Amendment 1

Part of Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill - Report (1st Day) – in the House of Lords at 4:15 pm on 11 March 2024.

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Photo of Baroness Kidron Baroness Kidron Crossbench 4:15, 11 March 2024

My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 43, 44, 46, 51 and 52, to which I have added my name, and Amendment 59. Before I do, I register my support for Amendments 13 and 35, which were brilliantly set out by my noble friend Lord Faulks and added to by others. I too shall support them if they choose to ask the opinion of the House.

I also support Amendment 56 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lansley. I have lived experience of waiting too long for the code to come back from the Secretary of State. Even without being a bad actor, it is in the nature of Secretaries of State to have a burgeoning in-tray, and it is in the nature of codes to be on a subject that politicians have moved on from by the time they arrive. I fully support him, and 40 days seems like a modest ask given the importance of the Bill overall.

I turn to the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. I look forward to her setting them out after I have supported them. They would reinstate judicial review as the appeal standard for penalty decisions. I thank the Minister for the generosity of his time; I know he spoke not only to me but to a number of noble Lords. However, the thing I have taken away from discussions with government and during Committee is the persistent drumbeat that asserts that we are giving huge new and untested powers to the CMA. Here, we can fill in as we like: full merits on penalty, countervailing benefits, proportionality, and Secretary of State powers have been introduced simply to give a little balance. I find that unacceptable given the power of the companies and the asymmetry we are trying to address.

The reality is that the powers given to the CMA, while much needed, are dwarfed by the power of the companies they seek to regulate. The resources available to the CMA, while welcome, are dwarfed by the resources available to a single brand of a single SMS. Most of all, the CMA’s experience of regulating digital companies is dwarfed by the experience of digital companies in dodging regulation. I am struggling to understand the imbalance of power that the Government are seeking to address.

I was in Brussels on Wednesday last week and there is a certain regret about the balancing that the EU allowed to the DMA in face of the tech lobby, only to see Apple, TikTok and Meta gleefully heading to the courts and snarling up the possibility of being regulated as intended for many years—or perhaps at all. This issue was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Black. Adding a full merits appeal on penalty will embolden the sector to use the threat of appeal to negotiate their position at earlier points in the process. It will undermine the regulator’s strength in coming to a decision. Very possibly, as other noble Lords have said, it could bleed backwards into areas of compliance and conduct requirements. It is, as the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, said, creating a hole for water to get in. The companies lobbied furiously for full merits on penalties. This is not an administrative point; it goes to the heart of the regime. Full merits give the regulated leverage over the regulator.

The most straightforward way of ensuring that the regulator does not abuse its new, enhanced power, as the Government appear to fear, is to make it accountable to Parliament, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, set out in full, repeatedly and with great eloquence. I am sorry that we will not have an opportunity to make our feelings on that issue felt today, but I strongly support her saying that we should not drop this issue just because it is inconvenient to deal with at this point in the electoral cycle.

If I had been quicker off the mark, I would have added my name to Amendment 59, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. This would give the CMA a duty to further the interest of citizens as well as consumers. I am deeply concerned that, across all Bills in this policy area, the Government are failing to raise their gaze to the future. We can take one certainty from the last decade or two: what may be okay for today’s consumer may not be okay for tomorrow’s citizen. We have seen this in the past when a decade and a half of untrammelled exploitation of children by social media companies was allowed. We will see it in the near future, as the battle for the water and energy needed for large computational models hots up. Neither the market nor the business model is yet a settled fact, and AI will certainly change the gatekeepers and the market hugely. Adding “citizen” would allow the CMA to take a more sophisticated approach to market analysis. It protects the UK public, many of whom are impacted by these markets even when not directly engaging.