Digital Economy Bill - Committee (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 8th February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat 4:00 pm, 8th February 2017

My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment 216.

It is common ground that anyone affected by Ofcom’s decisions should have the right to appeal if they consider that Ofcom has got something wrong. Ofcom itself makes the point that there needs to be an appropriate balance between properly holding it to account and enabling it to make timely and effective decisions in the interests of citizens and consumers and the wider UK economy. But in the brief for this debate, it goes on to say that,

“the current merits system for appealing Ofcom’s decisions does not achieve that balance. It results in some appellants effectively asking the courts to become the primary decision-maker in place of Ofcom rather than conduct an appeal which focusses on errors which Ofcom is alleged to have made. This is particularly the case in price control appeals, where appellants have consistently used the system as a second attempt to run arguments they have already made to Ofcom during its extensive consultation processes”.

Those propositions are hotly disputed not only by many telecoms and internet service providers but also by others such as the CBI and techUK. Their position was made clear on this matter as far back as September 2013, when the Government published their summary of stakeholder views on the appeals system.

I will take the House through the fundamentals of Ofcom’s case for the change embodied in Clause 75. First, it says:

“Almost every single decision by Ofcom is promptly appealed in the courts”.

Roughly one in eight decisions have been appealed over the past decade, and this has been declining significantly over the past five years. The potential for merits-based appeals is an incentive for high-quality regulation. Here is another claim:

“This has resulted in lengthy delays in putting through quite important measures”.

Almost invariably, Ofcom’s decisions take effect immediately and stay in place while an appeal is heard. In the case of price controls, no Ofcom decision has ever been delayed in its application while an appeal is heard. Here is another proposition:

“This change will bring Ofcom into line with other regulators”.

Virtually every other economic regulator faces scrutiny of its decisions to establish whether it is in error under regimes not limited to judicial review. I could take your Lordships through energy, water, post, the NHS, aviation, rail, but I will not go into great detail unless I need to respond to the Minister at the end of the debate.

The new approach in Clause 75 would therefore not be in line with almost all other comparable public authorities—that is, the economic regulators. The standard of appeal is not much lower in telecoms than in other sectors. All the UK’s major economic regulators have a form of statutory review that is in law or in practice merits review. All EU telecoms national regulatory authorities make decisions that must stand on their merits.

Here is a further proposition: Clause 75,

“should also free up Ofcom resource to deliver better outcomes for citizens and consumers”.

Far from being good for the consumer, Clause 75 would have denied the court’s ability to implement corrections to bad decisions which have resulted in something like £350 million to £400 million of direct consumer benefit over the past decade. Over a number of cases in the past 10 years—again, I can give the Minister references if he needs them—the tribunal’s decision was that Ofcom’s decision had not gone far enough in the consumer’s favour. This would not have been fixed through judicial review.

A further proposition:

“The big incumbents will no longer be able to use the process to hold-up regulatory decisions through aggressive use of the appeals process”.

Opponents of the change in fact represent the vast majority of the investing industries—small and large, ex-incumbent and insurgent. BT was joined by other industry appellants on most of the cases it appealed. Merits-based appeals work pretty well for SMEs, too, and are disproportionately used by them.

Here is another proposition:

“If material error is present it can be addressed in judicial review”.

Judicial review tests generally relate to illegality, procedural impropriety, irrational behaviour—in other words, has the decision-maker taken leave of their senses? To repeat, JR would have denied consumers benefits of something of the order of £400 million in value. Here is another proposition:

“JRs will be fewer in number and take less time”.

Increased uncertainty for this procedure could be likely to result in an increase in appeals. On average, judicial review takes 10 months from start to finish, versus 11 months on average for a merits appeal. Judicial review requires the decision to go back to the regulator, which can add years to the process, while a merits-based appeal provides powers to the appeals body to fix the problem.

Its final proposition is that:

“Ofcom wins 85% of cases”.

That is rather misleading. Ofcom wins just over 60% of appeals and in the rest it is found to have erred in some material respect. Ofcom’s statistics only tell us that in 15% of cases it lost absolutely every point in an appeal. That is the true 85% figure.

For all the above reasons, the vast majority of telecoms communications providers of the UK’s fastest-growing new fibre networks, the UK’s premier business organisation, the UK’s trade association, providers of internet services and the body which represents the UK’s technology sector, strongly oppose the proposed change. They fear the change will mean that regulation will become unpredictable and prone to risk, with no corrections for inconsistency, error, or lack of rigour in approach.

In summary, a move to judicial review will leave wrong decisions standing. Judicial review, as I said earlier, is solely concerned with whether the decision is unlawful in a technical sense—that is, was the correct process followed? The decision itself is not reviewed. Many decisions that have been found in merits appeals to be clearly wrong and that harm the interests of consumers would have been allowed to stand under judicial review. As I have emphasised above, the existing appeal regime protects the interests of consumers. Ofcom can and does make mistakes, and in the vast majority of cases, these mistakes have meant higher prices for consumers. Correcting those mistakes has delivered benefits of hundreds of millions of pounds.

These amendments steer a different and compromise course. We accept that there may have been some gold-plating of the original framework directive, and have tried to meet some of the criticism through these amendments. Amendment 215 is a direct copy of the European framework directive wording, without any gold-plating. As I have said, this is followed by all other national regulatory authorities in the EU. The tribunal must decide the appeal,

“by reference to the grounds of appeal set out in the notice of appeal and taking due account of the merits of the case”.

This version no longer requires the appeal to be decided on the merits but with “due account” of the merits being taken.

Amendment 216 is an alternative, focused on specific grounds used in appeals in other sectors. The tribunal must decide an appeal by reference to the grounds of appeal set out in the notice of appeal only to the extent that it is satisfied that the decision appealed against was wrong on one or more of the grounds set out in proposed new paragraphs (a) to (f). This version has a narrower scope than the current approach but allows for an assessment of whether the substantive decision is correct, not simply whether the correct decision-making process has been followed.

Clause 75 is a serious change to make to the telecoms regulatory regime. I very much hope that, in the face of these arguments, the Government will change their mind. I beg to move.