we are looking to regulate: there is competition in it. It is not necessarily a competition for market share at any one time; it is a competition of technology that is evolving faster than people are able to deal with it.

There is in the Bill a touching faith in the competence of regulators, which I do not share. The CMA, to which we are about to give significant powers, has made a fool of itself this year—and not just a little. It has been made a global laughing stock by its Microsoft Activision Blizzard ruling, in which it blundered. It got it wrong; all the other regulators in the world did something else, and the CMA had to back down. The story was—this is quite important—that the CMA was doing the work of the FTC, but the FTC had to meet a higher legal standard and therefore encouraged the CMA to make the bid more difficult, because it thought that the UK law would be easier to work around than US law. That is why the amendments on the judicial review standard are so important. I would be in favour of a full merit standard. I think it is very peculiar that the Opposition, who are always happy to go to court to obstruct the Government at any opportunity—to obstruct the Government in carrying out the will of the British people, or to obstruct the Government when decisions are made by accountable Ministers—want unaccountable, unelected bureaucrats to have arbitrary power, which I do not want them to have. I want them to be able to operate according to merits.

What do those at the DMU have to fear? Are they quivering in their boots that incompetent decisions will be overturned? Surely, they should have faith and confidence in their ability to do things properly and competently, because if they do them well, they will not lose. There is an argument that the law is complicated. Yes, of course the law is complicated, so do we just hack down all the laws and give arbitrary power to whatever regulator, because when we go to court, it is difficult and expensive? The fundamental protection of a free democratic society is the rule of law. However, it is suddenly thought that, because the tech companies have a bit of money, though others in this field have some money too, they should not have the protections that the rest of us feel entitled to rely on. I think this is a bizarre way of looking at things, and it is why I think the protections should be proper and full.

I love these companies no more than anybody else. It is quite an interesting conundrum that all the companies we use every day—Google, Apple and so on—are not beloved by their consumers, but are remarkably useful. We seem slightly to be legislating on the basis that, though they are useful, they are just a little bit vulgar, and therefore we should be a little bit snooty about them. Let us not be, because they bring enormous benefits to our consumers—to our constituents who are consumers. They make lives easier and more efficient, and they give them the opportunity to do things more productively and to do things they were not able to do before. Yes, because they do that and they provide this service, they make some money at the same time.

I am therefore very supportive of the amendments of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon. New clauses 23 and 27 are very important because they bring accountability to the regulator, and I want to ensure that regulators are accountable both to Ministers and to Parliament. It is worth bearing in mind that, whenever a regulator gets a decision right, it is the regulator’s virtue and worthiness that are praised and held up. However, whenever a regulator gets something wrong, it is the fault of the Treasury Bench. As well as warning those on the Treasury Bench, I warn those on the Opposition Front Bench, who hope one day—in the far distant future, probably beyond my lifetime—to be holding office, that at the point at which that sad day may come they will realise that they want to get the credit for what works, not just the blame for what fails. That is important for all Governments at all times, and currently we have delegated things to all of these random bodies, and when they bungle, it is the Ministers’ fault anyway. That is why we want to have such accountability.

There is also what I would call the Tesco amendment. The Tesco amendment is one about which my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon and I have written to Ministers to say that this Bill, as it is currently phrased, would allow Tesco to be designated. Tesco is not by and large a digital company, but it has a lot of digital activities—people may buy their baked beans or their Bath Oliver biscuits from Tesco online—and that potentially brings Tesco within scope. We have had a marvellous reply from the Department—and I look at my right hon. and learned Friend as I say this—predating my hon. Friend the Minister, who I do not think would have signed such a letter. The marvellous reply says, “Don’t worry because the CMA and the DMU won’t do this. We may be giving them the power, but don’t worry your little heads about it because they won’t do it.” That is bad legislation, or a bad structure to legislation. Surely we have learned in this House—and let us hope that the other place has learned if we have not—that when we legislate, what we put in law is what we think may happen. We do not put things into law that we do not want to happen in the hope that somebody, out of good will, will not use that power. That is bad legislation, and it simply should not be in the Bill. An amendment has been provided, and if it is not accepted tonight, it should be accepted in the other place.

It fascinates me, after the Labour party has had a go at the Government for sittings ending early, that there is only one Back-Bench speaker from the Labour party, Grahame Morris, on a Bill running to hundreds of pages. [Interruption.] This is so important when we are scrutinising legislation. We have already had three speakers from the Government Benches, but it is the job of the Opposition to hold the Government to account. It is not for Government Back Benchers to hold the Government to account; it is for the Opposition to do so. On a Bill of this importance, only one Opposition Back-Bench speaker—a very admirable and a very diligent one, it has to be said—has wanted to come and diligently go through it, which is what we should be doing. [Interruption.] Was that a V-sign from Peter Kyle on the Opposition Front Bench? Madam Deputy Speaker, we will need to pass around the smelling salts if this sort of thing carries on. On Report, we need to be going through the amendments one by one, looking at the details of the Bill, and amendment 178—the Tesco amendment—does exactly that. It is looking at a flaw or a lacuna in the Bill, and trying to close that hole. That leads to the construction of better legislation, which will have a better effect in the courts.

Overall, I think we need to make sure, as my right hon. and learned Friend has said, that we put the consumer first and foremost. It should all be about that. There is huge competition in the tech sector not just on market share, but on the fundamentals of the technology that changes and evolves in a way that leaves companies that do not keep up out of business. That is not like supermarkets, whose shares may go up 1% or 2% over a year. This is about going from having the predominant market share to hardly existing as companies. That is how rapidly the sector has changed over recent years and, indeed, over recent decades, so we should not be too worried about a lack of competition. However, we should always be worried about the difficulties of the over-mighty regulator that is unaccountable to this place or to Ministers. That is why I have put my name to my right hon. and learned Friend’s amendments, and why I urge the Government, as this Bill progresses, to keep on thinking hard about why we should put faith in a regulator to have any lower standard than full merits for any review, because surely the rule of law requires that people’s interests are properly protected and that they are not subject to arbitrary law.

Photo of Sarah Olney Sarah Olney Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Treasury) 6:00, 20 November 2023

The Liberal Democrats welcome many aspects of this Bill. We are pleased that the Government are finally acting on the Competition and Markets Authority’s recommendations in bringing forward measures to prevent the tech giants from putting our digital sector in a stranglehold. We want to see a thriving British tech sector in which start-ups can innovate, create good jobs and launch innovative products that will benefit consumers. A strong competition framework that pushes back on the tech giants’ dominance is essential for that.

For too long a small number of big tech firms have been allowed to dominate the market, while smaller, dynamic start-up companies are too often driven out of the market or swallowed up by the tech giants. New rules designed by the CMA will ensure that these large companies will have to refrain from some of their unfair practices, and they give the regulator a power to ensure that the market is open to smaller challenger companies. The Liberal Democrats are pleased to see changes to the competition framework, which will allow the CMA to investigate the takeover of small but promising start-ups that do not meet the usual merger control thresholds. This change is particularly important for sectors such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality while they are in their infancy. The benefits of these changes will filter down to the end users, the consumers, in the form of more choice over products and services, better prices and more innovative start-ups coming to the fore.

While we are glad that most of the CMA’s recommendations are in this Bill, we have concerns about certain aspects, such as the forward-looking designation of SMS firms and the definition of countervailing benefits that SMS firms are able to claim. The countervailing benefits exemption allows the CMA to close an investigation into a conduct breach if an SMS firm can demonstrate that its anti-competitive practices produce benefits for users that outweigh the harms. There is some concern that big tech may seek to exploit this exemption to evade compliance with conduct requirements and continue with unfair, anti-competitive practices. It could also create scope for tech firms to inundate the CMA with an excessive number of claims of countervailing benefits, diverting the CMA’s limited resources away from essential tasks. Amendment 209, tabled in my name, seeks to strengthen the Bill and to curtail the power of large tech firms to evade compliance by tightening the definition in the Bill of what kind of benefits are valid.

The Liberal Democrats also have concerns about several of the Government amendments, particularly those relating to the appeals standard, as they risk watering down some of the CMA’s most powerful tools. There is now a real danger that powerful incumbents will use their vast resources to bog down and delay the process, leaving smaller competitors at a disadvantage. These amendments show that the Government are taking the side of these established firms at the expense of smaller, growing firms, and at the expense of economic growth and innovation as a whole.

The Liberal Democrats are keen to ensure that big tech is prevented from putting the British tech sector in a stranglehold. We hope that the Government will be robust on the defensive measures in the Bill. It is important that they reject any attempt to water down or weaken this Bill with loopholes, and that they ensure there is no ambiguity that could be exploited. Although competition is crucial for Britain’s tech sector, we hope the Government also move to tackle some of the fundamental issues holding it back, such as the skills gap, the shortage of skilled workers and weak investment.

Photo of Saqib Bhatti Saqib Bhatti Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

With the leave of the House, I would like to address some of the points that have been made today.

I am grateful to Members across the House for their contributions to this debate and, of course, throughout the development of this legislation. I am similarly grateful for the cross-party support commanded by the digital markets measures. Members will find that I agree with points raised on both sides of the House, and I am confident that this Bill addresses those points.

I thank Alex Davies-Jones for kindly welcoming me to the Treasury Bench, for her amendments and for her commitment to getting this legislation right. She asked about the countervailing benefits exemption, and I reassure her that the wording change maintains the same high threshold. SMS firms must still prove that there is no other reasonable, practical way to achieve the same benefits for consumers with less anti-competitive effect. This makes sure consumers get the best outcomes, whether through the benefits provided or through more competitive markets.

The hon. Lady also asked about appeals, and it is important that decisions made by the CMA can be properly and appropriately reviewed to ensure that they are fair, rigorous and evidence-based. We have considered strong and differing views about appeals from a range of stakeholders, and judicial review principles are the appropriate standard for the majority of decisions under the regime, as we have maintained with the additional clarification on the DMU’s requirement to act proportionately. We have, however, aligned the appeal of penalty decisions with appeals under the Enterprise Act 2002, so that parties can challenge these decisions on their merits to ensure that the value of a penalty is suitable. Penalty decisions have less direct impact on third parties, and the amendment will provide additional reassurance without affecting the regime’s effectiveness.

The significant changes we are making will provide more clarity and assurance to firms on the need for the DMU to act proportionately. They also bring the regime in line with the relevant CMA precedent. Parties will have greater scope to challenge whether the interventions imposed on them are proportionate or could have been achieved in a less burdensome way. When financial penalties are imposed, parties will have access to a full merits review to provide reassurance that the value of the fine is appropriate.

The hon. Lady also asked about the implementation of guidance, and I can assure her that we are working at pace to ensure the regime is operational as soon as possible after Royal Assent. Guidance must be in place for the regime to go live, and the Government will be working with the CMA to ensure timely implementation. The Secretary of State will, of course, review all guidance for all future iterations.

The hon. Lady also talked about amendments 187 and 188, which seek to replace the countervailing benefits exemption with a power for the CMA to consider benefits to users before finding a breach of a conduct requirement. The exemption will ensure that there is a rigorous process to secure the best outcomes for consumers, and removing it would jeopardise clear regulatory expectations and predictable outcomes. In turn, this would make it more likely that consumers lose out on the innovations developed by SMS firms, such as privacy or security benefits. Government amendments 13 and 14 clarify the exemption while, crucially, maintaining the same high threshold and clear process.

The hon. Lady also mentioned amendments 194 and 196, and the Government agree that it is important that the DMU’s regulatory decisions are transparent and that the right information is available to the public. We understand that these amendments would require the DMU to send decision notices to third parties that it assesses to be most affected by those decisions. However, under the current drafting, the DMU is already required to publish the summaries of key decisions. Requiring the DMU to identify appropriate third parties and send them notices would introduce a significant burden on the DMU, to limited benefit, and I argue that it would undermine the flexibility and quick pace that we expect from the DMU. We believe the current drafting strikes the right balance, providing transparency and public accountability on DMU decisions.

Sarah Olney tabled an amendment seeking to implement a procedure to set out an exhaustive list of benefits to which the countervailing benefits exemption can apply. Digital markets are fast moving, and we do not want to risk consumers missing out on benefits that are not yet foreseen. A list of acceptable types of benefits could quickly become out of date, even with the procedure that she proposes to permit. The amendment also seeks to impose a six-month time limit. However, the Bill already includes provision for a six-month deadline for conduct investigations, so that time limit is not necessary.

I am particularly grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Robert Buckland and other Members who recently met my predecessor and the Under-Secretary of State for Business and Trade, my hon. Friend Kevin Hollinrake, who is responsible for enterprise and markets, to discuss the appeals standard for the digital markets regime. I thank them for their positive engagement throughout the Bill’s passage, and especially over the past few days as I got to grips with the Bill.

I have great respect for my right hon. and learned Friend, and he brought up some very interesting points and challenges. He was right to put forward those challenges so that we can address them. I acknowledge that my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Jeremy Wright also wants clarity on proportionality.

Although regulatory decisions will be made under judicial review principles, we are introducing a requirement for proportionality in the DMU’s core regulatory tools, conduct requirements and pro-competition interventions at the point at which they are imposed. Let me be unequivocal and clear that we are introducing proportionality at the point of intervention so that it can be grounds for appeal via the legislation, on top of the procedural and legality grounds commonly associated with judicial review.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Conservative, South Swindon 6:15, 20 November 2023

I warmly welcome my hon. Friend to his place, as this is my first chance to do so. Are we now to understand that, with regard to the judicial review standard, proportionality will, in effect, be built in, and that we are going beyond the principles of plain, vanilla JR into the more widely understood term? Am I right?

Photo of Saqib Bhatti Saqib Bhatti Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I suggest that I write to my right hon. and learned Friend, and to all right hon. and hon. Members who have raised the important question of proportionality, to clarify the position. We want this legislation to have clarity for consumers and certainty for businesses because, as my right hon. Friend Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg said, this is an ever-changing market, so it is essential that we have clarity and certainty.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Conservative, South Swindon

The point about proportionality extends into clause 29, where the Government have now removed the indispensability test, leaving bare proportionality. My amendment asks for a necessity test. What assessment has my hon. Friend made of the removal of “indispensability”? Does he still think that the threshold for countervailing benefit will be sufficiently high to ensure that the CMA does not disapply or discontinue investigations inappropriately?

Photo of Saqib Bhatti Saqib Bhatti Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

That is an important point, and I appreciate my right hon. and learned Friend giving me the opportunity to clarify it. I want to be unequivocal that, from my perspective, the threshold is still high and we have provided clarify. If he requires even further clarity, I am happy to write to him to be completely clear.

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee), Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee)

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said so far about the application of the proportionality test, but if he is to follow up with Members in writing with some clarity, can he set out what he believes the grounds for challenge would be on the basis of proportionality? The interventions that the CMA may make and the rulings it may give are at the end of quite a lengthy process of market analysis, demonstration of abuse of market power and breach of conduct requirements. If those are challenged routinely and at a late stage, on the basis that there are grounds to say that it is disproportionate, it could have the unintended consequence of delaying systems in a way that they should not be delayed.

Photo of Saqib Bhatti Saqib Bhatti Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

If I heard my hon. Friend correctly, he wanted a letter on that. This legislation is designed to make sure that it is not for big companies to litigate heavily to stifle the smaller challengers from coming out and becoming the big companies and employers of tomorrow. Let me write to him to clarify the point further.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon has spoken about accountability in my numerous conversations with him over the past few days, and again today. I take his point. He will know that I want independent, versatile, flexible and adaptable regulators. That is only right for an ever-changing digital market that is always innovating and changing the way it operates. We do not know the unicorns of tomorrow or the benefits that we can get from consumers. The Competition and Markets Authority and the DMU have a responsibility to be accountable, to maintain that flexibility and to have adaptability to new technology and new entrants in the market. As I am sure he knows and respects, that is why independent regulators are a central part of our internationally recognised business environment. We should not forget that point.

I take the points about overreach by regulators, but they are a core part of what international partners and investors look at when it comes to the competition regime, because they know that will be innovative and will encourage further innovation in technology. The CMA is operationally independent from Government, and Government will not intervene in its regulatory decisions. The DMU will have discretion in how it designs its interventions under the regime. That discretion is matched with robust accountability, from initial decision making to appeals.

There is a range of checks and balances throughout the regime that provide assurance. I hope that reassures my right hon. Friend. There are opportunities for Government, Parliament and stakeholders to hold the CMA to account, but I welcome his challenges and interventions on this point, because it is important. I am sure that this will be looked at again in the other place. Government should always be sensitive to those challenges. The digital markets regime will be overseen by CMA’s board, which is accountable to Parliament for all key decisions. Key decisions will be taken by a committee, of which at least half its members will offer an independent perspective. I am sure that he will welcome that because, as new technologies and innovations emerge in the market, we will need new expertise.

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee), Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee)

My right hon. and learned Friend Sir Robert Buckland made the important point that the growth and expansion of regulation in digital markets is necessary but substantial. The ability of this place to keep track of how the regulators use their powers is increasingly important. That may be beyond the work of any departmental Select Committee, but instead requires something like the Public Accounts Committee, as he suggested—a separate committee whose job is to focus on and scrutinise such work. That was recommended by the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee, and also by the Joint Committee on the Online Safety Bill. I do not expect the Minister to give us an answer right now, but if he could reflect on that need and give some guidance to the House, that would be welcome.

Photo of Saqib Bhatti Saqib Bhatti Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

My hon. Friend makes an important point that is a matter for wider discussions on accountability. I am happy to have that discussion with him in future. As things currently stand, there are sufficient balances and checks in place, but I am always open to having further discussions with him.

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Labour, Easington

Could the Minister give some clarification on my point about fair reimbursement to the journalists and publishing houses that produce original content? As the new Minister, is he prepared to meet the National Union of Journalists to hear its concerns directly?

Photo of Saqib Bhatti Saqib Bhatti Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

If the hon. Member will be ever so patient, I will address that point, because it is important.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon talked about the DMU’s ex-ante powers, which I want to address because it is an important measure. We proposed to give the DMU ex-ante powers to impose obligations on designated firms because of the characteristics of digital markets, which make them particularly fast-moving and likely to tip in favour of new, powerful winners. We do not think that approach is appropriate for firms in other markets that do not exhibit the same qualities. Even if a firm meets the turnover conditions and carries out a digital activity, the DMU will still need to find evidence that the firm has substantial and entrenched market power, as well as a position of strategic significance in the activity, to designate the firm. The DMU will prioritise the areas where there will be greatest benefits for markets and consumers, and will reflect the CMA’s strategic steer provided by the Government, which is designed to reflect the policy as intended.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Conservative, North East Somerset

I think that everyone wishes to achieve the same objective, so I do not quite understand why His Majesty’s Government do not accept the amendment of my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Robert Buckland, which will make that clear beyond doubt, will safeguard it and will tidy up the legislation.

Photo of Saqib Bhatti Saqib Bhatti Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I will address my right hon. Friend’s point. We have listened to the concerns and discussed them in great detail, but I believe the Government’s amendments strike the right balance between prioritising the benefit to the consumer while helping the digital market to remain flexible and innovative, allowing for the future tech of tomorrow to be a big challenger.

One of the great strengths of the Bill lies in the speed and flexibility of the toolkit to better equip the regulator to tackle fast-moving and dynamic digital markets. The amendments will maintain an effective, agile and robust process, and will not undermine the Digital Markets Unit’s ability to intervene in a timely and impactful way. They will ensure that the DMU’s approach is proportionate and beneficial to consumers. I hope that we have reached a good position with the Members I have spoken about, but I want to turn to the points raised by my hon. Friend Damian Collins, who was ever so eloquent about the challenge that the legislation is looking to overcome and the balance that it seeks. I was greatly appreciative of his support and the challenge he has put down.

In respect of Grahame Morris, the final offer mechanism, which strengthens the hand of smaller businesses when they challenge those bigger businesses, is designed with the challenges he has put forward in mind. I hope that he appreciates that we recognise the traditional business model of news media, particularly print media, which has been substantially disrupted by the growth of digital. The regime is designed to help rebalance the relationship between major platforms and those who rely on them, including news publishers. That could include creating an obligation to offer fair and reasonable payment terms for the use or acquisition of digital, including news, content. I will absolutely take up the offer to meet the NUJ and hear its concerns. I hope that this measure goes a long way towards appeasing those concerns by rebalancing the market and ensuring that firms that have strategic market significance know that they must present a much fairer deal for regional print media.

I have long been an admirer of the contributions of my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset, who is ever so thoughtful. We agree on effective regulation and an effective regulator, but I am sad to say that today we have come to different conclusions. In this ever-changing market, we know that, where there is monopolistic behaviour, having a regulator that is adaptable and flexible provides the opportunity to nurture further competition. I often talk—and have talked today—about the unicorns of tomorrow.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon talked about Tesco. I think that we have clarified that issue, but to clarify it further, for a firm to be designated by the DMU, it has to satisfy three fundamental points: it has to have digital activities, it has to have substantial and entrenched market power, and it has to hold a strategic position in the market. I do not want to pre-empt what the CMA or DMU may do in terms of Tesco’s designated status; that is not my job today at the Dispatch Box. However, I hope that the tests that I have set out reassure Members that companies such as Tesco will not fall under this measure because they have highly competitive markets, including in the online world.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Conservative, South Swindon 6:30, 20 November 2023

Perhaps the Minister will forgive me for juxtaposing his reluctance to make things clear in primary legislation when discussing this clause and what the Government seek to do in part 4 on subscriptions. It seems to me very odd to conduct a subscription regulation mechanism by using primary legislation. There is a conflict in the logic being applied here, and I am sorry that I have to point that out to him.

Photo of Saqib Bhatti Saqib Bhatti Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Business and Trade, my hon. Friend Kevin Hollinrake will appreciate the pass that I am just about to give him; I am sure that he will address that issue in his speech.

I reiterate my gratitude to the Opposition for their co-operative behaviour, which I have been informed about by my predecessor, and to right hon. and hon. Members across the House for the challenge that they have put forward today. I am grateful to Members across the House for their contributions, and I hope that they continue to work with the Government. We will continue to work with Members as the Bill progresses through Parliament to ensure that it drives innovation, grows the economy and delivers better outcomes for consumers. That is what the Government care about. We want a highly competitive market that innovates and nurtures the technology companies of tomorrow to ensure that the digital online world serves consumers. For that reason, I respectfully ask Members not to press their amendments.

Question put and agreed to.

New clause 5 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.