Penrose Review: UK Competition and Consumer Policy — [Clive Efford in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 8th March 2022.

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Photo of John Penrose John Penrose Conservative, Weston-Super-Mare 2:30 pm, 8th March 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered UK competition and consumer policy in response to the Penrose review.

It is good to have you looking after us, Mr Efford, to ensure that we do not misbehave during the course of the debate. It is good to see you in the Chair.

Just over a year ago, I was commissioned to write a report by the Treasury and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. It came out almost exactly a year ago and it is called, “Power To The People”. It is about competition policy and was produced at the request of the Government. A year after publication, I thought it was reasonably sensible to think that we might want to have a look at what has happened as a result of my recommendations—which ones have happened and which ones have not—hoping perhaps to goad, tease or otherwise persuade my hon. Friend the Minister to be as indiscreet as he possibly can be about what might happen in future, to fill in any gaps, and discuss the recommendations that have not yet taken place.

I will summarise briefly progress on implementing some of the recommendations in the report in the intervening year and I will focus fairly straightforwardly on the things that have not happened yet, so that the Minister has a text from which to work—if I may put it that way—and on the gaps that remain. To be fair, although I do not want to overclaim on this, it is true to say that there has been a reasonable amount of progress across Government on some of the recommendations in my report.

For example, there have been a series of consultations and commitments from the Competition and Markets Authority about the kind of changes that it wants to make to its internal processes and the way it works. One of the central recommendations in the report is that the CMA needs stronger consumer powers—upgraded to match its anti-trust competition powers—and a whole series of other things necessary for it to move faster to judgments in individual cases much more quickly. Ideally, in most cases—the easier cases—that should be within days or months, rather than in the current parlance, when things can easily run into years; we need faster and more certain decisions.

The CMA is supposed to upgrade its capability to become what I termed the “micro-economic sibling” to the Bank of England’s macroeconomic work. In other words, every time the Bank of England talks about the macro economy, the CMA should have a public role in putting forward our progress in creating supply-side reforms to improve competition in individual markets and in individual parts of the country. As we all know, our country has a real problem with declining levels of productivity and of competitiveness the further away from the M25 one travels.

The report therefore makes a series of recommendations, some prompting a series of consultations on internal reforms to the CMA, which are very welcome. There are things like the

“micro-economic sibling for the Bank of England”,

which I have just mentioned, which has been declared and is due to be set up. There have also been declarations that the CMA’s consumer powers will be upgraded in due course. We will need primary legislation for that, but there has been extensive consultation on it. There will also be things such as stronger penalties for companies that do not comply with data requests and so forth, seeking to slow down the progress of any competition cases. So, all—or mostly—good news in that area at least.

The CMA has also established something called the digital markets unit, the DMU, which will be absolutely essential to future operations in ensuring that we can deal with consumer detriment created by digital network monopolies—the big FANGs of Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google. The DMU is now in operation, but in shadow form, because it does not have any of the necessary legislated powers that it requires. It has at least started. There has also been an increase in the CMA’s resources post Brexit because, as we left the UK, we had to have a stronger domestic pro-competition set of institutions, otherwise all the things that had been happening in Brussels, in the EU’s competition world, would not have been coped with, so they were repatriated.

Equally, the ideas in the chapter on economic regulators are about trying to reduce the overall role of such regulators over time. We should be trying to normalise as much of the markets that they run as possible. There is no intrinsic reason why, for example, energy, telecommunications or others cannot be mostly normal and as usual, as run of the mill as buying a loaf of bread or a pint of milk. We do not need an economic regulator to protect us when we do that. There are large chunks of these markets where we could be just as protected by normal consumer protection laws, and would not need an economic regulator, except for the bits of those markets that are fundamentally based around network monopolies.

Every single one of the economically regulated sectors in our economy—telecoms, energy, water or any of the others—all have network monopolies at their core, whether it is electricity distribution, the national grid, local electricity distribution grids, gas pipes, water pipes or whatever it might be. There is a network monopoly at the core, and those are inherently less competitive. We cannot get them to work in the normal way, and there has to be a residual level of economic regulation on those networks. Perhaps there are some deeply embedded and hard-to-solve consumer detriments in finance, too. Other than that, we could and should seek to erode the role of the economic regulators over time, normalising their markets as far as we can, as this report recommends. It is not a quick process; it will take time, but it can and should be done, outside the areas I have just described.

How are we doing? In some respects, quite well. There is something called the “Economic Regulation Policy Paper”, which I am sure everybody here has been keeping next to their bed for bedtime reading. That came out of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy a couple of weeks ago, and is intended to address the statutory duties of the economic regulators, and increase the level of competition they are involved with. It makes all the right noises and speaks all the right warm words about doing that. I will come back to that in a minute, because one of its problems is that, in modernising the statutory duties, to enable the process I have laid out, it is going to

“launch a review of utilities regulators’ statutory duties in 2022.”

It does not say when that is going to be launched, when it will be finished or what it will do about it when it is done. Everybody here will be familiar with the term “long grass”. I hope the Minister will be able to reassure us that this is not long grass, that it will happen in a timely way, and that he is out with his lawnmower trimming the sward to ensure that it will happen, rather than get parked somewhere and gently forgotten.

There is also good news on public procurement, which has been brought into sharp focus during the pandemic. We absolutely need to have a faster, better and more transparent public procurement process. We inherited this process from the EU as the OJEUOfficial Journal of the European Union—rules. They do a lot of good things, but incredibly slowly and in bureaucratic fashion. As a result, we end up with processes that are clunky. When we have a national or international emergency, such as the pandemic, they are cruelly exposed as not working well enough.

I am pleased to say that there was when I published this, and there remains, a continuing commitment to launching a new public procurement Bill. That is due, probably not in this Session, but I hope in the next. It has been heavily trailed, and I hope and expect that it will take what we have and make it much more nimble, digital and open to small firms being able to compete with long-standing large incumbents, such as Carillion. It will not only be pro-competitive but will involve a great deal of better value for money for taxpayers. It will mean that we are less likely to have, for example, a scramble for personal protective equipment, if we have another national emergency such as the pandemic in future.

Finally, on the positive side of the ledger, there has been some progress on the ideas I talked about for trying to improve competition outside the south-east, and to improve retail opportunities for people who need redress, if they have been done wrong and their consumer rights have been breached. There has been a little progress on trying to make small claims courts and ombudsmen work better, more digitally and faster, while continuing to be cheap, so that there is ready justice, if necessary, for somebody who has not got what they paid for under consumer rights. That is all good, but we have a great deal further to travel.

My contention is that in a digital world, we should be able to have the same kind of 24/7 service that we expect when logging on to do our grocery shopping at 3 am— I do not do that, but some people do. That is something that, increasingly, we expect to be able to do. If we can shop 24/7, we should be able to seek redress 24/7 when that is needed, but there is a noticeable gap there.

Although that gap is starting to close, and there have been reforms of the small claims court for example, there has been no reform in other areas that need it, such as in the creation of county competition courts. Such reform is necessary to create opportunity for small, local companies that are being ganged up on by larger local incumbents and prevented from prosecuting their competition rights, because taking someone to the Competition Appeal Tribunal in London for a breach of competition law is never going to be affordable.

Even under the current fast-track approval process, redress is still out of reach for most small regional firms. A restaurant in Bristol, an estate agent in Hull or an hotelier in Liverpool will not be able to afford to do anything if they are being ganged up on by a local competitor until we get what I am calling “county competition courts”. I am afraid that there has been little progress towards that at the moment. Nor has there been progress towards a generalised update and improvement of local trading standards teams. That is needed in many parts of the country to ensure that there are proper defenders of consumer rights.

I do not want to cavil too much, because there is a decent list of progress. It would be churlish to say that nothing has happened in the last year, because it really has. I commend the Government and my hon. Friend the Minister on that progress, but I am afraid that there is a slightly longer list—it is certainly a serious list—of things that have not yet happened on the other side of the ledger. I will run through them quickly, then leave it for others to pick up on any particular points.

First, one of the report’s central points is about speeding up how fast people can get justice through the CMA if they need it. As I mentioned at the start of my speech, we have to ensure that all but the most complicated, hideously difficult and groundbreaking cases can be decided by the CMA. Most cases ought to take weeks or months rather than years. At the moment, there is no overall core process redesign within the CMA or the Competition Appeal Tribunal, which is effectively the appeals court for lots of CMA cases. Such a redesign—if I can call it that—will be necessary to make dramatic improvements in the availability and certainty of justice.

That matters because at the moment, it is all too easy for large, well-lawyered incumbents to walk backwards, slowly, in the face of a challenge from a small, plucky entrepreneurial, insurgent firm that is trying to transform and disrupt a particular market. If they can strew legal obstacles in the challenger’s path, they can basically make it much harder for Britain’s economy to be nimble.