Clause 26 - Power to begin a conduct investigation

Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 20 June 2023.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

With this it will be convenient to discuss clauses 27 to 35 stand part.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Clauses 26 to 35 are about the enforcement of conduct requirements. The participative approach within the pro-competition regime means that the digital markets unit will aim to resolve issues with firms with strategic market status without the need for formal enforcement action. Where that is not possible, clause 26 will empower the DMU to investigate suspected breaches of conduct requirements by SMS firms and, where it finds a breach, consider what action can be taken. That is necessary to ensure that SMS firms comply with requirements.

Opening an investigation allows the DMU to make use of the full range of information-gathering powers set out in chapter 6. Where the DMU begins an investigation, certain information must be given via a notice to the SMS firm, and a summary of that notice must be published. Clause 27 will require that before the DMU can make a finding of the breach, it must consider any representations that an SMS firm makes in relation to the conduct investigation.

Clause 28 will allow the DMU to close a conduct investigation at any time without making a finding as to whether a breach has occurred. The DMU will need to explain why it is closing the investigation and account for its decision. That power is needed as it allows the DMU to react to changes during the investigation process. That could be, for example, needing to divert resources to an emerging high-priority competition issue elsewhere.

Clause 29 sets out the countervailing benefits exemption. The DMU’s objective is to promote competition for the benefit of consumers, and that will shape the design of its regulatory interventions, meaning that the DMU will take consumer benefits into account when designing conduct requirements in the first place. However, the inclusion of the countervailing benefits exemption provides a backstop to ensure that, if needed, consumer benefits can be explicitly considered at the enforcement stage, too.

During a conduct investigation, an SMS firm will be able to put forward evidence that its action brings about benefits for consumers that outweigh the potential harm to competition. That will reinforce that consumers are at the heart of the regime. The clause is not about pursuing textbook-perfect economic outcomes; it is about real-world outcomes for consumers.

Clause 30 will place the DMU under a duty to notify an SMS firm of the outcome of a conduct investigation within a six-month investigation period. That will ensure that investigations are executed within reasonable timeframes. That does not apply if the DMU has accepted a voluntary binding commitment from the firm relating to the conduct under investigation, or if the investigation is closed with no findings made. The duty to give a notice to an SMS firm and subsequently publish a summary online is vital to inform the firm under investigation of the outcome and keep relevant parties informed of DMU action.

Clause 31 will give power to the DMU to impose an enforcement order on an SMS firm where it has found a breach of a conduct requirement. Those orders will most often be cease-and-desist orders requiring bad behaviour to stop, but they can also require more complex behavioural changes where that is a more appropriate way to remedy a breach. When imposing or varying an enforcement order, the DMU has a power, rather than a duty, to consult those persons it considers appropriate. That will allow the DMU to consider relevant third-party and SMS representations on proposed enforcement action, while ensuring that enforcement orders requiring the SMS firm to simply stop bad behaviour are not delayed by a requirement to consult.

Clause 32 will grant a power to the DMU to introduce enforcement orders on an interim basis. The DMU needs to be able quickly to address immediate harms that may occur from suspected conduct breaches in order to prevent significant damage, prevent action that would make subsequent remedies ineffective, or protect the public interest. The clause will enable intervention before irreversible change occurs and will ensure that options to restore competition are maintained.

Clause 33 makes provision for the duration of enforcement orders and interim enforcement orders, and for the circumstances in which they cease to have effect. Clause 34 will establish the DMU’s power to revoke an enforcement order, ensuring that the enforcement orders in place remain targeted and proportionate. The DMU needs the flexibility to remove enforcement orders where they are no longer appropriate, so that SMS firms are not subject to unnecessary or inappropriate rules.

Finally, to ensure that enforcement orders are effective, targeted and proportionate, it is important that the DMU considers how they function and whether changes are necessary. Clause 35 will require that the DMU monitors the effectiveness of the enforcement orders in place. That includes assessing whether SMS firms are complying with existing enforcement orders, whether variation of an order is required and whether further enforcement action is needed.

In conclusion, clauses 26 to 35 set out robust enforcement provisions to make sure that the impacts of conduct requirements are realised.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Minister (Tech, Gambling and the Digital Economy)

It is an honour to serve under your chairship this afternoon, Mr Hollobone. With your permission, I will make some brief comments on the clauses, in response to the Minister.

Clause 26 is very welcome. It is an important clause that outlines the circumstances in which the CMA will be able to begin an investigation into a suspected breach of a conduct requirement, more formally referred to in the Bill as a conduct investigation. It is an important and positive addition. For too long, the CMA has not had the legislative teeth to make positive change in our digital markets. Ensuring that it has reasonable and sufficient powers such as those outlined in the clause is central.

Labour particularly welcomes the provisions and thresholds outlined in subsection (1), which make it clear that the decision to begin a conduct investigation will be grounded in empirical evidence, whether from complaints submitted by third parties or from the CMA’s own market studies. None of us wants to see overregulation or businesses stifled, but it is important that when the CMA has reasonable grounds to carry out a breach of conduct requirement, it has the tools available to act swiftly.

We note that subsections (3) and (4) outline the requirement for the CMA to give a notice to the undertaking about the investigation and set out the content required for that notice. We welcome the provisions entirely, as we do the clarification on the period in which a statutory investigation can take place. We think six months is reasonable, and we are pleased to see clarity on when the timeframe can be extended—a matter we will come to later when we address clause 102.

The current wording of subsection (6) states:

“As soon as reasonably practicable after giving a conduct investigation notice, the CMA must publish a statement summarising the contents of the conduct investigation notice.”

Could the Minister clarify exactly where, and to whom, that notice will be published? As I have previously stated in reference to other parts of the Bill, there are some grounds for making that information public, at least to those who request it. We appreciate the market sensitivities, but ultimately it is businesses that will be facing regulation over their digital practices, broadly for the first time, and they deserve access to that information. It will be a valuable tool for learning and best practice.

I will keep my comments on clause 27 brief because I think, or at least hope, that we all agree that it is an important clause that makes sure that the CMA is required to consider representations from the undertaking being investigated before making a decision on whether the undertaking has breached conduct requirements. I am keen to hear from the Minister exactly what sort of information he believes will be appropriate for the CMA to consider. A balanced approach to the regime is critical, but we do not want the CMA’s investigatory powers delayed by big firms who may choose to delay or overwhelm the process in any way. That aside, we support the clause and have not sought to amend it at this stage. Sincere apologies to Committee members for my repetition, but this is a far more collegiate Committee than others I have sat on.

We support clause 28 and its intentions. As we know, the clause provides that the CMA can choose to close a conduct investigation without making a decision about a breach, and sets out the process and timing for giving a notice to the undertaking about the closure and publishing a summary of the notice. We welcome provisions and clarity over this process. The CMA could summarise the contents of the notice provided to the relevant designated undertaking, while allowing it to redact some information for confidentiality purposes. However, we feel that there is a strong argument, once again, for making that information public to anyone who wishes to request a copy.

Labour welcomes the intentions of clause 29, which outlines the procedure that the CMA must follow where a breach of a firm’s conduct requirement results in net benefits for consumers. This is an important clause, and it is vital that we have such an exemption to ensure that the regime does not inadvertently harmfully impact consumers. However, the countervailing benefits exemption must not be drawn too broadly. If the exemption is too broad, SMS firms will be able regularly to avoid conduct requirement compliance by citing security and privacy claims, as well as spamming the CMA with numerous studies, thus diverting its resources, which, as we have discussed, are very precious. This would undermine the entire regime by severely limiting the efficacy and efficiency of the conduct requirements. I therefore wonder whether the Minister has considered including in the Bill an exhaustive or non-exhaustive list of acceptable grounds for exemption.

Broadly speaking, though, Labour welcomes the Government’s approach, which has similarities with the approach taken in the Competition Act 1998. It would be remiss of me not to remind the Minister that that important Act came into being thanks to a Labour Government. The reality is that Labour has always been committed to getting this balance right. We want to support big businesses, while also protecting consumers and encouraging innovation. These principles do not have to be mutually exclusive. That is why we particularly welcome clause 29(2), which sets out the criteria for the exemption, including that the benefits need to be

“to users or potential users of the digital activity in respect of which the conduct requirement in question applies,” and must

“outweigh any actual or likely detrimental impact on competition resulting from a breach of the conduct requirement”.

As we know, some examples of benefits may include lower prices, higher-quality goods or services, or greater innovation in relation to goods or services.

Clause 29 also makes it clear that it must not be possible to realise the benefits without the conduct, which means that the CMA must be satisfied that there is no other reasonable or practical way for the designated undertaking to achieve the same benefits with less anti-competitive effect. That is an important clarification, which is once again a sensible approach that we feel is crucial to getting the balance of this regime right.

Although I know that colleagues will be aware of the example highlighted to us all in the Bill’s explanatory notes about a default internet browser receiving security updates possibly being an exemption, I wonder whether the Minister can give us additional examples of situations in which he would see the clause coming into effect. That aside, we support the intentions of clause 29 and see it as a positive step in terms of putting consumers and common sense first.

We see clause 30 as being fairly procedural, in that it outlines the circumstances in which the CMA must give notice about the findings of a conduct investigation. We are pleased to see that a period of six months has been established; none of us wants to see this process going on unnecessarily. We note, however, that in subsection (1), and in the Bill generally, we truly believe that more transparency is required. As it stands, the Bill is missing an opportunity to afford civil society, academics, businesses and consumers alike the opportunity to learn from the regime and ultimately to improve best practice in our digital markets more widely.

We welcome clause 31. However, we note that subsection (4) specifies information that the enforcement must contain, while subsection (5) requires that the CMA

“may consult such persons as the CMA considers appropriate before making an enforcement order”,

or varying one. Again, the wording is very subtle, but I am most interested to hear from the Minister exactly why the consultation process is a “may” rather than a “must”.

Throughout the Bill in its current form, there appears to be a lack of points for stakeholders to engage with the CMA decisions through consultation. Although the CMA being able to design rules and interventions for each firm could result in more effective remedies, it also increases the risk of regulatory capture, whereby SMS firms write their own rules and get them rubber-stamped by the regulator. That makes proper consultation essential. I would appreciate clarification on that point from the Minister.

Clause 32, as its title suggests, gives the CMA the power to make enforcement orders on an interim basis. This is an important tool to allow the CMA to act rapidly where a potential breach is concerned. It is particularly welcome that subsection (1)(b) lists the circumstances under which interim enforcement orders can be made, and that these are broadly around preventing damage to a person or people, preventing conduct that could reduce the effectiveness of the CMA, or protecting the public interest. It is important for all of us with an interest in the Bill that that is clearly outlined in the Bill, so that is very welcome indeed.

Clause 33 makes provision for enforcement orders and interim enforcement orders to come into force, and outlines the circumstances in which they cease to have effect. We see this clause as, again, a fairly procedural one. We welcome the clarity of subsection (4), which will ultimately enable the CMA to take action against historic breaches. That is imperative, given the pace at which our digital markets and regulated firms can shift. We therefore support the clause and believe that it should stand part of the Bill.

On clause 34, as with previous clauses, there is no need for me to elaborate at great length. In essence, we agree with the clause.

As we know, clause 35 outlines that the CMA must keep the enforcement orders and interim enforcement orders that it has made under review, including whether to vary or revoke them, and also the extent to which undertakings are complying with them and whether further enforcement action needs to be taken. This is an incredibly important point. The CMA must review its own homework, as we expect all regulators to do. However, I wonder what assessment the Minister has made of making those reviews public. The CMA must have a degree of accountability, particularly to Parliament. We feel that that is somewhat lacking in the Bill as it stands.

More widely, that points to the lack of opportunities for stakeholders to engage with the CMA and its decisions through consultation, as I have previously said. This is a significant problem, given the nature of the regime. On the one hand, the flexibility and agency that the DMU has to tailor its regulatory approach depending on the nature of the firm should allow it to design more effective remedies. On the other, it increases the danger of regulatory capture by SMS firms. I would appreciate the Minister clarifying that point so that we get this right.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology) 2:15, 20 June 2023

The publication of notices will be online. The reason that there will be two separate versions is that one might be redacted, for example for things like commercial sensitivity, but it is right that the SMS firm understands the full reasons. Beyond that redaction, there will be one separate online publication for people to see, including the challenger firms themselves.

The hon. Lady spoke about the length of time. The DMU will decide the length of the period during which an SMS firm can make representations, because it will vary from case to case. It is not for us to set an arbitrary timeline, because some will be comparatively simple and others will be incredibly complex and technical. That will ensure that the DMU can run investigations efficiently, without unnecessary delays due to late representations, but the DMU has to tell the SMS firm in the notice opening the investigation about the length of the period.

The implementation of any conduct requirements will be preceded by a public consultation, alongside ongoing engagement between the SMS firm and the DMU about compliance with those requirements as part of the regime’s participative approach. However, there is no statutory requirement to consult on enforcement orders, because we are giving the DMU the discretion to consult where appropriate. Requiring consultation would not be proportionate for straightforward cease-and-desist orders, for example. Such orders, which we expect to be the majority of orders made, simply require firms to stop breaching the original conduct requirement that has already been consulted on, meaning that undertaking a consultation would be unnecessary.

That is where we are coming from on that—there is no deeper reason beyond ensuring that we can keep things proportionate for all sides. Third parties with a view or with evidence will be able to communicate those to the DMU during the conduct investigation itself, or once the enforcement order statement is published.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 26 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 27 to 35 ordered to stand part of the Bill.