Debates between Lord Faulks and Lord Clement-Jones during the 2019 Parliament

Tue 14th May 2024

Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill

Debate between Lord Faulks and Lord Clement-Jones
Lord Faulks Portrait Lord Faulks (Non-Afl)
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Many of your Lordships will be familiar with the arguments we have had on the Bill. The important point to stress is that there has been a general welcome of this legislation. I would also like to stress that a measure of cross-party co-operation was the hallmark of the scrutiny of the Bill during its passage through your Lordships’ House. Ministers and officials have given their time generously in meetings and have responded promptly and helpfully to the issues that scrutiny has thrown up.

At the heart of the Bill is the regulation of the internet in a way that should prevent market abuse, in particular by big tech. Helpful though the Government have been, they have not provided answers to some important questions, hence amendments being passing on Report. These have been sent back to us by the House of Commons without the Government—save in one respect—making concessions.

One of the areas that gave noble Lords particular concern is the inclusion of amendments in the House of Commons at a late stage, following lobbying of the Government by big tech. A prospective intervention by the regulator is unlikely to be welcomed by big tech companies and, given their enormous legal budgets, will inevitably be challenged. The change of wording from “appropriate” to “proportionate” will make such challenges easier. A reversion to the Bill’s original wording will help to restore balance, and it is hoped that the amendments in my name and those in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, on appeals against interventions, will achieve that. Our amendments on Motion C are intended to prevent a seepage of arguments on penalty, which involves a merits test, into the judicial review test, which applies to the intervention itself.

Why have the Government made this late change of “appropriate” to “proportionate”? They have been rather coy about this. There has been some waffle—I am afraid I must describe it as such—about increased clarity and the need for a regulator to act in a proportionate manner. That is quite so but, on further probing, the reasoning was revealed: it is intended to reflect the level of challenge derived from jurisprudence from the European Court of Human Rights and the CJEU, where human rights issues are engaged. I remain bewildered as to why big tech has human rights. This is not what the framers of the convention had in mind.

But if—and it is a big “if”—a convention right is engaged, proportionality is the test, or at least part of it. This is a much lower bar than the normal judicial review test. If the Bill remains unamended, this lower bar will apply to challenges whether or not a convention right is engaged. This is good news for big tech and its lawyers, but not for the Bill and its primary purpose.

I ask the Minister this specific question: if the convention right is engaged, proportionality comes into the analysis anyway, but what if a court were to decide that A1P1—the relevant “human right”—was not engaged? With the Bill unamended, proportionality would apply to a non-convention case, greatly to the advantage of big tech. Is my understanding correct?

It seems that big tech has got its way and that litigation wars can commence—a great pity, most specifically for the smaller players and for the ostensible rationale behind the legislation.

On Motion C1, the test for appeals on penalty is to be a merits-based one, rather than the higher bar that a judicial review standard would, or should, involve. The amendments before your Lordships’ House are intended to prevent seepage from one test to another. His Majesty’s Government say that the courts are well used, in different contexts, to applying different tests as part of an analysis. This is true—in theory. My concern is that if I were advising Meta or Google about an intervention and a consequent hefty fine—this is not an advertisement—it is inevitable that I would advise in favour of appealing both aspects of the intervention: against conviction and sentence, as it were.

It is relatively easy to insulate arguments in criminal cases. One question is, was the conviction unsafe? Another is, was the sentence too long? In the emerging world of internet regulation, however, it is likely to be far more difficult in practice. The question of whether an intervention was disproportionate—disproportionate to what?—will inevitably be closely allied to that of whether the penalty was excessive or disproportionate: another win for big tech, and a successful piece of lobbying on its part.

I look forward to words of reassurance from the Minister. In the meantime, I beg to move.

Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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My Lords, I will speak to Motion B1 and briefly in support of other motions in this group.

Last December, at Second Reading, I said that we on these Benches want to see the Bill and the new competition and consumer powers make a real difference, but that they can do so only with some key changes. On Third Reading, I pointed out that we were already seeing big tech take an aggressive approach to the EU’s Digital Markets Act, and we therefore believed that the Bill needed to be more robust and that it was essential to retain the four key competition amendments passed on Report. That remains our position, and I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Faulks: that the degree of cross-party agreement has been quite exemplary.

As we heard on Report, noble Lords made four crucial amendments to Part 1 of the digital markets Bill: first, an amendment whereby, when the Competition and Markets Authority seeks approval of its guidance, the Secretary of State is required within 40 days to approve the guidance or to refuse to approve it and refer it back to the CMA; secondly, an amendment reverting the countervailing benefits exemption to the version originally in the Bill, which included the “indispensable” standard; thirdly, amendments reverting the requirement for the CMA’s conduct requirement and pro-competitive interventions to be “proportionate” back to “appropriate”; and fourthly, amendments reverting the appeals standard to judicial review for penalties.

We welcome the fact that the Government have proposed, through Motion D, Amendment 38A in lieu, which effectively achieves the same aims, ensuring that the approval of the CMA guidance by the Secretary of State does not unduly hold up the operationalisation of the new regime. However, the Government’s Motions A, B and C disagree with the other Lords amendments.

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill

Debate between Lord Faulks and Lord Clement-Jones
Lord Faulks Portrait Lord Faulks (Non-Afl)
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I do not get the impression that the Committee is against the idea; there is simply a lack of clarity as it is currently formulated as to what constitutes “false” and a “reasonable excuse”, and what is inaccurate. I think the Committee is generally in favour of this provision and understands why it is there; we are just not quite sure that this captures it, as currently drafted.

Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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My Lords, the procedure in Grand Committee is quite clear: there has to be unanimity for an amendment to proceed.