Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill – Second Reading | Lords debates

My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in this Second Reading. In doing so, I declare my interests as set out in the register, as an adviser to Ecospend Ltd and Boston Ltd respectively, and as a member of the board at Channel Four Television Corporation. I would like to talk briefly about the opportunity, then the Bill at large and then make some points on specific elements within it as currently constructed.

There exists a huge opportunity for the UK with the new technologies that we have available to us. If we conceive of them as tools in our human hands—yes, incredibly powerful tools but in our human hands, led by our human heads and hearts—that will give us the greatest chance of success for small, medium and potentially successful unicorn businesses, right across the United Kingdom. Some of the greatest elements of these technologies are that you do not necessarily have to be in the capital, or indeed in a city at all; you can have an international business with a laptop and a decent broadband connection from your bedroom. When we look at how we can combine those new technologies with the great good fortune of the United Kingdom’s financial services sector, and perhaps the most prized and often underrated good fortune that we have, which is English common law, the potential that we have individually and collectively as a nation—one that is looking out to connect internationally—is as good as infinite.

What we really need to see as a golden thread running through the Bill is that everything we do in this space is inclusive by design. Everything is predicated on the fundamental truth that it is our data—our decisions, our intellectual property and our copyrighted content. None of these platforms or huge businesses has very much at all without our data, our ID and our copyrighted content. We need to address, legislate and regulate for this fundamental truth.

The Bill itself is not small and it is getting bigger. Perhaps more concerning from a parliamentary perspective is that, when it entered Second Reading in the House of Commons, it had 35 Henry VIII clauses. As we start Second Reading here, that number has risen to 43. I calculate that to be a Tudorian rate of inflation of around 23%. I ask my noble friend the Minister: is this the way the Government wish to legislate? Does it make sense to have an increasing number of such clauses in our primary legislation? As we already have 43 of them, will the Minister confirm that they will all be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure?

It is a big Bill, and noble Lords have covered many of the issues eloquently and effectively at this stage. I will go relatively rapidly over a few areas I think are worthy of consideration. First, on the Competition and Markets Authority, our regulators are nothing if not independent. We have some of the most respected regulators around the world, but, if their independence is even perceived to be called into question, they and we have a problem. As we saw in our discussions during the passage of the Financial Services and Markets Bill, independence should never be confused with accountability and parliamentary scrutiny. It is absolutely essential that the regulators must be accountable to Parliament. There must be the right scrutiny mechanisms in place. As we heard earlier in the debate, we need that level of expert input so that a parliamentary Select Committee can effectively hold these regulators to account.

So that is accountability and scrutiny: good. But, on encroaching on independence, perhaps less so. Is it wise, as currently constructed in the Bill, for the Secretary of State to have sign-off powers over the guidance that will come from the regulator? That seems to go well beyond any sort of normal arrangement between government and an independent regulator. Similarly, when talking about the CMA, the Bill is peppered with references to proportionality and being proportionate, but the CMA already has to operate in a proportionate manner. So what do these additional references to proportionality add? Do they not potentially lead to confusion and less clarity for both the regulator and those who will find themselves regulated?

As many noble Lords have commented on, I am similarly concerned by the introduction of the full merits test when it comes to fines issued by the regulator. It is fairly clear, as the Bill is currently constructed, where the difference is between full merits and JR. But why are we taking a full merits approach when no other economic regulator has such an approach put upon it? We do not even need to reach back 25 years, or five years indeed, into history. Why do we not go for one of the most recent pieces of legislation, which many noble Lords present were involved with—the Online Safety Act? When it comes to fines issued by Ofcom, there is no full merits procedure there. Why are we looking at a different approach in this piece of legislation, as it is currently drafted?

Moving on to pricing and payments, the Government have spoken often, and rightly, around the present problem of drip pricing. Yet there is currently nothing in the Bill to address it. I ask my noble friend the Minister why this is. Would this Bill not offer the ideal opportunity to address the practice of drip pricing, which so many people find themselves on the wrong end of? Similarly, when looking at leveraging principles, would we not wish to strengthen the Bill in that respect? Otherwise, the potential danger is that—to take the app example so eloquently pointed out by my friend the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth—those prices, that 30%, simply gets moved and applied to a different part of the ecosystem. It could be moved, applied again, and thus nothing would be achieved from this legislation as currently constructed.

As other noble Lords have commented, I agree that we have to address the issue around charities and gift aid. I would probably be more in the camp of my noble friend Lord Kamall, in that we should consider this carefully, rather than simply saying “There’s an issue around Gift Aid” and drafting a blanket exemption. We want to consider this carefully and come up with some more elegant drafting around this point.

As I already stated, none of this is anything if it is not predicated on being inclusive by design. A key strand within that is obviously accessibility. There is a real problem with the Bill as currently constructed if we want all these markets and platforms to be accessible for all. Although Clause 20(2)(C) talks about the information describing the activity needing to be accessible, the Bill does not require the activities—the platforms themselves—to be accessible. Buildings were designed 500 years ago with no thought of accessibility or disabled people, yet, in the main, they have now been made pretty accessible. For example, take the Palace of Westminster—a grade 1 listed building. It is not perfect by any means, but it is pretty accessible, and a great job of work has been done. Why would we seek to rebuild steps and inaccessibility in cyberspace when all these markets are constructed, if you will, on completely greenfield sites?

Inaccessibility and exclusion will happen if the concept of “inclusive by design” is not written right through every element of the development and deployment of these platforms, and thus into the digital markets we describe. So would it not make sense to look at, for example, the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations 2018, and seek to draft some amendments to that effect so that we truly have not just accessibility around the information but accessibility around the activity, service, platform and market? Those regulations are more effectively drafted and are practically implementable. They look to the international web of accessibility guidelines. Would the Government not wish all the platforms and everything in this digital markets Bill to be rooted in such firm grounding?

In some final collected thoughts, I will also comment on the right to repair. In your Lordships’ House and the other place, rightly we often talk about resource and resource matters. But we should also talk much more about resourcefulness, and how we make optimum use of the resource we have. It seems perfectly logical and timely, if not urgent, to have something in this legislation around a right to repair. Similarly, can I ask my noble friend the Minister what the budget will be for the DMU? It is being given quite a task. Although we have a full range of regulators across many sectors of our economy and society, one significant issue, which cannot be denied, is that if we do not fund them to the right level, we cannot then criticise or be disappointed if they are unable to do their job as Parliament intended. Similarly, when will the Government look to quantify many of the measures set out in the Bill—currently largely white space?

Finally, we are talking about ex ante regulation, or EAR. We need to ensure that everybody is listening when we reach Committee, and we can then approach the Bill collectively, in a participatory manner and with those golden threads of inclusive by design and those fundamental truths again—that it is our data, our decisions, our legislation, our regulation and our digital futures.