Amendment 136

United Kingdom Internal Market Bill - Committee (3rd Day) – in the House of Lords at 10:30 pm on 2nd November 2020.

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Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town:

Moved by Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town

136: Clause 31, page 23, line 19, after “operation” insert “for the benefit of consumers”

Photo of Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Labour), Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Charities), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office, Constitutional and Devolved issues) , Shadow Spokesperson (Wales)

My Lords, I shall speak also to the other amendments in this group that are tabled in my name. I would have thought that it is clear by now, in particular to those noble Lords who have sat through all three days of our debates in Committee, that I think it is really important that, as we look at how the internal market is working, we need to include consideration of how it impacts on consumers.

For example, the first of these amendments would ensure that where the CMA reviews the effective operation of the market, it would measure how well it was serving consumers. Similarly, in Amendment 139, its annual report should include the impact of the internal market on consumers. In Amendment 142 it should look at the prices, quality of goods and services, and choice for consumers, in addition to the volume of trade between the four parts of the union.

We do not want trade to go rocketing up if it simply means monopolies are growing and choice diminishing, nor simply a rush of goods of shoddy quality, or services that offer no standards and no redress. These amendments do not mean the consumer impact trumps everything else, but that it must be considered in the mix in any report so that decision-makers have the full picture at all times.

Incidentally, the wording in Amendment 142 is a straight lift from Clause 32(4)(c), so it is not particularly innovative, nor surprising to the drafters. It is just saying that if you look at how the internal market is working it must not be just by volumes of trade; it must take into account the various aspects of how a consumer would measure whether the market was serving their needs. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I do not need to say a lot in this group because I have already made it clear that I consider transparency an important part of consumer protection and the way to find out whether consumer interests have been looked after. My Amendment 138 to Clause 31 relates to the provision where any person may request a report, which the CMA can then choose to undertake. My amendment would take away the optionality of publishing the report and says that it must be published.

The Minister said in connection with Administrations that such transparency may prevent forthright exchanges. In this location, it is not advice about regulation that comes under other clauses. This is a general case and if it is reporting—for example, opining on what is or is not a subsidy, discrimination or any of the other matters on which it could be consulted—then the opinions form a body of information that should be publicly available. I would concede safeguards, but they are there anyway in Clause 36 about reports under Part 4. However, I think that the wording should reflect the presumption of publication.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, has also tabled amendments about consumer protection. While I have been a bit picky at times or uncertain whether it is the right thing to qualify the internal market with reference to any sector, what she said about consumer protection having to be in the mix is right. Certainly, Amendments 139, 140 and 142 are in the right places to establish that point.

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, the noble Baronesses, Lady Noakes, Lady Jones and Lady Neville-Rolfe, and the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, have all withdrawn so I now call the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist.

Photo of Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I start by trying to reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, that we do not wish to see monopolies increasing and choice and quality declining either.

Amendments 136, 139, 140 and 142 aim to give the monitoring and reporting obligations of the office for the internal market a specific focus on the interests of consumers. Clause 31 enables the office for the internal market within the Competition and Markets Authority to operate general and periodic reporting and monitoring to assess the effective operation of the UK internal market and Parts 1 and 3 of the Bill, including how it operates for consumers. These amendments would limit this function to assessing the operation of the market as it affects consumers.

The role of the office for the internal market is to monitor the health of the UK internal market, including specific regulations, sectors and nations. Moving to a narrower definition of the assessment criteria of Clause 31, from the outset, would hinder its effectiveness in fully delivering this function.

To appreciate this, it is worth setting out the breadth of the areas of monitoring that are in scope. They include emerging trends and developments in the UK internal market, cross-border competition, the nature and level of trade between different parts of the UK and access to goods, services and trade. Monitoring may be undertaken independently by the CMA or upon request by other parties such as the UK Government and the devolved Administrations. Proposals can be submitted to review specific sectors relating to the UK internal market.

In doing its work, the office for the internal market will naturally be able to gather information from consumers, businesses and public bodies. Clause 32(4) also specifies that its advice and reporting can involve consideration of the impact of new regulatory proposals on the pricing, quality and choice of goods and on services for consumers. The interests of consumers are therefore an important concern which is already laid out for the office for the internal market when undertaking its monitoring and reporting functions. So, I can assure your Lordships that it will take into account consumer interests in undertaking its wide monitoring and reporting functions and there is no need for a specific reference to this in Clause 31.

Amendment 138 aims to impose an additional requirement in Clause 31 that reporting on reviews which the CMA undertakes of its own initiative or following a request under subsection (1) on matters relevant to the effective working of the UK internal market must be published. Clause 31(4) already requires that all reports the Competition and Markets Authority produces on matters in subsection (1) be published. Clause 32(10), Clause 33(6)(b) and Clause 34(10) also require publication of the reports on the operation of the UK internal market referred to in those clauses as soon as reasonably practicable. In light of this reasoning, I trust that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, will be assured that the amendments are unnecessary and that the amendment moved should be withdrawn. We are already doing a lot of background thinking on consumer protections; it is not a closed issue.

Photo of Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Labour), Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Charities), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office, Constitutional and Devolved issues) , Shadow Spokesperson (Wales)

I thank the Minister for that reply and particularly for her last few words about ongoing consideration. If these debates feed into that consideration, we will not all have stayed up late for nothing.

I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, for her support. I have not looked at the exact wording or at whether what the Minister said is right, but what the noble Baroness said about transparency is important. Because it is very difficult for individual consumers to take up these big questions, transparency is really important for their advocates—that is, consumer representatives—who are often very underrepresented on all these committees. Transparency is particularly important for those who, from the outside, are trying to ask questions about choice, redress, standards, quality and so on. I hope that those who are thinking about that issue will hear some of the arguments we have made. If they influence the sort of questions that are posed, we will put one little tick there, but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Will this be better for consumers when we have the market going? For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 136 withdrawn.

Amendments 137 to 142 not moved.

Clause 31 agreed.

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

We now come to the group consisting of Amendment 143. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate and anyone wishing to press this amendment to a Division should make that clear in debate.