Clauses 116 - Removal of requirement for agreements etc to be implemented in the UK

Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 10:00 am ar 27 Mehefin 2023.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Ceidwadwyr, Kettering

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Clauses 117 to 121 stand part.

That schedule 3 be the Third schedule to the Bill.

Clauses 122 and 123 stand part.

Clauses 134 and 135 stand part.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I hope my voice will stand up to this level of scrutiny. Part 2 of the Bill focuses on the UK’s existing competition regime. First, I will explain that while the CMA is the principal regulator responsible for the public enforcement of the prohibitions in part 1 of the Competition Act 1998, its functions are also exercisable concurrently by sector regulators, such as Ofgem and Ofcom, among others. The measures in clauses 116 to 120 and clause 135, and when we reach them clauses 136 and 137 and schedules 8, 9 and 11, affect the CMA and sector regulators. For the sake of brevity, I will just refer to the CMA.

Clause 116 extends the territorial reach of the chapter 1 prohibition in the Competition Act 1998. The prohibition relates to anti-competitive agreements, decisions by associations of undertakings or concerted practices, hereafter simply referred to as agreements. The chapter 1 prohibition captures agreements that have as their object or effect the prevention, restriction or distortion of competition within the UK, and which may affect trade within the UK. Currently, it is limited to agreements that are, or are intended to be, implemented within the UK. The extension in reach of the chapter 1 prohibition means that agreements implemented, or intended to be implemented, outside the UK are also captured, but only where they would be likely to have immediate, substantial and foreseeable effects on trade within the UK.

Clause 117 introduces a new duty to preserve documents on persons who know or suspect that an investigation is being, or is likely to be, carried out under the Competition Act 1998. The duty will apply from when a person knows or suspects that an investigation by the CMA is under way or likely to occur. Where a person has a reasonable excuse for not complying with the duty, no liability for a penalty will arise. A reasonable excuse could include something out of an individual’s control, such as an IT failure.

Clause 118 strengthens the CMA’s powers to require the production of electronic information stored remotely—for example, in the cloud—when executing warrants to enter business or domestic premises. Under this reform, the CMA will be able to require the production of information for the purposes of its investigation without needing to demonstrate when making the request the specific relevance of the particular dataset to be produced. It will then be able to take copies or extracts only of information that is relevant to the investigation. The CMA will also be able to operate equipment to produce remotely stored information itself. Clause 134 makes similar amendments to the CMA’s power to require the production of electronic information when executing a warrant during an investigation into a suspected criminal cartel offence under part 6 of the Enterprise Act 2002.

Clause 119 amends part 1 of schedule 1 to the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001, to include the power of the CMA to undertake an inspection of domestic premises, under section 28A of the Competition Act 1998. That means that when the CMA undertakes an inspection of domestic premises, it will have access to the same seize and sift powers as are already available to it when it inspects business premises under a warrant.

Clause 135 also concerns the CMA’s investigative powers. First, it expands the CMA’s power to require persons to answer questions for the purposes of a Competition Act 1998 investigation, so that it applies regardless of whether the person has a connection to a business under investigation. The CMA will be able to require individuals to answer questions only where they have information that is relevant to an investigation. Secondly, the clause amends the CMA’s powers to require individuals to answer questions across its Enterprise Act 2002 markets and mergers and Competition Act 1998 functions, so that it can specify that interviews for those purposes should take place remotely.

Clause 120 amends the standard of review applied by the Competition Appeal Tribunal in appeals against interim measure decisions from full merits to judicial review. Interim measures are temporary directions that the CMA has the power to give during an investigation under the Competition Act 1998. To be an effective tool in fast-moving modern markets, it is essential that interim measures can be implemented efficiently. Judicial review will provide a flexible and proportionate standard of review, ensuring the CMA is held accountable appropriately for its decisions.

Clause 121 introduces schedule 3 to the Bill, which amends the Competition Act 1998 to empower the Competition Appeal Tribunal to grant declaratory relief in private actions claims under the Competition Act 1998. Declaratory relief is a remedy that involves a court making a legally binding statement on the application of the law to a set of facts.

Clause 122 gives the Competition Appeal Tribunal, the High Court of England and Wales, the Court of Session and sheriff courts in Scotland and the High Court in Northern Ireland the ability to award exemplary damages in private competition claims. This will help deter and punish particularly egregious conduct and ensure that those impacted by the most reckless breaches of competition law can be awarded additional damages.

Clause 123 amends section 71 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 to designate the CMA as a specified prosecutor. This designation will allow the CMA to enter into formal agreements with an offender who has assisted or offered to assist its criminal cartel offence investigations. For example, if it considered it appropriate, the CMA could agree not to use specified information against them in any criminal proceedings. Agreements to provide assistance can also be taken into account by the courts when sentencing an offender, or their sentence could be referred back to the court for review. These measures do not enable the CMA to offer immunity from prosecution.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Minister (Tech, Gambling and the Digital Economy)

Part 2 focuses on the competition elements of the Bill. I am pleased to see clause 116, which expands the territorial reach of parts of the Competition Act 1998. Labour recognises the importance of ensuring that legislation already on the statute book is aligned with the intentions behind the Bill, because we understand that regulation of our digital markets will draw on existing competition law. We therefore welcome the clause, which will expand chapter 1 of the 1998 Act. The chapter 1 of the 1998 Act considers only undertakings and decisions that might affect trade within the UK, and which have as their object or effect the prevention, restriction or distortion of competition. At the moment, those behaviours are prohibited only where they are, or are intended to be, implemented in the United Kingdom, but we need to consider the impact of agreements, decisions and practices that might affect trade within the United Kingdom. Subsection (2) of the clause will replace the existing section of the 1998 Act to ensure that a consideration of the effect on trade will be considered. That is particularly important in the context of digital markets because they operate on a global level.

The clause goes some way to address the lack of futureproofing in the Bill more widely. The Minister knows my thoughts on that, and knows the Bill should go further in that regard. That aside, we welcome subsection (3), which will repeal the existing equivalent in the 1998 Act. The introduction of the qualified test will ensure that UK trade and businesses and consumers based in the United Kingdom, are protected from any detrimental effects of anti-competitive conduct, regardless of where that conduct takes place. That is welcome, and we consider the measure to strike a positive balance.

We welcome the clarity and the changes to the 1998 Act that will bring important provisions of the Bill into line with existing legislation. We have therefore not sought to amend the Bill, and we support those measures being part of it.

Clause 117 is important in that, once again, it will amend part 1 of the 1998 Act. We know that big companies can often be smart in concealing, or even overloading, information relevant to regulatory regimes, and we have seen that happen time and again when it comes to online safety. Labour does not want the same detrimental behaviours to be allowed to continue within this regime. We therefore welcome the provisions in the clause, particularly proposed new section 25B, which sets it out that the duty applies where

“a person knows or suspects that an investigation by the CMA… is… or is likely to be carried out.”

The inclusion of a person “suspecting” is important, and, in theory, it will push companies to abide by their duties. Recently, we have seen those at the heart of Government in the news owing to their failure to produce vital documents in investigations of the covid-19 pandemic, so it is very welcome indeed that the Government appear to have learned their lessons and worked to ensure that designated companies will not be able to circumvent the regime, as a former Prime Minister has attempted to do.

Let me get back to the Bill and the matters at hand. In practice, those duties will arise where a business receives a case initiation letter from the CMA, so it will be perfectly aware that its conduct is under investigation. Such duties might further arise when, for example, an individual working for a business is aware that a customer has reported their suspicions of price fixing, and that the customer has been interviewed by the CMA, or members of an anti-competitive agreement have been “tipped off” that a member of the agreement has blown the whistle to the CMA. Those are important clarifications, which we welcome. We therefore support their inclusion in the Bill.

We support clause 118, which specifically amends sections 28 and 28A of the 1998 Act, and we support the clarity with respect to the execution of such warrants—for example, a named CMA officer has the power to require the production of information that is held electronically and is accessible from the premises. It is a positive step to have these amendments to the 1998 Act, which will expand the powers of the court or the CAT to grant a warrant to the CMA based on the fact that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that there are documents relating to an investigation that are accessible from the premises, when the other criteria set out in the section are met. Those powers will apply to any information stored electronically, and we hope and expect that the provisions of the clause will rarely be used. Despite that, we fully support their inclusion. It is right and appropriate that businesses and other jurisdictions looking closely at the Bill have a sense of the process that will result in the event of the CMA being forced to act on a warrant. The clause and others in this part of the Bill are an important part of ensuring compliance, and we therefore welcome the provisions in full.

Clause 119 is, once again, an important clause that will amend existing legislation. The powers of seizure conferred by section 28 of the 1998 Act are already specified for the purposes of section 50 of the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001, so the amendment will align the powers available to the CMA whether it is inspecting business or domestic premises under a warrant, and it will make consequential changes in the light of those made by clause 118. These practical clauses will make important changes to legislation to bring other provisions in line with the Bill.

Clause 120 is incredibly important because it will change the standard of review to be applied by the CAT on appeals against interim measures directions under section 35 of the 1998 Act. The Minister knows that Labour feels passionately that judicial review is the correct approach, so again I press him not to weaken the measures in the other place. As we know, under section 35 of the Competition Act 1998, when an investigation has been commenced but not completed, the CMA has the power to issue directions, known as interim measures, for the purpose of preventing significant damage to a particular person or category of person or protecting the public interest. Clause 120(1) amends section 46 of the Competition Act 1998 to make it clear that a decision either to make or to not make interim measures can be appealed to the CAT by any party to an agreement in respect of which the CMA has made such a decision. We welcome that clarification. Subsections (2) to (4) contain important points, which we also welcome. I would be grateful if the Minister could reassure us that those provisions will not be weakened and that the appeals process will not be reduced to a merits-based process in the other place. To be clear, if I have not already been clear, we fully support clause 120 and its intentions.

We welcome the provisions in schedule 3, which gives the CAT the power to make legally binding statements on the application of the law to a particular set of facts. Particularly helpful is paragraph 4, which inserts proposed new section 47DA into the Competition Act. The proposed new section provides clarification and enables legislative parity across the UK, particularly with Scotland and England and Wales. That is welcome for the legislation to work as intended.

I do not feel that I need to go into any further detail about our support for the other clauses in the grouping, but I wish to make a point about clause 134 in regard to the Serious Fraud Office’s investigations of suspected cartel offences. The clause will enable a named CMA officer to require the production of information that is held electronically and accessible during an inspection under a warrant. It would also expand the powers of the High Court and the CAT in England and Wales and Northern Ireland, and the sheriff in Scotland, to grant a warrant if necessary. We support those provisions in their entirety. It is important that the CMA is able to act in the most serious of circumstances.

Finally, Labour supports the intentions of clause 135; of course there should be provisions in the Bill about the attendance of witnesses, as outlined in the clause. We see those as sensible and a key focus if the regime is to work in practice.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 116 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 117 to 121 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 3 agreed to.

Clauses 122 and 123 ordered to stand part of the Bill.