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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:41 pm on 8th March 2022.

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Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London) 3:41 pm, 8th March 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford.

I congratulate my hon. Friend John Penrose on securing the debate and on his report. Wolfie Smith will be turning in his Afghan coat when he sees that “Power to the People” has become the mantra for fixing broken markets to encourage good competition and free markets, but the report is an interesting read. That reference got tumbleweed from some of the younger Members, but I hope that my hon. Friend remembers Wolfie Smith.

My hon. Friend’s report is an important contribution to the debate on reforming the UK’s competition policy. It has had a significant role in shaping the Government’s thinking on the priorities for reform, and I reiterate my thanks to him for his work and for his continuing engagement with and advocacy for reform.

In the report, my hon. Friend argues that the UK’s competition and consumer regime should be one of the best in the world and the Government are absolutely four-square behind that objective. Now that the UK has left the EU, we must build on this country’s innovative foundations to create a robust and agile economy that works for everyone and that is fit for future generations.

Competition and consumer policy has a central role in creating a thriving free market economy that encourages innovation, enterprise, growth and productivity. Competition policy is crucial in creating the right conditions for healthy competition between traders in markets to win over consumers by offering the best deals and innovation. Consumer policy is vital in underpinning consumer confidence. It empowers consumers to engage in markets in an assured manner, knowing that they have a strong set of legal rights that will be respected and enforced.

That is why we committed in our manifesto to give the CMA enhanced powers to tackle consumer rip-offs and bad business practices. It is also why the Government committed in our plan for growth to the UK’s having a best in class competition regime that will raise innovation and investment across the economy.

An effective competition and consumer policy will help us to build back a better and fairer economy, giving businesses confidence that they are competing on fair terms and giving the public confidence that they are getting a good deal. The UK’s competition regime is already well regarded internationally, so we are starting from a strong foundation. However, we should always strive to be better and to go further.

Markets and the way that consumers and businesses engage with each other have changed dramatically since the current legislation was enacted. That change is particularly stark in the digital economy. The tech revolution has brought huge benefits. Recent research has shown that about 15% of all businesses have adopted at least one artificial intelligence technology. In recent years, we have also seen that some digital markets have certain characteristics that make them more prone to weak competition.

Despite the actions that the UK has taken to promote competition, there is evidence from the CMA that competition may have weakened over the last 20 years. In 2020, the Government commissioned the CMA to produce an expert state of competition assessment to improve our collective understanding of the level and nature of competition across the UK economy. In its first “State of UK Competition” report, the CMA found that mark-ups, the ratio of prices to costs, had increased by 7% from 2000 to 2018. It found that in 2018 the average combined market share of the 10 largest firms in an industry was 3% higher than in 1998. It is essential that the competition regime does more to encourage and maintain competitive markets.

The Government published two consultations on legislative reforms in July last year, building on the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare. The consultation, “Reforming Competition and Consumer Policy”, set out a vision for the future of our competition and consumer policy. The separate consultation, “A New Pro-Competition Regime for Digital Markets”, set out a vision for a new agile and flexible regime to promote competition in digital markets, something that my hon. Friends the Members for Weston-super-Mare and for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) highlighted that we need to improve.

The package of reforms in the Government’s two consultations shares the ambitions of the report by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare. Those proposals seek to enhance the powers of the CMA and consumers’ rights, and ensure that those rights are robustly enforced. They will work to protect consumers and help businesses thrive. In addition to sharing those ambitions, my hon. Friend’s detailed report has had a considerable influence on where Government see opportunities for reform.