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.

Alert me about debates like this

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

We consulted on reforming the better regulation framework, and the Government do not think that a one in, two out rule—or whatever number out—is consistent with delivering world-class regulation to support the economy in adapting to a new wave of the technological revolution or in achieving net zero, so we want to reduce costs to business wherever we sensibly can do so and regulate only where strictly necessary. We intend to do that by looking at the merits of each case rather than using the one in, two out system, and we plan to change the better regulation system so that it will do that. However, it is very important that we get the balance right.

The Government believe that a well-functioning alternative dispute resolution system can make markets work more effectively, increase consumer confidence in spending and generate higher trader compliance with the law. It is an important avenue to redress for consumers that more easily allows for mediated settlements and is less confrontational than a court process, which is often more costly and time intensive, so we sought views on proposals to enhance the role of ADR in resolving consumer disputes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare also recommended that the CMA’s civil consumer enforcement powers should be upgraded, which would allow it to decide cases and impose fines in the same way as it does for civil enforcement of competition law. Again, we sought views on empowering the CMA to enforce consumer law directly, and we consulted on giving the CMA new powers to decide whether consumer law has been broken. Under the proposal, the CMA could directly impose directions, remedies or monetary penalties on firms that mistreat their customers without having to go through the courts, as is currently the case. That would allow the CMA to intervene earlier and to go further.

My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare also mentioned the CAT. I have to say that although there are plenty more things that the CAT could do, changes have been brought on by covid. I visited CAT’s virtual court the other day, when it heard the case of Newcastle United’s takeover by the Saudi buyers. It had 35,000 people tuning in, which is more than all but the top nine average gates in the premier league, so a lot of Geordies and Newcastle fans elsewhere are now experts on competition law—I am not sure whether that is a good thing or a bad thing. None the less, it really shines a light—being with the transparency tsar—on the work of the CAT and the competition regime.

Clearly, there are also challenges in some markets in the digital economy, which my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe talked about. That is why we looked at what we can do to have a bespoke regime in the digital consultation. Frankly, government is not particularly good at keeping up with technology—I am talking about government as an overall body, rather than any particular government—so it is right that the market looks at how we can introduce conduct requirements and how we can have pro-competitive interventions by the digital market unit to keep up with an ever-changing regime. We also consulted on a merger regime, which is exactly the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe was talking about—the so-called killer acquisitions and other stifling of innovation. I remember the days of Netscape, Mozilla Firefox and all the other browsers that were available but have now fallen by the wayside—again, tumbleweed from my hon. Friend Mark Fletcher, who is far younger than me.

My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth talked about Cornwall. She did not just talk about regulation and competition regimes and legislation to promote things such as the direct sales of fish and the secondary industries around the exciting opportunities for lithium. Actually, it is about promoting enterprise and innovation. If regulation is there, that is fantastic, but it does not always need to resort back to a constructed regime if there are businesses ready to grab opportunities. That needs to be part of a suite of measures to ensure that the UK is the best place to start, grow and scale up a business. Part of that is the strategy that BEIS is coming up with, to show that we are ready to invest in—and are investing in—and support, for the long term, those kinds of technologies, which will give businesses the confidence to invest in areas such as Truro and Falmouth in order to make the most of that.

Looking at some other areas, the hon. Member for Makerfield talked about weddings. That was an interesting point about the covid pandemic, because I think that shows the difficulty of having a consumer policy. I was the Minister charged with engaging with the wedding sector, and that was a challenge. We had brides and grooms looking forward to their special day, which costs a lot of money. The whole point about the wedding sector is that it builds up anticipation and expectation. Clearly, however, venues and organisers especially had spent a lot of money and had a lot of reservations, but they have only a single day to provide their service. When they were compelled to lock down, or when demand was stifled, if they had refunded everything in one go, they would have been out of business. The balance was hugely difficult, with a lot of arguments between them and the CMA within that. I am glad that we got through that, largely, and that we were able to navigate through it by working with the CMA and the sector to make progress.

I will conclude on the report of my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare, because I want to give him time to respond. His report represents a significant milestone in the process of reforming competition and consumer policy. I reiterate my thanks for his work. We will continue the conversation as we bring legislation to bear, as we make the changes where primary legislation is required, despite the fact that changes are already happening. He has acknowledged the direct impact of some of his proposals, on which we have consulted, so we will bring that all together. I continue to work with stakeholders—I spoke with them only last week on this very subject—and we are carefully considering the feedback. We will come back with measures in good time.