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 Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Minister (Tech, Gambling and the Digital Economy) 2:00, 20 June 2023

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.