Clause 69 - Power of access

Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 pm on 22 June 2023.

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Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology) 12:00, 22 June 2023

I beg to move amendment 13, in clause 69, page 39, line 18, after “access” insert “business”.

This amendment limits the power of the CMA to require access to premises so that it may be used only in relation to business premises.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments 14 to 24.

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

Government amendments 13 to 24 remove possible ambiguities about the scope of the power of access, and of a firm’s duty to co-operate with a skilled person, so that they are aligned with similar Digital Markets Unit information-gathering tools. Clause 69 allows the DMU to require firm-led tests or demonstrations under the DMU’s supervision. That backstop power of access will be available when a strategic market status firm fails to comply with an information notice or with the duty to assist a skilled person. Clause 77 introduces a power for the DMU to appoint a skilled person to produce a report on an aspect of an SMS firm, or a firm subject to an SMS assessment. There will be a duty on the firm to co-operate with the skilled person, including by giving them access to their premises.

These essential clauses ensure that the DMU has the right powers, but it is important to ensure that those powers are proportionate and appropriately constrained. Government amendments 13 and 16 limit the DMU’s power of access to business premises, rather than allowing access to all premises. That ensures that the power cannot be interpreted as allowing access to domestic premises and maintains consistency with the restrictions on the DMU’s powers of entry. Government amendments 17 to 20 and 22 are consequential.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

The Minister will have heard the witnesses last week, including witnesses from trading standards. Will the amendments in this grouping be replicated to address the concerns of trading standards and ensure equivalence across the regulatory powers?

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

We listened to the evidence and considered that, and we will reflect on that in our further consideration of the Bill. It was interesting to hear the evidence last week.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

Is the Minister suggesting that the equivalent powers to access information, which were specifically addressed last week by trading standards representatives, will be covered by this legislation?

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

I am saying that the amendments that we are discussing in this grouping are specifically about domestic and business premises. I am just keeping to the narrow scope of the amendments. As for the wider evidence that we heard last week, we will clearly reflect on that and work out any other parts of the legislation; I was being really specific about what these amendments do.

Government amendment 21 limits a firm’s duty to give access to a skilled person, so that it is access to business premises only, to ensure consistency with other DMU and wider CMA investigatory powers. Government amendment 14 to clause 69 limits the power of the DMU to access persons to a power to access individuals, and Government amendment 23 limits the firm’s duty to assist a skilled person to a duty to assist a skilled individual. Those changes clarify the scope of the power and the duty, as a person includes a legal person, such as a company. The clauses already specify that the DMU or skilled person can require access to a designated firm’s premises, equipment, services and information. Limiting access to individuals—or natural persons—is a more accurate reflection of the policy intention of the clauses.

Finally, Government amendments 15 and 24 clarify that the DMU may access individuals or business premises only in the UK, and similarly that a firm’s duty to assist a skilled person by giving them access applies only to individuals and business premises in the UK. The DMU’s powers of entry allow entry to domestic premises only under a warrant, under clause 73. Its interview and entry powers may also be exercised only in respect of individuals and premises in the UK. Government amendments 13 to 24 will preserve those important limits on the DMU’s powers and ensure consistency across the DMU’s information-gathering toolkit.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

I am hoping for clarity. I think there were attempts to get information to the Minister when I intervened before. Last week, trading standards specifically asked for the powers that are being discussed in these amendments. I appreciate that this grouping is for a different regulatory body, but does the Minister aim to set up equivalence for regulatory bodies, or is the new body to have greater powers than an existing body with a similar purpose?

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

I am trying to remain specific, rather than widening the discussion to other regulatory issues, because the provisions must be specific to the matter that we are discussing; I think I am correct in saying that. Effectively, this grouping tries to narrow down the enforcement powers; it clarifies that they relate to business premises, and apply within the UK, rather than extraterritorially. That is why I hope that hon. Members will support these Government amendments.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Minister (Tech, Gambling and the Digital Economy) 12:15, 22 June 2023

The Opposition believe that clause 69 is crucial to the Government’s policy objective of empowering the Competition and Markets Authority, and ensuring that it can enforce its regime and proactively address the root causes of competition issues in digital markets.

The clause builds on clause 68 and gives the CMA the power to require a designated undertaking to obtain, generate, collect or retain specified information or to conduct a specified demonstration or test of a business system or process under the supervision of the CMA. Specifically, the power can be exercised when the designated undertaking has failed to comply with a previous request for information under an information notice or to provide sufficient assistance to a skilled person. We welcome those provisions. We also welcome the clarity provided by the clause about when the CMA can use the powers, which is when companies have failed to comply with other requirements. None of us wants the CMA to take an overly heavy-handed approach, but it must be compelled and empowered to act where necessary.

We understand that the powers in subsections (2) and (3) will be used rarely, but it is important that they be in the Bill. They are also an important step in ensuring that big strategic market status firms, which for too long have gone unregulated, cannot bypass the regime by concealing information or operating systems. It is vital that the Government do not give in here, so I urge the Minister to ensure that they do not. I imagine that there is heavy pressure from firms that will be captured by the provisions, but the Government must not cave in or weaken this regime; I hope the Minister can reassure us that they will not. That being said, we welcome the clause and have not sought to amend it at this stage.

Government amendments 13 and 14 clarify that the CMA’s access rights will be used only in relation to business premises. We see that as appropriate. Government amendments 15 to 23 are technical changes that we are happy to support. Government amendment 24 is an important clarification that limits duties to inside the UK, which again is a sensible inclusion that Labour supports.

Mr Hollobone, would you like me to discuss clause 70, or finish there?

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

We will wait for that treat.

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

To answer the one easier question that the hon. Lady asked, I can assure her that we will not weaken the provisions.

Amendment 13 agreed to.

Amendments made: 14, in clause 69, page 39, line 18, leave out “persons” and insert “individuals”.

This amendment limits the power of the CMA to require access to persons so that it may be used only in relation to persons who are individuals.

Amendment 15, in clause 69, page 39, line 33, at end insert—

“(5) The powers conferred by this section are not exercisable in relation to premises, equipment or individuals outside the United Kingdom.

(6) But the powers conferred by this section are exercisable in relation to information and services whether stored or provided within or outside the United Kingdom.”

This amendment limits the power of the CMA to require access to premises, equipment or individuals so that it may not be used to require access to premises, equipment or individuals outside the United Kingdom.

Amendment 16, in clause 69, page 39, line 33, at end insert—

“(7) In this Chapter, ‘business premises’ means premises (or any part of premises) not used as a dwelling.”—

This amendment is consequential on Amendment 13 and moves the definition of “business premises” from clause 72 to clause 69.

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

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

With this it will be convenient to discuss clauses 70 to 76 stand part.

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

Clause 69 is a backstop power enabling the Digital Markets Unit to supervise firm-led tests and demonstrations, either at a firm’s premises or remotely. It will be available only in limited cases in which an SMS firm has not complied with an information notice or a duty to assist a skilled person. It provides an efficient way for the DMU to get the information that it needs without placing an undue burden on firms.

Clause 70 allows the DMU to require an interview with any individual in the UK with information relevant to a digital markets investigation. That will enable the DMU to gather vital evidence that is held by individuals with relevant knowledge, rather than in digital or physical forms. Clause 71 protects individuals who are compelled to give testimony under clause 70 from self-incrimination. It limits the circumstances in which the DMU can use an individual’s interview statement as evidence against them in a criminal prosecution. Clause 72 allows the DMU to enter business premises without a warrant for the purposes of a breach investigation. It ensures that the DMU can collect information that is being withheld by an SMS firm that is accessible only on the premises. Without that power, there would be greater risk that a firm could destroy or interfere with material relevant to an investigation.

Clause 73 allows the DMU to enter business and domestic premises for the purposes of a breach investigation, after obtaining a warrant from the High Court, Court of Session or Competition Appeal Tribunal. The DMU must also establish that a firm has failed to comply with previous information requests, or that no other powers would secure the necessary evidence, and establish reasonable suspicion that the information is relevant to the investigation. Clause 74 contains supplementary requirements for how the DMU must exercise its power to enter premises under a warrant. It also clarifies the extraterritorial scope of that power. The DMU will not be able to enter premises outside the United Kingdom under clause 73, but it can access information regardless of where it is physically stored.

Clause 75 allows the DMU to take copies of, or extracts from, information and sift it off site when exercising its power to enter either business or domestic premises under a warrant, if it is unsure whether the information falls within the scope of the investigation. Clause 76 ensures that the DMU follows established judicial procedures when applying for a warrant to enter premises. It requires the DMU to follow the rules of the High Court, Court of Session or Competition Appeal Tribunal; that provides vital checks and balances.

These clauses are largely modelled on the CMA’s existing information-gathering powers, and they will be subject to the same robust safeguards. They also give the DMU new powers to scrutinise the output of algorithms in clause 69, and enhanced powers in clause 73 to access information that is stored on remote servers but accessible over the internet. It is important to recognise that without those powers, the DMU’s interventions would not be well evidenced or enforceable.

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

I was champing at the bit to talk about these clauses. However, I will keep my comments brief because much of Labour’s thoughts align with our thoughts on previous clauses.

Clause 70 gives the CMA the power to require any individual to attend an interview and answer questions for the purposes of a digital markets investigation. That is consistent with the amendments to section 26A of the Competition Act 1998. We welcome those, so it is only right that the powers appear in this legislation, too. These are basic powers and the clause is fairly procedural. The CMA must have the power to give notice to any individual with information relevant to a digital markets investigation, requiring them to answer relevant questions at a place or in a manner specified in the notice. That is fundamental for an empowered regulator. We support the approach, so we have not sought to amend the clause at this stage. We also support the intentions of clause 71, and we believe that the approach is fair and reasonable. The clause is important for clarity. We welcome its inclusion in the Bill and we have not sought to amend it at this stage.

Turning to clause 72, it is right and proper that the CMA must have reasonable grounds to suspect that information relevant to the breach investigation can be accessed from or on the premises. We support that common- sense approach. The provisions are in line with those for other regimes, and will be important in ensuring that if the CMA is required take action for the purposes of a breach investigation, it can do so in a timely and effective manner. We support the clause and have not sought to amend it.

We also support the intentions of clause 73, which gives the CMA the power to enter business and domestic premises under a warrant, without notice and using reasonable force, for the purposes of a breach investigation. Again, the CMA has powers of entry under a warrant through sections 28 and 28A of the Competition Act 1998. It will come as no surprise, given that we support provisions for the CMA to act without a warrant, that we agree that it should be able to act with one. We value the clarification that the CMA must prove that there are reasonable grounds to act. If it has to, it can call on individuals who have expertise that is not available in the CMA but is required if the terms of the warrant are to be fully carried out. That will allow the CMA to act rapidly, which, given the level of these breaches, is vital. We therefore support this clause standing part of the Bill.

Clause 74 sets out the supplementary requirements to the CMA’s power to enter premises under a warrant. We welcome the transparency afforded by subsection (1), and the clarification that although the CMA cannot enter premises outside the United Kingdom, as outlined in subsection (6), it can access information regardless of where it is physically stored. That is an important point, given the nature of SMS firms and their global holdings. For those reasons, Labour is happy to support the clause standing part of the Bill.

Clause 75 makes necessary amendments to a range of sections of the Criminal and Justice and Police Act 2001 to enable the CMA to seize information and take copies of, or extracts from, information when exercising its power under clause 73 to enter business and domestic premises with a warrant. It is a practical clause that aligns with the CMA’s power to seize documents from business premises under section 28 of the Competition Act 1998. We therefore believe that the clause should stand part of the Bill.

Clause 76 requires the CMA to follow the rules of the High Court, the Court of Session or the CAT when making an application. We see it as a natural consequential clause and will therefore support it.

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

May I make one additional comment? We received evidence from trading standards about their access to information that could be stored online in order for them to undertake some of their responsibilities. Has any consideration been given to whether the search powers that the CMA will be given could be extended to trading standards, which sometimes undertake very similar areas of work?

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

I note that if there were a word cloud of comments from the hon. Member for Pontypridd, “We are not amending at this stage” would be quite high up. Duly noted.

On the matter raised by the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston, I will write to her with more detail, because I think we are talking about two different regimes across two different Departments. I do not want to pre-empt what my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton may do with trading standards. These provisions relate specifically to CMA powers, which is why I am remaining in that narrow tramline. I will write to the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston about the wider trading standards regime.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 69, as amended, accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 70 and 71 ordered to stand part of the Bill.