Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill Debate

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Department: Department for Business and Trade
If I had been quicker off the mark, I would have added my name to Amendment 59, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. This would give the CMA a duty to further the interest of citizens as well as consumers. I am deeply concerned that, across all Bills in this policy area, the Government are failing to raise their gaze to the future. We can take one certainty from the last decade or two: what may be okay for today’s consumer may not be okay for tomorrow’s citizen. We have seen this in the past when a decade and a half of untrammelled exploitation of children by social media companies was allowed. We will see it in the near future, as the battle for the water and energy needed for large computational models hots up. Neither the market nor the business model is yet a settled fact, and AI will certainly change the gatekeepers and the market hugely. Adding “citizen” would allow the CMA to take a more sophisticated approach to market analysis. It protects the UK public, many of whom are impacted by these markets even when not directly engaging.
Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, I added my name to Amendment 49, which was opened in detail by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton. Therefore, and also because we are on Report, I can be extremely brief. I declare my interest as a barrister. I practise, among other places, in the Competition Appeal Tribunal, for both applicants and respondents. I will make two short points, although they are linked.

First, Clause 101, particularly subsection (1), provides individual rights to consumers. Having done so, we must find an effective method to enable those consumers to vindicate those legal rights. There is no point Parliament passing laws that provide people with individual rights if there is no effective real-world mechanism for those people to vindicate and enforce those rights. Not only is that a basic proposition of the rule of law, as the noble learned Lord, Lord Etherton, said, but this otherwise risks us engaging in a legislative form of Tantalus, where we place rights just in front of people: they can see the rights, but they cannot grasp and actually use them. I submit that that would be wrong in principle. If we are going to enable people to vindicate their rights, the obvious place—in fact, the only place in our current legal system—is the Competition Appeal Tribunal, where, as the House has heard, there is already experience in both opt-in and opt-out collective proceedings.

Secondly, in Committee, it was suggested that perhaps all these rights should be exercised through the regulator, and there is therefore no need for the collective proceedings. Sometimes the law does that: sometimes we pass laws that mean that people have to go through a regulator, or sometimes an officeholder, in order to vindicate their individual positions. But we have taken that decision of principle in Clause 101(1): we have given rights to individuals and consumers in the Bill. Given that, it seems to me that the only sensible course is to provide an effective mechanism for people to vindicate their rights.

Finally, while I am on my feet, I add my voice to Amendment 13, proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Faulks. I certainly agree with what he said about proportionality. I add only this, as the sort of person who might be making this argument in future. It would be all the more easy and attractive for counsel if “proportionate” was left in the legislation, having had this debate, and for them then to say, “Oh well, Parliament must have meant a merits review, because it went into it with its eyes open”. The noble Lord, Lord Faulks, and my noble friend Lord Lansley eloquently set out the consequences of leaving the word in. Therefore, if we now leave the word in, it will be even easier for counsel—I declare again the obvious interest—to make the ingenious argument. Having had that amendment explained, it seems to me all the more important that we take the right decision in relation to it.

Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow that piece of logic. I do not need to speak for very long in support of the many important amendments that have been spoken to in this group. The Minister, in Committee and in his welcome letters and meetings, has attempted to rebut the need for them—but I am afraid that, in all cases, their proponents have been rather more persuasive in wishing to see the CMA unambiguously able to exercise its powers.

In a different context, the Communications and Digital Committee, chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell of Beeston, in its report on large language models, said that there was a considerable “risk of regulatory capture”. Mindful of that, we need to make sure that the CMA has those powers.

I turn to the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, and his argument about the dangers of introducing proportionality, also spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson. On these Benches, we fully support having that provision in the Bill, as in the noble Lord’s Amendment 13. Human rights for big tech is not really a slogan that I am prepared to campaign on.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, will no doubt introduce her Amendments 43, 46, 51 and 52 on appeal mechanisms for penalties, which differ from all the other decisions of the CMA. We very much support her in those amendments, and we have signed them. I also support the noble Baroness’s Amendment 59. The Minister took the trouble to write, explaining why the Government did not consider including a duty to citizens, but sometimes such clarification, as in this case, makes us only more enthusiastic for change. I am afraid that citing overlap and the creation and operation of the DRCF is not enough; nor is citing the risk of regulatory overreach, given its inclusion 20 years ago in the Communications Act. We agree with the conclusions of the original task force.

We also support the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, on the importance of placing time limits on the Secretary of State in approving the CMA guidance under the digital markets provisions of the Bill, in Amendment 56. Although I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell of Beeston, will not be pressing it to a vote, we very much support her in her relentless campaign for improved parliamentary scrutiny. This has been identified by so many parliamentary committees, not least by the Industry and Regulators Committee on which I sit. It seems extraordinary that we are still waiting to implement the kind of solution that she is putting forward, and I hope very much that the House will take forward her suggestion.

We also very much support in principle the amendment proposed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, on collective proceedings. He may not press the amendment to a Division today, but this is a vital change that we should make to ensure that rights in this area can be properly exercised and enforced. If the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, seeks the opinion of the House on his Amendment 13, the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, on her Amendment 43, and the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, on his Amendment 56, we will support them.