Clause 26 - Power to begin a conduct investigation

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

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Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology) 2:00, 20 June 2023

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.