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

That is a particularly good example of the kind of problem that I was referring to when I mentioned public procurement reforms. I think we should be all extremely interested in what they show. When those reforms come, they should mean that local government, as well as national Government and many arm’s length bodies—from the NHS to English Heritage, and everyone else in between—should be able to make much faster decisions in a way that is more accessible to small firms that are not equipped to wade through pages and pages of tender documents, some of which require a PhD and actually have little to do with whether a product or service is better than the big incumbent’s. That will be an essential change.

Speeding up the CMA is absolutely essential. One of the most glaring and—I am afraid to say—saddest omissions from the recommendations is on better regulation. There is a difference between deregulation and better regulation. I am sure that you are thoroughly familiar with it, Mr Efford, but for the record and for everybody else, deregulation is where standards are got rid of and there is a sort of race to the bottom—that is not what I am recommending in this report at all—whereas better regulation says, “How do we deliver the same standards in environmental quality, food standards, workers’ rights and all the other things that we regard as essential in our modern society, in a way that is cheaper, quicker, simpler, or more digital or more modern? How can we do that in a way that costs the providers of those things less?” If it costs the providers less, that means they can do it at lower cost, which means that consumers can get the same product or service at a lower price in the first place. It is up to everybody and it will be for all our benefit if we can do that.

However, getting rid of red tape and regulation is one of the hardest things to achieve in Westminster and Whitehall, because everybody here knows that the culture of this place is framed in terms of making new rules. That is how civil servants or—dare I say it?—one or two MPs make their career; it is by inventing new rules and not by getting rid of old ones. That is the culture of this place.

Better regulation is an extremely easy thing to say and an extremely difficult thing to do, although there have been examples—rare ones—in the past where we have succeeded. There was a brief flowering of success between 2010 and 2015, under David Cameron when he was Prime Minister, whereby the pro-regulatory ratchet got reversed and for a couple of years we were genuinely making progress, and in fact local firms and small firms and their organisations, particularly the Federation of Small Businesses and similar bodies, noticed it and said, “This is working”.

Unfortunately, when David Cameron left office, the blob pounced; I do not know whether a blob can pounce, but perhaps it enveloped the new regime. When David Cameron left office, the blob looked at what worked—basically, it was having a gateway condition saying, “If you are the Minister for paper clips, you can’t have new rules about paper clips until you have found two old ones to get rid of”; that was the thing that had been making things work until then—and said, “That’s a terribly old-fashioned way of doing it. We’ve got a much better way of doing it. Why don’t we have a big target and we’ll hit the target and that will be good?”

However, because the blob had got rid of all the rigour and all the mechanisms for getting rid of the red tape, what happened instead was that there was a huge target, which was completely missed. In two years, we went backwards, by £8 billion-worth of extra costs, when we had expected to remove £9 billion-worth of extra costs. Instead of removing £9 billion-worth of extra costs, we added £8 billion-worth, which was a £17 billion miss in two years.

That was absolutely disastrous compared with what we had been doing for the previous five years, and the thing that worries me is that it is being recommended that we go back to something rather similar. I do not care whether it is one in, one out or one in, two out, but it is essential that we have that gateway condition, because if we do not have it we will carry on going backwards.

I am afraid, and very sorry to report, that the benefits of Brexit report—another piece of bedtime reading, Mr Efford, which I am sure you have gone through in detail—says on page 27 that we will not reintroduce the old system at all but will stick with the one that has just failed, and we will carry on repeating the same mistake that we made before. I really hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to tell me that that has now changed around, but I fear that he will be unable to. If we do not change around, then we will fail again, and—let us be very clear about it—that is what we are currently heading towards.

I have final thoughts on the economic regulators, Mr Efford; I am nearly there. As I say, we have had some progress here, because, as I mentioned, the Government have said that they are consulting on trying to improve the statutory duties of economic regulators to add extra competition, which should lead to shrinking the regulators over time.

However, as I also mentioned, we do not have a date for when the report on the economic regulators is due, so we do not know if anything will ever be done about them; I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to say that the Government will do something about them. Without a date and without a firm commitment in principle that the report will genuinely try to normalise as much of the market as it can, outside the network of monopolies that I was talking about, the suspicion has to be that we are not trying to normalise these markets and that what will happen—unacknowledged, but none the less firmly—is that there will be no appetite for normalising as much of these markets as we can, and that instead the preferred destination is perpetual heavy regulation. I really hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can reassure me that that is not the de facto intention behind what we are currently doing.

My final point is about the final chapter in the report, which is on subsidy control. Subsidies are a very heady political drug, if we are not really careful. No matter the political party we belong to, it is always tempting when lobbyists come knocking. It does not matter whether a Member is in opposition or in government, nor whether it is local government or national or sub-national Government. When lobbyists come knocking, they say how terrible it is that this big, important local employer has been left behind—it did not invest in whatever it was it was doing and is now 20 years out of date, so it has been overtaken by plucky entrepreneurial upstarts from other parts of the country or, indeed, from other countries—and they say, “Isn’t it terrible that these jobs are now at risk? What we need is a just a temporary wafer-thin subsidy to tide us over for a couple of years while we fix things.” Of course, they do not fix things and then, a couple of years later, they come back and ask for more.

That is expensive for taxpayers and it reduces both the productivity of industry and the long-term security and sustainability of British jobs, which become progressively more and more vulnerable to international competition. Ultimately, it is the thing that did for us in the 1960s and 1970s, and which we had enormous pain trying to fix in the 1980s and 1990s. Subsidy control is vital. It is one of those rules that has just come back, post Brexit, from being run by Brussels. We have a Subsidy Control Bill before Parliament at the moment—it is in the Lords. It will do all sorts of really good things to speed up our subsidy control process; it is much more nimble and light-touch. If authorities are compliant with six or seven different principles—