Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Department for Business and Trade
Viscount Camrose Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (Viscount Camrose) (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I am delighted that we have made it to Report and look forward to today’s debate. Before we get under way, I express my sincere thanks to all noble Lords who took part in Committee and to those with whom I have had the pleasure of discussing a number of issues that have arisen since then. I am extremely grateful for the constructive, collaborative nature of those discussions. It is clear to me that the broad support for this Bill across the House and the desire to see it pass swiftly remain undiminished, which is great to see.

The Government have tabled a number of amendments to improve the clarity and accountability of the regime. I turn first to the amendment to the Henry VIII power in Clause 6. This clause would originally have given the Secretary of State the power to amend by regulations the position of strategic significance conditions in the Bill, to allow them to be updated to account for future changes to digital markets. The Government recognise that Henry VIII powers should be used only where absolutely necessary. I noted the strength of feeling on this issue in Committee and the concerns that the power could be used to introduce broad changes to the framework of the regime. The DPRRC also noted this point in its report on the Bill, for which my noble friend Lord Offord and I were very grateful. Reflecting that strategic significance criteria have been designed to be suitably broad and technology agnostic, we are content to remove this power. Amendment 1 will do that, so I hope that noble Lords will support it.

Amendment 42 ensures that non-commercial organisations acting in a non-commercial capacity will be subject to fines with the same fixed statutory maximum amounts and/or maximum daily amounts as individuals. We expect it to be extremely rare that the CMA would ever need to fine these organisations, but the Bill should provide for all circumstances. These organisations could be subject to financial penalties for investigative breaches—for example, providing false or misleading information to the CMA.

Amendment 40 clarifies that all individuals—including, for example, sole proprietors—will be subject to penalties with fixed statutory maximum amounts and/or maximum daily amounts. Amendment 41 removes a superfluous subsection in the same clause. I hope noble Lords will support these amendments.

Amendment 48 will ensure that private actions relating to the digital markets regime can be transferred between the Competition Appeal Tribunal and the relevant court. This will reflect current practice for competition cases. Effective co-operation and information sharing between regulators is vital to ensuring efficient and coherent interventions under the digital markets regime.

Amendments 160 and 161, under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006 and the Postal Services Act 2011 respectively, will allow Ofcom to share information it holds with the CMA where it is necessary for the CMA to discharge its digital markets functions. Ofcom is likely to hold relevant information under these Acts that would be valuable to support work relating to, for example, mobile ecosystems and e-commerce. The amendments will also help prevent unnecessary and duplicative information requests by the CMA. The Government have also put forward Amendments 50, 53 and 159 to improve the Bill’s clarity.

Amendment 58 will ensure that the existing provision in Clause 116—which prevents information the CMA holds as part of an investigation being subject to a disclosure order—cannot be circumvented by instead seeking disclosure from another party that holds the same information.

I hope that, for the reasons I have set out, noble Lords will support the government amendments. I beg to move.

Lord Faulks Portrait Lord Faulks (Non-Afl)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, Amendments 13 and 35 are in my name and those of the noble Baronesses, Lady Stowell and Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones.

The Bill has been welcomed across the House and it represents a crucial step forward in regulating the digital market. I pay tribute to the level of engagement that has taken place with Ministers and officials. We have had some excellent and well-informed debates in Grand Committee. However, good though this Bill is, it is capable of improvement. I refer to my interests in the register. I am not a competition lawyer, but I do have experience of judicial review and of the operation of the Human Rights Act. I was also chair of the Independent Review of Administrative Law, which reported a few years ago.

My Amendment 13 is concerned with the use in the Bill of the word “proportionate”. Despite some heavy lobbying of the Government by big tech, the right to appeal against an intervention by the CMA will engage the judicial review test, rather than a merits test, except as to penalty. Later amendments will probe the appeal test further.

The original adjective in the Bill was “appropriate”. The word “proportionate” replaced it at a late stage of the Bill’s progress through the Commons. Why? I am afraid I have yet to receive a satisfactory answer. In Grand Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, referred to a letter from the Minister about the change. However, it did nothing to allay concerns that the change was a response to lobbying by big tech.

According to one view, it is an innocuous change; indeed, one would expect an intervention to be proportionate. The word also has a reasonable legal pedigree: for example, you can defend yourself against attack providing your response is proportionate to the attack. Whether your response is proportionate will be a question of fact, or for a jury to decide.

Judicial review, however, is not primarily concerned with the facts of a decision but with the process whereby the decision is made. Classically, the courts got involved only if a decision was so unreasonable that no reasonable public body could have reached it. The scope of judicial review has expanded to include challenges based on, for example, irrationality or failure to take into account relevant considerations. There are other grounds, but all are concerned with how the decision is reached rather than whether the court agrees with the factual findings.

Since the enactment of the Human Rights Act, the concept of proportionality has entered the law in relation to judicial review, but only in limited circumstances. I will quote the most recent addition of De Smith’s Judicial Review, as I did in Committee, which is generally regarded as the leading textbook in this area:

“Domestic courts are required to review the proportionality of decisions and enactments in two main categories of case: cases involving prima facie infringements of Convention rights and cases involving EU law”.

There are those who think that proportionality should be the test in all cases of judicial review, but that is not the law.

I cannot immediately see why an appeal in the context of the Bill should involve a convention right, but they have a habit of appearing in all sorts of places. If convention rights are engaged, proportionality comes into the analysis anyway. I understand that the Government consider that an appeal may well involve A1P1—Article 1 of the first protocol of the ECHR—which is concerned with the arbitrary inference with property rights.

To speak of human rights in the context of enormous companies such as Google, Apple or Meta is certainly counterintuitive; I do not think that that is what the framers of the European convention had in mind after the Second World War. Last week, Apple was fined €1.8 billion under the European Union’s regulation on market abuse, and there is an appeal. That perhaps gives us an idea of the context of human rights in this area.

If—and this is a big “if”—the courts consider that the convention is engaged, there will be considerations of proportionality. Amendment 35, which I believe is consequential to Amendment 13, raises precisely the same point in a further context. In choosing to put the word “proportionality” into the legislation, a court might well conclude that Parliament had deliberately used the word to widen the scope of judicial review challenge, even when no convention right is engaged. For my part, that is a risk that I do not think should be taken. Your Lordships’ House is well aware of the expensive and time-consuming nature of appeals, which of course favour larger organisations with a large legal spend. The noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, spoke at Second Reading of long and expensive battles and death by lever arch files—although he did not quite put it that way. Large companies have the resources.

A proportionality test is far closer to an appeal on the facts than one based on conventional judicial review principles. The issue as to whether an intervention is proportionate or not gives the court much greater scope for looking at those facts at greater length and greater expense and with a more uncertain outcome. I would therefore much prefer to revert to the word “appropriate”, as was originally in the Bill, which does not carry the same legal charge and does not risk expanding the basis of appeal.

In the Media Bill, criticism has been made of the use of the word “appropriate”, but, as many judges have said before, context is everything, and here it is the right word. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response and explanation behind the change in wording.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Now that my friend the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, has spoken, I am happy to stand, because I hoped that he would cover all the technical aspects of his amendment, to which I have put my name.

Before I turn to the amendment, at the start of Report it is worth me reminding noble Lords and my noble friends the Ministers of something, because there are an awful lot of amendments in this group and they cover quite a bit of ground. The Communications and Digital Select Committee, which I have the privilege to chair, endorsed the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill as it was introduced in the Commons. We held quite a few hearings on the Bill last year, which came after a long period of campaigning for this legislation, and so it was one that we cared deeply about. Indeed, we applauded the Government for striking the right, careful balance on some difficult issues covered in Part 1 of the Bill, especially the appeals process, the countervailing benefits and the leveraging principle.

--- Later in debate ---
Moved by
13: Clause 19, page 11, line 7, leave out “proportionate” and insert “appropriate”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would restore the Bill’s original wording in relation to Clause 19.
Lord Faulks Portrait Lord Faulks (Non-Afl)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I invite the House to cast its mind back to the debates we had on the first group. Amendments 13 and 35 are both concerned with the use of “proportionality”. The debates in Grand Committee and today on Report have been very much cross-party: there has been a shared endeavour to improve what is an excellent Bill, which strikes an important blow in regulating appropriately the digital market and, in particular, establishing a proper balance between big tech, with its immense power, and the smaller players.

The original Bill had “appropriate”, and I wish to return to that wording. The change in the wording followed a heroic amount of lobbying by big tech, and there was a reason behind this lobbying: to make it easier to prolong, appeal and obfuscate—to use the legal might and finances that big tech has—and to possibly frustrate the whole purpose of the Digital Markets Unit.

The Minister, who has engaged with thoroughness and politeness throughout this process, did his best to reassure the House by saying that the use of “proportionate” was to reinforce the Government’s expectation that the Digital Markets Unit would act proportionately. We do indeed expect it to act proportionately, but the use of “proportionate” in this context carries a heavy legal charge, as he tacitly accepted by saying that the use of “proportionality” meant that the analysis would spill over from cases involving the Human Rights Act or A1P1 into all cases, so that the scope for challenge of an intervention would significantly increase. That is not a happy situation, as a number of noble Lords have so eloquently said in supporting this amendment.

Amendments 13 and 35 are to the same effect, and I hope that Amendment 35 is regarded as consequential on Amendment 13. I wish to test the opinion of the House.

--- Later in debate ---
Moved by
35: Clause 46, page 26, line 27, leave out paragraph (b) and insert—
“(b) making the PCI would be likely to contribute to or otherwise be of use for the purpose of remedying or preventing the adverse effect on competition.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would remove “proportionality” as the determining factor in relation to a decision by the CMA to make a pro-competition intervention and would restore the Bill's original wording in relation to Clause 46.