Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill Debate

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Department: Department for Business and Trade
Lord Faulks Portrait Lord Faulks (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, may I crave the indulgence of the Committee? Unfortunately, I missed the first minute of the speech made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, as I was trying to comply with etiquette and remain in the Chamber until the conclusion of the opening speeches on the Rwanda Bill. If the Committee permits, the points I was going to make have largely been made by others, so I can be particularly brief.

At the heart of this legislation is the decision: do we want the regulation to be done by the DMU or, de facto, by the courts? This is, effectively, a twin attack. First, there is the proportionality provision inserted into the statute, and now we have the change in the test of appeals on sentences. The combination of those two seems inevitably to lead to further court involvement, and it is not the intention that courts should be the regulator. The courts are there, as the noble Lord said, to stop executive overreach or some illegality in the approach based on usual JR principles. They are not there to second-guess what the DMU has done.

If the amendments, or something like them, are not accepted, I fear that an appeal of the merits will involve going into everything, as other noble Lords have said. We would have the war of the lever arch files, so eloquently described by the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, at Second Reading. Lawyers will act, and continue to act, and it will frustrate what we are trying to achieve.

Lord Vaizey of Didcot Portrait Lord Vaizey of Didcot (Con)
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My Lords, as I have been cited by the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, it is incumbent on me to speak on the same principles as him. Everything that I want to say has already been said, but that will not stop me putting in my two pennies’ worth. This is the stuck-record part of the debate, where I repeat what I said at Second Reading and simply put on record my support for all these amendments.

I will pick up on what some noble Lords said in their comments. I wholeheartedly endorse what my noble friend Lady Stowell said. In the real world, if you have an appeal on the merits of a fine, it seems almost impossible to see how you stop leakage into an appeal on the merits of the case. So you are, in effect, back to square one and, as the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, put it, the war of the lever arch file.

The speech by the noble Lord, Lord Tyrie, was fascinating and a master class on the different aspects of judicial review: an appeal on the merits, an appeal on JR-plus, or an appeal on JR. When I was a Minister, I dealt with this debate with Ofcom, when it started the process of wanting to move from appeals on the merits to appeals on JR. To the layman, an appeal on the merits is in effect a full rehearing of the case: you go back to square one and simply have the trial all over again. An appeal on JR means that you at least have to identify a flaw in the reasoning of the regulator when it comes to a judgment. If, in effect—here, I bow to the expertise of the noble Lord, Lord Tyrie—settled law informed by European directives means that some element of the merits of the case are taken into account in a JR appeal of a regulator, so be it. It may be the difference between a passive and an active decision, as it were.

In this Committee, we understand how you can judicially review a decision by a government department. When a regulator is making an active decision to bring a prosecution, and it then finds guilty the company that it is prosecuting, some element of the merits may well be taken into account. It seems to me that how it is drafted may well be important, but the clear intent should be that any appeal, whether on the actual decision or the level of the fine, should be an appeal based on JR, when it comes to how a judicial review is understood when appealing a decision by a regulator.

I finish with the simple point—this is the stuck-record part—that it clearly is the settled will of this Committee, and I suspect it will be the will of the House when this comes to Report, to constantly guard against giving the SMS companies too much opportunity to wriggle out of decisions made by the regulator.

I should add that a lot of the tone of my remarks at Second Reading and in Committee might make it seem that I am in the pocket of the regulator. I am certainly not. I have lots of concerns that, at other times, would make me say that I think the regulator often strays too far and interferes in far too many cases. I am not resiling from the fact that there clearly should be an opportunity to appeal its decisions. Often, it backs away before it gets to a decision, but its interference in mergers and takeovers sometimes leaves me slightly baffled, particularly when it involves companies that have very little presence in the UK market. I am not saying, by any stretch of the imagination, that the regulator is perfect, but I know that any procedure it undertakes, as it will do when this law is passed, will be long and expensive, so we must guard against making it even longer and even more expensive.

Baroness Harding of Winscombe Portrait Baroness Harding of Winscombe (Con)
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My Lords, I seem to have found my space in this Committee following my noble friend Lord Vaizey again. I have put my name to Amendments 65, 67, 71 and 72 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones.

I would like to add a possible new element to the discussion, as I am conscious that otherwise we are all just literally repeating each other’s words. My noble friend Lady Stowell talked about the practicalities of a full merits appeal for fines and her concerns. We should also think about the incentives on the designated firms and on the CMA.

Much of what we are debating in this Committee is about how we balance the inequality of arms between companies with enormous resources, and the concern that independent regulators, given a large amount of power, can occasionally make mistakes. That is the essence of this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Tyrie, spoke eloquently about the risk of regulators making mistakes. I wish to add to the discussion some facts about the sheer scale of the inequality of arms.

According to a number of different sources, the best public assessment we can get of Apple’s legal budget is that it is north of $100 billion a year. Bruce Sewell, who stepped down in 2017 after eight years as Apple’s general counsel, gave an interview to a student at Columbia Law School in 2019 in which he set out how he thinks about the legal department and the legal budget in a technology company. He said that, rather than take clearly safe actions, the job of the general counsel is to

“steer the ship as close to that line as you can, because that’s where the competitive advantage lies … you want to get to the point where you can use risk as a competitive advantage”.

So, when you have a $1 billion legal budget, you can afford to play the risk card on every review. You can afford to fully resource every full merits review, whereas when you are the regulator, with a substantially smaller legal budget, you cannot risk every single one of your decisions going to a full merits review.

The incentives are equally divergent. The incentive on the regulator is to be really risk-averse; to not risk being challenged. That means that you will not bring the case in the first place. As the noble Lord, Lord Tyrie, said last week, we know that we need to embolden our competition regulator. One of the big opportunities on leaving the EU is to have a much stronger competition regime because we know that that will drive stronger economic growth. But a full merits regime, in any part of the process, will make the regulator more risk-averse and will drive the incentive to sail closer to the wind, as Bruce Sewell said. Sailing closer to the wind means less collaboration with the regulator, because you are much better off playing your legal cards in the courts. In both those cases, that is not the regime that we are trying to design. We need to recognise that it is not just about practicalities; incentives are really hard to avoid if you have a full merits appeal process at any stage.

I am therefore left asking why the Government are proposing to do this for fines. The argument we have heard up to now is that the reason for doing so is to align with the Enterprise Act. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyrie, beautifully set out, they are not really aligning with anything in this regime, so that argument does not wash. It is not the same as the regulatory regime for appeals in the sector I come from, telecoms. As I said at Second Reading—I apologise for repeating it—I do not really understand why small telecoms companies, tiny in comparison with these tech giants, are fine to cope with a JR on fines decisions, but the large tech giants need the extra protection of a full merits review, in case they are fined too much money. It sounds like the worst form of tech exceptionalism. Looking at digital regulation in this House in the last couple of years, we have learned that the era of tech exceptionalism should be over and that technology companies are just the same as other companies. They are not wicked and evil but driven by incentives to do a good job for their stakeholders, and if we define the rules of the game to encourage them to use their legal budgets to challenge the regulator, that is what they will do.

Therefore, I am left to believe, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyrie, said, that the only reason for the change made on Report in the House of Commons was that it was part of some form of explicit or implicit deal to open a back door that will weaken the Bill, which will therefore not achieve what we want. I strongly support the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. Later we will come to how, if we accept them, we will ensure strong parliamentary scrutiny. I hope very much that we do not think we trade one for the other.

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Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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My Lords, it is lovely to be reminded of previous remarks but, of course, that was then and this is now. We were talking about the standard for Ofcom then; today, we are talking about the CMA standard. The noble Lord would need to produce evidence that that standard did not in fact have a really poor outcome as a result of the power of big tech not being as limited as it could have been. He talked about us needing to recognise the power of big tech, but that is exactly what adopting the JR standard—the Wednesbury “unreasonable” standard that the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, talked about last week, and which all of us are content to stick with—would do.

Of course, what we are trying to do, if possible—if the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, are accepted—is to revert back to a JR standard for penalties. I believe that consistency across the board is rather more important than trying to revert to a form of appeals standard that obtains in a different part of the regulatory forest. However, as the noble Lord said, the danger of executive overreach is much more easily cured by increased parliamentary scrutiny than by trying to, in a sense, muddy the waters of the test for appeals.

What the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, said about incentives was entirely right. Litigation has clearly been used and is being used by big tech for strategic business purposes. We are trying to make sure that this does not drag on for ever and that appealing against the penalties does not open up the whole caboodle as a result. The noble Lord, Lord Black, and others who talked about the change of standard for penalties infecting other aspects of a CMA decision, made very strong points.

Ultimately, the Minister has a large number of questions from noble Lords. The noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, asked what would be relevant for an appeal on penalties. What is the motivation for the Government in putting forward this new standard for penalties? What is so special about it and what evidence did they use to come to that view? Is not the danger of using a merits appeal basis that the decisions on which the penalty was based will be unpicked? The practicalities were also raised by a number of noble Lords.

Lord Vaizey of Didcot Portrait Lord Vaizey of Didcot (Con)
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I intervene on the point that the noble Lord, Lord Tyrie, made to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. There is a difference. The noble Lord was absolutely right to raise his concerns about Ofcom moving from a merits-based to JR-based appeal, in 2017. As the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, knows very well, Ofcom often makes decisions on extremely complicated pricing mechanisms. The telecoms companies had a point in saying that a merits-based appeal for Ofcom decisions is worth while, because going through the calculations again could sometimes be worth £50 million, £100 million or £200 million.

Ofcom was right in finally moving to JR for those cases when it took quite important strategic decisions about the marketplace—for example, forcing Sky Sports to offer its content wholesale to competitors. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, had a point then and he has one today.

Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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It is very nice and helpful to be reminded of things that I had forgotten entirely. We need to make sure that we are consistent across the board. A full merits-based standard is not, for example, used to appeal against fines issued by Ofcom under the Online Safety Act. These Benches have serious concerns regarding the insertion of two different appeal standards in the Bill, as it may decrease the deterrent effect and risk lengthier appeals, as we have heard.

If we are not successful in persuading the Government to change back to JR for penalty appeals, and a merits appeal is to be included, a number of amendments—the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, that in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, and my amendment—are of great relevance to make sure that we do not see that drift that the noble Lord, Lord Black, talked about. A failure to do so could run the same risks as an entirely novel appeals standard. On that basis, we very much support the amendments in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, and the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, and my own Amendment 68, which would ensure that there is no further extension of the merits appeal standards into any other part of the Bill. It is intended to have the same impact and draw a clear line in the sand beyond which no court can go.

I am sorry that we do not have the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, here to reveal perhaps another letter from a Minister. We had an interesting discussion last Wednesday, when the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, quoted the letter, sent to Damian Collins and Sir Robert Buckland, about the nature of the intention behind including “proportionate”. It said:

“In practice this means that firms will be able to challenge whether the DMU could have achieved its purpose for intervention through less onerous requirements”.

In a sense, that is a massive invitation to litigation, compared to ordinary JR. If that move is an invitation to litigation, think how much further along the road we are travelling if we go for a merits test for the fine and the penalties. I hope the Minister will therefore reverse course back to the pre-Report situation in the Commons; that would give a great deal of satisfaction around this Committee.

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To address the points made by my noble friends Lady Stowell, Lord Vaizey and Lord Kamall, and the noble Lord, Lord Tyrie, which were echoed by other noble Lords, firms will be able to appeal penalties only on their merits. The CAT will be able to quash the penalty and change its value or the date by which it is required to be paid. Appeals against all other digital markets decisions will be under judicial review principles. Where a penalty is quashed, the underlying breach decision still stands, unless it is separately reviewed under judicial review principles. If an SMS firm breached a conduct requirement enforcement order and was fined for it, it could appeal the breach decision on JR.
Lord Vaizey of Didcot Portrait Lord Vaizey of Didcot (Con)
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I found my noble friend’s remarks very helpful, because they shone a brief light on the Government’s position. Is he saying that, by introducing an on-the-merits appeal for fines, the Government are effectively allowing the CAT to substitute its decision for that of the regulators, whereas if it were a judicial review it would simply have to send back the decision on the quantum or the timing of the fine back to regulator; in which case, he may have a point?

Viscount Camrose Portrait Viscount Camrose (Con)
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I hope very much that I have a point. I think it would be best for me to write to my noble friend and the members of the Committee to clarify that.