New Clause 7 - Repeal of exclusions relating to the European Coal and Steel Community

Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill – in the House of Commons at 7:01 pm on 20 November 2023.

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“(1) Part 1 of CA 1998 (competition) is amended as follows.

(2) In Schedule 3 (planning obligations and general exclusions) omit paragraph 8 (coal and steel).

(3) In section 3 (Chapter 1: excluded agreements), in subsection (3)(b)(ii) omit “, 2, 8”.

(4) In section 19 (Chapter 2: excluded cases) omit subsection (3).”

This new clause (which would be inserted into Chapter 1 of Part 2 of the Bill) would repeal paragraph 8 of Schedule 3 to the Competition Act 1998, which has been redundant since the expiry of the Treaty establishing the European Coal and Steel Community.—(Kevin Hollinrake.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government new clause 8—Use of damages-based agreements in opt-out collective proceedings.

Government new clause 9—Mergers of energy network enterprises.

Government new clause 10—Power to make a reference after previously deciding not to do so.

Government new clause 11—Taking action in relation to regulated markets.

Government new clause 12—Meaning of “working day” in Parts 3 and 4 of EA 2002.

Government new clause 13—ADR fees regulations.

Government new clause 14—Power to require information about competition in connection with motor fuel.

Government new clause 15—Penalties for failure to comply with notices under section (Power to require information about competition in connection with motor fuel.

Government new clause 16—Procedure and appeals.

Government new clause 17—Statement of policy on penalties.

Government new clause 18—Offences etc.

Government new clause 19—Penalties under section (Penalties for failure to comply with notices under section (Power to require information about competition in connection with motor fuel)) and offences under section (Offences etc).

Government new clause 20—Information sharing.

Government new clause 21—Expiry of this Chapter.

Government new clause 22—Removal of limit on the tenure of a chair of the Competition Appeal Tribunal.

New clause 1—Meaning of “payment account” and related terms—

“(1) ‘Payment account’ means an account held in the name of one or more consumers through which consumers are able to—

(a) place funds;

(b) withdraw cash; and

(c) execute and receive payment transactions to and from third parties, including over any designated payment system.

(2) ‘Payment account’ also includes the following types of account—

(a) savings accounts;

(b) credit card accounts;

(c) current account mortgages; and

(d) e-money accounts.

(3) ‘Designated payment system’ has the same meaning as within the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Act 2013.

(4) ‘Relevant institution’ means—

(a) any bank which has permission under Part 4A of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 to carry out the regulated activity of accepting deposits (within the meaning of section 22 of that Act, taken with Schedule 2 and any order under section 22);

(b) any building society within the meaning of section 119 of the Building Societies Act 1986;

(c) any credit institution within the meaning of the Payment Services Regulations 2017;

(d) any authorised payment institution within the meaning of the Payment Service Regulations 2017; and

(e) any small payment institution within the meaning of the Payment Services Regulations 2017.

(5) ‘Discriminate’ means that a relevant institution acts in a way which, were that relevant institution a public authority, would constitute a breach of its obligations under section 6(1) of the Human Rights Act 1998, in so far as those obligations relate to—

(a) Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights;

(b) Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights;

(c) Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights;

(d) Article 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights; and

(e) any of the Articles listed in paragraphs (a) to (d) when read with Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.”

This new clause defines relevant terms for the purposes of NC2.

New clause 2—Rights of consumers in relation to payment accounts—

“(1) A relevant institution must not discriminate against a consumer when deciding—

(a) whether to offer a consumer a payment account;

(b) whether to alter, or vary in any way, the terms of an existing payment account in use by a consumer; or

(c) whether to terminate or otherwise restrict a consumer’s access to their payment account.

(2) A relevant institution, within 30 days of deciding to alter, vary, terminate, or otherwise restrict a consumer’s access to their payment account, or deciding not to offer a consumer a payment account, must provide the consumer with a written statement of reasons explaining their decision.

(3) A written statement of reasons under subsection (2) must clearly specify—

(a) the basis upon which such a decision was taken, including reference to any terms and conditions within the consumer’s contract upon which the relevant institution relies, or reference to any legal obligations placed upon the relevant institution;

(b) all evidence taken into account by the relevant institution in reaching its decision; and

(c) any other matters that had bearing on the relevant institution’s decision.”

This new clause would place a duty on banks, building societies and similar institutions not to discriminate against consumers when offering retail banking services.

New clause 3—Rights of redress—

“Where a relevant institution has acted in breach of its obligations under section [Rights of consumers in relation to payment accounts] (1), the consumer shall have a right to damages in respect of any—

(a) financial loss;

(b) emotional distress; and

(c) physical inconvenience and discomfort.”

This new clause would give consumers a right to redress if discriminated against under NC2.

New clause 4—Enforcement of rights of redress—

“(1) A consumer with a right to damages by virtue of section [Rights of redress](1) may bring a claim in civil proceedings to enforce that right.

(2) The Limitation Act 1980 applies to a claim under this section in England and Wales as if it were an action founded on simple contract.

(3) The Limitation (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 (S.I. 1989/1339 (N.I. 11)) applies to a claim under this section in Northern Ireland as if it were an action founded on simple contract.”

This new clause makes provision for the enforcement of redress under NC3.

New clause 24—Review of Competition Appeal Tribunal—

“(1) The Secretary of State must, as soon the Secretary of State considers reasonable practicable after this Act has been passed, commission a review of all processes involving the Competition Appeal Tribunal.

(2) The Secretary of State must ensure that the review is conducted independently of the Digital Markets Unit and the CMA.

(3) The Secretary of State must lay a report of the review before Parliament.”

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to commission an independent review of the Competition Appeals Tribunal processes.

New clause 25—Duty to treat consumer interests as paramount—

“(1) In applying the provisions of this Act, the CMA and the Courts have an overriding duty to treat consumer interests as paramount.

(2) The duty set out in subsection (1) includes a duty to—

(a) address consumer detriment, including the protection of vulnerable consumers;

(b) expedite investigations that give rise to consumer detriment; and

(c) narrow points of challenge in appeals to CMA decisions that engage consumer detriment.”

This new clause would impose a duty on the CMA and the Courts to treat consumer issues as paramount.

New clause 26—Proceedings before the Tribunal: claim for damages—

“(1) The Competition Act 1998 is amended as follows.

(2) In section 47A, after subsection (2)(b) insert—

“(c) Part 4 of the Digital Markets Act 2023””

This new clause would allow claims for damages in respect of infringements of the provisions of Part 4 of this Bill.

New clause 29—Contract renewal: option to opt in—

“(1) Before a trader enters into a subscription contract with a consumer where section 247(2) applies, the trader must ask the consumer whether they wish to opt-in to an arrangement under which the contract renews automatically at one or more of the following times—

(a) after a period of six months and every six months thereafter, or

(b) if the period between the consumer being charged for the first and second time is longer than six months, each time payment is due.

(2) If the consumer does not opt-in to such an arrangement, the trader must provide a date by which the consumer must notify the trader of the consumer’s intention to renew the contract, which must be no earlier than 28 days before the renewal date.

(3) If the consumer has not—

(a) opted into an arrangement under subsection (1), or

(b) given notification of the consumer’s intention to renew by the date specified under subsection (2), the contract will lapse on the renewal date.”

This new clause would allow the consumer to opt-out of their subscription auto-renewing every six months, or if the period between payments is longer than six months, before every payment. If the consumer does not opt-in to auto-renewal, they would be required to notify the trader manually about renewing.

New clause 30—Contract renewal: variable rate contracts—

“(1) Before a trader enters into a subscription contract with a consumer where section 247(3) applies, the trader must ask the consumer whether they wish to opt into an arrangement under which the contract renews automatically on the date the consumer becomes liable for the first charge or the first higher charge.

(2) If the consumer does not opt into an arrangement under subsection (1), the trader must provide a date by which the consumer must notify the trader of the consumer’s intention to renew the contract, which must be no earlier than five days before the renewal date.

(3) The trader must also ask the consumer whether they wish to opt into an arrangement under which the contract renews automatically—

(a) after a period of either six months from the first charge or higher charge and every six months thereafter, or

(b) if the period between the consumer being charged for the first and second time is longer than six months, each time payment is due.

(4) If the consumer does not opt into an arrangement under subsection (3), the trader must provide a date by which the consumer must notify the trader of the consumer’s intention to renew the contract, which must be no earlier than 28 days before the renewal date.

(5) If the consumer has not—

(a) opted into an arrangement under subsection (1) or subsection (3), or

(b) given notification of the consumer’s intention to renew by the date specified under (as the case may be) subsection (2) or subsection (4), the contract will lapse on the next renewal date.”

This new clause would introduce an option for the consumer to opt-out of their subscription auto-renewing after their free or discounted trial. Otherwise, they would have to notify the trader manually about the subscription continuing. It also introduces an option for the consumer to opt-out of their subscription auto-renewing.

New clause 31—Regulatory burdens arising from competition and consumer regulation—

“(1) The CMA must, at least once a year, publish a report setting out its assessment of the economic cost of regulatory burdens that have been created and removed over the previous year through the exercise by public bodies of—

(a) competition and consumer powers; and

(b) the following activities, as far as they relate to competition and consumer matters—

(i) the imposition of conduct requirements;

(ii) dispute resolution and public enforcement activities;

(iii) the monitoring of undertakings, and

(iv) the issuing of regulatory orders.

(2) The Secretary of State must ensure that public bodies provide the CMA with information the CMA considers is necessary for completion of the report.

(3) The Secretary of State must ensure that the net economic cost of regulatory burdens set out in the report is zero or less in every year.

(4) In this section a “regulatory burden” means a burden as defined in section 1(3) of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006.”

This new clause places on Ministers a permanent duty to ensure that the net economic cost of burdens from competition and consumer regulation is zero or less each year.

Government amendment 69.

Amendment 207, in clause 141, page 89, line 13, at end insert—

“(c) the collective interests of consumers include avoiding any detriment that might be incurred by consumers if the United Kingdom does not reach a level of net zero carbon emissions by 2030.”

This amendment would mean that part of the test of whether a commercial practice had committed an infringement would be whether the commercial practice had failed to protect consumers from any detrimental effects arising from a failure to achieve net zero by 2030.

Government amendments 70 to 79, 81, 82 and 85.

Amendment 226, in clause 224, page 150, line 27, at end insert—

“(4A) Where a commercial practice has been found to be unfair under paragraph 32 of Schedule 18 of this Act, any body listed as a public designated enforcer in section 144(1) of this Act may require the removal of the relevant online marketing from the internet.”

This amendment allows enforcement bodies to remove the marketing of fake or counterfeit products from the internet.

Amendment 208, page 150, line 29, at end insert—

“(6) An established means used to encourage control of unfair commercial practices must include the following measures—

(a) investigation and determination on a timely basis—

(i) in accordance with a pre-determined process which has been published on the internet,

(ii) by people who are independent of any organisation undertaking commercial practices, and

(iii) with the outcome of any decision published.

(b) the appointment of a board to oversee the investigation and determination process, with the majority of the members of the board independent of any organisation undertaking commercial practices;

(c) provision for the suspension of a commercial practice during an investigation and prior to a determination being made;

(d) provision for guidance to be issued, by the CMA, the relevant weights and measures authority or, if the established means is an organisation, the established means itself, about the lawfulness of a commercial practice;

(e) publication of statistical and other information about the operation of, and compliance with, the established means to enable the CMA or weights and measures authority in question to assess on an annual basis the continuing appropriateness of using the established means.”

This amendment sets out conditions, including in relation to independence and transparency, for the means by which the control of unfair commercial practices will be encouraged.

Government amendments 86 to 93.

Amendment 210, in clause 251, page 166, line 24, leave out “six” and insert “twelve”.

This amendment would provide for traders to have to issue reminder notices to consumers about ongoing subscription contracts only every twelve months, rather than every six.

Amendment 211, page 166, line 36, leave out subsection (5) and insert—

“(5) The Secretary of State may, by regulations, make reasonable provision for the content and timing of reminder notices.”

This amendment, together with Amendments 212 and 213, would remove the detailed provision about the content and timing of reminder notices from the face of the Bill and instead give the Secretary of State the power to make such provision by regulation.

Government amendment 94.

Amendment 212, page 167, line 1, leave out Clause 252.

See explanatory statement to Amendment 211.

Government amendments 95 to 98.

Amendment 214, in clause 253, page 168, line 7, leave out “in a single communication” and insert

“in a manner that is straightforward, timely and does not impose unreasonable cost on a consumer”.

This amendment, together with Amendments 215 to 218, would remove from the Bill the existing detailed provisions for ending a subscription contract, intending that they should be covered by provision made in secondary legislation under the provisions of clause 270(1)(c), and instead set principles for how a contract may be ended.

Amendment 215, page 168, line 10, leave out subsection (2).

See explanatory statement to Amendment 214.

Amendment 216, page 168, line 15, leave out subsection (4).

See explanatory statement to Amendment 214.

Amendment 217, page 168, line 23, leave out subsection (6).

See explanatory statement to Amendment 214.

Amendment 218, in clause 254, page 168, line 37, leave out subsections (3) to (5).

See explanatory statement to Amendment 214.

Government amendments 99 and 100.

Amendment 219, page 170, line 25, leave out clause 257.

This amendment, together with Amendments 220 to 222, would remove the provision for a mandatory cooling-off period for a subscription contract.

Amendment 220, page 171, line 19, leave out clause 258.

See explanatory statement to Amendment 219.

Amendment 221, page 172, line 18, leave out clause 259.

See explanatory statement to Amendment 219.

Government amendments 101 to 103.

Amendment 222, in clause 272, page 180, line 25, leave out subsection (5).

See explanatory statement to Amendment 219.

Government amendments 104, 105, 107, 109, 110, 112 to 147 and 150 to 152.

Amendment 223, in clause 317, page 221, line 35 leave out “subsection (2)” and insert “subsections (2) and (2B)”.

This amendment and Amendment 224 would provide for an implementation period of two years before the provision in the Bill relating to subscription contracts comes into force.

Government amendments 153 and 154.

Amendment 224, page 222, line 6, at end insert—

“(2B) Chapter 2 of Part 4 comes into force two years after the day on which this Act is passed.”

See explanatory statement to Amendment 223.

Government new schedule 1—Mergers of energy network enterprises.

Government amendments 155 to 163.

Amendment 225, in schedule 18, page 343, line 42, at end insert—

“32 At any stage of a purchase process, presenting a price for a product which omits obligatory charges or fees (or an estimate thereof) which are payable by the majority of consumers, which are not revealed to the consumer until later in the purchase process.”

This amendment adds the practice of “drip-pricing”, a pricing technique in which traders advertise only part of a product’s price and reveal other obligatory charges later as the customer goes through the buying process, to the list of unfair commercial practices.

Amendment 227, page 343, line 42, at end insert—

“32 Marketing online products that are either—

(a) counterfeit; or

(b) dangerous.”

This amendment would add marketing counterfeit and dangerous online products to the list of banned practices.

Government amendments 164 to 170.

Amendment 228, in schedule 19, page 350, line 30, at end insert—

“Non-commercial society lotteries

13 (1) A contract under which a lottery ticket or tickets are purchased for one or more non-commercial society lotteries.

(2) In sub-paragraph (1), “non-commercial society” has the meaning given by section 19 of the Gambling Act 2005, and “lottery ticket” has the meaning given by section 253 of that Act.”

This amendment seeks to exclude lottery tickets purchased for non-commercial society lotteries from the scope of the provisions on subscription contracts.

Government amendment 171.

Amendment 213, in schedule 20, page 354, line 19, leave out paragraphs 28 to 38.

See explanatory statement to Amendment 211.

Government amendments 172 to 175.

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade)

May I first echo the remarks about the excellent address by the Under-Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, my hon. Friend Saqib Bhatti? I welcome him to his place—he did a fine job on his first outing in such a complex debate.

I, too, am delighted to bring the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill to the House on Report. May I express my gratitude to colleagues across the House for their contributions to Second Reading and Committee stages, and for their continued engagement throughout its passage? I thank in particular the hon. Members for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) and for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) for their constructive engagement and commitment to seeing the Bill delivered quickly so that its benefits can be realised. I also thank my hon. Friend John Penrose for his excellent engagement—over the weekend in particular—and my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Robert Buckland for his many important and relevant amendments.

The reforms to the competition and consumer regimes contained in parts 2 to 5 of the Bill will grow the economy and deliver better outcomes for consumers and bona fide businesses. Consumers will have more choice and protection, and pay lower prices. Businesses will operate on a fairer and more level playing field. The reforms will do that by enhancing the wider competition regime, strengthening the enforcement of consumer protection law, and putting in place new consumer rights and more transparency.

It is a simple fact that the way in which we buy products and services today very often involves a digital process. The opportunities that follow are vast—more accessibility, flexibility and choice for consumers—but there is also a greater risk of consumer harm, including, for example, consumers being trapped in a subscription contract that they no longer want or purchasing goods that may not be up to scratch because they unknowingly relied on a fake review. We must ensure that consumers and their cash are protected.

Swifter interventions to tackle bad business practices against consumers are expected to deliver a consumer benefit of £9.7 billion over 10 years, as UK consumers benefit from new rights, stronger law enforcement and more competition through merger control. Importantly, the reforms will also grow the economy by boosting competition, better placing the UK to succeed in export markets. It will allow the Competition and Markets Authority to more effectively deter, prevent, and, where necessary, enforce against monopolistic behaviours. That will ensure that the free market can operate effectively.

The Government amendments to parts 2 to 5 of the Bill will provide greater clarity, ensure coherence with related legislation, and make sure the Bill’s measures meet their intended aims. Almost all the amendments are technical in nature. I will address them across four categories: competition, consumer enforcement, consumer rights and cross-cutting provisions.

First, the competition measures in the Bill will give the CMA new powers to enable it to tackle anti-competitive activity swiftly and effectively, meaning that it can focus its work on the areas of greatest potential harm. The competition environment is complex and ever evolving. We must respond carefully but decisively to changes in the judicial and legislative landscape to provide certainty and to avoid any unintended detrimental consequences of wider developments.

New clause 8 amends the Competition Act 1998 so that the absolute bar on damages-based agreements being relied on in opt-out collective actions will not apply to third-party litigation funding agreements, which are the main source of funding for that type of action. That responds to a recent Supreme Court judgment, and effectively restores the previously held understanding of the status of litigation funding agreements under the 1998 Act. Accordingly, it will have retrospective effect.

In response to a recent Competition Appeal Tribunal judgment, we are specifying the circumstances in which a market investigation reference may be made in relation to an area that has already been the subject of a market study but was not referred for further investigation at that time. We are also bringing forward a series of amendments to ensure alignment between this Bill and the Energy Act 2023, which introduced the energy network merger regime, and to make minor corrections to provisions relating to that regime. Separately, we are repealing paragraph 8 of schedule 3 to the 1998 Act to remove a redundant reference to the treaty establishing the European Coal and Steel Community. To ensure that the implementation trials for market remedies introduced by the Bill are as effective as possible, we are introducing new powers for the Secretary of State to extend the scope of implementation trials in the markets regime to include regulatory conditions.

I will now address the new direct consumer enforcement model. That model will enable the CMA to act faster and take on more consumer cases on behalf of the public, resulting in a further estimated direct benefit to consumers of tens, or potentially hundreds, of millions of pounds. The Government have tabled a series of technical amendments to increase certainty in respect of the CMA’s operational duties. They include aligning the definition of “business” in part 3 of the Bill with that in part 4 of chapter 1 to ensure that any breaches of unfair trading prohibitions can be enforced through the regime; and making provision about information-sharing between public authorities so that enforcers can obtain the information that they need to take enforcement action under part 3 of the Bill.

On appeals, we are adding a requirement for the CMA to include information about applicable appeal rights in a final breach-of-directions enforcement notice, as well as empowering the appeal court to send issues back to the CMA for decision on certain notices. We are also empowering the Secretary of State to update through regulations the specified maximum amounts for fixed and daily penalties imposable by a court or the CMA when a business breaches a formal information request.

Moving on to consumer rights—I am sure this will interest many Members across the House—the purpose of the Bill is simple: to empower consumers to get the deal that is right for them, and to increase their confidence in the products they buy and the services they use. The new rights on subscription traps will give consumers more control over their spending. Such traps have been the subject of some debate during the passage of the Bill, and the Government are introducing amendments to remove unintended consequences.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Conservative, Eddisbury

I welcome the introduction of consumer rights on subscriptions, which have become a real minefield for many people of all ages. Why do the Government feel it necessary to have this provision in the Bill and in primary legislation, when if it was in secondary legislation it could have more flexibility with changing circumstances?

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade)

We think it is a sufficiently important issue and something we consulted on previously. We have a good idea of the kind of measures we would like to put in place, and we are adding more flexibility—my hon. Friend will have seen some of the Government amendments that have been tabled in response to concerns raised by Members of the House, including my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon. We want that flexibility, yet we want to move on quickly with this important reform. There is about £1.6 billion of potential benefit to consumers through this Bill.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I commend the Minister who is putting forward ideas that I, and perhaps my party, feel we can subscribe to and support. I always ask this question, because I think it is important that the general public have an access point if they have a question on something to do with consumer rights. Do the Government intend to ensure that there is some methodology—a phone call, an email address or contact person—who the public can contact if they have a question?

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade)

Our position is that we do not intervene in the practices of businesses unless there is a necessity to do so. We leave those channels open for decisions by businesses in the services that they offer to consumers, rather than dictating to them how they should communicate with their consumers. It is absolutely right that those channels are open and freely available. One important thing we are doing in the Bill is making it much easier to terminate a contract. A person should be able to end a contract as easily as they enter into it, and that is an important part of the Bill.

The Government are bringing forward a series of amendments that remove the requirement for businesses that offer subscription contracts to send a reminder notice ahead of the first renewal notice in instances where there is no free trial. For businesses that offer those contract types, the amendments will see their regulatory burden decrease as they will be required to send only two reminder notices per year instead of three. That also ensures that consumers do not receive too many notices at the start of their contract. The requirement to send a reminder notice before a free or low-cost trial rolls over to a full contract will remain in place.

In addition, we are creating a new power for the Secretary of State to disapply or modify reminder notice requirements in respect of particular entities or contracts, and amend the timeframes in which a business must send a reminder notice to a consumer. The amendments provide greater flexibility and clarity on when reminder notices should be sent, allowing for adaptability post implementation. A further amendment clarifies that, in the event of a dispute about the cancellation of a contract, the onus is on the consumer to prove that the method in which they sent a notification to cancel their subscription contract was sufficiently clear. That intends to rectify the concern that businesses will be subject to enforcement action if a consumer attempts to cancel their subscription contract through unconventional means, for example through a tweet.

I thank my right hon. Friend Craig Whittaker and Richard Thomson for their continued engagement on Second Reading and in Committee on the issue of whether society lotteries are captured under the subscription measures. As I said in Committee, it is certainly not our intention to capture those contracts. We are therefore introducing an amendment to clarify that gambling contracts, which are already regulated under gambling laws, are excluded from the scope of the subscription contract measures. I trust that that amendment will offer them, and those in the industry, clarity on the matter.

Let me turn to a series of technical Government amendments in relation to protections for consumer savings schemes. Such schemes involve making deposits to save towards a specified event such as Christmas or back-to-school shopping, and they are a vital means for British families to budget for those big occasions. The Bill is not designed to capture routine advance payments for services. In order to avoid possible uncertainty, we are introducing amendments that will exclude contracts regulated by Ofcom, such as prepaid pay-as-you-go mobile phone contracts, as well as contracts for prepaid passenger transport services, such as prepaid Transport for London Oyster cards, from the list of what constitutes a consumer savings scheme. Finally, we are introducing two amendments to maintain the effect of the Consumer Protection: Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, which the Bill repeals and largely restates. The first relates to the application of disclosure of information provisions in part 9 of the Enterprise Act 2002, and the second relates to the information requirement placed on a trader in certain circumstances. Two technical amendments are also being introduced.

New clauses 14 to 21 make a series of recommendations related to the recommendations made by the CMA in its market study report on road fuel. Competitive markets drive down prices and offer a significant means of tackling cost of living pressures. That is why we commissioned the CMA’s road fuel study, which led to a market study in which the CMA found that competition between fuel retailers had weakened in recent years. Accepting the recommendations of that study, we are taking swift action to introduce an ongoing road fuels price monitoring function, within the CMA, to monitor developments in the road fuel market.

The amendments provide the CMA with information-gathering powers that will allow it to operate that function effectively. The powers are similar to those that the CMA can use during a market study or investigation, but specific to the road fuel sector. The amendments will allow the CMA to ask a business involved in the distribution, supply or retail of petrol and diesel for information in order to assess competition in the market and the impact on consumers. The new powers are supported by enforcement provisions, including for the CMA to impose civil penalties for non-compliance. The powers will be time-limited and will require a review by the Secretary of State after five years, to consider whether the powers should be extended by regulation.

I will finish on cross-cutting provisions that affect the digital markets, competition and consumer regimes. We are removing the eight-year tenure limit for Competition Appeal Tribunal chairs, enabling the CAT to retain experienced and skilled judges. A further set of amendments relate to the provision of investigative assistance to overseas authorities, in connection with overseas criminal competition and consumer enforcement investigations. The investigative provisions apply across the digital markets, competition and consumer regimes.

Finally, some technical amendments to the general provisions apply across the Bill, dealing with matters such as commencement. I want to ensure that there is plenty of time for Members to debate the Bill at this important stage, and I appreciate the constructive and collaborative approach that colleagues have so far taken during the passage of the Bill.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Tech and Digital Economy) 7:15, 20 November 2023

First, let me say how pleased I am to see the Minister remain in post, and I thank him for his collaboration during the passage of the Bill; it has been appreciated by those on the Labour Front Bench.

I am keen to highlight a number of amendments tabled in my name that, sadly, have been significant Government omissions. New clauses 29 and 30 relate to subscription traps, which frustratingly still remain in the Bill. I have heard from the Minister and I am grateful for his approach, but Labour has pledged to end subscription traps, which see consumers get stuck in auto-renewing contracts that they did not explicitly ask for following free trials, by making companies end automatic renewal as a default option. The plans would change the current system of “opt out” to ensure that customers actively “opt in”, saving people money during this Tory Government’s cost of living crisis.

In the last year alone, people in the UK spent half a billion pounds on subscriptions that auto-renewed without them realising, and unused subscriptions are costing people more than £306 million per year. That is impacting marginalised groups and those on low incomes considerably more than others. It could mean that those least able to absorb the cost of being in a subscription trap are more likely to be in one, and the impact on those people will be more acute. Although the Government have recently made changes so that companies will be mandated to provide a reminder to consumers before renewing their subscription, sadly that change does not go far enough. I urge colleagues to support these new clauses, because this issue is impacting people in each of our constituencies the length and breadth of our islands.

In addition, amendment 225 would address the common issue of drip pricing, which impacts people across the UK. As colleagues will be aware, drip pricing is the practice of businesses advertising only part of the product’s price, and then later revealing other obligatory charges as the customer goes through the buying process. The Government promised to tackle that issue in the King’s Speech, but they have not tabled their own amendments on it. Indeed, the King’s Speech was the fourth time that this Government have promised to act since 2016, and enough is enough. Can the Minister clarify exactly why the Government have chosen to ignore the opportunity to right this wrong in the legislation?

Broadly, the Bill is welcomed by the Opposition, but it is well overdue. It is a positive step forward in creating new competition in digital markets that will enable the competition authorities to work closely and fairly with businesses to ensure fair competition and to promote growth and innovation. Labour in particular welcomes competition and consumer choice and protection as signs of a healthy, functioning market economy. It is vital, if we are to make the UK the best place in the world to start and grow a business, that digital opportunities are open for all. We are committed to ensuring that a pro-business, pro-worker, pro-society agenda is built for Britain, and we see consumer protections and competition law as playing an integral part in that. I look forward to the Minister’s response, and I look forward to seeing this Bill finally progress to becoming an Act.

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

May I start where I left off when the Bill hit Second Reading by saying that it is extremely welcome and creates an enormous amount of important and much-needed change? I continue to support it in principle.

My purpose in rising today is to speak to new clause 31, which I have tabled and 29 parliamentary colleagues have supported. Those who are familiar with the Kremlinology of the Conservative parliamentary party will understand that the new clause does something wondrous to behold, which is that it unites the breadth and every single part of the party behind one central idea: better regulation. I should pause briefly just to say that better regulation is distinct from deregulation. Better regulation is not saying that we want to trash standards; it is saying that standards of everything from environmental standards to workers’ rights all matter, but it does also matter that Governments of any type and stripe make sure they try to deliver those standards in the cheapest and most efficient and economically logical way possible. That is the difference between deregulation and better regulation. It is about delivering high standards, but in the most economically sensible way. That is what new clause 31 attempts to do.

It is worth pointing out that we had a regime that worked pretty well for about five or six years between 2010 and 2016, and it did something along those lines. It was called “one in, one out,” and then it was upgraded to “one in, two out.” It basically said that any new piece of legislation or regulation had to be costed for the extra cost it was adding on to the British economy, and before it could be introduced the Minister concerned had to find an equally large amount of cost to remove from other regulations elsewhere to begin with. Later, it was twice as much cost to remove from other regulations elsewhere. That worked reasonably well, except that it had some loopholes deliberately left, partly because it could not affect anything created in Brussels when we were members of the EU, and also because it did not cover things such as the economic regulators, Ofgem and Ofwat and so on.

That system changed to what everyone hoped would be a better one in 2016, but it turned out to be an absolute disaster. Instead of gently but steadily bearing down on the costs of regulation, we saw a huge ballooning in costs in the first year of the new system, and there was a target of reducing the costs of regulation across the economy by £8 billion or £9 billion. Instead of that, they increased by that amount. One would have thought that would have meant that the sky fell in, everyone would have been horrified by that notion and this place would have been up in arms, but not a bit of it. There was zero reaction from any party across the House, because the system was lacking some crucial points. The crucial thing it was missing was a proper accountability mechanism for when Governments of any kind fail to deliver on better regulation principles and on reducing the cost to wealth creation in this country, and inherently therefore reducing the rate of growth in the country and the improvements in productivity that we all want to see. It meant nothing happened within Parliament.

Clearly, we cannot leave things as they stand, and new clause 31 is an attempt to try to put that right. It would do something very simple, and it comes back to what I have called net zero red tape, which is effectively one in, one out, with the cost of any new pieces of legislation or regulation needing to be matched by finding countervailing savings elsewhere, but it would also do something else. The new clause says, “We need to make sure that there is not just a commitment from Ministers, but a legal duty on Governments—not just this Government, but all future Governments—to make sure that everyone who is a Minister, when they get out of bed on a Monday morning, knows they have a legal duty to deliver on this.” That would mean that if Ministers did not deliver on it, they will have broken the law. Breaking the law means they are in breach of the ministerial code, which this Parliament and all Parliaments take seriously. It would be a far more effective trigger mechanism for ensuring proper accountability and that this measure is delivered.

I would be the first to admit that this new clause is not perfect. That is because the parliamentary Clerks have rightly said, “Hang on a second; this Bill has a scope, and you cannot exceed it.” Therefore the new clause cannot, even though I devoutly wish that it could, apply the basic principles that I have just been explaining to the House across the entire economy—would that it could. As it is, it can only apply those principles to the economic regulators and anything to do with competition and consumer law. That is a huge step forward, because, as I mentioned, the previous regimes all excluded the activities of economic regulators, and we will now enfranchise them, if we agree this new clause. That is worth doing, but the new clause is far from perfect, because it cannot cover the rest of the economy.

Incidentally, the relevant bits of accountancy—the reporting on whether costs have been added or subtracted —has to devolve to the Competition and Markets Authority under the scope of the Bill, when in fact a perfectly respectable initial grouping, the Regulatory Policy Committee, already does it. It is full of clever and well-intentioned people, and I think the CMA would rather it did not have to do this work if it could avoid it; it would rather that others did it.

It is not a perfect amendment, but it none the less would take us a big step in a much-needed direction and establish an important principle. I am grateful to the Minister, my hon. Friend Kevin Hollinrake, who mentioned that we have been having extensive discussions over the weekend in an attempt to lock in these fundamental underlying principles and to find ways to perhaps broaden them beyond just the scope of this Bill. I hope that in his closing remarks he will be able to come up with some comments that may allow me not to press this amendment to a vote.

Fundamentally, the crucial things we have to ensure are: proper independent measurement, reporting and accountability on the costs of new regulations, rather than anything that can be lent on by Government; proper consequences for Ministers in any Government who fail to deliver on trying to reduce those costs; and that no Government feel like they have a blank cheque on spending other people’s money. It is stark to examine the differences in how we approach taxpayer-funded spending versus regulation cost-funded spending. At the moment, a Minister or official who wants to spend taxpayers’ money has a squillion different hoops that they have to jump through, and rightly so. There are lots of controls on that spending undertaken by the Treasury and followed up by the Public Accounts Committee, and I can see one of the senior members of that Committee here today, my hon. Friend Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown. It is highly regulated and controlled, and great attention is paid to it in this Chamber.

However, if one wants to spend five, 10 or 100 times that amount of money by increasing the cost to business through regulation, there is not a peep. Much less attention is paid to those ways of spending cash, and that cannot be right. As everybody here will understand, a pound taken in tax has the same underlying economic impact on the country’s rate of growth as a pound taken in extra cost to business. We should treat both things with equal seriousness, rather than paying huge attention to one and largely blithely ignoring the other, while writing blank cheques. Any regime has to fix that problem as well.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, The Cotswolds 7:30, 20 November 2023

My hon. Friend engaged in some self-deprecation at the beginning of his speech about the scope of the new clause, which I co-signed, but I think he is underselling it. The consumer protection and economic regulation in the new clause go a long way towards reducing the burden of red tape. The second thing that is really important is that this is not about the number of regulations, but their economic value. That is what really places a burden on business in this country. Will he explain how he is going to establish a baseline through the new clause? If this thing is to be measured properly, we have to have a proper baseline.

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

My hon. Friend is right: I may have been guilty of being too glass half empty, rather than glass half full. The new clause goes a very long way and enfranchises large chunks of the economy that perhaps have not been dealt with properly up until now; I just wanted to go even further and cover the entire economy. He is right to point out that the new clause does quite a lot, but it is half a loaf rather than the whole loaf, if I can put it that way.

My hon. Friend is also right to say that the accountancy —the measurement of the costs—is crucial. If we are trying to do one in, one out, we have to know the cost of the things coming in so that we can know what savings we have to find elsewhere. As I mentioned, the crucial thing is that we need to have an independent accounting body—an independent measurement body. That will require the Regulatory Policy Committee to be made a little more independent and to be given more arm’s length ability to set those accounting and measurement standards in a way that cannot be leant on by senior Ministers, senior mandarins or senior regulators. The committee needs to be able to look those people in the eye and say, “No, this is the way it’s got to be.” Like any good external auditor, it needs to be sufficiently at arm’s length to deal with that. If it does so properly, it will mean that any set of measurements can be relied on, both by my hon. Friend’s Committee and the rest of this Chamber. That is essential.

To bring my remarks to a close, if we do not adopt the system proposed in the new clause, we need a system that provides proper accountability for anybody who fails to hit these targets; proper measurement and independent accounting standards to make sure that Government and regulators cannot mark their own homework; and proper targets of some kind to make sure there is a standard to which Ministers must be held. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to reassure me, and I look forward to his remarks.

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

It is a pleasure to follow John Penrose, who made some very interesting arguments. In some of them, I heard echoes of the arguments that have been made by the Opposition during my few years in this place about trying to measure the effect that legislation has when it is passed. Amendments that seek to measure that effect routinely get knocked down, but there is a fundamentally useful point in what he says about the need to make sure that we are not suffering from unintended consequences and that the goals we are seeking are the ones that result, so that corrective measures can be taken if they are not.

Hansard records that on Second Reading, I was wished “Good luck!” by Alex Davies-Jones when—perhaps intoxicated by an overly friendly and useful exchange across the Floor about the scourge of fake reviews—I thought we might get to a consensus that would allow something to appear in the Bill. Sadly, the hon. Member’s cynicism appears to have been well founded: there is certainly nothing about fake reviews in the Bill that I can see. I accept that the Government might amend that in future through secondary legislation—they are certainly able to do so—but as I said earlier this afternoon, that inevitably restricts the scope of the sanctions that can be levied for that behaviour.

I appear to have had a little more success in another area. In his opening remarks, the Minister said that when it came to additional gold-plating of the rules and regulations affecting charity lotteries and gambling for that purpose, there was a risk of charitable organisations being caught up as an unintended consequence of the legislation. I am absolutely delighted that the Government appear to have listened, and have tabled Government amendment 170, which

“excludes contracts for gambling (that are regulated by other legislation) from the new regime for subscription contracts”.

I very much welcome that amendment. On that basis, I will not seek to move amendment 228, which stands in my name and which I pressed to a Division in Committee.

A rather gruesome spectre was raised in the debate earlier—phantasms and fears that will not arise, apparently. That brings me neatly to new clauses 1, 2 and 3, which were tabled by Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg—a series of amendments that appear to be aimed squarely at a somewhat contested narrative surrounding the personal financial arrangements of somebody currently residing in a very small part of a jungle somewhere in Australia. Their appearance there is set to land them a fee that—if the scale of that bounty is as reported—would surely have every private banking manager the length and breadth of London fighting for their custom. When most of us speak in this Chamber about financial exclusion, usually we are talking about a lack of access to cash or about the ability to access one’s cash without a service charge at an ATM. We are talking about a lack of access to credit or to any kind of bank account, and very much not about those suffering the privations and indignity of having to deal with a bog-standard current account rather than being courted by Coutts.

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

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that this issue has come to people’s attention because of Nigel Farage. I will talk about that case in a moment, but what has emerged is that actually, quite a lot of people—and sometimes charities—who have views that banks do not like find that they are not able to get access to a bank account, which nowadays is a fundamentally important thing for people’s carrying on an ordinary daily life.

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

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. There is already a multiplicity of legislation and entitlements—indeed, he appears to reference them in new clause 1—that can be used to tackle such circumstances when they arise, if indeed they do. I find it very encouraging that in drafting new clause 1, the right hon. Gentleman has alighted on the relevant provisions of the European convention on human rights, which provides a very useful earthing point for many of the fundamental rights that we hold dear and, indeed, are a bulwark of a civilised society. Perhaps we will see a similarly stout defence of them in future debates in this Chamber.

I very much welcome new clause 14, which will require companies to comply with requests for information from the Competition and Markets Authority when it comes to the pricing of motor fuel. On 9 November, the CMA published its first monitoring report on the road fuel market, and while 12 of the largest retailers responded to that request, I am given to understand that two did not. From my perspective and, I am sure, the perspective of many others wherever in this Chamber they sit, that is simply not acceptable. I am sure we can all point to large variations in the cost of petrol, diesel and other forms of motor fuel across our constituencies, sometimes in filling stations that are only a few miles apart or even within relatively close proximity. That is certainly a great source of contention for people right across my constituency, so the Government requiring retailers to provide the CMA with that information is an important strengthening of its powers, and one that we welcome.

New clauses 29 and 30, which stand in the name of the hon. Member for Pontypridd, seek to tackle subscription traps. I appreciate that the Government have tabled amendment 93, which seeks to tackle these traps by issuing reminders, and that is a welcome step forward. Nevertheless, I am bound to observe that SNP Members, at least, believe that a better balance could be struck by asking consumers whether they wish to opt in to automatic renewals or to variable rate contracts, rather than simply getting reminders about them, which will inevitably end up in the recycling bin or junk mail folder, even for the most attentive of consumers. Having to opt in would be far better and it would protect the consumer’s interest to a far greater extent than simply having the opt-out option emailed or mailed, or conveyed in some other way, in due course. If those new clauses are put to a vote, the SNP will support them in the Lobby.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Conservative, South Swindon

I hope to speak briefly, as the hors d’oeuvres for the pièce de résistance, which will be the speech by my right hon. Friend Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has tabled excellent amendments. Although I did not sign them, for which I apologise, I very much endorse and support his efforts in these areas. These are important matters that need to be dealt with, and this is the right forum in which to do so. I wish to speak briefly in summary about provisions that I spoke to in the first group and simply reiterate that the thrust of the new clauses I have tabled, and am supported in by a number of right hon. and hon. Members, is all about accountability.

New clause 24 seeks a review of the work of the Competition Appeal Tribunal and is all about making sure that that body is functioning as effectively and expeditiously as possible to deal with these important matters. The work of the tribunal has become progressively more scrutinised. I do not wish to cast aspersions on its chairs or members, who work extremely hard. It is an impressive body, which is looked upon internationally for its work. However, there is no doubt in my mind and in the minds of many others that there is more work to be done to streamline and improve the CAT’s processes if it is increasingly to be looked upon and relied upon as an important arbiter of issues relating to digital markets, among other things.

The consumer interests duty set out in new clause 25 is at the heart of what we are trying to do here. Coupled with that, new clause 26 seeks to allow claims for damages under part 4 of the Bill and is an attempt to reframe the way in which the Government are approaching the provisions on subscriptions, to which I have tabled a number of amendments. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister and the Government for having listened and moved on that issue. However, it seems to put the cart before the horse a little to not allow claims for damages, but to put through exemptions that would mean that if I were to seek to terminate my subscription via Twitter, the company concerned would not be liable. It would be far better to have a general liability in damages and not to have such prescriptive clauses in the first place that would be liable to misinterpretation. I am offering the Minister another way of looking at it that would be less prescriptive.

I have to come back to the Minister on the point that I made to the Under-Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, my hon. Friend Saqib Bhatti: there is an odd juxtaposition between different parts of the Bill, where we are told in one breath that primary legislation is not the appropriate vehicle for prescribing procedures, yet here we are prescribing in minute detail procedures relating to subscriptions in the Bill. My hon. and learned Friend Edward Timpson has made the point for me, and it is one we well know: secondary legislation allows for greater flexibility, so that if a new potential problem or abuse is identified in this fast-growing market, the Government would be able to plug the hole and deal with the subscription issue.

My amendment 210 seeks to change the requirement on reminders, so that they are issued not every six months but every 12 months. It accepts that whereas I have subscriptions but am sadly unable to watch that much TV, many others enjoy subscriptions to various providers, are on top of their subscriptions, and know exactly what they are doing. We must not make an assumption that the consumer is utterly uninterested in how they spend their money. These subscriptions will amount to a lot for many families and are significant outlays for them. I accept that we do not want people to be trapped inadvertently, or market abuse, but we sometimes need to reflect the reality of the situation more appropriately. The amendment’s 12-month requirement aligns the provisions with what we see in other regulated sectors. There is nothing particularly novel about the way in which I want that amendment to work.

I absolutely support the Government’s intent on termination rights. I want it to be easy for consumers to leave contracts. The Under-Secretary of State for Business and Trade, my hon. Friend Kevin Hollinrake, knows the point about “any means” and has sought to deal with it; I suggested a better way.

As for cooling-off periods, which are dealt with in my amendments 219 to 222, I do not know whether they actually deal with the subscription trap issue. Clearly, free or discounted subscription periods are a legitimate and well-recognised strategy that allows customers to exit. We have to be careful when we place constraints on the ability to offer those periods in order to attract new customers, and there could be unintended consequences here: the cooling-off period could, perversely, allow a consumer to sign up, binge-watch series one of “The Crown”, and come off the subscription, but then sign up and binge-watch again when series two comes out, without having paid a penny piece. That is not right and it does not strike the right balance, given the historical problems that providers had with people piggy-backing on others’ subscriptions and enjoying a service that one should reasonably be expected to pay for. Looking at the lack of prescription on the number of times people can enter and exit cooling-off periods, we see that perverse incentives may well be created as a result of the changes in the Bill. Let us not forget that we have provisions on cooling-off periods that will continue to apply. I ask the Government to tread carefully, and to focus on the greatest harm caused by subscription traps, rather than seeking to complicate the position further.

On implementation, the Government have the choice of allowing commencement two months after Royal Assent, which would be normal, or laying commencement orders. I strongly urge them to be clear about commencement orders and timing, because implementation is everything, and this legislation potentially brings a significant regulatory burden for businesses in the sector. I suggest that we not only provide for sufficient time, but have a sense of choreography, and bring regulatory changes in on common dates—at the beginning of October or April of any given year. I am absolutely with the Minister in seeking to get this right, and to get regulation in the right place, but I ask him to make his imprint on the legislative calendar a little less heavily, and to use a more flexible mechanism than primary legislation.

I would be the first to criticise the Government for excessive use of delegated legislation—the principle should be that we place matters in the Bill where appropriate—but in a world where so much is delegated and so much is not in primary legislation, it seems incongruous, to say the least, that we are prescribing this regime in this particular way. I look forward my hon. Friend the Minister’s response to my arguments, and I thank him for his engagement on this issue.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark 7:45, 20 November 2023

I rise to speak to amendments 226 and 227 in my name, which would introduce a take-down power to ensure that unsafe or counterfeit goods are removed from sale online. We covered this issue in some detail in the Bill Committee, where the problem of dangerous online sales was likened to the wild west, due to the risks to individual consumers and the lack of governance. I am disappointed that we still do not have clarity on how the Government want to tackle this growing concern, because this is fundamentally about safety and the Government failing in their core duty to keep people safe.

The Minister knows that unsafe products bought online have caused deaths in the UK. We have seen fires and other catastrophic damage caused by dodgy goods bought online, and since the Committee completed its considerations, a coroner has specifically cited faulty e-bike chargers in a report on a death. The coroner’s report in September suggested that at least 12 people have died and a further 190 have been injured in faulty e-bike and e-scooter blazes in the UK since 2020 alone, and that is only one area of problematic online sales. The coroner’s report goes on to call for greater action, and says:

“It is clear that there is an existing, ongoing and future risk of further deaths whilst it continues to be the case that there are no controls or standards governing the sale in the UK of lithium-ion batteries and chargers (and conversion kits) for electric-powered personal vehicles.”

There is a call for the Government to act in the face of further problematic items and dangerous goods being sold online.

My amendment helps to address the situation, where such items are identified. Not everything we discuss in this place is a life-and-death issue, but this can be. The Minister has had many representations from organisations about the growth of unsafe and dodgy goods sold online as legit: the British Toy & Hobby Association and Electrical Safety First issued briefings that supported my amendments in Committee. Trading standards also supports greater means of taking action, and briefed in support of the amendment in Committee.

At this time of year, it is even more important to act and raise awareness, because many people are buying their Christmas gifts online. Being super organised, I have my seven-year-old’s Christmas presents all safely stashed away at home. I am pretty confident she is not watching tonight and will not be looking for them, although who knows? I genuinely would not buy her gifts online because I am fearful about what happens to those who do trust some online sites.

Research by the British Toy & Hobby Association in 2021 showed that some 60% of children’s toys bought online were unsafe for a child to play with, and 86% were illegal to sell in the UK. That is very disturbing. Some of the problems it discovered were counterfeit goods, fire safety and chemical restriction failures, and packaging or parts that presented choking hazards. They were all products that online marketplaces had been told about but had not removed from sale.

In Committee, we had more time for detailed examples. We have less time here, so I will give just one, the toy crocodile story, and I will make it snappy. In July 2018, Amazon was told about a dangerous crocodile toy that was putting children’s lives at risk and was being sold widely online. Trading standards intervened several times, and in January 2020 the Office for Product Safety and Standards also intervened, but that toy range is still on sale online today, five years later. That is unacceptable, and sadly it is not a one-off. The OPSS has issued recall notices due to what it called

“serious risks of fire and electric shock” for 90 products that are still on sale on Amazon, and 20 that are still on sale on eBay. There is a fundamental problem with the current regime and system. My amendment seeks to restore confidence.

The consumer organisation Which? has also alerted MPs to, among other issues that it has discovered, the problem of energy-saving devices that do not save energy but do present significant risks, including plugs with no fuses. There is unity in the call for greater action. The chief executive of the Government’s own Office for Product Safety and Standards said last November that

“there is too much evidence of non compliant products being sold by third party sellers” online. The National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have also called for action.

My amendments are not about new regulations or new pressures on business, which Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg talked about. They are about enforcing standards and rules for all, both online and on our high streets. The Minister, when he opened this section of the debate, said that he wanted fairness and a level playing field for all. I want that for British consumers and businesses as well. People have a misplaced faith that there is a level playing field, and that what they see in Argos and what they can buy on Amazon are regulated in the same way, but sadly they are not, and without my amendments they will not be.

Since Committee, I have tidied up the amendments slightly to ensure that they include a power to require the removal of items that are unsafe or counterfeit. That power links to the Government’s list of organisations in clause 144, to ensure that the same bodies as are listed in the Bill are involved. I am trying to help the Government and trying to help more generally, because there are wider benefits to getting this right.

UK high streets are struggling. Removing unsafe goods from online sale will mean that British high street shops that meet regulations will get a boost, as will British manufacturers who play by the rules but are undercut by imports from other countries that do not meet our safety and other standards. My amendments are designed to address all those issues and help to ensure that our standards are met. There is unity in the calls for greater regulation, and for a new sheriff or a new marshal for the wild west—not a rhinestone cowboy, singing the same old song and trying to stick up for a system that is failing British customers.

I will end on consumer rights. I do not believe in the enfeebled state, which seems to be accepted by some Ministers. We were told that the whole “take back control” narrative was supposed to lead to better rights for Brits, but we already lack rights that our European cousins have. French, Dutch, Irish and Polish customers now all have better protection, through the Digital Services Act, which has been passed by the EU since we left it—crucially, with the support of Amazon. It is beyond shocking that Amazon seemed to understand and support the need for change before most of the UK Government did.

However, there is a glimmer of hope. There is one Minister who has called for action, and has said that we should make the UK the “safest” place in the world to shop and do business online. That same Minister told this House that

“we should go further than that and require marketplaces to ensure that such products are not on their sites at all, ever”.—[Official Report, 20 January 2023;
Vol. 726, c. 715.]

I agree with that Minister. These amendments help to deliver his aim, and we are lucky that that Minister is before us in this debate. I hope that when he gets back to his feet, he will reward my optimism and say that the Government will act now. I will not push the two amendments to a vote today, in the hope that my take-down power will be taken up by the Government before or during Lords consideration. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

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

It is a pleasure to follow Neil Coyle. I am also grateful to the Minister for his thorough engagement on these matters. He has been extremely diligent, helpful and, as always, courteous. Let me begin by declaring a sort of semi-interest. I do not think it is technically one that the Standards Commissioner would worry about, but Mr Farage and I both appear on a television programme under the auspices of GB News at about the same time of day—I follow him. I have no financial relationship with Mr Farage; we merely appear on GB News at a similar time of day.

It was Mr Farage who brought to the attention of the public the issue of de-banking. It is a great problem; if someone’s bank suddenly says to them, “We are not providing you with any facilities”, where do they go? It is very hard to go to a new bank. New banks do not want people who have been de-banked. Nigel Farage became in a way the poster boy for this issue, highlighting something that was affecting people up and down the country, affecting charities, and affecting businesses that have been to see me as a constituency MP in the past—people running certain types of business, who found that their banking facilities were withdrawn without any proper answer or explanation. A pawnbroker who came to see me had had his banking facilities taken away. His is a perfectly honest and reputable business, but inevitably it deals with a lot of cash, which makes banks nervous and, when they are nervous, they need to give that customer a proper explanation as to why they are no longer getting that service.

Richard Thomson, in an elegant speech, teased me for standing up for Nigel Farage as if debanking was not a common problem. He mentioned that Mr Farage is off in the jungle eating offal and all sorts of other tasty morsels. Yes, that has had the benefit of bringing people’s attention to something that was affecting our constituents across the country. Therefore, I do indeed draw on definitions, but only definitions, from the European convention on human rights—this is not a sudden Damascene conversion to such a document; it is simply that those definitions are in our law and it is useful to base any amendment to a Bill before the House on existing law. That leads me, as always, to thank the Clerks for their mastery of ensuring that amendments are within scope, because getting the new clause into scope, as my hon. Friend John Penrose found with his excellent new clause, which I will come to, was not particularly easy. That is why, in affecting consumers but not businesses, it does not go as far as I would have liked.

This matter is of such fundamental importance. You may think, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I am not all that much in favour of the modern world and that I think it would be nicer if we could go round with the odd groat or perhaps a sovereign to pay our way, but sadly that age of specie has gone—you might even say that the age of specie had become specious, but it is in the past. Everybody now needs modern banking facilities. Cash is not used anything like as much as it was, and every transaction that people carry out needs a piece of plastic, a bank that it comes from and a telephone or some type of technology. When somebody is debanked, it is like the Outlawries Bill on which we only ever have a First Reading: they are effectively made an outlaw in their own land. They are without the normal law of the land and the ability to do ordinary things. That is why new clauses 1 to 4 are really important, and a protection for people.

To return again to Nigel Farage, the idea that someone should be debanked because of legal political opinions is outrageous. The hon. Member for Gordon teases me for mentioning Nigel Farage, but actually a separatist who wants to break up the nation has a political opinion that in other countries would be considered treason. Those in China who say, “Free Tibet—have an independent Tibet,” do not get a lot of quarter. So once we start saying that someone can be debanked for holding Nigel Farage’s views, what about being in favour of Scottish independence? Would that be a view that one bank might not like and might say that members of the SNP—a perfectly legal party—should not be banking with it? It affects every political opinion, and a political opinion may be fashionable today, but tomorrow it may not be. We always have to consider in legislation the protection of free speech against the interests of passing fashion, because we and Opposition Members may be affected by it in a slightly different or changed environment.

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

Are we not talking about slightly different things? There was a highly contested narrative around the circumstances the right hon. Gentleman describes, but my understanding is that the gentleman in question was not so much debanked as offered a lesser account and has subsequently found somewhere he can bank satisfactorily.

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

The hon. Gentleman is misinformed. Mr Farage was only offered any new bank account with NatWest rather than Coutts when the story became public. Prior to that, he had not been offered any banking facilities, nor had he been able to find another bank that would take him on. So the facts of the matter are that Coutts/NatWest debanked him because of the extraordinary internal set of communications, which have become public and led to the resignation—effectively the firing—of the chief executive of NatWest, partly for gossiping about his banking circumstances, but also for the behaviour that had led to his banking facilities being taken away for his political opinions. That is quite clear from the information that has emerged.

Photo of Richard Fuller Richard Fuller Conservative, North East Bedfordshire

My right hon. Friend’s new clauses relate to debanking, prompted by a particular incident. Would he not accept that there is the broader issue that the pursuit of environmental, social and governance goals by corporations and the pursuit of values in association with diversity, equity and inclusion objectives raise the same issue on a much broader front than banking facilities? What would he recommend the Government should do on that?

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

I agree with my hon. Friend that it does go much further. Some time ago, the Bank of England issued a document suggesting that loans should not be given to companies investing in oil and gas when we need oil and gas for the foreseeable future. I think that this politicisation of banking is quite wrong, and ESG is not fulfilling the fiduciary duty of investors to provide the best return to their clients. We should look at that.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

Can I clarify that when the right hon. Member talks about banks, outlaws and dodgy cash, he talking about high street banks and not Arron Banks?

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

I am talking about the banking system generally, and I am saying that it is important that people should have banking facilities regardless of their political views. It is important that Russian oligarchs may be sanctioned—that is a legitimate thing for Governments to do—but that requires the rule of law.

I want to touch briefly on some of the other amendments to which I have attached my name. I once again agree with my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Robert Buckland on new clauses 24 and—particularly—25. Putting the consumer first must be the essence of what we are trying to do. To my absolute horror, I have discovered that I agree with him on turning some of these measures into secondary legislation.

Skeleton Bills are a dreadful thing. We get awful legislation coming into the House on which there is no detail at all because it will all be decided by Ministers later. Such Bills should be deprecated. The House of Lords is good at pushing back on them; this House less so. Skeleton Bills are bad idea—except, there is a place for secondary legislation, and that is it. For some utterly random reason, a Government who have brought forward extraordinary skeleton Bills, some of which I could mention and have mentioned in the Chamber on occasions, have brought forward every last detail on something that, in its essence, will need revision and updating and to meet different standards as time goes by. It is a modest eccentricity to have put that in the Bill. I suggest that, in the other place, the Government look at whether that detail could be easily turned into secondary instruments, with such instruments ready to come into force at the same time as the Bill, so there would be no delay. That structurally would make for a better Bill. I am embarrassed to be speaking in favour of secondary legislation, because normally I want to see things in the Bill. If we could have a promise of fewer skeleton Bills in future, I would be delighted.

Against that, I could not disagree more with new clauses 29 and 30. Those make a real mistake—dare I say it, they are typical socialist amendments—because they do not trust people. It seems to me that people are sensible: they know what they are doing, they volunteer to do it, and they are free to undo it. Yes, of course, it is important that they should be free to undo it, but there is a cost to over-regulation. If we make companies write all the time to say, “Are you sure you want to do this?” that puts up the price. The profit margin for the business will not change, but the price that they charge consumers will. If they are constantly saying, “Do you want to leave us?” that will put the price up, because there will be an administrative and bureaucratic cost to that, and a loss of business that will put up the overall cost for everybody. It is legislating for inefficiency based on the idea that consumers are stupid. Well, in North East Somerset, consumers are very clever, highly intelligent, and know what they have agreed to and what they have not agreed to.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare. His new clause 31 is genius because it gets to the heart of an incredibly complicated and difficult matter that no other piece of legislation that we have tried has really worked with. Even the one in, one out that we had from 2010 to 2015 did not really work. I seem to remember reading that the Crown’s ownership of sturgeon was cancelled during this period because it counted as a “one out”, allowing some regulation to come in, no doubt costing millions, as we got rid of something trivial. One in, one out was not really there, but this new clause does it on a proper cost audit and looks ultimately to cover everything. That is absolutely the right way to go. My hon. Friend made the superb point that whenever any type of Government expenditure is involved, it is looked at, reviewed and referred to a Committee, yet when regulations worth billions are involved, they pass through without so much as by your leave. This is a really important new clause and I encourage the Government to do whatever they can to implement it.

A final thought before I conclude is on petrol stations. This is very good news. Why is it that the Tesco’s in Paulton is more expensive than the local service station in Ubley? I use the local service station in Ubley because it is better value for money, but Tesco’s in Paulton is more expensive than the Tesco’s on the outskirts of Bristol. That is very unfair on my constituents and I want it to bring its price down.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Chair, Finance Committee (Commons), Chair, Finance Committee (Commons)

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. We all have that image in our head now, of which particular supermarket you are talking about.

As other hon. Members have said, this Bill is much needed and will help in so many ways. Hon. Members have sought to address a number of vexed issues in this legislation. This includes an attempt, through our Opposition amendment 225, to address drip pricing, which I know as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on ticket abuse is especially prevalent in the primary and secondary ticketing markets. In these markets, customers often have to wait until the payment screen to see a complete price breakdown. In the secondary market, customers are often drawn in by Google-paid ads to professional looking sites such as Viagogo, which are selling tickets for many times their face value and engaging in illicit business practices. Initial prices, while eye-watering, are present, but there is no breakdown of the exact amounts for service charges or VAT.

The consumer is left in the dark about what they are actually paying for until it is time to pay, usually after having navigated many more time-wasting pages on the website and almost losing the will to live and the power of rational thought. Even then, the prices are often still estimates when the customer eventually hits “Buy now”, after feeling that they will lose the tickets if they do not make the decision quickly. Lots of customers still get a nasty surprise when the payment confirmation email comes in and they see the actual amount that has been taken from their bank account or credit card.

Moving on more broadly to the Competition and Markets Authority, I am aware that the CMA made its recommendations on tackling abuses in the ticketing market to the Government in August 2021, which the Department for Culture, Media and Sport then sat on for over 18 months before making an outright rejection of them. Principally, these recommendations called for stronger laws to tackle illegal ticket resale, and this Bill could and should have been—and could still be—the perfect place to introduce those powers. I am therefore very disappointed that the Government are still resisting these modest calls from the body set up to regulate our markets.

I support efforts in the Bill to ensure healthy competition online, but why not extend it to tackle online ticket touts? Sites such as Viagogo have been allowed to grow and gain a monopoly over ticket resales while being accused of benefiting from the illegal bulk buying of tickets and the wholesale speculative selling of tickets that they simply do not have. This includes Viagogo sellers attempting to sell thousands of festival tickets that they had not purchased and did not have the title to, as well as something known as the golden circle, an online rent-a-bot group illegally buying masses of tickets for the upcoming tours of Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, even when artists such as Swift actively speak out against touting and take measures to protect their tickets from ending up in the hands of touts instead of fans.

Bodies such as the CMA need to be empowered to address this abuse. However, some Tory Back Benchers are today seeking to tie the hands of the CMA by forcing through new clause 31, which would require the CMA to spend more time on compiling economic impact reports than on protecting businesses and consumers. New clause 31 would reduce the CMA from being our strongest statutory enforcement agency to a toothless information-collation and report-writing quango. Surely these reports should be compiled by a body such as the Regulatory Policy Committee, not by the statutory enforcement agency.

Photo of John Penrose John Penrose Conservative, Weston-Super-Mare 8:15, 20 November 2023

I do not know whether the hon. Lady heard my earlier remarks, but let me reassure her that new clause 31 would not reduce the CMA just to that; it would still have all its other powers. In fact, the total number of staff employed by the RPC to do this at the moment is relatively small. I also mentioned that if the Minister were able to come up with alternative ways of delivering a fully independent and therefore much more objective way of doing the RPC’s job—perhaps by strengthening the RPC—I would be delighted to accept that instead.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Chair, Finance Committee (Commons), Chair, Finance Committee (Commons)

I agree. I am sure that would be a much better way. I definitely do not think that the CMA should have to do what the new clause is seeking to do.

I have it on good authority that professional touts now number anywhere from 3,000 and 3,500. In all the time I have been campaigning and speaking on this issue, which is getting on for 15 years, those numbers were in the tens, the fifties and the hundreds. It shocks me to know that we are now trying to deal with this level of professional touts. They are attacking everywhere, from stadium gigs to local venues and, increasingly, football games. They should not be able to tout tickets for football games, but they do. Yet according to Home Office figures, the yearly arrests of football ticket touts have been decreasing, dropping from 107 in 2011-12 to only 28 in the 2019-20 season.

In my opinion, the lone conviction of just two touts nearly four years ago, which we discussed with the Minister in the last debate on this Bill, is not a strong enough deterrent, especially as it relied on outdated legislation such as the Companies Act 2006 and the Fraud Act 2006, rather than the purpose-built Consumer Rights Act 2015, which I was substantially involved in, or the Digital Economy Act 2017.

I appreciate the efforts in the Bill to protect consumers online, and I can see that there are measures in the Bill to be welcomed, but for me, ticket touting and the widespread fraud that comes with it must be properly addressed and regulatory bodies must be fully empowered to tackle these sites. I will leave my remarks there.

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion

When first announcing this Bill, the Prime Minister promised that it would clamp down on greenwashing and bring misleading environmental claims under the umbrella of consumer protection laws, but the reality seems to fall far short of that—something to which we should perhaps have become accustomed when contemplating the gap between this Government’s environmental rhetoric and their lack of concrete action. While the Bill allows for consumer redress if commercial practices result in their being misled, confused or misinformed, the measures it contains certainly do not amount to the robust action on greenwashing that the Prime Minister led us to believe would be forthcoming. I have therefore tabled two amendments that would go some way towards delivering on the promises that he made.

As a multibillion pound persuasion industry, advertising has an enormous influence on which companies we trust, on our lifestyle choices and on the purchases we all make.

We are all exposed to thousands of advertisements on a more or less daily basis. To protect consumers from misinformation and harm, advertising must be properly and fairly regulated. However, we currently have an advertising regulation system that is slow, opaque and, in short, failing. The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority is not an independent regulator; it is self-funded by the advertising industry. Any complaints that the ASA handles about misleading or harmful advertising is essentially therefore marking its own homework. The ASA’s motivation to fairly regulate is wholly undermined by its close proximity to the industry it should be holding accountable.

My amendment 208 seeks to address the regulatory gap as a matter of urgency. It would create a regulator that is independent, transparent and one that can take timely action, thus better protecting consumers from misleading messaging by polluters and other harmful commercial actors. I think consumers want action. They are increasingly concerned about the role of companies in producing waste, pollution and environmental harms, and ignoring human rights. Yet in response these same companies turn to advertising to try to clean up their image and shore up their social licence to operate. New evidence reported in the Financial Times shows that Shell, one of the world’s top polluters, is estimated to have spent £220 million on advertising in 2023. Much of that advertising is aimed at younger generations, who are perhaps more vulnerable to misleading claims.

Misleading green advertising and greenwashing is on the rise. The ASA’s response has been to update its minimal environmental guidance to advertisers and to rule against just a tiny number of adverts for Shell, HSBC and other high-carbon advertisers for making misleading green claims. Those rulings are often slow and are often made well after the damage has been done. Time-consuming complaints have largely been brought by civil society organisations concerned with the impact of advertising and greenwashing on consumer wellbeing and their rights, but it should not be left to those organisations to have to try to enforce misleading adverts and to ensure that those adverts do not go unchecked. We need a robust regulatory framework and it is disappointing that the Government did not use the opportunity afforded by the Bill to deliver one.

The ASA celebrates its slim count of investigations into polluter advertising while a whole sea of greenwash escapes its notice and seeps into consumer consciousness. Only 2.4% of adverts reported to the ASA over environmental concerns saw any formal action in 2022, while thousands go unreported and therefore see no action at all. This is a drop in the ocean. We simply cannot afford this lack of effective advertising regulation to continue. My amendment 208 is a small but essential step if we are to stop the most polluting adverts from promoting our own environmental demise.

My other amendment is 207. It is another small but essential step, this time towards tackling the way in which the adverts to which we are exposed to every day are themselves fuelling the climate crisis. The UK advertising industry was responsible for 208 million tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions in 2022. To put that another way, advertising is responsible for the equivalent of just under a third of the carbon footprint of every single person in the UK. No wonder that, from the World Health Organisation and the House of Lords Environment and Climate Change Committee, to the UN’s environment programme and the Committee on Climate Change, there is universal agreement about the need to regulate the advertising of high-carbon products.

High carbon clearly means fossil fuels, flights and SUVs. I would argue that it also probably means fast fashion, most meat and dairy, and the banks funding the likes of BP and Shell. I therefore back the many campaigns for a ban on high-carbon advertising and for interim measures, such as car advertisements with mandatory content about the benefits of active travel and public travel, as has been done in France. In the meantime, and in the absence of a Government prepared to act in line with the climate science and other evidenced demands, my amendment 207 would bring consideration of net zero emissions by 2030 into the consumer protection regime envisaged by the Government. Let me say a few words about why that is 2030, rather than 2050.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is clear that limiting global temperatures to 1.5° requires that the whole world reaches net zero by 2050, a deadline that has been directly translated into domestic targets. But the UN Secretary-General, for example, is among many who have called for developed countries to commit to net zero much sooner, by 2040. When we look at the UK’s own historic responsibility, and indeed our financial means, that puts us into the category of richer countries that, in the interests of fairness, should be going faster and further.

Given the rate at which we are eating through our remaining carbon budget for 1.5°—according to some scientists, 1% a month—further and faster in terms of the UK translates to us achieving zero emissions by much closer to 2030 or 2035, thereby giving countries in the global south longer to cut their emissions. This idea is actually enshrined in climate law around the idea of common but differentiated responsibility, but sadly it is more respected in the avoidance rather than in the implementation.

Of course, that timeframe is undoubtedly hugely challenging. It will require a scale of social and economic transformation far surpassing what we have seen to date—hence the need for action across the board, including in relation to the advertising industry and consumer laws. Specifically, amendment 207 would signal that achieving net zero by 2030 is in the collective interests of consumers and it would help protect consumers from any detrimental effects arising from commercial practices that do not fully reflect the need to stay within that limit.

Misleading advertising is unfairly influencing consumers who want to do the right thing to protect the environment. It is delaying climate action just when we need to shift consumption patterns towards lower carbon alternatives. It is further flooding consumers with adverts that normalise and glamourise high-carbon products and ways of living, something the regulator, with its limited remit, cannot currently act upon, and which the current limited understanding of consumer collective interest does not encompass.

The scale and urgency of the climate and nature crises are such that they should be factored into every single piece of legislation. My two amendments are designed to do exactly that by delivering on the promises the Prime Minister made about greenwashing, and by delivering on what every shred of evidence tells us about the impact of that advertising on our precious environment, and therefore on consumers’ long-term collective interests.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

It is a pleasure to follow Caroline Lucas. She is, if I may say so, the conscience of the Chamber in relation to net zero and environmental issues. She always gives us a helpful reminder of the importance of those issues for all of us across this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

It has been incredibly encouraging to hear the comments made thus far by all Members on all sides of the House. It is also great to see the intention of the Bill, which lies solely around the consumer, and consumer rights and protections. The Minister very helpfully set the scene in a way we can all adhere to and agree with. If John Penrose puts forward some of his amendments, maybe the Government will also support them. If they do, we will have no need to divide the House.

The new consumer protection measures in the Bill are intended to apply to the whole of the UK. Consumer protection policy is devolved to Northern Ireland, and reserved for Scotland and Wales. It is my understanding that, as a result, consent will be required for Northern Ireland. It would be helpful if the Minister could confirm what discussions he will have, or has had, with Northern Ireland Departments to ensure that they can be implemented as soon as possible. Reading through the Bill and the amendments and new clauses that have been tabled, I am ever mindful that the Government do have powers. In new clause 69, for instance, sectoral enactments are in place for the Water and Sewerage Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, the Gas (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 and the Electricity (Northern Ireland) Order 1992. There seems to be a methodology whereby decisions for Northern Ireland can be made. Again, as an Northern Ireland MP, I think it is important that we understand what the implications are and how the process will work for us.

I wish to refer to new clause 4 and also to new clause 29, which was tabled by the shadow Minister and which seems to be a perfectly amenable suggestion. I very much welcome the Minister’s commitment in his opening speech to address the issue of fuel prices. A number of right hon. and hon. Members have referred to that matter. Clearly, there is something wrong if the fuel price on one side of Newtownards in my constituency is different from that on the other side, but it is even more wrong if one of the major stores has a price at a certain level, yet further up the road that same store has a different price. It really is quite hard to comprehend how that can happen.

I wish to highlight the subscriptions issue, which many Members have referred to today. I have been made aware of two examples that I wish to put on the record in Hansard. I believe that these issues are being addressed. The Minister referred to that in his opening speech. The fact is that we are now living in an online world. I am afraid that I am not one of those who can do that—I make that admission here in this Chamber—but most people are involved in that world. It is a world where there is almost always an opportunity for subscription payments. Even newspapers now offer an online subscription service to get premium access to certain articles. These services are good if they are used correctly.

I heard a story from one of my members of staff. One of her subscriptions was with an online clothing company, which charged £50 a month for her to get access to clothes at a significantly cheaper rate. At the start of the month, for four days only, there is an opportunity to skip the month and not pay the £50 payment. The issue, quite simply, is that if people forget to skip the month, they are charged that £50. There is something wrong with that. No reminder is sent by the company, so this is a smart way for companies to make more money, as being forgetful is a human error. Again, I am keen to get the Minister’s ideas on whether this legislation address that issue.

Prompts and reminders are a key aspect of the clauses on subscriptions. The Government estimate that subscription contracts cost consumers £1.6 billion a year. I am pleased that the Bill will put a requirement on businesses to send reminder notices to consumers if a subscription is due for renewal. There are some good things in the Bill, including on automatic renewal subscriptions.

Another issue is that, with many companies, there is no way to cancel a subscription online. I referred to this matter briefly in my intervention on the Minister at the start of the debate. Such a cancellation must be done over the phone. Some constituents have told me that the phone process can be frustratingly long, as it can take hours to get through to the call handler. It is a bit like when we phone Departments on behalf of people. Unless someone phones through to a Minister’s office, they join a queue that can take five, 10 or 15 minutes—even when it is an MP.

Many phone lines are open only from 9 am to 5 pm, Monday to Friday. Where does that leave consumers who work full time and who may not be available during the day to seek the answers that they need? Their only free time might be at weekends. I know that the Minister always responds to our questions, which I and many others greatly appreciate, so I would be interested to hear what he thinks.

To conclude, I am pleased that the Bill addresses so many of the issues that our constituents experience, but these matters must continue to be highlighted. I think we have all mentioned some examples. I ask the Minister to engage regionally with Northern Ireland Departments to ensure that the laws around consumer rights apply to Northern Ireland at the same time as they do to the mainland. I look forward to hearing about that in due course, and also about how we can all take advantage equally of the issues that have been raised in the House tonight, so that across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, we can all be equal citizens—equal under the law and equally subject to the law.

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade) 8:30, 20 November 2023

I thank right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions to the debate and for their ongoing engagement.

First, let me speak to the amendments tabled by Alex Davies-Jones, who has thoroughly enjoyed our engagements over the weeks that we have been studying the Bill. New clause 29 would impose a requirement on traders to ask their customers whether they want their subscription to renew automatically every six months when they sign up to a subscription contract. If they do not choose this auto-renewal option, the contract would end after six months, unless the customer expressly asked for it to continue. New clause 30 would apply equivalent requirements to contracts that renew automatically after a free or low-cost trial.

The Government agree that consumers must be protected from getting trapped in unwanted subscriptions. However, we do not think the new clauses would deliver this in the right way, and such an approach could end up inconveniencing many consumers. For example, if a consumer had not initially opted into an auto-renewing contract, but later decided that they wanted to keep the subscription, they would have to repeatedly communicate that they wanted to continue their subscription or risk its unintentionally lapsing. That risk could be multiplied across each subscription they held.

The new clauses would also impose undue additional costs on businesses. As my right hon. Friend Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg rightly stated, all regulatory costs end up being borne by consumers, so we must approach regulation with extreme care. The Government’s approach strikes the balance of protecting consumers without compromising the benefits of rolling subscriptions and the convenience they provide.

On amendment 225, the Government recently consulted on tackling the practice of drip pricing, and we will shortly set out the next steps, following an assessment of the responses. It would be premature to amend the Bill in advance of that.

Turning to my hon. Friend John Penrose, I agree with the instincts behind his ideas to control the costs of red tape and regulatory burdens in new clause 31, and with many of the points made about this issue in his Government-commissioned report on competition policy and the subsequent 18-month update that he published. I suggest that together, we can do better than what is set out in the new clause. He too knows that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset said, all regulations are ultimately paid for by consumers. It is absolutely right that we look to minimise regulation and that we also recognise that the best form of regulation is competition, which is what we are here to promote.

In his “Power To The People” report, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare recommends a one in, two out solution. It will be interesting to see where we can go with that. Everybody, certainly on the Government Benches, is concerned about regulation and the increasing burden on businesses. However, if we look at some of the regulations that we imposed on business in 2021-22—this is from “Better Regulation: Government’s Annual Report”—significant regulations were put in place covering things such as making our telecommunications more secure against foreign actors, climate-related financial disclosures and making homes more efficient, which I think most people would acknowledge we should do, as well as sanctions against Russian oligarchs and the rest. Those regulations are not necessarily the burdens that many Members might consider them to be.

When we look at regulation, we have to decide what is the right thing to do—the right things to leave, the right things to take out and the right things to amend. We have made a start by updating the better regulation framework, with earlier scrutiny of regulatory proposals by the Regulatory Policy Committee so that its advice can be applied before a legislative solution has been settled on. The updated framework focuses on designing the least burdensome policies, avoiding regulation completely where possible, and minimising costs and administrative burdens where regulation is required. In parallel to our call for evidence and forthcoming consultations, we are seeking to change the culture of regulation in the UK to be more pro-growth and business friendly.

New clause 31 proposes some important further measures. It would create much stronger accountability for any future Government who failed to control red tape costs properly. It would plug an important historical loophole by including economic regulators in the better regulation framework, and it would provide extra independence for the accountancy sector in reporting on changes in regulatory burdens, so that Governments cannot be accused of marking their own homework, as my hon. Friend puts it. However, the new clause is constrained by the scope of the Bill, so it cannot plug all the historical gaps in the better regulation framework, and it makes the CMA a successor to the RPC, when there may be better ways to ensure enhanced independence.

As a result, I would suggest a better alternative approach. Any regime should recognise the economic benefits as well as costs of any changes to regulation. Accounting for them is complex: some are indirect, some are externalities and some take years to manifest or come to fruition. Individual regulators should take responsibility for reporting on their activities, including what they have done to support the growth of the businesses they regulate, as well as what additional burdens they have created or removed, and why. In each case, I agree that we will need to establish targets and metrics to monitor the success of our regulators and of Government Departments in promoting growth.

There are a few legitimate exceptions from the RPC’s scrutiny process, such as urgent or civil emergency measures, but that should not mean whole areas of the economy are exempt from its scrutiny, otherwise we would leave loopholes that mean costs are still not scrutinised and potential benefits are ignored.

Although the RPC is already an independent scrutiny body, I agree that we should find ways to ensure even stronger and more independent measurement and reporting of changes in regulatory benefits and burdens, without assuming that the best or only answer is for the CMA to take over this function, as the new clause proposes. Finally, there must be stronger accountability than at present for any Government who fail to control regulatory burdens properly.

Although we do not think it is right to accept the new clause as it stands, I accept and agree with many of the things it tries to achieve. I therefore invite my hon. Friend to work with officials and me to develop a better, stronger way of achieving his four aims through a mixture of potential Government amendments to the Bill and other measures or statements of Government policy to be released publicly before Royal Assent, where the changes fall outside the Bill’s scope. I hope these proposals are acceptable and that he will not press the new clause.

Amendment 228, which was tabled by Richard Thomson, seeks to exclude lottery tickets purchased from non-commercial society lotteries from the scope of the provisions on subscription contracts. We agree with him on this, which is why we tabled a Government amendment to that effect. I thank him for his contribution.

New clause 24, which was tabled by my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Robert Buckland, would require the Secretary of State to commission a review of the Competition Appeal Tribunal’s processes, independent of the CMA and the DMU. I am grateful for his focus on this important matter and for the legal knowledge he brings to bear.

The Competition Appeal Tribunal Rules 2015, which set out the tribunal’s procedures, require the Secretary of State to carry out a regular review of the rules and to publish their conclusions, which last happened in April 2022. New clause 24 would unnecessarily duplicate this work.

Turning to new clause 25, the CMA’s overarching objective is to promote competition for the benefit of consumers, and this must shape the design of its interventions and how it prioritises its work. A consumer duty would overlap with that objective and is, in our view, unnecessary.

New clause 26 would extend the right to seek damages at the Competition Appeal Tribunal to all infringements of part 4. The Bill already provides for consumer redress in respect of some provisions of part 4. Additionally, the private redress provisions in part 3 include the power for public enforcers to seek enhanced consumer measures, including financial redress for consumers.

Amendment 210 would reduce the frequency with which a trader must send reminder notices. We share the intention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon to ensure that businesses and consumers are not overburdened by reminder notices. However, we believe that this amendment would negatively impact consumers by increasing the risk that they end up paying longer for unwanted subscriptions. We think that requiring traders to send reminders every six months strikes the right balance.

Amendment 211 would create a new power for the Secretary of State to make reasonable provision relating to the content and timing of reminder notices. Amendments 212 and 213 would then remove existing provisions relating to such matters from clause 252 and schedule 20. As my right hon. and learned Friend recognises, we have tabled an amendment that provides a power to amend these details through regulations, enabling the Government to respond should evidence of consumer behaviour or operational practice indicate that adjustments are necessary.

Amendments 214 to 217 would remove requirements that are designed to ensure traders provide easy and accessible means for consumers to end their subscription contracts. Instead, principles would be set out to guide the arrangements put in place by traders, and relevant provisions would be made in secondary legislation. The Government are committed to ensuring that consumers are not hindered when trying to leave a subscription contract or when trying to stop a subscription renewing—Jim Shannon also raised that point. That is the objective behind these provisions, and it is vital that they remain in the Bill. It is also critical that consumers have flexibility when ending their contract, rather than businesses dictating the communication channel, such as a phone cancellation only. We appreciate that any communication to end a contract must be sufficiently clear to a business, as is underlined by Government amendment 102. That amendment makes it clear that the onus is on the consumer to prove that their communication was sufficiently clear.

Amendments 219 to 222 would remove the mandatory cooling-off period for subscription contracts. It is important to retain those provisions as they provide essential protections for consumers. The renewal cooling-off period protects consumers who have signed up to trials or longer term contracts. That is particularly important since our consultation showed that many people forget to cancel those subscriptions before they automatically renew. We understand, however, that some businesses are concerned about how the cooling-off period will work in practice, particularly for digital streaming services. This is an important issue to get right, so the Government will publicly consult on the return and refund rules to ensure that they are fair and practical for businesses and consumers. That will include consulting on a waiver of cooling-off rights for some products.

Amendments 223 and 224 would apply a two-year implementation period to the subscription contract provisions in the Bill. The Government fully understand that clarity is important so that businesses know when the new rules will come into effect and can make the appropriate preparations. That is why we will continue to engage with stakeholders to understand the impact of implementing these new rules.

Let me move on to Neil Coyle—he and I have been walking these streets for so long. Amendment 227 would ban in all circumstances the marketing of counterfeit and dangerous products online, which are already offences under current consumer protection and product safety law. The Government are committed to strengthening enforcement of these laws through the reforms in part 3 of the Bill, and recently consulted on a number of proposals in the product safety review.

Amendment 226 would confer on public enforcers the power to require removal of such material from the internet. The Government have consulted on this issue, with proposals to extend the power to apply for online interface orders to all public enforcers. The Government will publish their response shortly. Finally, the public safety review includes proposals specifically aimed at tackling the sale of unsafe goods online. We will publish a response in due course.

The amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg seeks to add further anti-discrimination laws related to payment account provisions. The Government have been clear about the importance of protecting lawful free speech. It is unacceptable for banks and payment service providers to discriminate on the basis of lawfully held political views, and others such as pawnbrokers, as he mentioned. Consequently, the Government support the spirit of the amendment, but do not believe that it is necessary, principally because the Government have taken significant action to build on existing protections to resolve this issue since the amendment was tabled.

On 2 October, the Chancellor committed to amend the threshold conditions that financial services firms must meet in order to be authorised and to consult on how to deliver that. It will ensure that banks uphold their current legal duties, including requirements not to discriminate on the basis of political opinion, therefore ensuring freedom of speech. Safeguards will also be put in place to protect consumers. Banks will be required to put in place safeguards to protect consumer rights, including free speech, and regulators will be required to act when they are not complied with. In addition, the Government announced that the legal notice period for payment service contract terminations will increase to 90 days, and payment service providers will be legally required to give consumers clear, tailored explanations detailing why they closed their accounts.

I thank Mrs Hodgson for all her work on the all-party parliamentary group on ticket abuse. She raised the point about the secondary ticket market. We have taken action in this area; I know she is not content with where we are today, but the CMA has new powers in the Bill to fine businesses up to 10% of turnover, which will include ticket touts. Indeed, it has already taken action against two touts, with confiscation orders of £6.1 million in 2022.

On amendment 207, tabled by Caroline Lucas, enforcers can already take action under the Bill to protect consumers during the transition to net zero. For example, they have powers to tackle misleading green claims. We are already making strong progress towards net zero by 2050. The UK has reduced its emissions further and faster than any other major economy.

On amendment 208, established means have long played an important, cost-effective and proportionate role in tackling and stopping unfair commercial practices. Particularly in the field of misleading advertising, bodies such as the ASA have played a key role in expanding the reach of consumer protection law compliance.

In closing—[Hon. Members: “Hurray!”] I have gone on longer than I would have liked to, but an awful lot of amendments were tabled. In closing, I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will see from the Government’s amendments that we have listened to the concerns raised during the passage of the Bill, and that we are determined that it will deliver better outcomes for consumers and small businesses.

Question put and agreed to.

New clause 7 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.