Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill Debate

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Department: Department for Business and Trade
Moved by
1: After Clause 129, insert the following new Clause—
“Mergers involving newspaper enterprises and foreign powers(1) Schedule (Mergers involving newspaper enterprises and foreign powers) makes provision for the purposes of preventing foreign powers from gaining control or influence over newspaper enterprises.(2) The amendments made by that Schedule—(a) apply in relation to enterprises ceasing to be distinct on or after the effective date, but not in relation to enterprises ceasing to be distinct before the effective date;(b) apply in relation to arrangements in progress or in contemplation on or after the effective date which, if carried into effect, would result in the creation of a foreign state newspaper merger situation by virtue of enterprises ceasing to be distinct on or after the effective date.(3) In subsection (2), “the effective date” means 13 March 2024.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment, together with my amendment inserting a new Schedule after Schedule 6, makes provision for the purposes of preventing foreign powers from taking control of newspaper enterprises.
Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay) (Con)
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My Lords, I am here to speak to the amendments in this group which stand in the name of my noble friend Lord Offord of Garvel, and I am happy to update your Lordships’ House on the work that has taken place since our debates on Report to implement a regime to ban foreign state ownership of newspapers and news magazines. As I noted on Report, we have heard the strength of concerns expressed in Parliament, and from my noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston in particular, about foreign state ownership of UK newspapers and news magazines.

His Majesty’s Government agree that the importance of these publications to our democracy cannot be overstated: newspapers have always been, and must continue to be, free to develop relationships with their readers and develop editorial lines supporting different positions. The plurality of views across different newspapers ensures that there is a wide range of views supporting a culture of argument, debate and challenge, which in turn contributes to a healthy democratic society.

His Majesty’s Government are therefore taking steps to preserve the freedom of the press, recognising the risks that foreign state ownership of, or control or influence over, the UK’s newspapers and news magazines could pose to democracy and to free speech. Foreign state ownership, if used to develop or control narratives which align with another state’s interests, may over time corrode trust in our media as a whole. That is why many countries already have laws limiting foreign state ownership, and why we are creating a new regime which will prevent foreign states having any stake in a UK newspaper or news magazine.

These amendments will amend the Enterprise Act 2002 to create a new foreign state intervention regime for newspapers and news magazines, I am delighted that my noble friend Lord Forsyth of Drumlean has put his name to Amendment 1, which leads the amendments in this group. Getting from a regret amendment on the Media Bill to joint signatures on this Bill in a matter of weeks is testament to the collaboration we have had across your Lordships’ House in our discussions, and I thank him for that.

Under the new regime, the Secretary of State will be obliged to give the Competition and Markets Authority a foreign state intervention notice where she has reasonable grounds to believe that a merger involving a UK newspaper or news magazine has given, or would give, a foreign state or a person associated with a foreign state ownership, influence or control. The CMA will be obliged to investigate and provide a report to the Secretary of State on the merger or potential merger. If it concludes that the merger has resulted or would result in a foreign state newspaper merger situation, the Secretary of State will be required by the statutory provisions to make an order to block or unwind the merger.

Our amendments expand the definition of “foreign power” to capture a wide variety of actors, including senior members of a foreign Government and officers of a governing political party acting in a private capacity. The legislation will also apply to mergers involving persons associated with a foreign power to ensure that we are capturing all possible ways in which a foreign state could seek control or influence over a UK newspaper or news magazine. Direct investment in newspapers of any size will be banned in future under this new regime.

It is, however, essential that these new measures do not have undesired effects in relation to wider business investment in UK media. We will therefore introduce an exemption for investments where the stake is below 5% of the total investment being made. This would apply to passive investments by established and pre-existing sovereign wealth funds, pension funds or similar.

We will introduce this threshold by regulations made under the affirmative procedure, giving noble Lords and Members in another place the opportunity to scrutinise the detailed proposals. We will bring these regulations forward after Royal Assent to this Bill. My colleagues and I would be very happy to engage with noble Lords as we do so.

I make it clear that the regime brought about by these amendments, and the exemption which will be provided for in secondary legislation, applies only to newspapers and news magazines in order to safeguard our free press from government involvement, whether domestic or foreign.

As I have set out before, we already have a robust media mergers regime, which enables the Secretary of State to intervene if she believes that public interest considerations are, or may be, relevant to a merger. This new foreign state ownership regime works in parallel and complements the existing regime. Our focus is not on foreign investment in the UK media sector in general but is targeted specifically —noble Lords have rightly made the distinction—at foreign state investment in newspapers and news magazines.

Of course, the Government remain committed to encouraging and supporting investment into the United Kingdom. We recognise that investors deploying capital into this country rely on the predictability and consistency of our regulatory regime. The UK remains one of the most open economies in the world, and investment is crucial to our plans for growth and jobs, and for our prosperity. The UK has the highest stock of foreign direct investment in Europe. The recent Global Investment Summit signalled investors’ confidence, with nearly £30 billion in investment commitments being made. These amendments will not change the UK’s investment potential. As I said, we are targeting foreign state investment in a narrow but important part of the UK market to safeguard the health of our democracy.

As I noted on Report,

“the Secretary of State is currently considering a live merger case under the Enterprise Act regime on which I cannot comment further today. With regard to any live case, if it is still ongoing when the changes come into effect, the Secretary of State will continue to follow the process set out in the existing regime and will also apply the new measures”.—[Official Report, 13/3/24; cols. 2042-43.]

In tandem, I can confirm to your Lordships’ House that we will be consulting on expanding the media mergers and the new media foreign state ownership regime to apply to online news websites. This will bring the regimes up to date in order to reflect modern news consumption habits and better protect the freedom of our media.

I am grateful to my noble friends Lady Stowell and Lord Forsyth, to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, and to others opposite and from across the House for their constructive engagement and collaboration on these amendments. I hope that they will enjoy your Lordships’ support.

Finally, I will briefly mention Amendment 4, tabled by my noble friend Lord Offord, which is not related specifically to foreign state ownership of media enterprises, but which is part of this group. Amendment 4 is a minor and technical amendment relating to other amendments made by Schedule 4 to the Bill. It clarifies how certain sections of the Enterprise Act 2002 are applied for the purposes of deciding if a special merger situation has been created under the special public interest merger regime. I beg to move.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, I thank my noble friend and his officials for the time and attention they have given this matter since Report. I know that officials have worked very hard, including over weekends, so I am truly grateful to them. I also pay tribute to the Media Minister, Julia Lopez. When I first met her to discuss my amendment three weeks ago, she gripped the issue immediately. I believe it is because of her energy and support for the clear objective of protecting press freedom that the Government have got behind her in bringing forward amendments in such a short space of time. Julia Lopez deserves much credit.

On the Government’s amendments, for me, the best way to understand their proposed way forward is to see it in two stages. Stage 1 deals with the block to foreign powers owning, controlling or influencing UK news. Stage 2 is the exemption for investment in UK news from legitimate foreign state investment funds. Both those stages, or parts, are important to the sustainability of the UK news industry.

I support the Government’s amendments as they relate to stage 1, and noble Lords will see that I have not retabled my own amendment. I am satisfied that they are in line with the promises my noble friend made from the Dispatch Box two weeks ago. In my view, they deal with the legal uncertainty that the RedBird IMI-proposed deal to buy the Telegraph titles and the Spectator has exposed when it comes to the involvement of foreign powers in our news media. It is worth restating that, as concerning as the UAE financial backing via IMI in that case is, the issue is bigger than that one deal and is a matter of principle.

As I understand the government amendments and what my noble friend has just said, the Government have broadened the definition of “foreign power”, and any individual or entity now captured by that definition will be blocked completely from owning, controlling or influencing our newspapers or news magazines. These provisions will take effect immediately once the Bill receives Royal Assent. Once completed, stage 1, as I might describe it, protects press freedom from the control or influence of foreign powers. Stage 2, which provides the exemption for legitimate, indirect foreign state investment funds to make passive investments in our news industry, will be covered by secondary legislation to follow once the Bill is enacted.

This exemption is important for obvious reasons, as my noble friend has already said. The news industry needs investment just like any other, and we must not exclude perfectly legitimate foreign state investors such as sovereign wealth funds or state pension funds that are not directly government controlled. As I said on Report, foreign state investment funds such as the Norwegian sovereign fund already invest in some of our news organisations.

I think I heard my noble friend set out the Government’s commitment to the threshold for this category of foreign state investors in the news industry being set at 5%. It is worth reflecting on that, because, at 5%, it is still above the approach of such funds which typically invest around 1 to 2% in corporations within any sector, yet it is a lower threshold than what is permitted by the CMA to prevent material influence, reflecting the fact that we are seeking to prevent any foreign state influence in UK news. I welcome the 5% threshold.

Obviously, we have yet to see the details of the secondary legislation, and Parliament will have to scrutinise that carefully before it can be approved. I welcome my noble friend’s commitment to engage Parliament before those regulations are laid. I think I heard my noble friend correctly, but can he reassure me that my understanding is correct that any individual or entity blocked at stage 1 will not qualify for exemption at stage 2? In other words, the exemption at stage 2 is for an entirely different kind of entity from that which will be blocked at stage 1.

I am pleased that my noble friend has reminded the House that any live regulatory case will be captured by the new legislation once it is enacted, and I am also pleased that he has confirmed that foreign state ownership of online UK news websites will be dealt with swiftly, also via secondary legislation and the affirmative procedure, once the Government have completed their consultation. There remains the question of foreign state ownership of our commercial public sector broadcasters and other commercial UK news channels. That said, of course, there are some regulatory protections already in broadcasting because of the Ofcom licensing regime. It would none the less be helpful if my noble friend could say whether the department is reviewing policy in this area also.

In conclusion, I will make three simple points. First, none of these legislative changes affect general foreign investment in or ownership of UK newspapers or news magazines, which is and will remain very welcome. Secondly, the exemption for legitimate investment by foreign state investment funds is important to the financial sustainability of our news industry. Finally, just to be clear, the UK remains open for business in the same way it has always been. All that Parliament is doing by making these changes is ensuring that our fundamental principle of press freedom is not up for sale.

I look forward to my noble friend’s replies to my questions, and we will, of course, review the secondary legislation carefully once it is ready. But, overall, I commend my noble friend on the Government’s work in recent weeks and I thank him for it.

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Lord Bassam of Brighton Portrait Lord Bassam of Brighton (Lab)
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My Lords, this has been a fascinating and illuminating series of speeches on the potential foreign ownership of UK news titles, particularly the Telegraph and the Spectator, by RedBird IMI. I echo the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell: this is a much larger issue than that newspaper group. There is a fundamental principle involved here, which is why all sides of the House wanted to rally round the issue.

We have witnessed not only the magical transformation of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, from agent provocateur, but the Government moving at a speed we would welcome elsewhere in public policy; it is something to behold for the future. We have come to understand better just how complicated the terms of international trade are and how careful we need to be when legislating to prevent the law of unintended circumstances kicking in.

Protecting the freedom of the press—and our politics—from foreign state interference is an important issue. That is why we supported the calls for government action, an issue I raised in January, and for decisive intervention. As I carefully explained to your Lordships’ House last week, we supported the spirit of the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, but not its detail. We on these Benches were genuinely concerned about security and the need to have a more comprehensive solution to the difficulties the Government face in tackling this issue. We can fairly say that those concerns have been more than adequately met with 16 pages of complex legislation, drafted magically by lawyers working at great pace; I congratulate them on that, and the officials in the Box. In particular, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, and the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, on his advocacy for this issue and his intelligence; both have applied pressure to secure a desirable outcome.

Most of the questions I wanted to ask have already been put, but I do have a few concerns, some of which have already been rehearsed in part. First, does the exemption referenced in the amendment cover just passive investments, and what would that mean in this context? Secondly, does it fully cover sovereign wealth funds and pension funds held by them, and what is their relationship with banks? Will there be a capping regime, and what will its thresholds be? Thirdly, will there be a 100% block on foreign state ownership, notwithstanding the 5% threshold the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, mentioned? What action can the Minister spell out for us on online publications such as the Independent and online-only magazine titles? I liked the suggestion from the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, that this might be picked up in the Media Bill. Whether the Media Bill will enable that, given its long title et cetera, is obviously a question for the clerks, but one that we should certainly ask.

We on these Benches have been more than happy to lend our support to this issue because of the importance in our political landscape of protecting a free and independent press that is not handcuffed by our state. On such issues, it is vital that there is cross-party unanimity. I am sure that noble Lords opposite will, in the future, want to do all they can to protect the integrity of that position, should a paper perceived to be of a different political colour come under a similar threat, whenever that might be. With that said, we await the Minister’s reply to the questions asked, which need a response. I congratulate all those concerned on bringing this difficult situation to a happy conclusion.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for their support for these amendments and the work undertaken. I thank my noble friend Lady Stowell for commending the work of Julia Lopez, the media Minister, and indeed the department and the officials more broadly. My noble friend also acknowledged the specific quasi-judicial role of the Secretary of State in her ongoing determination of the case before her, but acknowledged that she obviously has a role in all this. On the broader question of media mergers, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State of course remains very much involved as well, but I thank my noble friend for her appreciation for both. I agree with my noble friend Lord Forsyth in his praise for the civil servants who worked thoroughly and quickly on this matter, including over Mother’s Day weekend. I am grateful for that recognition.

My noble friend Lord Forsyth rightly pointed out that he has not moved since tabling his regret amendment to the Media Bill. The Government have made explicit and put beyond doubt what was implicit and possible in the existing regime, as I set out on Report. We are very happy to take the opportunity to do that clearly, in the way that we do through these amendments, and, indeed, to set out now the new lower threshold. My noble friend Lady Stowell is right: we will set it at 5%, which is considerably lower than the existing threshold. I am glad that my noble friend welcomes that. She is right in the characterisation of what I said: anyone blocked at what she calls stage 1—the new automatic block on foreign state investment—will not be able to be exempted at what she calls stage 2. She is right, as well, to make the distinction between foreign investment and foreign state investment, and to make it clear, as I was very happy to, that the UK remains open for business. This is a discrete area and an important one in our national life, which is why we are acting in the way we have.

My noble friend Lord Faulks and the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, asked about the role of banks. We do not think that, in the ordinary course of events, debt and debt refinancing from foreign banks which have a state interest should be captured, unless the structure of the transaction gives rise to concerns about influence. We are considering precisely how debt and debt refinancing should be treated in cases where the structure of debt may give rise to concerns about foreign state investment organisations. But as I say, as we bring these provisions forward in secondary legislation, I am very happy to continue conversations with noble Lords and, indeed, to have conversations with those who will be directly affected.

My noble friend Lord Faulks invited me to set out what we are doing in consulting shortly on expanding the existing media mergers regime and the foreign state ownership provisions, to include online news websites. That will enable us to make changes that ensure that online news, whether from an established newspaper group or an online publisher, is covered by the media regime and the new measures we are introducing for foreign state media ownership.

The Secretary of State will maintain a quasi-judicial role in media mergers. The public interest regime will remain as it is, but we are adding a new parallel foreign state intervention regime. The Secretary of State will not have discretion under that; she will have to follow the report of the Competition and Markets Authority, both on whether there is a foreign state merger and an exemption. She would need to lay an order before Parliament to block a transaction, which would be under the negative procedure. We will debate what I have announced in the provisions that we will bring forward after Royal Assent, setting out an exemption for investments where the stake is below 5%, and noble Lords will have the opportunity to scrutinise that under the affirmative procedure.

I am grateful to noble Lords who have engaged with us and our officials in recent days as we work on these amendments. I am glad that they have your Lordships’ support. I beg to move.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Portrait Lord Forsyth of Drumlean (Con)
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Before my noble friend sits down, when can we expect the secondary legislation to appear?

Lord Bassam of Brighton Portrait Lord Bassam of Brighton (Lab)
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Can the Minister also clarify the point about online publications? Will these be included within the statutory instrument?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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We will shortly consult on expanding the existing media mergers to look at online. The new regime will not cover TV and radio broadcasts at this time, but we will continue to consider that in our broader work on the media mergers regime. As my noble friend Lord Lansley pointed out, there are specific additional protections through the regime to which they are subject under Ofcom.

My noble friend Lord Forsyth rightly asks when we will bring in the secondary legislation. We want to do it after Royal Assent of this Bill, which is in the control of Parliament, not just the Government. Officials are working on it already. I cannot commit to a date for its introduction, but I am happy to commit to continuing our conversations as we work on it and before we introduce it after Royal Assent.

Lord Faulks Portrait Lord Faulks (Non-Afl)
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I have one more question, if I may? I asked about the change in wording in the Enterprise Act from “material influence” to “influence”. I suggested that there might be a reason behind that. Can the Minister clarify the thinking behind the change?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I will reply in writing, if my noble friend is happy with that, so that I can give him the legalese which he would want.

Amendment 1 agreed.