Debates between Lord Faulks and Baroness Jones of Whitchurch during the 2019 Parliament

Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill

Debate between Lord Faulks and Baroness Jones of Whitchurch
Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Portrait Baroness Jones of Whitchurch (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken. Again, in the vast majority of the contributions, we seem to have reached a wide degree of consensus, although not totally, in the light of that from the noble Lord, Lord Tyrie.

Noble Lords have made a number of important points. The noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, was quite right to take us back to the practicality of appeals on a merits basis; I will come back to the Minister’s response on all that because things are still not clear. How can we be sure that such an appeal will not open the whole case up again? That is at the heart of what we are debating here.

The noble Lord, Lord Holmes, said that we do not really understand why this must be different. Why is it such a special case? It has not been explained to us why this exception has been made.

I very much appreciate the point made by noble Lord, Lord Faulks: at the heart of this issue is whether we want regulation by the DMU or by the courts. There is a real danger of us drifting towards the latter with the Government’s amendments.

The noble Baroness, Lady Harding, rightly reminded us that regulators cannot afford to take too many risks. There is a fundamental imbalance, with regulators perhaps being forced to be risk-averse because they do not have the budgets of the big tech companies. We understand the danger of the David and Goliath situation that we are in here. It is all too easy to create a system where big tech companies’ lawyers can rule the roost.

The Minister said that decisions on penalties will address what an SMS firm has or has not done. He said that a decision will address not whether a breach has occurred but what led to the breach. Our concern is that we are going to go back over all the evidence of what led to a breach, whereas the fine at the end of it represents the end of the decision-making and is meant to be the deterrent. Again, I will look at Hansard and the Minister’s subsequent letter, but it seems to me from his explanation that he risks opening the whole case up again.

I listened carefully to the noble Lord, Lord Tyrie. I understand his experience in all this. Importantly, he said that there is not just one model here—that is, we have a number of regulators that do things differently. As he pointed out, the Government have previously supported the JR model; we must be reminded of that. The noble Lord also raised his concern about what happens if mistakes are made. If mistakes are made, they would be made in the process leading up to the decision, not the subsequent fines. A merits appeal on the fine would not really help if the decisions had happened further up the decision-making process.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, that the regulators are not perfect. However, as we have discussed and will discuss again, we need stronger regulatory oversight. That will come—indeed, it needs to come—from stronger parliamentary oversight, which we will continue to debate in our discussions on this Bill.

I come back to the fundamental point made by the Minister. I listened to him carefully but I am still not clear how he will keep the stages separate. How will he keep the decision-making separate from the decision on the penalty? If SMS firms argue that the penalty is too high, they will have to revisit the evidence leading to the decision.

Lord Faulks Portrait Lord Faulks (Non-Afl)
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Can the noble Baroness confirm that, in her understanding, there is nothing in the Bill itself that makes that separation clear?

Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Portrait Baroness Jones of Whitchurch (Lab)
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I thank the noble Lord, Lord Faulks; he is absolutely right. Again, we look forward to the Minister’s letter that will try to explain how these are two separate processes and that there is a clear cut-off point between one and the other, because I am not sure that that was really what he said in his reply. To be honest, I do not see how they can be separate, as that is not how the systems work. The appeal will be, as I think the Minister said, on what the SMS firm did to lead up to that penalty; therefore, the whole case would have to be revisited.

I do not know that the Minister persuaded many people on this matter. I am sure that we will continue to debate this, and we look forward to reading his letter, which I am sure will explain things in a little more detail. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.