Committee (4th Day)
My Lords, if there is a Division in the House, the Committee will adjourn for 10 minutes.
Clause 20 : The Competition and Markets Authority
24ZA: Clause 20, page 14, line 10, after “competition,” insert “including actions to reduce cartels, monopolies and monopsonies,”
My Lords, we now come to a part of the Bill which, at Second Reading, I said I regarded as in the “relatively good” category compared with some other parts of the Bill that we will be debating. Broadly speaking, that means that we approve of the objectives of this part of the Bill concerning the rationalisation of the competition structure. As we go on, I think we will find that the Government may well have overcomplicated some bits and missed out others, but in principle the merger between the CMA and the OFT will receive general support from this side—in particular, the prospect of it dealing with some of these issues more coherently, both within the new structure and in time, as well as with regard to the relationship between the new competition authority and the concurrent regulators, although we will have a number of queries on that.
Before we make the new organisation work, we need to know what it is there for. As with many Bills introduced by all Governments setting up new organisations, two or three years down the line it is not always easy to derive from the Bill or Act why the organisation was set up. We need an objective so that business knows how to relate to the organisation, so that there is some transparency for the public about its role and so that in particular—I emphasise this, as will my noble friend Lady Hayter—there is clarity about the role of consumers and the ultimate objective of the new organisation to provide choice, customer care and a generally consumer-friendly market in which to operate. The central means in achieving that market is enhancing competition. The organisation also has to be realistic about, and proactive in, responding to market failures.
However, there is one area where I think that the role of the body has been underestimated and that is in relation to explicitly referring to the benefit or detriment of consumers. The aim of the two amendments in this group which are in my name is to tell the public and the organisation what its role really is. Government really does need to set the objectives and scope of this new body, otherwise in 10 years’ time no one will know what is expected of it and we will no doubt be back here within that 10 years looking at whether the competition regime is working. In the mean time, Governments will have to assess its importance, its resourcing and its priorities for the coming few years, and therefore there will be reviews, which will need to go back to the objective of the organisation.
We have attempted to set out in Amendments 24ZA and 24ZC some of those objectives. The first one, in Amendment 24ZA, relates to the CMA’s role in establishing competition and examining market failure and market distortion. We often talk about monopolies in this situation, and mostly it is about monopoly, oligopoly and dominant positions in providing goods and services in particular markets. However, it is also necessary to refer to monopsony. The first competition or anti-trust Acts in this country in the 1940s were very insistent on that point, and there are situations where a potential distortion of the market or abuse of a dominant position relates to the buyer’s market as much as the seller’s market. The Government have indeed recognised this—somewhat belatedly, under both this and the previous Government—in the groceries code, for example, where the power of the oligopoly structure of the supermarkets has a tremendous effect on relatively small companies which are, directly or indirectly, suppliers to those sectors. Therefore, the issue of buying power, as well as of provision of goods and services, is important and that is what these two amendments address.
Amendment 24ZA spells that out briefly and Amendment 24ZC defines it in more detail. Mergers are obviously one distortion of a market, but there is a broader issue of dominant position in a market. We all know that there is no such thing as a perfect market, because all the players in that market are not equal, either in their resources, their skills or their knowledge. Therefore, an unusually dominant player in the market distorts the market as a whole and we need to provide for the new organisation to focus clearly on a dominant position which may not, strictly speaking, be a monopoly or create a monopoly through a new merger.
We need to broaden it a bit and if we look at the areas which are probably those of most frequent consumer complaint, they are dominated by relatively few players. Consumers may experience different effects of the abuse of that market power in different sectors. There are so many sectors now in which there are, effectively, between four and eight companies which dominate and which—if there is not, strictly speaking, any provable cartel—tend to move in unison rather more frequently than a proper market would allow. There is an obvious current example in the energy market; the banking sector is similar. I have mentioned the supermarkets, which work both ways for customers and suppliers. There are other markets, such as the mobile phone market, in which not that many players dominate the market and quite a lot of apparent choice actually limits the range and scope of consumers’ choice.
I think that we need to define this, as I say, so that future generations will understand why it was set up. We need to define it for the new governance of the organisation, and we need to define it for the Minister, successive Ministers—although I wish Ministers a long life in these responsibilities—and for Parliament and the public, so that the new body can be held to account. I am not saying that the form of words we have used here is the be-all and end-all, but I want the Government to consider putting in such a clause to define the role of the organisation. I beg to move.
My Lords, I address my amendment in this group, Amendment 24ZCA. I am not sure that we really know how to deal with monopsonies, it has been so long since we had one that was truly powerful. I am not sure that the Bill gives us the ability to deal with them properly. My amendment will make sure that we can, because we can now observe one of these monopsonies in action and in the process of growing, and that is Amazon.
Amazon now has some 90% of the e-book market in the UK; it has something like 50% of the entire book market, e-books and physical books, in the US and close to that in the UK. However, when I have asked the OFT if it will look at some of the practices that Amazon employs in getting to where it is, it says, “No, because none of the major publishers has brought us any evidence”. The publishers will not even come into this House to have tea with me to discuss what is going on. They will not talk to the Guardian. They will not talk to anyone because Amazon is rough, hits hard, has its teeth into publishers’ necks and is sucking their lifeblood. There is no answer. If we are to do something as a nation, we need to equip ourselves with a system that is capable of going to the publishers and saying, “We think there might be something going on here. Please give us some evidence”. At the moment, the OFT is hamstrung and cannot do that. It has to wait until someone brings evidence to it. I would like to see a situation whereby this new body had the power to go out and look on its own account and not wait for evidence to be brought to it, because it is in the nature of monopsonies, particularly the powerful ones, to tie up the people who are involved in them and make it extremely difficult for any of those people to bring a complaint or evidence to the OFT, as it is, on their own accord.
Amazon is no friend to the UK. We may all think that it is a great place to buy—indeed it is, and I am having an interesting Christmas not buying from it. It treats us just as a distribution depot. It is not building a business here. It has no interest in the great history of British intellectual content. It is not like our publishers, who have a care for the nation and the part that the UK played in the world of books. We are just a source of a commodity to Amazon. It pays no tax, as is well known. It abuses VAT whenever it gets the opportunity. It has had a scam going on in Luxembourg for ages, which, thank goodness, the European Union is putting an end to, whereby it paid only 3% tax, rather than 20%. The company has been allowing sellers to hide their identities, so that they can operate VAT scams. It was an active participant in the abuse of low-value consignment relief. It is not a company with morality and it is not a nice organisation. As was said by the publisher who spoke anonymously to the Guardian, you dare not go against it because it would kill you.
Amazon’s terms on e-books are fascinating. As a publisher, you can get 35% of the price that it sells for, if you set the price. If you want more than that, Amazon gets to choose the price and you end up with less. If you are a big publisher, you may end up with only 10% of the price that Amazon is charging for an e-book. If you are selling through Amazon Marketplace, Amazon gets to know your customers, suppliers, prices and volumes; and if something is selling well, Amazon then does it itself. It goes straight to the manufacturer and undercuts you. That is all based on Amazon’s knowledge of your business. If you are selling on Amazon Marketplace, you are forbidden to sell anywhere else at a lower price or you are chucked off. Amazon is a very difficult company to live with.
What we are seeing is a monopsony in its growth phase. It is running on very low net margins in order to destroy the competition and increase its market power. If we act now, there are viable alternatives that will spring up to compete with it. If we leave it, we risk a situation where there is no competition, where there are no publishers any more because Amazon is the only place to publish direct, and where there is no ability to sell e-books other than through Kindles because Amazon controls them, and you cannot put outside software on them. We must give ourselves an opportunity to act, and act sensibly, and we cannot hamstring ourselves by sitting here and waiting for one of this company’s victims to complain before we act.
My Lords, this is a useful amendment for my noble friend Lord Whitty to move at the outset because it is broad and makes important points. I also thought that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, brought an interesting matter before us. I do not think that it is necessary to make that amendment to the Bill because I have little doubt that the Bill as it stands gives the new amalgamated body, the Competition and Markets Authority, all the powers it needs to investigate the problems of which he has spoken.
With regard to my noble friend Lord Whitty’s amendment, it is useful for monopsonies to be included because it makes it clear that there can be a monopoly on the buyer’s side as well as the supplier’s side. Leaving aside a statute dealing with particular matters of Queen Elizabeth I, in Britain the first statute dealing with monopolies was in 1948. Under that Act, together with the legislation of the European Community, which came in when we joined the then Common Market, it was the abuse of monopoly that was regarded as undesirable and something that should be attacked.
Monopoly as such is not necessarily a bad thing. I do not see that it is any different now, in 2012, from what it was in 1948. You can have monopolies that justify themselves and prove themselves for various reasons; for example, it may be feasible to have only one supplier in a local or national area, and as long as the power is not abused, competition authorities do not need to worry about it. My only query to my noble friend Lord Whitty is that the wording of the amendment suggests that he wants action,
“to reduce cartels, monopolies and monopsonies”.
To investigate or inquire into whether the power is misused is one thing, but I very much doubt whether this should be inserted after the very proper requirement of promoting competition.
I thank noble Lords for their suggested amendments and I appreciate the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, regarding this part of the Bill.
Beginning with the amendments in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, Amendments 24ZA and 24ZC seek to add specific references to some of the CMA’s competition functions and duties into its overarching duty, which is,
“to promote competition, both within and outside the United Kingdom, for the benefit of consumers”.
These include, for example, references to the CMA’s role in tackling mergers and abuse of dominant positions, and in reducing cartels and monopolies.
The CMA’s duty to promote competition reflects its unique position as the UK’s principal competition body, its leadership role in tackling anti-competitive behaviour as part of ensuring markets work well for consumers, and its domestic and international advocacy role. It does not seek to set out all the CMA’s functions. In addition to this overarching duty, the CMA will inherit the full range of the competition functions of the OFT and the Competition Commission, as well as additional consumer enforcement powers.
These functions and powers include: strengthened Competition Act enforcement powers to enable the CMA to tackle anti-competitive monopolies, monopsonies and cartels; strengthened merger controls to enable the new authority to address more effectively anti-competitive mergers that can lead to high prices and poor quality for consumers; a wide range of investigative and remedy-making powers to ensure that markets work well for consumers; and finally, the use of consumer enforcement powers to address business practices that distort competition or impact on consumer choice, even where markets are competitive. We are also providing more speed and rigour in market studies and investigations, and anti-trust cases, to give consumers faster and more robust decisions.
Given that the CMA will have a range of powers to ensure that competition and markets work well, it would not be appropriate to legislate for the CMA’s overarching duty to focus on one of these important competition and consumer tools over another. It is also important to preserve the independence of the CMA to choose the right tool to promote competition and tackle anti-competitive practices. We therefore do not consider that it is necessary or right to specify the particular kinds of anti-competitive features set out in these amendments.
There is also a particular concern over the way in which Amendment 24ZC seeks to gloss the meaning of a dominant position by specifying that it is normally to mean control over a quarter or more of a market. This would contradict European Union jurisprudence on dominance and therefore introduce, by way of a provision in the CMA’s overarching duty, a conflict with the CMA’s actual powers and responsibilities and with the European Union law which underlies them.
Determining whether an undertaking is dominant requires an economic analysis of the state of competition in a market as it is best defined. Market shares can be important indicators but may not be decisive—for example, where there is significant buyer power or low barriers to entry such that the undertaking’s exercise of its power is constrained by the threat of new entry. By introducing this more mechanistic approach to dominance, the amendment would conflict with the way dominance is assessed under European competition law. So it would be wrong for us to introduce this scope for inconsistency and uncertainty by way of an amendment to the CMA’s overarching duty. I hope that noble Lords will accept my explanation, which has taken a little time, for why the overarching duty is just that and why I do not believe that more specific additions are appropriate.
Amendment 24ZCA, tabled by my noble friend Lord Lucas, and bearing in mind his reference to and comments about Amazon and its great buying power, seeks to empower the CMA to investigate any company or arrangement to establish whether a cartel, monopoly or monopsony exists or is being abused without receiving prior complaint. The CMA will, as the OFT can now do, be able to make inquiries whether or not it has received a complaint and will be able to take action on its own initiative in markets where it observes a problem. Indeed, it will inherit the function of obtaining, compiling and keeping under review information about matters relating to the carrying out of its functions under Section 5 of the Enterprise Act 2002.
However, for the authority to use its far-reaching powers of investigation under the Competition Act 1998—such as powers to require the production of specified documentation or information and powers to enter business premises with or without a warrant—Section 25 of the Competition Act 1998 requires it to have reasonable grounds for suspecting that an anti-trust prohibition has been infringed. This strikes the right balance between giving competition authorities effective powers and protecting businesses from overzealous enforcement. If the amendment is intended to undermine this threshold, it would represent a significant weakening of a protection for businesses. As such, as the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, mentioned, I do not consider that the amendment is required. I understand the noble Lord’s concern that allegations of anti-competitive behaviour should be properly investigated and the facts established. Decisions on individual cases and priorities will be for the CMA, which will of course be independent of government.
At the end of the day, it will be for the management of the CMA to ensure that it is a highly effective competition authority, vigorous in the pursuit of anti-competitive behaviour, and the provisions of the Bill, including the creation of the CMA, will assist in this. They are designed to deliver greater coherence in competition policy and practice and a more streamlined approach to decision-making through stronger oversight of the end-to-end case management process, more flexibility in resource utilisation and better incentives and powers to apply the anti-trust and markets tools to deal efficiently with competition problems. In addition, this clause will give the CMA a duty to promote competition, something which neither the OFT nor the Competition Commission have. I hope that my noble friend Lord Lucas will accept that these changes should go a long way to securing that the CMA will be the active champion of competition that we all wish to see.
In the light of my explanation, I ask the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, because he gave an example that I should have thought of. It is clear that Amazon has a dominant position in a buying and selling market. It is exactly the kind of case that we need to be absolutely sure that the provisions of the Bill cover. My noble friend Lord Borrie and the Minister both said that it already does and I hope that is right, but we need to underline the Minister’s words for future use. In a situation such as that of Amazon, in relation to both the suppliers or subcontractors from whom it derives its products and the people to whom it sells, this is a growingly dominant force in all our lives. That is a good example and one we need to test against all the provisions of the Bill.
My thanks also to my noble friend Lord Borrie and to the Minister for rightly saying that monopolies and market dominance are not always a bad thing. That would usually be my line because the assumption that a free market will ultimately always deliver the best outcomes for consumers is not necessarily true. Nevertheless, I would argue that there is a tendency for the less competitive markets to give consumers a worse deal and that improving competition in almost all circumstances—not all, I agree—will give consumers a wider choice. There are situations where broadening competition in practice reduces choice, but in general the consumer benefits from more competition and choice and less market dominance. That means that we have to be quite subtle in defining the overarching role of the CMA. I was slightly puzzled by the Minister saying that we should not augment or unduly prescribe the overarching role. The problem with the way that the Bill is currently set out is that, whereas the OFT and the CMA had clearly defined major roles in the beginning of their respective statutes, this does not. All it says is:
“The CMA must seek to promote competition, both within and outside the United Kingdom, for the benefit of consumers”.
Nobody will argue with that. It is one and a half lines. It does not say what the CMA should look into and how it should judge it. I certainly agree that all market situations into which it looks should be judged as to whether they are an abuse of power to the detriment of consumers.
There are other issues involved in looking at market structures, including international competitiveness et cetera. There are wider issues as well but my amendments attempt to say what the subject matter of the new CMA would be. I do not think that we have yet got that situation. However, clearly my amendments as drafted do not meet universal acclaim. I hope that the Government will, before the Bill finishes, think about whether they need to be a bit more definitive in this area so that we in Parliament and the public in general know exactly what this new organisation is setting out to do.
On the threshold point, there are references in existing legislation to 25% so it is not a new thing. I accept that that should probably not be in the overarching aim. I suspect that we will return to the threshold as we move further into the Bill so I will not prolong that one. I have made the point. I hope the Government will at least give this some consideration and perhaps come up with a different drafting when we move to later stages of the Bill. For the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 24ZA withdrawn.
24ZB: Clause 20, page 14, line 11, at end insert—
“( ) The CMA shall have responsibility for the strategic direction of all statutory consumer support including—
(a) advocacy,(b) education,(c) advice,(d) enforcement of redress(e) guidance, and(f) consumer protection,as it relates to competition and fair trading, taking particular account of the interests of vulnerable consumers.”
My Lords, this amendment puts the consumer interest at the centre of everything that we are doing. A number of organisations have, one way and another, had some changes proposed to them in the consumer field in recent years, since the advent of this Government, who call it the “consumer landscape”. They are changing the role of the OFT and slightly changing the role of the sector regulators; they have, somewhat to my distress, changed the role of Consumer Focus, the major consumer organisation, previously the National Consumer Council, of which I was chair and the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, was a distinguished chair at an early stage. They are not leaving a consumer voice in the same central way as was provided in the previous 37 years. Some of those functions will be done elsewhere, some will be inherited by different bodies and some will be in the public sector, but most will be in the third sector or somewhere in the ether.
That is not a satisfactory position. If the regulator and the industry are to deal with the consumer interest in the central way that the department continues to emphasise in all its publications—though its actions somewhat belie it—we have to be clear where the functions that used to exist now lie. In relation to this part of the Bill, the OFT already included a number of functions beyond the areas of market structure—in other words, beyond merger, monopoly and dominant position. It had general responsibilities to look after the consumer interest, consumer protection and duties and consumer law. Some of those duties are now to go out of the organisation; in fact, on the face of it, most of them are to go out of the organisation, and the new organisation will primarily be concerned with market structures. This could prove to be unsatisfactory. I appreciate that BIS is still issuing consultation papers, replies to consultation and new White Papers in the consumer area, but it would have been more appropriate if they had all been brought together in one Bill. Instead we have some of it in the Public Bodies Act, some of it in this Bill and some of it yet to come—so we do not get a very coherent position.
To be more specific, as the amendments are, the present duties of the OFT include responsibilities for general protection of consumers, including responsibilities for consumer education, information and advice. Section 6 of the Enterprise Act provides for information and advice and Section 8 for support for consumers in the market and the particular provisions in relation to consumer-facing codes of practice for different sectors. Those have been important roles for the OFT, and in addition it has developed other roles, such as the scam-busting role and other interventions in pursuit of consumer protection and acting against consumer detriment. Those roles, as far as I can see, are not to be part of the roles of the CMA.
Section 8 of the Enterprise Act is to be deleted entirely. Amendment 24F reverses that deletion, so that the OFT could continue to provide help to consumers in relation to their general protection and the codes of practice. Section 6 of the Enterprise Act, which deals with education, is still there. However, as I understand it, it will be devolved to Citizens Advice. Indeed, any of these powers can be devolved. However, whether or not the powers are devolved, the question is: which government organisation is responsible for ensuring that they are properly carried out and that consumer detriment is not increased but diminished as a result of the changes?
The amendments seek to deal with what I understand to be a situation that is not covered in the Bill. As I said, consumer education is now to be the responsibility of Citizens Advice. The codes are, vaguely, to be the responsibility of trading standards departments and a new body, the National Trading Standards Board, which is in the process of being established—however, it is not a statutory body or a body mentioned in statute—and another, rather shadowy, body to be established called the Strategic Intelligence, Prevention and Enforcement Partnership, which does not exactly trip off the tongue. Its acronym is SIPEP, which is a particularly apposite title.
It is to all these slightly shadowy bodies, based in part on trading standards and in part on the third sector organisations, that the powers which previously belonged to the OFT—and which were very important in establishing new benchmarks for the consumer interests—are to be devolved somewhere down the line. I am a great admirer of trading standards—indeed, I am a vice-president of the Trading Standards Institute—and have a great respect for it. However, it has for some time—not only under this Government, I am afraid—been deprived of resources and reduced in scope so that its ability to deal with major scams across the borders of local authorities is limited. Although the National Trading Standards Board may enhance that a little, it will not be able to do so without strong backing from the centre. However, that backing from the centre, which the OFT previously provided, is not in this Bill.
My amendments seek to provide a number of things. They seek to restore Section 8 and to ensure that these functions are robustly devolved—because these functions can be devolved; I am not necessarily objecting to that—and that it is made clear to Parliament that they are being devolved. Where they are devolved to public sector bodies such as trading standards departments at local authority level, or to third sector bodies such as Citizens Advice, Parliament should know and deliberately make those decisions.
It is also important that those decisions are reviewed and reversible, and these and later amendments provide for a review system. Much of this is new territory. Taking it away from the centre and pushing it down the line may be a dimension of localism, reducing the role of the state and increasing that of the third sector, but we need some means of judging whether it works or not. I therefore propose five-year reviews and an ability to reverse the devolution of responsibilities. However, we cannot reverse devolution if they are not referred back to either the Secretary of State to give the responsibilities to some other body or to the CMA. All this needs to be in the Bill.
If we do not do that, there is a real danger that we will dilute the achievements of the OFT. I know there have been criticisms—I have had criticisms—but the OFT has raised the standard of consumer protection in this country and is recognised by the consumer movement internationally and by other bodies as having done so. The danger is that the central regulator’s role will be diluted; that it will be differently effective in different parts of the country and in different sectors; and that the independent voice of the consumer will be less than it was previously. This all adds up to a serious diminution of the consumer influence on policy.
I hope we can ensure, even if we do not adopt my exact words, that the Bill makes clear where those responsibilities are going, how they are to be assessed and, if necessary, how they can be reversed and reallocated. I beg to move.
My Lords, as president of the Trading Standards Institute—excuse my cold—I agree very much with my noble friend Lord Whitty that there is a need at this point for precision when it comes to the role and functions of the CMA and the transfer of functions from the OFT. I especially agree when it comes to the funding of the transfer of those functions. There is a lot of uncertainty around that at present. There is a good will and hope but we need some answers from the Minister at this point about both national and local authority funding—the latter is under unprecedented pressure—to ensure that this devolution process operates as best it can and strengthens rather than weakens the role of the consumer. We must have some answers as far as funding of the transfer of functions from the OFT is concerned.
As my noble friend Lord Whitty said, some of the roles of the OFT will go to the National Trading Standards Board. However, as he said, that does not have a statutory underpinning. As far as I can see, it is a new animal in the process of being created. The Minister would help us all if he gave us some idea of the accountability within the creation of the National Trading Standards Board. There is a great deal of work being done, as noble Lords can imagine, to ensure that consumers will continue to be protected to the highest standard. I have nothing but admiration for the people trying to make that work, as far as both trading standards offices and the National Trading Standards Board are concerned, the latter made up of senior trading standards officers working across borders. However, we need some answers from the Minister on both funding and accountability within the board, and some idea of the way in which the Government believe that there can be a cohesive landscape at the end of this process.
My Lords, I very much agree with pretty well everything that has just been said by my noble friend Lady Crawley. She is the current president of the Trading Standards Institute, which has done a great deal of good over many years, not only in the individual local authorities which it represents but in getting together on a number of matters. That has reached a kind of culmination in the creation of the National Trading Standards Board, whereby it can get together and discuss matters, particularly a scam or whatever it is in the way of anti-consumer activity that is being indulged in. It gets together and ensures that the stronger of the trading standards offices takes up the cudgel and takes the enforcement action.
One of the most remarkable things about the provisions we are dealing with in the Bill is that we are on Clause 22. We know that Clauses 20 and 21 create the new authority and refer to the amalgamation of the Office of Fair Trading and the Competition Commission. Yet whereas on competition matters the new authority clearly has the powers to deal with anti-competitive activity, the Bill does not deal with the considerable number of powers which the Office of Fair Trading has built up over the years. They are left in limbo. Therefore, there is a great deal of uncertainty, except on the basis of government statements—it is not in the Bill. Only in government statements have we got some idea of who is to do the advocacy for the consumer and who is to do the other matters that my noble friend Lord Whitty has referred to in Amendment 24ZB—consumer education, consumer advice, consumer advocacy and the enforcement of redress.
We just heard from my noble friend Lady Crawley that consumer advice is destined for the citizens advice bureaux. My worry there is that they have a lot to do, they have a difficult time at the moment because of lack of resources and I hope that the Government will ensure that they have adequate resources. Then there is trading standards and so on, but there is no overall responsibility spelled out in the Bill for the new authority in relation to the consumer protection powers that exist at present at the Office of Fair Trading. It is what is to happen to those that is most worrying and it would be most helpful if there were something, Amendment 24ZB or something else, to create the strategic power and ability of the new authority to deal with consumer protection matters.
I have only one small point. I apologise to my noble friend Lord Whitty for raising it, but I cannot help it, as a lawyer. It is a lawyerly sort of point. He mentioned all these matters—education, advice and so on—as they relate to competition and fair trading. It is a remarkable thing, perhaps, but even the original Fair Trading Act 1973, which created the Office of Fair Trading, does not define fair trading. In the modern world, fair trading has come to represent not just consumer protection matters but also the matter of preferring goods that come from countries that treat their workers properly. That is not really what the Fair Trading Act 1973 was concerned with: it was concerned with consumer protection. I do not know whether my noble friend has some broader definition.
My Lords, these amendments recognise the fundamental importance of consumer support and consumer protection, whether it comes in the form of education, advocacy, advice or enforcement of legislation. I therefore thank the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for the opportunity to discuss this important issue.
Competition is one of the pillars of a strong and vibrant economy. It makes businesses efficient and innovative, allowing the best to grow, innovate and enter new markets. It also drives investments in new and better processes, pushing prices down and quality up for consumers, but competition is only one side of the coin. To reap fully its benefits, consumers must be informed and have the confidence to exercise choice effectively. Unless consumers have the ability to make effective choices, vibrant competition will be inhibited and the businesses offering the best price or the best quality will not necessarily grow.
The current landscape provides consumers with a bewildering array of public, private and voluntary bodies with overlapping responsibilities. Each individual organisation does a very good job and is highly regarded but, taken together, they form a complex landscape that can be difficult for consumers to understand. The complexity and split of responsibility on enforcement cases has also led to a gap in enforcement. The National Audit Office’s 2011 report, Protecting Consumers, which reviewed consumer protection in the UK, found that consumer detriment occurs at national and regional level but the incentives are weighted towards tackling local issues. This contributes to an enforcement gap where large regional and some national cases may not necessarily be addressed.
The OFT estimated the cost to those affected and to the wider economy of activities such as unfair commercial practices and scams to be at least £6.6 billion annually. Any gap in enforcement is therefore significant to consumers and to the economy. The combined competition and consumer landscape reforms aim to deliver a better deal overall for consumers by setting out clearer responsibilities and better co-ordination between enforcers and the consumer advisory bodies.
Specifically, we will better equip trading standards departments to take greater responsibility for consumer law enforcement, and we have created a new National Trading Standards Board with responsibility for prioritising national and cross-local-authority boundary enforcement, tackling issues such as scams, illegal moneylending and rogue and incompetent traders, to provide a more coherent approach to trading standards enforcement.
The CMA will have primary expertise in unfair contract terms legislation and additional consumer enforcement powers to tackle business practices that distort competition or impact on consumer choice, even when markets are generally competitive. This could take the form of tricking consumers into tie-in contracts that might inhibit them from switching suppliers, subjecting consumers to unclear surcharges, or using misleading reference pricing. The CMA will also operate the combined OFT and Competition Commission’s markets regime to ensure that markets work well for consumers. As such, it will have powers to investigate markets such as payment protection insurance, which is a live issue. Business education will be shared between trading standards departments, which will deal with most business-facing initiatives, and the CMA, which will lead on competition advocacy and business education on unfair contract terms legislation.
In addition, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, we have created SIPEP, the Strategic Intelligence, Prevention and Enforcement Partnership, involving the CMA, the National Trading Standards Board, the new Financial Conduct Authority, Citizens Advice and representatives from Scotland and Northern Ireland collectively to identify issues causing consumer detriment and agree priorities for enforcement, information and education.
These landscape changes have been welcomed by a number of consumer experts. For example, Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said that this reform, “is good news for consumers”. Ron Gainsford, chief executive of the Trading Standards Institute, said to the committee in the other place that the current proposals strike about the right balance on the relationship that the institute was seeking. Mike O’Connor, the chief executive of Consumer Focus, said of the new strategic partnership:
“Consumer Focus welcomes the creation of SIPEP and we believe that it can make an important contribution to promoting consumers’ interests”.
In order for this new landscape to work in practice, it is essential that there is clarity of responsibility and accountability. Requiring the CMA to provide strategic direction on consumer support functions for which other bodies will be responsible, as provided for by Amendment 24ZB, would undermine in this area and risk further confusion for consumers across the landscape.
I shall now address Amendments 24F, 24G, 24H and 24J collectively. They would widen the transfer scheme set out in Clause 22 to enable the transfer of the OFT and Competition Commission’s functions to bodies other than the CMA and a Minister of State. It would therefore be helpful for me to set out how we intend to enable the transfer. We will be relying on Clauses 20 and 22 and Schedules 4, 5 and 6 to create the CMA and transfer the functions, including those I set out earlier, from the OFT and Competition Commission to the new authority.
In addition, we will be using two orders under the Public Bodies Act to enact changes to the wider consumer landscape. The first order is being laid in draft before Parliament today and we hope that it will come into force in April 2013. This order will transfer the OFT’s function of supporting a public consumer advice scheme to Citizens Advice services in England, Wales and Scotland. We will then transfer the levy for this service. We are also making amendments to a range of consumer legislation to modify the enforcement functions of the OFT.
The second Public Bodies Act order will transfer Consumer Focus’s statutory functions and powers to the Citizens Advice service, and wind up Consumer Focus. It will also transfer the OFT’s estate agency functions to trading standards. We expect to lay this order late in 2013 for it to come into force in 2014.
Finally, Amendment 24 seeks to transfer the OFT’s function of “promoting good consumer practice” to the CMA. We do not consider that this function needs to be transferred to the CMA. In the current regime, Section 8 of the Enterprise Act 2002 gives the OFT a general function of promoting good consumer practice, which recognises its leading role in providing consumer education and its function in relation to approving consumer codes. It is also the provision on which the OFT relies to conduct its international consumer advocacy work.
The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, was concerned that Section 6 of the Enterprise Act 2002 would not be transferred to the CMA. Paragraph 61 of Schedule 5 to this Bill transfers to the CMA the OFT’s function for the provision of information to the public.
Either I mis-expressed myself or the noble Viscount has misunderstood. Section 6, which deals with education, is indeed being transferred and then devolved to Citizens Advice and, to some extent, trading standards offices, but Section 8 is being deleted in its entirety, as I understand it.
I note the point that the noble Lord has made and I will come back to that technical issue shortly.
As I have mentioned, in the new consumer landscape, the Citizens Advice service will take on the lead role in providing consumer-facing education from the OFT, as well as taking over responsibility for consumer advocacy from Consumer Focus. The role of approving consumer codes will be transferred from the OFT to trading standards. The CMA will continue to have an international consumer role; for example, to represent the UK at the OECD’s Committee on Consumer Policy. A specific provision has been made for this in paragraph 19 of Schedule 4 to the Bill.
I will pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, about how trading standards offices will provide a high standard of support against a backdrop of reduced funding. Local authorities make their own decisions about what proportion of their budget to invest in local trading standards services. This had led to variations in the costs and resources allocated to trading standards services. While we are unable to pre-empt local funding decisions, in 2011 the National Audit Office assessed that local trading standards services vary significantly in capacity and annual budgets range from around £240,000 to more than £6 million.
The Government recognise the impact of the current financial climate and our structural reforms, supported by central government funding, for national leadership and co-ordination of enforcement activity will help local services to target high-priority cases for maximum effect. We will continue to ensure that national expenditure complements the local authority contributions and offers as much leverage as possible to ensure overall efficiency.
The noble Lord, Lord Borrie, asked whether the Citizens Advice service would receive additional funding for taking on the consumer advocacy function. Citizens Advice will be allocated an additional £3.72 million to carry out general consumer advocacy work and consumer education and information, previously undertaken by Consumer Focus and the OFT.
I hope that noble Lords will accept my explanation of the relationship between the competition and consumer reforms as to why additions to the CMA’s role and widening of the transfer schemes in this way would not be appropriate. Therefore, I ask the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister and other noble Lords who have spoken. I thank, in particular, the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, for her support. I hope that I will be able to reciprocate but I shall have to wait to hear what she says.
My noble friend Lady Crawley has done a lot in relation to the trading standards organisation. It is important to recognise that the TSI and trading standards offices up and down the country have been engaged with the Government and others in considering what the new landscape looks like. There are two aspects to this. One is that the Minister referred to strengthening and better equipping trading standards bodies to perform the enforcement role, as well as the educational role, which will now also become part of their responsibilities. However, that cannot be done in an atmosphere of fewer resources. The Minister quite rightly said that we are starting from a position of hugely differential funding for trading standards bodies up and down the country, and the NAO also rightly pointed that out, but there is no clarity on how we will address that, let alone on increasing the aggregate amount of resources for the increased level of responsibility and some previously central functions which trading standards are about to take on.
The noble Lord accused my amendments of being likely to create greater confusion. However, at present there is no mention of most of what he went through in some detail. I need to read his words carefully but I think that it needs to be set out more carefully in the public document. There is no mention of the words “national trading standards”, SIPEP, Citizens Advice, or indeed Consumer Focus for that matter. To get clarity, we need a better understanding of where previously central statutory functions are now going. To go back to the money point, we also need to ensure that, when the transfers are made, at least commensurate resources are transferred with them. In the area of consumer advocacy, for example, I know that Citizens Advice has been asked to take on the role of Consumer Focus and, prior to that, activities that came under the NCC.
The Minister referred to £3.7 million. My recollection is that in the last year of the National Consumer Council and the first year of Consumer Focus, the budget for that role—the non-regulated industries part of Consumer Focus—was around £6 million. That was four years ago. Therefore, there is a serious cut and Citizens Advice is not being given a commensurate amount of money to perform the function previously carried out by Consumer Focus.
I fear that the same is likely to be applied to trading standards offices and that they will be asked to do more in a different way—in some cases, starting from scratch—without commensurate resources. At the very least, the Government ought to put in the Bill clarity about where all those responsibilities are going. They should be obliged to produce regulations at a later stage when the transfers are taking place and attach to the resources that they are handing over those that related to responsibilities which were previously central and are now to be carried out at local or third sector level.
I think that the last thing the Bill provides is clarity, and I will be coming back to that point in other contexts, as I am sure others will. The new consumer landscape, or new trading standards landscape, is not spelt out in the Bill. There is some support for some of the measures that the Government are introducing—there is no doubt about that—and there are those who would like to see them set out slightly differently. However, the point I am making is that that is not in the Bill—there is no clarity. Parliament has not been asked to approve or sanction the way in which these transfers are likely to take place and the way in which those responsibilities are in future likely to be delivered and effected. So I do not really accept much of what the Minister says about this part of the Bill. We will undoubtedly return to it.
In reply to my noble friend Lord Borrie, who asked about the fair trading dimension, I am all in favour of the fair trade label and what it does to improve the conditions of workers, particularly in the third world, and the conditions of the environment. That was not what I intended here, and perhaps some better wording would convey the fact that we are concerned not just about market structures but about how providers and buyers of services and goods treat their consumers and suppliers. We need a term that is probably no longer “fair trading”—that is confusing—that reflects the range of responsibilities relating to market abuse in this Bill.
I am sorry to say that the Minister did not entirely convince me. He has not really satisfied me that, under the new set-up, consumer protection—however much of an advantage it is in the market structure areas—will be carried out as effectively, efficiently and in as good a way as it was under the previous structure. Therefore, I am in no doubt that, while I am withdrawing the amendment now, we will return to something like these propositions at a later stage.
Amendment 24ZB withdrawn.
Amendments 24ZC and 24ZCA not moved.
Debate on whether Clause 20 should stand part of the Bill.
I have found it pretty difficult to be sure that I understand exactly what the Bill is trying to do. You practically need a trolley for the papers. It is built on previous Bills, and is still extremely dependent on the 2002 and 1998 Acts. My position on the previous debate would be that if I cannot find it anywhere else it must still be in one of those Acts, and that must be the law of the land.
My interest is in Parts 3 and 4 doing different things. Part 3, in Clause 20, introduces institutional change, whereas Part 4 modifies the competition regime and, in doing so, has a very large number of schedules and is almost completely dependent on previous Acts. It does very little that is not an amendment to an existing Act. The question that I want to probe is why the Government have chosen this particular step of institutional change. There is to be a body corporate known as the Competition and Markets Authority. I thank the Bill team and the Minister very much for trying to settle some of my misunderstandings and doubts in a long correspondence, but I am not entirely reassured.
I go back to the Public Bodies Act, which is quite a recent Act—passed in 2011. Section 2 says:
“A Minister may by order merge any group of bodies or offices specified in Schedule 2 … In this section, to ‘merge’ a group means … to abolish all the bodies or offices in the group, create a new body corporate or office and transfer some or all of the functions of the abolished bodies or offices to the new one, or … to abolish all but one of the bodies or offices in the group and to transfer some or all of the functions of the abolished bodies or offices to the remaining one”.
My question is: why have the Government chosen subsection (2)(a) and not subsection (2)(b)? There does not seem to be a strong case for going any further than abolishing all but one of the bodies and transferring the functions to the remaining one. That is in effect what is happening. We are not getting a new body. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, was welcoming the new body and trying to make sure that it has new things to do, but that is not the Government’s intention. This is simply the Office of Fair Trading with its name changed. Following the scheme of the Public Bodies Act, which the Government have done, even though they say they are not depending on it, they have at some stage to take account of the reason, purpose and conditions, as in Section 8. In the exercise of public functions, they must have regard to efficiency, effectiveness, economy—the familiar three Es—and accountability. At the moment, I do not think there has been any attempt to describe to Parliament why the creation of this new body would achieve the purpose and conditions of the Public Bodies Act.
Indeed, that seems quite strange at a time when we have to try to restrain expenditure. We would all agree with that: if we saw a reasonable opportunity for restraining expenditure, we would take it. It is a time when, if we can have minimum disruption and allow as many people as possible to carry on doing the things with which they are familiar without being told that they face great change, we should. It is also a time when it is probably better to have the maximum of reality. The reality is that we are being presented with a beefed-up OFT. I have no objection to that as an idea but do not see why it should be sold as a new body. That does not seem to be what it is. I have a piece of evidence that leads to a question. Am I right that under Part 4 of the Bill—which deals with the modification of the competition regime—if the draftsman was to substitute “OFT” in every instance for “CMA”, the modification would be perfectly installed by Parliament and there would be absolutely nothing wrong with it? That demonstrates that what is happening is a change of name and a beefing up of the powers of the OFT, and not the creation of a new body.
My Lords, I obviously listened to what my noble friend Lord Eccles said at Second Reading when he made very similar points. I am not clear: does he accept the fundamental need to reform the structure and institutional nature of our competition regime? It is a very straightforward issue, with which—
Well, that seems to be the fundamental difference between my noble friend and other members of the coalition. I suspect, having heard the Second Reading remarks of a number of members of the Labour Party, that it is also their view that there is a need for such reform. I will not labour the point because it was made at Second Reading, but it is universally regarded throughout the world that our competition regime has all the attributes that every competition regime should have except for being the slowest. That is the real issue that this part of the Bill attempts to deal with. It does not matter if you call it a beefed-up OFT or a beefed-up Competition Commission. What is being reformed is the necessity for practitioners, companies and people involved in the whole competition process to go through two organisations to get the decision that they are likely to require. That is the purpose of the Bill. I am still puzzled as to whether my noble friend, Lord Eccles, who was a distinguished member of one of the bodies that is being abolished, wants to maintain the system as it was when he was that distinguished member.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Eccles for tabling this clause stand part debate. I hope it will be for the convenience of the Committee—it will probably save time—if I combine my opposition to this clause with my opposition to a later clause
I did not have any friendly meetings with the Minister or anyone else—no 101s—and so I had to turn my attention to perhaps an even more appropriate body: one of the most distinguished past chairmen of the monopolies commission. He has authorised me to describe his objections to the CMA as it is proposed and says:
“The proposed corporate structure of the new Competition and Markets Authority points to a vast bureaucracy incorporating a range of vaguely linked but not cohesive elements, resembling a large government department. The result will be an enormous sprawling bureaucracy that over time is bound to swell and grow in size. It will be cumbersome to administer, and, inevitably, it will develop a large and costly administration”.
On the important distinction that exists under the present legislation between the OFT and the Competition Commission he said that,
“the distinction in the competition field between the investigatory and prosecutorial functions (OFT) and the judgmental functions of an economic tribunal (Competition Commission), that had been so carefully separated for over 70 years, since the Competition Commission … was formed, will become increasingly blurred within the new single organisation. This separation, which, in my view, is essential for the proper and fair functioning of an effective competition regime, has stood the test of time, and has been respected, and seen as a model, worldwide”.
He made it clear that, on ordinary references, the equivalent of the Competition Commission in the United States is not expected to report for at least two years, usually longer.
He makes an important point that the evidence of material failings in the present structure that could not be improved simply, without wholesale change, is not clear. What is the evidence of the material failings in the present structure that could not be improved?
There are certain important distinctions between the two offices at present. The OFT, a governmental agency like the prosecution services of the state, has a role in bringing proceedings before or referring matters to a body more expert in the conduct of hearings, collecting and reviewing evidence and making independent judgments. The Competition Commission, on the other hand, a body of independent members, is an independent tribunal which gathers and reviews evidence and makes rational and independent findings. The distinction between the two is very important and will be lost.
Over the years, I have had the greatest respect for the monopolies commission. Later, we will come to a clause which will sweep away and abolish the monopolies commission and the Office of Fair Trading after, as has already been said, the National Consumer Council, many other consumer bodies and others who have carried out very respected work over the years have been swept away. During the seven years in which I was responsible, in one way or another, for either the monopolies commission or the Office of Fair Trading, first in the shadow Cabinet in opposition and then in government, I was in touch with both. I found them all to be wonderfully run organisations, not least the Office of Fair Trading as it is now. Indeed, I was such a strong supporter of both that I still bear the scars of the blood I shed trying to get the implementation of their recommendation, in those days, to abolish the gas showrooms.
I fought it and fought it hard; it was a very painful situation. If noble Lords had been in the House of Commons when I announced it they would have some sympathy for me, but it was possible to do it in a different way, which was by denationalisation of the gas industry, and that was not down to me. The chairman and everybody I appointed to either body during that long period have performed their duties, they have not complained and they have done everything that was wanted of them, and today they are being offered a body—the CMA—a diagram of which we have been presented with. It looks to me like a diagram from a medical student’s textbook on some particularly nasty intestinal complaint.
These multipurpose, overlapping powers are said to be capable of providing quick and more flexible results than the regime which will be abolished. More worrying still to me is what seems to be coming in clauses further on. There is nothing in the Bill so far regarding the CMA’s responsibility to ensure that phase 1 and phase 2 of an investigation are both independent and secure. It absolutely should not be acceptable for the first result to be made known to the second investigatory department. There is no requirement for information about recommendations to be kept secret, which is a great omission. Even worse, staff members of a government department can become members of the board, which is a completely unacceptable situation. The board of the present Competition Commission was always completely independent and this is something that has to be preserved.
I turn to the very valuable services provided by the OFT in consumer affairs. So many things have already been swept away. We do not know yet what will happen in so many areas that we will be asked to vote on in the main debates as to be completely unacceptable. The National Consumer Council, as I have already said, has gone—a council that I was on, that I was chairman of, and which produced very carefully researched reports and recommendations. So good were these reports that I was invited—though I had nothing to do with them and I do not claim any praise for how good they were—by the Prime Minister of the day to ensure that I made my maiden speech in your Lordships’ House on the basis of one of its reports, on access to justice. I think that that says a lot for its value—and there were others, of course.
Under Clause 20, there are indications of the new regime that we might accept. In particular, there are lots of aspects of this that I welcome, such as the new role for trading standards bodies. I have always had the greatest respect for everything that they have done, and I cannot think of a better body to carry out such important statutory duties. I also note that NACAB will be expected not only to provide the service but to collate the information and report it where merited to the National Trading Standards Board. One should bear in mind that the members receiving the complaints are unpaid and voluntary, with different qualifications in different things, and they will not be the people who carry out a review and make decisions on what will be passed to the trading standards departments. So at the top they will have to have more people employed in the executive.
I noticed at Second Reading, which I was unfortunately not able to attend but watched in glorious technicolour from my sick bed, that my noble friend Lord Marland announced, to murmurs of joy, that he would increase the amount for Citizens Advice by £1.7 million. My short-term memory is not very good, but my long-term memory is extremely good. I answered a Question on financial assistance from my department for the citizens advice bureaux, in the other place, on 19 November 1979. My reply was:
“As I shall be announcing today, we shall be doubling the level of assistance in 1980–81, compared with this year. We shall provide £3 million next year”.—[Official Report, Commons, 19/11/79; col. 13.]
Today, that would be about £25 million. It is very important to make the point that if the CABs are expected to carry out this new role—I am sure that they will carry it out well, as they have always given excellent service, and I see no reason why they should not continue to do so—I cannot see how £1.7 million, even if it is only a one-year increase, is to cover all the extra work, which is paid work rather than that done by volunteers, that will have to take place.
Finally, I must express one of my most serious concerns of all. That is on the hiatus caused by the abolition of Clause 21 and whatever is put in its place in Clause 20, which at the very earliest could not begin to take place before April 2013, until the Bill has been enacted, or the positions have been filled—and no appointments can be made until the whole Bill is enacted. In that particular perspective, there is the need to provide a timetable for the new system in the Consumer Credit Act, which will be more or less paralysed during this period of delay. I will be very interested to hear what other noble Lords have to say and to what extent they agree with my concerns. I will wait until the actual clause comes up before I go any further on Clause 21.
My Lords, before I start on the detail of what has just been discussed, I welcome the noble Viscount, Lord Younger, to his Front Bench duties on the Bill. We have met on a number of other occasions across this space. I am pleased that he is now able to engage with us on this Bill, which we find of great importance. We look forward to working with him on this and other matters.
We had some doubts about whether we should join in on this clause stand part debate because we were not quite sure where it was coming from. Indeed, I am still not quite sure where the two halves conjoin. There seem to be two different discourses. We are obviously in a two-act drama. Maybe when we get to Clause 21 and hear the other part of the noble Baroness’s speech, we will be able to judge more closely how this comes together. In the debate we have had so far, as so often in clause stand part debates, we begin to distil some of the concerns that have bounced around in some earlier debates. It is worth just reflecting on what we have heard.
From the official Opposition’s point of view, as my noble friend Lord Whitty said, we are not against what is being proposed in principle but have a number of reservations that we will want to feel have been properly tested before we finally sign off on it. We will have opportunities both on Report and possibly at Third Reading to do that. At the moment, having listened to the debate on the first two groups, the jury must still be considered to be out. We have had a lot of confusing signals about what exactly is happening, how the Government wish to approach this and the timing. Very importantly—and it has been the substance of a number of contributions we have heard on this group—what exactly is happening to the functions that are not explicitly stated within the front part of the Bill? Where do they go and with what timing? Most importantly, will the funding required to deliver the functions that are currently being properly delivered be available to support that?
I was very struck by some of the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, about the problems that will come from currently having two separate bodies. The OFT and the Competition Commission have their separate focuses and cultures, one investigative and one judgmental. That careful construction of two separate operations patrolling a common area but with very different functions and levels has been judged over time to be very successful. How will they be brought together and how in particular will the phase one and phase two elements and splits work out? Like the noble Baroness, I looked at the diagram. I did not quite bring out the medical textbook or the nasty intestinal disease analogies that she did, but I can understand where she was coming from in that. It is a rather odd structure. It does not seem to fit any of the management textbooks that I am familiar with in terms of clarity of exposition or additional information that would not be provided by a textual analysis. It is jolly colourful and we should be grateful for that.
We are creating something quite different. As I said, we are not against this but we need to be satisfied about why the Government have chosen this particular route and method of doing it. As was mentioned by the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, it includes the Public Bodies Bill but also ignores what that says about how to go about this, in creating a body which in a sense already exists. The chair of that body is available should he wish to speak. Perhaps he could share with us what he thinks of the colour diagram that we are talking about—but perhaps he will not. It would be helpful if we could get a little bit more from the Minister about some of the intertextual material that has been brought out in this discussion. I want a better feel for the timing, a sense of certainty about what is or is not being retained within the central core of the CMA and why stuff is being taken out and under what constraints that has been done. Particularly for trading standards and Citizens Advice, I want an absolute assertion from the Minister when he comes to respond that the funding will be available to deliver the sort of services to which we all aspire but which, I am afraid, will not be available in the time.
My Lords, I say at the outset that I am very grateful for the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson. I am particularly grateful for the contributions from my noble friends Lady Oppenheim-Barnes and Lord Eccles, who bring a wealth of valuable experience to this debate. I also appreciate the useful meetings that they have had either with me or with officials, or indeed with both.
The UK has one of the best competition regimes in the world but in the current economic environment we need to strive for improvement and further embed conditions in which companies can operate freely in competitive markets that encourage innovation, investment and growth and in which consumers secure the benefits of competition.
Despite its world-class ranking, there are problems with the current regime. As my noble friend Lord Razzall recognises and as he said at Second Reading, the UK competition regime is among the slowest in the world. I am grateful that he has reiterated that point today. Data published in Global Competition Review show that we are one of the three slowest countries when it comes to conducting investigations into anti-competitive agreements, and in the bottom four for investigating abuse of dominance cases. The current regime has also led to problems in terms of the length of time that it takes to conduct market studies and market investigations, which prolongs consumer detriment and uncertainty in markets. For example, between 2002 and 2011, OFT market studies took between three and 21 months, and the end-to-end process of market investigation, including the time taken for the OFT to make a referral, as well as the appeals process, ranged between 33 and 67 months.
Another issue is the uneven nature of references made to the Competition Commission, making it difficult to manage resources. For much of 2006, the Competition Commission was working on five market investigations and in 2008 it was working on four, whereas no references were received in 2008 or 2009. The pattern of merger and regulatory references is also uneven, and that contributes to an overall work pattern of peaks and troughs.
This clause therefore establishes a new Competition and Markets Authority, which will bring together the Competition Commission and the competition and markets functions of the OFT into one body. Despite looking on paper like a medical student’s study sheet—a euphemism for what was mentioned by other noble Lords—the creation of the CMA will mean a single, strong voice for competition which can provide leadership for the sector regulators on competition enforcement. It will mean less duplication and greater consistency of information requests between phase 1 and phase 2, and more flexible deployment of resources and specialist expertise across all its competition tools. It will also mean prompter referrals to phase 2 where necessary, and greater certainty for business from faster and clearer timeframes and more robust decision-making. Finally, it will also mean a one-stop shop for businesses to help them to understand and comply with competition law.
The creation of the CMA has also been welcomed by business groups and practitioners, including the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Institute of Directors, the Forum of Private Business and the City of London Law Society, which all consider that it will provide efficiencies and boost business confidence. The CMA will be the UK’s premier competition authority and will have at its disposal a full range of approaches to tackle anti-competitive behaviour and make markets work better for consumers and businesses.
This clause therefore gives the CMA a duty to seek to promote competition for the benefit of consumers, both within the UK and internationally. It will be concerned with how firms interact with each other—that is, the supply side—and how firms interact with customers, which is the demand side.
In creating the CMA, we have drawn from the best of the OFT and the Competition Commission. The CMA will therefore retain the separation of decision-making between phase 1 and phase 2 in merger and markets cases, with independent expert panellists taking the phase 2 decisions. These features were highlighted as key strengths of the current regime by Sir John Vickers and some of the other witnesses to the Committee in the other place, and we shall protect those features. The provisions are set out in detail in Schedule 4.
I should like to bring up a matter raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles. He asked what the relationship or distinction was between this Bill and the Public Bodies Act. Section 5 of the Public Bodies Act provides for the modification of the functions of the Office of Fair Trading and the transfer of functions to other bodies. The PBA also allows for the OFT’s functions to be abolished. Further, Section 2 of the PBA provides that the OFT and the Competition Commission may be merged. However, we will not use the Public Bodies Act to enact reforms to the competition regime or to abolish the OFT or CC. Instead, we will be relying on Clause 21, which provides for the abolition of both the OFT and the CC. This is because while the Public Bodies Act allows us to abolish both bodies, and modify and transfer their functions, it does not allow us to create wholly new competition functions and powers for the successor body, the CMA.
I should also like to address a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, on the separation of decision-making in markets and mergers—a matter also raised by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson. The independence of the phases will be preserved, in as much as paragraph 28 of Schedule 4 specifies that unless otherwise specified, functions of the CMA are exercisable by the CMA board. Similarly to the Competition Commission’s arrangements, paragraph 36 of Schedule 4 requires that where under any enactment—the Enterprise Act or sectoral legislation—the chair of the CMA is required to constitute a group to carry out an inquiry. He must appoint members of the CMA’s panel to an inquiry group in accordance with that enactment and Part 3 of Schedule 4. I hope that that goes some way to reassuring noble Lords.
Finally, I should like to address an issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, about the funding of trading standards departments; this matter was brought up earlier. I covered in our previous debate the issue of where the funding will be. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, asked specifically about trading standards funding. Perhaps I may add that in 2011-12, we allocated a total of £10.6 million for national and cross-border enforcement in England, Wales and Scotland. However, looking ahead to 2012-13, we have allocated £12.1 million. This is in recognition of the additional responsibilities that trading standards will take on as functions are transitioned from the OFT. This funding is subject to budgets being agreed and the effects which any emerging central pressures may have on the proposed levels of funding. I hope that this goes a little way to answering the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty.
I want to ensure that the record is correct. The previous figure of £10.6 million has now been superseded by £12.1 million. I think that was the sense of what the Minister said. I notice that he has not given us the comparable figures raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes. What exactly is the Citizen Advice component of that? It would be helpful, if he does not have them, if he could write to us and make sure that we have the figures because several have been floated. It would be nice to have them on the record.
Perhaps I may reply to the Minister. I thank everyone who has taken part in the debate. Although there is Clause 21, I was speaking only to Clause 20, which creates a certain difficulty because it is about the creation of the CMA. I asked a specific question: why did the Government choose to form the CMA instead of simply giving additional powers to the OFT? Does this new body amount to anything more than a change in the name of the OFT? With great respect to my noble friend, I did not get an answer to that question.
I quite understand that if you start to debate Clause 20, you are inevitably drawn into the things that are being done by Clause 21 and other parts of the Bill. On the question of whether I am against the structural change, I am here to be convinced—this is Committee. As my noble friend quite correctly said, at Second Reading I cast great doubt over whether this structural change was sensible; I am here to be convinced—or not—and we will see what happens.
One way in which my noble friend tried to convince me—indeed, so did my noble friend on the Front Bench—was through the “slowest” argument. There are plenty of time limits in the 2002 and 1998 Acts. It is not that the existing law does not provide time limits; it is just, it is said, that they have not been kept to. Nobody has explained why they have not been kept to. Understanding that is quite complicated. There are provisions for extensions and there are clever lawyers who are good at arguing for extensions. There is the European competition regime, which quite often can lead you into needing an extension. The regime of time limits is already in existence. I do not see why a statutory change to that regime is going to make any difference to what happens on the ground.
What happens on the ground depends upon the circumstances of each case, the behaviour of the participants in that case and the way in which the case is handled. It may well be that our regime should be quicker, and I would not dissent from that, but it does not need additional legislation. That is one argument that has been put forward as to why we need this institutional change, but I do not accept it. I quite accept that there may have to be competent discussions between professionals—round tables—in the light of the existing legislation and that things should be done in a more expeditious way. Indeed, in the 2002 Act there is a general duty to do everything as expeditiously as possible. I just think that it is another piece of make-believe to say that, if you write it into a law, it is going to happen.
My Lords, I have looked quite carefully at what has been said, and it has been quite qualified. In fact, I have had a bit of dialogue with the CBI over recent weeks, and it seems to have been in the same position as me when it started out: it did not understand the Bill. I am not overimpressed—I am never overimpressed—by what lobby groups are said to have said. One has to try to make up one’s own mind—that is possibly why we are here.
The other point made by my noble friend on the Front Bench concerned the varying workload on the Competition Commission. Of course, I completely take that point on board. It has been referred to that I was a member of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. At one time, I was on three days’ equivalent and I was there all five days; I was on five inquiries and I was chairing three of them. When we had a heavy load of work, we just worked harder. When we did not have such a heavy load of work, we did not work quite so hard. To be serious, that question comes down to what you do about the cost of the commission at times when it is not so busy.
I have not consulted the commission at all on this; I have done all my own research. It has reduced its costs by 23% since the onset of the crisis. I have no doubt that there are ways in which the costs of the commission, if it really does not have so much work, could be reduced further. It has a board and it tends to have more deputy chairmen than it did in my day, and they are rather better paid than we were in my day, even if you go into real terms. Therefore, there are ways in which the cost could be flexed by both the OFT and the Competition Commission. It does not necessarily follow that putting them under one roof and cutting some back-office expenses—and I do not remember that we had much of a back office in the monopolies commission—will do the trick. So I am not persuaded that the opportunity to reduce the cost of the Competition Commission from £17.7 million net to something else is adequate to match the risk being taken if this regime falls to pieces.
Clause 20 agreed.
24ZD: After Clause 20, insert the following new Clause—
(1) The CMA must make and maintain effective arrangements for consulting consumers on the extent to which its general policies and practices are consistent with its purposes under section 20.
(2) Arrangements under this section must include the establishment and maintenance of a panel of persons (to be known as “the Consumer Panel”) to represent the interests of consumers.
(3) The CMA must appoint one of the members of the Consumer Panel to be its chair.
(4) The CMA may appoint to the Consumer Panel such consumers, or persons representing the interests of consumers, as it considers appropriate.
(5) The CMA must secure that membership of the Consumer Panel is such as to give a fair degree of representation to those who are using, or are or may be contemplating using, services otherwise than in connection with businesses carried on by them.”
My Lords, for the purpose of this amendment, perhaps we can accept that we are going to have a CMA, not prejudging what might happen later, because this amendment suggests that if we have one there should be a consumer panel attached to it.
One of the most effective ways of helping to ensure that regulation is always in the hands of consumers, whether they be clients of lawyers, customers of financial services, receivers of radio and TV programmes, or purchasers of food, is to ensure that the regulatory body always, and continuously, hears the voice of consumers. This is particularly important with any regulator seeking to promote competition, as consumers are key to the whole competition remit that we seek for our economy. They understand better than anyone how the market really does or does not work for them. They know about non-price barriers to shopping around; they understand about tie-in deals; and they are the best to judge whether providers, whether of goods or services, are part of a competitive, responsive market.
More than that, consumer panels, made up of people experienced in representing, researching or advocating for consumers, in complaint handling, or in policy development, bring to the regulatory table expertise in hearing the unmet needs of consumers and of measuring their experiences, both satisfactory and unsatisfactory. They are alert to likely future trends; they can assess how policy will impact on actual behaviours, whether of providers or users; and they can make a significant difference to the work plan and priorities of statutory regulators. We have seen this with the Financial Services Authority, where the panel will morph into the same role with the new Financial Conduct Authority, at the Food Standards Agency, and, as I know well from my former role as its chair, in the Legal Services Board’s consumer panel. The Civil Aviation Authority has established one, and the Office of Rail Regulation is looking to create one, having had an informal panel for a couple of years.
It is not merely consumer representatives who want an economy that is consumer and client focused. In his first blog, the new chief executive of the Investment Management Association, Daniel Godfrey, says that one of his two priorities for 2013 is to work in collaboration with regulators and Governments to create a framework which, in his words, protects clients.
There can be no better way to create such a framework than having consumers or their representatives embedded in the regulatory architecture—not simply from the outside, so that they must shout and scream, put out press releases and lobby and harry, in the way that we see and, often, welcome outside consumer bodies doing, but as part of evidence-based and thoughtful development of policy and practice to ensure that the regulator never forgets, in this case, that the whole point of regulation is to promote and protect consumers’ interests. Indeed, the embedded nature of consumer panels means that they can provide input at the earliest stages of policy formulation before the regulator consults—when, in truth, it has often made up its mind—influencing the culture of the organisation from the inside and helping colleagues to get things right the first time round.
A further advantage is the ability to share market-sensitive information and analysis, which regulators are unlikely to want to show even to consumer bodies, which they generally trust, as well as to test thinking. This can be useful in processes such as price controlling, and for the CMA could be particularly relevant in market investigations. A consumer panel provides expert advice on tap, whereas generalist, outside consumer bodies tend to move in and out of policy areas over time.
Consumer panels are also an important counterweight, especially in areas where industry is well placed to influence or lobby, which would certainly be the case for the CMA. Panels are also surprisingly cost-effective, as being embedded results in economies of scale. In the case of my former Legal Services Consumer Panel, its £44,000 a year budget was a mere pin-prick in the £25 billion of consumer spending in legal services.
Consumer panels also play a key role in accountability by scrutinising the regulator’s work in the name of those whose interests it is meant to pursue. It is very easy, once regulatory institutions have been established, to forget or become rather complacent about the underlying rationale for regulating an economic sector. Moreover, given the effective “outsourcing” of statutory consumer functions, as outlined earlier today by my noble friend Lord Whitty, to non-statutory bodies, with no organisation other than the CMA to oversee or lead these outside bodies, it will be essential that the CMA has clear consumer input to this part of its remit, and that would be a natural task for a consumer panel.
Placing a panel on a statutory footing also guarantees its independence. It can represent the interests of consumers without fear or favour, as the CMA could not terminate a consumer panel if it found it a trifle uncomfortable. Of course, any such panel would need some powers, such as the right to make representations to the CMA, alongside reciprocal duties on the CMA to give reasons when disagreeing with such advice. This would aid transparency but would also be vital to the panel’s ability to influence.
Given the need, in terms of concurrency, for the Secretary of State to consult consumer bodies before removing a regulator’s competitive powers, a CMA consumer panel could have a specific role to play here. Similarly, as is argued in other amendments before the Committee today, a CMA panel would be broader than individual purchasers of goods and services. In particular, the panel would need members who were able to consider the interests of micro-enterprises and small businesses, for example, which sometimes experience even greater detriment than domestic consumers.
The CMA, if it exists, will be a key player in ensuring that our economy is competitive and therefore flourishing, and that it serves the consumer interest well. The creation of a consumer panel would concentrate minds on the end user—the beneficiary of all this regulation. I know that when the noble Lord, Lord Currie—who is in his place today—was the head of Ofcom, he welcomed, and I believe valued, the role that the consumer panel played in that regulation. Therefore, I do not think that he would fear the creation of a consumer panel for the CMA. I beg to move.
My Lords, I think that the Committee should accept, as a matter of principle, the point that my noble friend has been enunciating. Indeed, the experience of other regulators, including Ofcom, is that an in-house consumer panel—not strangers to the organisation but working closely with the regulator—is a good idea. Unfortunately, it cannot be called a consumer panel tout court in this Bill because of course there is something called the consumer panel already; that is, the people who make the decisions, the part-timers who are allocated particular jobs and make the final decisions of the CMA. That is all set out in Schedule 4. Perhaps some other means of dealing with my noble friend’s proposition has already been thought of by Her Majesty’s Government.
My Lords, before the Minister responds, I note that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, has tabled Amendment 24BA, which is obviously a second string to her bow in this matter. I am rather surprised that it has not been grouped with this amendment. Be that as it may, it seems to me that rather than having another panel under the CMA, it would be far preferable to have a consumer representative on the panel that already exists under the Bill.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, for this amendment, which seeks to establish a CMA consumer panel, and I note her very considerable experience in chairing consumer panels over many years.
Close co-operation between the CMA and consumer organisations will be essential to ensure that the CMA is well informed on issues that cause consumer detriment, and that it takes action in the right areas. Competition authorities are well used to taking account of consumer welfare in their activities and this will be the case for the CMA in particular, given its objective to promote competition in the interest of consumers. This is why we have established SIPEP, a new strategic intelligence, prevention and enforcement partnership, which will bring together key consumer bodies, including Citizens Advice and representatives from Scotland and Northern Ireland, to work together to identify those issues that impact on consumers and collectively agree priorities for enforcement, information and education. These will assist in guiding the CMA’s policies and priorities.
In addition to this, the Bill already has extensive provisions on transparency and consultation with consumers and other bodies. The CMA must consult stakeholders, including consumer representative bodies and the general public, on a range of issues that guide its policy. For example, paragraph 12 of Schedule 4 to the Bill provides that as part of its annual plan, the CMA must consult on its main objectives for the year and the relative priorities of each of those objectives. The CMA must also consult on statutory and non-statutory guidance which sets out much of the CMA’s policy and processes. The super-complaint process, in which the OFT is required to provide a fast-track response to certain consumer bodies, will also be retained for the CMA.
Given the consultation requirements, the new approach to enhanced working between the CMA and bodies across the consumer landscape, and the super-complaint process, I hope that the noble Baroness will consider that the arrangements for consulting consumers are already sufficient and will agree to withdraw this amendment.
I thank the Minister for that response and my noble friend Lord Borrie and the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, for their comments. As usual, my noble friend Lord Borrie goes straight to the point that the name is wrong. Maybe we can negotiate on “consumer forum” or “consumer round table”. However, right as he is on that, wrong are the Government in their response.
Before I turn to the Minister’s comments, perhaps I may say that the comment made by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, was interesting. It is about whether one person on a board is sufficient to represent all consumers, an issue which the consumer movement has discussed a great deal. It is like being the only woman in a committee and people assuming that you can speak on behalf of all women. When the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, was first at meetings—I hope she does not take this badly—she was very often probably the only woman present. Even women of my age are still experiencing that situation now. As the one woman, it was somehow expected that you would speak for all women. It can be the same with consumers. However, as I found on panels, there were BME consumers, rural consumers, old consumers and young consumers, and you need a broad panel, if you like, to reach in, understand and get to a hearing in that way. A middle-class woman such as myself as a consumer rep does not do it, but a much broader-based panel does.
I hope the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, understands that it makes it easier for one consumer representative on a board if there are mechanisms for a much broader consultation.
I am certainly not. I am suggesting that you need a person on the board with experience—I will come to that—but, on its own, this is not a sufficient condition for making the board work.
Let me now comment on what the Minister has said. If he expects the partnership to carry out the kind of role that consumer panels have carried out, he does not understand what consumer panels have done. A partnership that comes together once a month, once a quarter—I do not know how often it is going to meet; I think it has met only twice so far—simply would not be able to bring the right level of detail to the work of the CMA. Some of the matters the Minister mentioned are exactly those outside functions which will not be carried out by the CMA but by others.
I think I have touched on the problem of consultation. When it goes outside the family to Which? or Citizens Advice, it is put out in a pristine and finished way rather than at an earlier stage. It does not solve the problem.
We will need to think about this matter and possibly come back to it because it is vital to make this new authority work well.
Before the noble Baroness withdraws her amendment perhaps I may ask her a question arising from the statement made in advance by the Citizens Advice service, which is going to be the home of information, advice, education and advocacy on general consumer matters under the Regulated Industries Unit. This is one of the best pieces of news in the Bill because it will bring together the technical expertise, Consumer Focus and information gathered by the CABs and a unit to represent consumer interests in the regulated sectors—gas services, electrical services, postal services and so on.
This is very important because the regulatory authorities do not always appear to be sympathetic in areas in which they should be. It is not very gratifying or appeasing for consumers when one of the regulated bodies receives a multimillion pound fine for being in breach of their responsibilities because the consumers who have suffered do not receive a single penny of that. All they hear about is this very big sum and they do not know whether it has made any difference to the practices. Also, it has been a very long-standing argument of mine—and I hope that it will be solved by this—that Citizens Advice and Consumer Focus should be able to take up individual matters. That is important because the big regulators will not take up matters such as how the bill is presented. Very often bills are presented in a most confusing and frightening way. EDF sends out bills that look, at first, very frightening to the ordinary eye and certainly to an aged person—particularly when they see £1,000 appearing in big letters on the front, although it is not what they will in fact have to pay. It is an assumption of what they might have to pay if they used a certain amount of electricity, or whatever. This is an important provision and I hope that the noble Baroness will take account of that before she withdraws the amendment.
I thank the noble Baroness for those comments. The Regulated Industries Unit will be extraordinarily important but, of course, it will cover only post and energy, which is very restrictive. It will not be allowed a role in the sort of areas that the CMA will be dealing with. She raised an interesting question about where the individual goes to. One of the important things about a consumer panel is that it can gather the intelligence, be that from an ombudsman or any other form of individual complaints, and even go into the annual reports of companies to see how they have handled complaints. The panel can then use the intelligence to come to the CMA and perhaps say, “Look, we have done that homework. We know where this market is not working”. My fear is that Citizens Advice, with the best will in the world, will simply be unable to do that. We will have people coming through the door with a lot of debt problems, or who are homeless, or who have just been sacked by their employer, suffered water leaks or whatever. That ability to take intelligence, translate it into policy and feed that into the regulator will be beyond that organisation. That is why we will have to come back to this. However, for the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 24ZD withdrawn.
Schedule 4 : The Competition and Markets Authority
24A: Schedule 4, page 87, line 22, leave out sub-paragraph (iii)
My Lords, this is another attempt to be reassured and comforted. There has been a lot of talk about the continuity of the practice that has been followed by the combination of the OFT and the Competition Commission. It has been described as phase 1 and phase 2. Although these are not in the Bill, and I suspect that they will not find their way into it, there is no doubt that the duty to continue to see whether something should be referred is there, as is the duty to investigate the reference.
The first phase is investigative and the second is quasi-judicial, as has been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson. However, it is proposed that this should be done under one management, and that creates problems. It is not completely dissimilar to our arguments about clearing banking and investment banking. There is on occasion a need for a Chinese wall, but that is difficult if everyone is in one building. I should like to understand more clearly how we are going to keep that feature of the regime in such a way that the new regime is not challenged—or not constantly challenged.
We have a powerful legal profession in the UK. I am now thinking about business and the ease with which it is apparently being reassured that everything will go much more sweetly. We had some very bright QCs in front of the monopolies commission in my day. They were paid to represent the interests of their clients and they were very good at it. Therefore, I think that the Bill is in danger of knocking down a Chinese wall.
I know that my noble friend has already made some references to what I think he is going to tell me are the safeguards. There will not be the contamination of bias and there will not be conflicts of interest, but I am not at all certain about that and I need to be much more reassured than I am at present.
The effect of these two amendments would be to make a start in separating the board from the panel and not having an overlap between the two. They are perhaps just an effort to put one or two bricks in the bottom of the Chinese wall. I beg to move.
My Lords, the noble Lord has raised some really important issues. Certainly we would like to hear from the Minister why the Government have chosen this particular set-up, which is an argument that we have just been having in relation to the Financial Services Bill. The question remains as to why any panels under this Bill are not hearing cases completely independently of the CMA board.
I am sorry that I went on earlier about my consumer panel experience but I also have to say that I was a member of the determinations panel of the Pensions Regulator. We were completely independent of the Pensions Regulator. We were appointed by it to ensure that we knew something about pensions but that was about it. Other than that, we were completely independent. We did not work there and we did not know the staff, other than bumping into them in the loo and so on, but we were very independent of them. It was therefore more than a Chinese wall—it amounted to a gap of a good few miles.
Similarly, in our discussions on the Financial Services Bill, we have been trying to ensure that the Regulatory Decisions Committee of the FSA is equally independent of and separate from the FSA. That is partly to do with independence but also because it seems that we should look at whether there is a difference between the two roles of serving on the CMA board and doing hearings and taking decisions. The role of serving on the board is really about setting strategy and policy, whereas the work of the panels is often quite different and calls on a slightly different skill set. Therefore, we are interested in knowing why the Government have not made sure that the investigators are separate from the decision-makers and that their roles are not blurred— I think that was the word used earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, in quoting a former chair of the monopolies commission.
I assume that we all want a strong firewall between investigations and decision-making, so perhaps it is better to make them absolutely separate from the start, rather than going through convoluted ways of achieving that end.
My Lords, these amendments affect the provisions that provide for a partial overlap of the CMA board, which is responsible for the CMA overall and phase 1 decisions in mergers and markets in particular, and the CMA panel, whose members are responsible for phase 2 decisions in mergers and markets and regulatory appeals. The governance and decision-making arrangements in Schedule 4 are designed to establish a single, coherent competition authority while retaining the separation of decision-making between phase 1 and phase 2; in particular, merger and markets cases.
Paragraph 1 of Schedule 4 provides that at least one person be appointed to both the board and the panel. In the Government’s response to the competition reform consultation, we said that we intend to appoint two or three such people to the board and the panel. The membership provisions being debated here are designed to ensure that the board includes members with experience of the phase 2 processes, and so to address any reluctance of the board to have a matter referred to a group of independent panellists whose decisions are, under paragraph 49, to be taken independently of it and over which it will have no direct control. Ensuring that there is a steady flow of appropriate market investigation is one of the key intended benefits of the creation of the CMA, so the provisions will play an important role.
I believe that the provisions in the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, will undermine the separation of decision-making by allowing board members to take phase 2 decisions. I assure her that the Government would also be concerned about the risks resulting from some of the same people involved in a decision to make a referral also being involved in final decisions at phase 2. It is for this reason that paragraph 33 prevents this from happening.
Paragraph 33 works prospectively, so that where the board will be considering whether a matter should be referred to the chair of the CMA for the constitution of a group of panellists who will be responsible for a phase 2 inquiry, the chair must first determine whether a member of the board might be expected to be appointed to a resulting group. In these circumstances, the person so identified must not participate in the board’s consideration of the referral.
Finally, because the Government intend to appoint two or three people who will be board members and panellists, even where one board member is excluded from considering a referral, other panellists—who will not be involved in the group taking on an inquiry if the matter is referred—will still be able to participate in the board discussion. This provision therefore protects independence of decision-making, while also ensuring that the board includes members with responsibilities across the CMA’s range of functions, and is therefore able to act, at a strategic level, as a coherent body. I therefore ask my noble friend to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am afraid that I am not comforted by that description, least of all by the even flow of work. If that is going to be continually put forward as a serious reason for the structure we are going into, it is very regrettable.
All businesses have to be prepared to flex, to take on more work at some times and less at others. If things are still as they were, quite a lot of the staff of the Competition Commission are seconded; they can be taken back; there is the possibility of bringing in consultancy advice, or not bringing it in; there is a very considerable ability within the present system to flex the resources. If we are going to be told that this even flow is very important, we need to have something in support of the regulatory impact assessment as to how much money we are actually going to save.
We have dismissed the Public Bodies Act, which was about reducing the number of quangos when we could and saving money. That is where this thing started from—we should not forget that. All the rest of it has been tagged on, no doubt as a result of long-term planning inside BIS, which may indeed have seen the Public Bodies Bill as quite an interesting challenge—“Let us see what we can put forward”.
So I am not comforted, but it gets worse than that. I do not want to go through the whole string; I have drafted a series of amendments to try to reassure myself that it is possible to build a Chinese wall. I have not put them down yet and I am not going to talk about them today, but I am going to talk about the panel. It is becoming a technocratic panel under this Bill. It has 11 members; I expect that there may well be more. The composition of this panel and the way in which its prospective members are appointed is very different from the way in which panels have been appointed to the Competition Commission in the past.
This panel has no one in charge—it cannot have anyone in charge. As my noble friend has said, it cannot have the chairman of the CMA in charge because that would knock down the Chinese wall. So who is in charge? No one is in charge. If there was an away day for the panel, who would sit in the chair, for example, if it wanted to discuss how it is to operate as a Competition and Markets Authority group? The panel does not set any rules for that; the rules are set by the CMA. It does not have any staff, so how does it know that it will get the people that it wants?
I remember very well someone who was absolutely gripped by cost-benefit analyses and, when I was looking at a proposed merger between a Canadian whisky company and a Scottish whisky company, I said, “For goodness’ sake, do not send me that cost-benefit analysis”. He was a splendid fellow, but not on this merger inquiry. The way this is structured there will be no one on the panel who will be in a position to behave like that. The panel will have no management authority and no executive responsibility; those will be delivered to it by the CMA.
It may be that noble Lords are glad that I am not a lawyer representing someone coming in front of one of these panels, but I assure the Committee that I could make a seamless argument which said, “This panel is not independent”. At least I would get an adjournment, which would upset my noble friend Lord Razzall because the thing would take longer.
For now, I shall withdraw my amendment, as the Committee would expect. However, I shall revert to the subject and there are other amendments in front of the Committee that offer the opportunity to discuss these matters. At the moment, this phase 1/phase 2 is completely unconvincing. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 24A withdrawn.
24AA: Schedule 4, page 87, line 22, at end insert—
“(1A) Appointment of a person as chair under sub-paragraph (1)(a) shall be subject to approval by a Select Committee of Parliament.”
My Lords, the first amendment in the group seeks simply to have the appointment of the chair approved by the relevant Select Committee in accordance with the coalition agreement which said:
“We will strengthen the powers of Select Committees to scrutinise major public appointments”.
That built on the wording of the Conservative manifesto to,
“give Select Committees the right to hold confirmation hearings for major public appointments, including the heads of Quangos”,
and on the Liberal Democrat manifesto which said:
“We will increase Parliamentary scrutiny of Government appointments”.
It is hard to put it any better than that. However, even if the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and the coalition had not supported this, it is still a good thing.
Parliamentary oversight of the performance of the CMA is vital. Our economy depends on a vibrant, competitive market and, given the powers and remit of the CMA, it is important that Parliament checks that it is doing its job. So this amendment is part of that trend of transparency.
Amendment 24AB concerns the key appointment in all of this—the chair of the CMA. We are more than content with the “shadow” chair, if I may call the noble Lord, Lord Currie of Marylebone, who is in his place, a mere shadow. The amendment is about any successor of his in due course and the attributes that we would wish to see in any such appointment.
Competition law is not only for economists and lawyers. What economists choose to measure is not a neutral given but depends on what they judge to be important. A recent OFT review of the estate agency industry decided that we needed more of them—that is, more estate agents. Clearly the authors of the review had never walked up and down our high streets. However, that is what they thought rather than that we needed better regulated, more truthful and cheaper estate agents. There was something lacking in an over-economically driven approach which ignored the experience of home buyers. We would therefore look for someone who understood how markets really worked for consumers and had experience of retail or wholesale markets and, even more, who understood the particular needs of vulnerable consumers and how failing markets hit them particularly hard.
Finally, Amendment 24BB in this group addresses two internal issues relating to the operational structure of the CMA. First, the top officeholder should earn not more than 20 times the salary of the lowest-paid officeholder, which would ensure a culture of inclusivity and aid transparency by making these ratios public. It is hard to imagine that such a ratio is not in itself fair and we should therefore embed this provision in the Act. The second provision in this amendment would ensure that the CMA avoids indirect payments for tax avoidance purposes. After all the publicity, that is pretty much bound not to happen, and we may as well write it into the Bill. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, for her amendments, which propose changes to Schedule 4. The Government are committed to increasing transparency and accountability in the public appointments process.
The amendment seeks to make it a statutory requirement for the appointment of the chair of the CMA to be approved by a Select Committee of Parliament. There is already a system in place, introduced by the previous Administration, for agreeing between Parliament and the Executive which of the Government’s public appointments will be subject to a pre-appointment scrutiny hearing. Under this system, the Secretary of State discusses and agrees with the chairman of the relevant Select Committee which appointments will have such a hearing. The Cabinet Office publishes a list of these appointments, most recently in August 2009.
The Government, in their response to the Liaison Committee’s report on Select Committees and public appointments, encouraged Ministers to engage with Select Committee chairs to ensure that the right appointments are receiving Select Committee scrutiny prior to appointment. The current system works well and the Government do not believe that there is any advantage in formalising this process in legislation in respect of individual roles such as that of the chair of the CMA. Indeed, under the current system, a pre-appointment hearing process is already in place for the chairs of the Competition Commission and the OFT.
Amendment 24AB seeks to make it a statutory requirement for the Secretary of State, in appointing the chair of the CMA, to be satisfied that that person has demonstrated an understanding of the impact on consumers of competition and its absence, particularly on vulnerable consumers, as well as of relevant experience in wholesale and retail markets. The appointment of the chair of the CMA is regulated by a code through the Commissioner for Public Appointments, which clearly states that ultimate responsibility for public appointments rests with Ministers. As such, the Secretary of State has been involved in the appointment process for the CMA chair-designate from the beginning and has agreed the selection process and criteria. The published person specification for the CMA chair-designate appointment made clear that knowledge of competition and consumer policy issues, and their implications, was a key requirement.
As noble Lords are aware, at the conclusion of the appointment process, the noble Lord, Lord Currie of Marylebone, was appointed as the chair-designate to the CMA. I am pleased to note that he is in his place. His formal appointment, assuming that the present Bill receives Royal Assent, will entail a pre-appointment hearing by the BIS parliamentary Select Committee. I am sure that noble Lords will agree that since his appointment as CMA chair-designate, the noble Lord has amply demonstrated his knowledge and understanding of the impact of competition and the effects of its absence on consumers.
I agree that it is important that any candidate for the CMA chair role demonstrates their knowledge of competition and consumer policy, as well as relevant experience in wholesale retail markets. However, formalising in legislation that the Secretary of State must be satisfied as to a candidate’s understanding of these issues is unnecessary in practice. It would also give unbalanced prominence in statute to these, albeit important, areas at the expense of other, equally important areas of understanding or qualities that any candidate for the CMA chair role should be able to demonstrate. For this reason, we do not think it necessary or appropriate for there to be such a statutory requirement.
Finally, Amendment 24BB concerns the pay structures of the CMA. Fair pay in the public sector is evidently more essential than ever in the current climate, as is openness of public bodies in their mandates and resource allocation. In light of this, the Government have implemented a number of measures to support recommendations made in Will Hutton’s report on fair pay in the public sector. For example, public bodies are required to publish in the remuneration reports of their annual resource accounts the pay multiple or ratio between the total remuneration of the highest-paid director and the median total remuneration of the staff excluding the highest-paid director. Public bodies, including the OFT and the Competition Commission, are also required to publish pay details, including names, of their most senior civil servants with a salary of more than £150,000. We do not, however, agree with placing a ban on managers earning more than 20 times the pay of the lowest-paid full-time employee in their organisation, as suggested in proposed new sub-paragraph (4) of this amendment. This was rejected by the Hutton review of fair pay in the public sector.
In light of this, we do not consider that a specific statutory requirement is needed for the CMA to ensure fair pay. We also disagree with the part of the amendment that apparently seeks to require that all CMA members appointed for more than three months be in the direct employment of the CMA. It is quite right that the staff of the CMA who are in full-time employment should not be employed through personal service companies, or similar, and therefore be able to avoid paying full national insurance contributions. However, the membership of the CMA will include both non-executive directors and independent panel members. Both of these types of member are needed to bring external expertise to the management of the CMA or particular inquiries. It is an accepted principle of good corporate governance that non-executive directors should scrutinise the performance of the executive management while providing them with external advice, support and scrutiny. I therefore ask the noble Lords to withdraw these amendments.
I thank the Minister for that. The words “not necessary in the Bill” must be in the word processor for the team behind him, because whatever we ask, the answer is, “Don’t worry, we are doing it. It is not necessary to have it in the Bill”. I am not sure that this is always the best way of writing legislation. There are some things that are very important to have in the Bill as signals and they are also important for accountability.
It is interesting that the Minister, if I heard him correctly, said that the list of appointments which it has been agreed should go to a Select Committee was last published in August 2009. That was in the glorious days, of course, of a Labour Government, happy that they were. Given all the work that this Government have done in changing quangos and changing appointments, the idea that it has not been updated since then leaves me a bit surprised and perhaps reinforces the fact that, sometimes, having this in the Bill is really important.
We have no grounds even for raising the first appointment, as I made clear. We are delighted with the first appointment; we could not have done it better ourselves. If you would like to put us in government, we will do it ourselves. However, we are talking about the future and making sure that the commitment to consumers and their interests is there.
The final thing I will say is that I thought our wording “in the direct employment” covered the chief executive. If I did not word the amendment correctly, that was what it was meant to be. Whether that should be an undertaking in a side letter or something, that point remains. I am sorry that the Minister, who I believe speaks on behalf of a coalition Government with a commitment not just to continuing but to strengthening the powers of Select Committees in major public appointments, feels that that does not allow him to do so in this case. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 24AA withdrawn.
Amendments 24AB and 24B not moved.
24BA: Schedule 4, page 87, line 35, at end insert—
“(8) Of the persons appointed to membership of the CMA Board under sub-paragraph (1)(b), at least one must have expertise as a representative of consumers.”
My Lords, the good news for the Committee is that this is the last it will hear from me for a bit. I will hand over to my noble friend Lord Mitchell, whose great success in the Financial Services Bill will, I hope, make the Minister quake as he receives my noble friend’s amendments.
The first of the two amendments in this group, which I move on behalf of my noble friend Lord Whitty and me, concerns the make up of the CMA board, and ensures that, as has already been mentioned, at least one of its members has expertise in representing the interests of consumers. There is a large pool on which to draw for this. For example, they may be former employees or board members of ombudsman schemes or consumer bodies or panels, or else active in the wider consumer movement. I know from the testimony of the financial industry and not just the consumer movement how well received Mick McAteer’s appointment has been, in his work at both the Financial Reporting Council and now the Financial Services Authority. He was formerly with Which?, has been a consumer advocate with long experience of representing consumers at both UK and EU levels, and has brought realism grounded in consumer experience, expertise and a clear consumer focus to the FSA for the past three years—to widespread acclaim. Earlier, a former chair of the National Consumer Council—not one of the two with us today—proved herself to be so invaluable to the FSA that it promoted her to become its vice-chair. Other examples abound.
Our proposal is modest. It is for just one such person, but having that in the Bill also reinforces the fact that the CMA is all about consumer interests and that consumers’ voices must be heard at the highest level. As I said previously in response to a question by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, this is not instead of a consumer panel. No one person can represent all consumer interests. What is interesting is that that person can be a channel and focus, albeit that they take the full corporate responsibility for the whole board.
The second amendment in the group, Amendment 24BK, is based on the assumption, which we do not necessarily share, about the proposed panels and the tiers mechanism in the new architecture. We have argued that that might not be for the best. For the moment, accepting that that structure is there, our proposal is again to emphasise the need for consumer and competition experts on CMA panels to avoid the risk of making their deliberations insufficiently consumer focused. That would make sure that the CMA and its decision-making panels represented the interests of consumers throughout their work. I beg to move.
My Lords, Amendment 24BA adds a requirement to appoint at least one person with consumer representative expertise to the CMA board. A similar amendment was proposed by the Opposition in Committee in another place. We share the concern of noble Lords opposite that the reforms promote consumer interests, as mentioned in an earlier debate today. Consumer interests will be at the heart of the CMA. Given this, the amendment is not necessary. It could also undermine the perceived fairness of the CMA. We agree with the point made in the previous Government’s 2001 White Paper on a world-class competition regime that decisions should be made independently on the basis of sound economic analysis of the effects on competition. Independence of government and between the phases enables better decisions, greater certainty for business and more clarity in the regime.
However, independence also applies to particular sectoral interests. The CMA will have a quasi-judicial role. Where it is deciding in a case originally raised by a consumer body through a super-complaint, it must be absolutely free from any perception of bias. Therefore, while I would expect the board to have great expertise in consumer issues, it would be inappropriate to establish any criteria for appointments to the board that require an appointee to have expertise in representing any particular sectoral interest, including consumers. The sort of consumer expertise that the CMA needs can be gained in any number of ways—certainly through being a consumer representative but also through a background in enforcement, policy development, law or academia. We should not impose unnecessary constraints on the sort of people who can be appointed to the CMA board.
In any event, we will transfer the OFT’s super-complaint function to the CMA, whereby consumer bodies such as Consumer Focus, Which? and Citizens Advice can make a fast-track complaint to the CMA on issues that significantly harm the interests of consumers. There could easily be a conflict of interest where a person was appointed to the board on the basis of their experience as a representative of an organisation with super-complainant status.
Turning to Amendment 24BK, it is worth reiterating that the CMA will have a number of tools, such as the markets regime and consumer enforcement powers, to ensure that it can deliver on its objective of promoting competition for the benefit of consumers across the economy, including in financial services. The CMA will possess many of the features of the panel structure that currently makes the Competition Commission so effective, including the requirement to appoint sector specialists who are available to sit on groups that carry out the CMA’s functions on appeals and references in the regulated sectors. The CMA will also retain generalist panellists, who may sit on any type of inquiry group.
There are currently more than 30 Competition Commission panellists, including lawyers, economists, accountants and businesspeople. Between them, they have the range and depth of expertise to deliver on the Competition Commission inquiries across the economy, including on financial services and consumer issues. We expect that a sufficient number and range of panellists will also be appointed to the CMA for it to be able to cover consumer welfare and financial services-related functions. In fact, many of these will transfer from the Competition Commission. This means that the specific appointments called for by this amendment are unnecessary. I trust, therefore, that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.
I thank the Minister for that. How interesting it is that we can have sector specialists such as lawyers and accountants, and they are not conflicted, but you can talk about someone coming from a consumer background and it is immediately assumed that they will be conflicted. Everyone in this Room is a consumer, and consumer representatives speak on our behalf, whether to individual providers, regulators or anyone else. Just because they have done that and built up that expertise, they may be conflicted, but a sector specialist such as an accountant who no doubt has worked with some of these companies is not—I find that very interesting.
It has been very clear that having people from a consumer background on the Legal Services Board and the FSA is valued by people from the industry. To write that into the requirement seems the least that we can do. I see that most of the words that the Minister read were actually written before I had spoken, so perhaps when he looks again at what we have actually said, he may be able to be a little more responsive should we need to bring this back. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 24BA withdrawn.
Amendment 24BB not moved.
24BC: Schedule 4, page 89, line 31, at end insert—
“11A (1) The CMA shall have a unit dedicated to matters affecting relating to competition issues amongst affecting small and medium-sized enterprises.
(2) Such a unit will pay particular focus to the availability of finance to small and medium-sized enterprises.”
My Lords, despite the prompting of my noble friend Lady Hayter, this will not be a quake-making day. We are much more concerned with doing some serious probing and finding out where the Government stand on certain issues.
One thing that came out of the payday loans amendments, to which my noble friend Lady Hayter referred, was that that issue was not highlighted and made clear in that Bill. The subject that I should like to deal with today is SMEs and how they are addressed in this Bill. We are concerned to make sure that SMEs get prominence and that they are not lost in the fine print of the legislation.
I always have a problem with the expression “SME”. I do not know what it means. A small company can be a one-man band. Then there are medium-sized companies and large companies. Sometimes I feel that medium-sized companies have more in common with large companies than they do with small companies. One definition of a small company is that it has up to 50 employees, a turnover of up to £6.5 million and a balance sheet of up to £3.25 million. For medium-sized companies, the figures are between 50 and 250 employees, a turnover of up to £26 million and a balance sheet of up to £13 million. There are several companies with a turnover well in excess of £26 million but I have never considered them as being large companies; in fact, I have always thought of them as being at the lower end of medium-sized companies. Therefore, I am afraid that some of these definitions are probably very out of date.
However, what is not out of date, as I am sure everyone will agree, is that this business sector—let us call it the SMEs—is very keen to lead the economic recovery of our country. All sorts of reports, including one carried out by GE Capital in conjunction with the Warwick Business School, have come to the conclusion that growth, employment and exports are going to come from this sector and that this is going to be the propellant for any recovery. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, in his magnificent tome, No Stone Unturned, which I thought was very good and very refreshing, said that if one in 10 of the firms that are sole traders hired their first employee or an extra employee, that would increase employment by 480,000. Therefore, recovery comes from even a small business of three people taking on one extra person.
The first part of the amendment suggests that there is a need to dedicate a unit to matters relating to competition affecting SMEs. Small firms are often faced with problems that big firms also face but, of course, small firms do not have the resources, facilities or expertise to deal with them, and recruiting or hiring a legal team is prohibitively expensive. They do not have the time to read the regulatory judgments; it is just a fact of life. Therefore, we feel that such a unit could be one way of helping small firms to grow. The first part of the amendment would provide SMEs with a specific and direct point of contact within the CMA.
The second part of the amendment proposes that the unit in the CMA will focus particularly on the availability of finance for SMEs. Noble Lords will probably have heard me speak on this issue on several occasions but it is something that concerns me all the time. At the moment, many government financing plans are being announced but most of them are not working and, frankly, I do not understand most of them myself. I wonder how people in small businesses who are not involved with them on a day-to-day basis get to grips with some of these programmes.
My constant mantra is that businesses will not grow unless there is a strategy for growth. What business needs is confidence, certainty and clarity. Not surprisingly, 85% of SMEs bank with the big four high-street banks, but this increases the cost of lending and decreases its availability. That hampers growth because SMEs collectively produce more than half of Britain’s GDP. SMEs are too dependent on the banks. I hear so many stories of the proprietors of an SME or its directors going in to see a bank when they need to finance a good project. The bank manager says “no”, and they walk out as if that is the end of the matter. To many it is the end of the matter, but it should not be. There are many other sources of finance out there, and it would be great to me if the banks had less dominance and influence.
I also feel in my heart of hearts that the high street banking sector is not particularly interested in SMEs. They have had their heads turned and, no matter what happens in the other directions that they have gone into, such as investment banking, I cannot see them ever returning to supporting SMEs as they used to. The Federation of Small Businesses has persistently pointed to this as preventing growth in SMEs, which collectively produce more than half of Britain’s GDP. We think that there should be research on this by the CMA on an ongoing basis, which will be dealt with by my noble friend Lady Hayter in a later group.
A couple of weeks ago, a few Members from the Houses of Parliament went to Germany to see the Sparkasse in Berlin. We have all heard about these organisations, but they really were very impressive. They are small savings banks that are responsible for 40% of German lending, just to the SMEs sector. Because they, by culture, have a long-term investment in their clients, they are able to defer and assess credit risks to a much greater extent than we do with our banking organisations, which seem to assess any lending possibility on a computer model that comes out with a yes or no.
There is a real opportunity for new types of financing banks in this country that would help growth. There is a new business bank called Aldermore. Yesterday, much to the Government’s credit, they announced a £100 million facility for peer-to-peer lending. That is a very interesting new development whereby individuals can lend to businesses. It works on a bidding basis, almost like the reverse of eBay. It is a very exciting area, involving companies such as Funding Circle, Zopa, Boost Capital and Credit Asset Management, which I doubt that any of your Lordships have heard of—and to be frank, neither had I. However, it is a fast-growing area of new funding for small businesses. To summarise this part of the amendment, a unit within the CMA that looks to address this problem on an ongoing basis would be of great benefit to initiating and sustaining economic recovery.
Amendment 25G deals with super-complainants. I am going to say barely anything on it, except that we want groups to be super-complainants, if they want to be, and represent SMEs and want to apply for the status. That leads into Amendment 26E, which would mean that “consumers” includes small businesses with up to 50 employees. That change to the definition of consumer would mean that organisations representing SMEs can apply for super-complainant status. Currently, the OFT has to publish a response to any complaint from a super-complainant in 90 days or refer it to the Competition Commission for further investigation. The CMA will now have those responsibilities. The competition issues that SMEs face, such as those previously concerning the concentrated banking sector and any other problems, could then be quickly highlighted. There is often very little difference between a consumer and a small business. Mr Mike Cherry, the chairman of national policy at the Federation of Small Businesses said, in front of the House of Commons Committee,
“our key message would be that, in very many cases, small businesses are, in fact, no different from consumers.”––[Official Report, Commons, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Public Bill Committee, 19/6/2012; Q49.]
The Federation of Small Businesses has also said that, while it is not in a position to become super-complainants at this stage, it would welcome the possibility that organisations representing small businesses would be able to apply in future. This amendment therefore seeks to recognise that by changing the definition of consumer to include SMEs, thus opening up the possibility that at some point in future it will be able to register as super-complainants. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful for these amendments, initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, which highlight the importance of competitive markets to small and medium-sized enterprises. I welcome the noble Lord to the Dispatch Box and I hope that I can do a little better, in his eyes, in addressing his issues and concerns than perhaps I did before.
I agree that Britain’s small businesses are absolutely vital in leading the economic recovery, and the Government take its role in this area very seriously. This Bill contains a number of measures that will deliver real benefits to SMEs by strengthening and streamlining the competition regime; for example, it will make entry into markets easier, deter anti-competitive practices and speed up competition cases. While I support the overarching intention behind Amendment 24BC—to support SMEs—I do not believe that a dedicated SME unit within the CMA is necessary.
First, the competition authorities already undertake a range of work that directly benefits SMEs. For example, following an OFT market study into the retail pharmacy sector, a number of administrative restrictions on entry were removed, which enabled more competitors, including SMEs, to enter the market. Another example is in banking, which I know the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, is particularly focused on. OFT interventions in markets such as personal current accounts, small and medium-sized enterprise banking and cash ISAs have found long-standing problems, such as high concentration, low transparency of fees, low levels of switching and high barriers to entry, which hamper effective competition.
The OFT has launched a programme of work designed to achieve a more competitive and customer-focused retail banking sector, and this will consider both personal and SME banking. The OFT also works actively with bodies representing SMEs, such as the Federation of Small Businesses and the British Chambers of Commerce, to identify competition problems faced by SMEs. The Government expect this engagement to continue when the CMA is established.
I urge caution against restricting the CMA’s ability to allocate its resource independently, according to the priorities of the day. There is also a risk that a dedicated SME unit would be inundated with complaints about competitors, rather than competition issues. This would take vital resources away from competition enforcement itself.
The new clause inserted by Amendment 25G would have the effect of bringing small businesses within the definition of “consumer” in Part 4 of the Enterprise Act, which deals with market investigations. This means that super-complaints could also be brought to the CMA about potential competition issues affecting small businesses.
We need to take care when thinking about small businesses within competitive markets, so that the line between consumers and competitors is very clear. The Government consulted on whether to extend the super-complaint system to SME bodies, as the noble Lord’s amendment proposes. The consultation asked for evidence of the type of issues that may be brought to the CMA as a potential super-complaint by small business organisations, but we did not receive any. Furthermore, the majority of responses to the consultation on this question actually opposed the proposal. Respondents felt strongly that SMEs should not be given special status, which could allow them to challenge business practices that might be pro-competition and efficiency-enhancing.
Amendment 26E would have the effect of bringing small businesses within the definition of “consumers” for the purpose of Part 4 of the Bill, which deals with competition reform. This would have the effect of enabling the CMA to launch a market study into a market which seemed not to be working well for small businesses.
I agree with the sentiment behind this amendment, that the CMA should be able to look at markets that are not working well either for consumers or small businesses. I do not believe that it is necessary because the existing legislation has not to date constrained the OFT from considering business-to-business markets. If there are competition issues in these markets, they will usually ultimately affect end consumers as well.
For example, the OFT’s current review of retail banking will look at SME banking as well as personal consumer banking. The OFT’s aggregates market study, which has now been considered in more detail by the Competition Commission for a market investigation, considered how easy it was for small ready-mixed concrete businesses to source cement and aggregates competitively. I hope that noble Lords will see that the competition authorities already carefully consider competition issues that affect SMEs in the existing regime and that legislating to assign resources to a particular area may prevent the CMA from focusing where enforcement is most needed. I would, therefore, ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. There is a need for a dedicated unit; small and medium-sized enterprises need a particular focus point to which they can refer. Our amendments are a “may”, not a “must”. The Minister gave an example of banking and the OFT. That may be, but here we are today, with high street banks still dominating and other types of banking organisations only just coming through.
In summary, we are trying to set up a mechanism that will enable the CMA as it progresses to take actions in favour of the SME sector—to enable it specifically in that area. I ask the Minister to think about what I have said. We will think about what we have said, and with that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 24BC withdrawn.
24BD: Schedule 4, page 89, line 39, at end insert—
“(c) set out the consumer benefit which will be achieved as a result of the objectives and priorities as set out in paragraph (a)”
My Lords, these amendments speak for themselves, so I hope that I can be brief. They are to remind the CMA, and to be certain that it includes in its reports, that it must set out the consumer benefit to be achieved and then monitor and evaluate it in its objectives and priorities. That will make its accountability for achieving this easier to ensure and will enable Parliament, the public, consumer groups and others to have clear evidence on which to assess progress.
Amendment 24BE means checking that the staff are up to the task set for them and that the resources are properly allocated to meet key objectives. Amendment 24BF is to allow Parliament and others to evaluate the cost of this merger into a single body, not just in money, important though that is, but on whether competition is healthier and that cases are being heard more quickly. We all, I assume, support post-legislative scrutiny. This amendment would produce the evidence on which to base that work. I beg to move.
I am grateful once again to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, for the suggested amendments. Amendment 24BD would impose a requirement on the CMA that its annual plan for a forthcoming financial year should contain the consumer benefit that will be achieved as a result of the CMA’s main objectives for the year, and the prioritisation of those objectives.
Under the OFT spending review settlement, the OFT is currently required to provide an estimate of direct savings to consumers from its activities and to assess the associated benefit cost ratio against the current target of 5:1. In 2011 this figure was exceeded to deliver a benefit to cost ratio of 7:1. For the OFT, such a requirement serves to encourage it to maximise benefits to consumers in deciding what work to take forward. By comparison, however, a requirement for the CMA to assess the impact of its future work would be considerably less precise. As well as difficulties in assessing the future benefits of particular cases, the CMA’s caseload itself is not predictable. This amendment could therefore incentivise the CMA to underestimate and underachieve and could also potentially leave the CMA at risk of judicial review if forecasted consumer benefits were not realised.
Amendment 24BE seeks to provide a statutory requirement for the CMA to report in its annual performance report on the skills of its staff and to estimate the resources needed to perform its functions in the following two financial years. As drafted, the Bill provides a statutory requirement for the CMA to produce an annual plan and performance report in which it must set out its objectives for the coming year and the relative priorities, and how it has delivered against these. In addition, both the OFT and the Competition Commission already publish information relating to their staff, such as the development, diversity and engagement of their staff. We expect the same of the CMA. While it is imperative that the CMA has a skilled workforce to carry out its functions, to report on the skills of its workforce on an annual basis will be unnecessarily burdensome to the CMA, we believe.
Finally, Amendment 24BF proposes that the CMA’s first performance report provides an assessment of the transition costs and the impact of reforms on the speed of referrals. Evaluating whether the policy delivers the objectives is essential to ensuring that the CMA is getting it right, as is an assessment of the transitional costs against benefits. However, such an evaluation must provide an assessment of the costs against benefits over an appropriate time period: to do otherwise would not provide an accurate picture of the impact of the policy. A requirement to assess the costs and benefits to the competition regime within the first financial year of the reforms would be far too soon for a realistic assessment of the transition costs and benefits in either financial or competition terms. The Government’s impact assessment of the proposed reforms to the UK competition regime, which includes the transition to the CMA, commits government to a review of the policy in 2018. That is an appropriate point at which to consider the impact of the transition to the CMA in both financial and competition terms. For this reason, we do not consider that it is right for there to be a statutory requirement for the CMA to include within its first annual performance report an assessment of transition costs in both financial and competition terms.
While I welcome the intention behind these amendments, their practical impact could serve to hinder the efficient and smooth working of the CMA as a high-performance organisation. I therefore request that the noble Baroness withdraw these amendments.
In case Hansard did not record that, the answer was a very welcome “yes”, for which I thank him.
The Minister talked about the requirement for reporting on diversity of staff. Needless to say, we welcome that, but it seems to me that if you set up an organisation to do a job, making sure that it has the appropriate staff is central. Its human resources department will know if it is not got enough IT people, it will know if it is short of various staff. All we are asking is that it should share that knowledge with us. For those who say that this is extra work, I believe that a well run organisation knows about staff turnover, who it is recruiting and who it cannot recruit.
Finally, I welcome the fact that there will be a review in 2018. Of course, it is a bit late by then to do anything about it if the Government have made a mistake in doing this. I suppose that it is better late than never, but I hope that the Ministers at the time will at least be asking those questions, even if it is not a statutory requirement. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 24BD withdrawn.
Amendments 24BE and 24BF not moved.
24BFA: Schedule 4, page 91, line 27, leave out paragraph (g)
My Lords, we now come to what may prove next week to be an interesting area: the relationship between the CMA and the sector regulators. This is the first point where it arises in the Bill, and it relates to the list of sector regulators. It is not a substantive point in terms of the nature of that relationship, but because the Government seem to think that that relationship is not entirely right at the moment and we know that we will be getting a hefty amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Marland, next week on the Secretary of State’s powers in relation to the sector regulators and the CMA, it is important that the list of designated sector regulators is in fact the right list.
This amendment and a later one on the more substantive issues attempt to alter the list as set out in the Bill in two ways. The first is to remove Monitor from the list. The second, which I will deal with first, is the issue of how we will deal with the Financial Services Bill, which has yet to receive Royal Assent, and the establishment of the Financial Conduct Authority, because that will be the equivalent sector regulator for financial services and its powers will not be quite the same in some respects as those of the sector regulators that regulate the one-time nationalised industries such as water and gas. Nevertheless, it is the equivalent body and should therefore have an equivalent relationship with the CMA. There is no reference to any financial regulator in any of these lists. That may simply be for the technical and probably constitutional reason that the Financial Services Bill is not yet in law but, if that is the case, then presumably the FSA should appear there. I would like to know the Government’s intentions on that.
There is another complication regarding that Bill: in some respects, the prudential regulator could have an effect on the structure of markets as well. There is therefore a crossover there with the role of the CMA. We will come back to the substance of that, but it would be interesting to know the Government’s intention in that respect.
The other point relates to Monitor. Monitor is the economic regulator, and various other things, under the new National Health Service regime. The issue of competition in the health service was one of enormous complexity during the passage of the NHS reform Bill. It was one over which the Government gave substantial reassurances that the role of competition would not cut across the primary concern of NHS patients, which was that they would be treated effectively, resources would be deployed effectively for them and there would be seamless integration of the health service regarding their treatment. That will cut across the competition criteria that apply to the other sectors covered by the other regulators. Indeed, Monitor itself in its own objectives set out that integration and co-operation are its main priorities.
I think I am right in saying that at least once during the course of the NHS Bill the noble Earl, Lord Howe, indicated that in issues where there was conflict between competition and co-operation in providing a seamless service to the patient, then co-operation would trump competition. I am not arguing that the role of Monitor in increasing competition in the health service should be reopened, but I am saying that it is an entirely different situation from that which applies, for example, to Ofgem or the railways, where there are clear criteria, either continuously or at the point of franchise, about competition. Here, though, it is not the main aim of the health service to maximise choice; choice can be a contributor to patient comfort and outcomes but the main purpose is actually to provide an effective service for the treatment of that patient. The interaction between the CMA and Monitor in the health service, therefore, would be entirely different from the interaction between it and the other sector regulators. That is why I wish to remove Monitor from the list. There may be a separate reason for a relationship, but it is not the same as the rules being proposed for the overall relationship between the CMA and the sector regulators.
I advise the Government, gently, not to reopen this matter—health service reform was difficult enough for them. People are settling down now to make it work but the idea that another authority might come in under this Bill and overrule a health service body trying to square off competition and co-operation would reopen huge anxieties among health service professionals, patient groups and the new commissioning body. The Government would be wise to take it out. They can do it at this point without too much attention but if what they are proposing gets out there, they will be in serious trouble. I beg to move.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for tabling Amendments 24BFA and 24BG.
Amendment 24BFA would remove Monitor from the list of sector regulators covered by the CMA’s duty to publish an annual concurrency report. The concurrency arrangements to be reported on are the arrangements for co-operation between the CMA and sector regulators in relation to their functions under the Competition Act 1998, in other words anti-trust cases, and under Part 4 of the Enterprise Act 2002, in other words market investigation references.
The concurrency report is part of a wider package of concurrency reforms designed to give the CMA stronger powers to co-ordinate competition work. The Bill will also give the regulators more explicit duties to consider using their general competition powers instead of sector-specific powers. The concurrency report ensures that there is transparency about how the CMA and sector regulators have worked together and how concurrent powers have been used in the regulated sectors. Monitor, whose role is to protect and promote the interests of patients, as the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, has mentioned, will have both regulatory powers—for example, the provider licence—and concurrent powers to address anti-competitive behaviour that is against the interests of patients.
The regulatory powers will reflect the Government’s commitment to retain sector-specific rules for health, building on those put in place by the previous Administration. Monitor will be subject to the new arrangements on the co-ordination of concurrent powers provided for in Clause 45, subject to one exception. The Government have been clear in response to the consultation on competition reform that Monitor’s new explicit duty to consider Competition Act enforcement before taking enforcement action through the provider licence provided under Schedule 14 to the Enterprise Bill will not be commenced until a future date, reflecting the unique characteristics of the health sector.
Subject to this, Monitor will become part of the same concurrency regime as the other sector regulators. So it is right that the concurrency arrangements between the CMA and Monitor and the use of concurrent powers in the health sector should be covered by the concurrency report. This will provide greater transparency and assurance that concurrent competition powers are being used effectively and in the interests of users of health care services.
Turning now to Amendment 24BG, I believe the amendment is intended to ensure that the CMA will have to report on how concurrency arrangements and co-operation and scrutiny of financial services more generally have worked with the FCA and the PRA. However, neither the FCA nor the PRA will have concurrent powers, so the amendment will in practice have no effect.
I know that noble Lords have questioned whether the FCA should have concurrent competition powers. However, the Government accepted the recommendation of the Treasury Select Committee that the case for market investigation reference powers had not yet been made and that the issue should be reviewed when the FCA had bedded into its new role. The Financial Services Bill instead gives the FCA a new competition remit which provides the mandate for the FCA to use its powers to promote effective competition and it will be able to carry out reviews of financial markets. The Financial Conduct Authority will have a tailored power to refer matters to the CMA, which may conduct market investigation or bring Competition Act enforcement proceedings. This mechanism was widely supported by consumer groups and industry and by the Treasury Select Committee.
In addition, the Financial Services Bill includes provision for the competition authorities independently to scrutinise the impact of both the FCA’s and the PRA’s actions on competition. It will of course be important that the FCA and OFT co-ordinate. The FSA and OFT already have an MoU in place and a new one will be put in place between the FCA and the CMA. The CMA, FCA and PRA will be required to report on their performance in their annual reports. I therefore ask the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am afraid I do not really accept either of those two propositions. On the financial side, it is true that the FCA does not have the whole range of concurrent powers that all the other regulators do, or in the same form, but it has a substantial number of powers in relation to its treatment of market abuse and consumers and its ability to conduct market studies. I hoped the Minister would say, “We will wait until the Financial Services Bill has passed and then at a later stage in this Bill we will produce a clause that deals with the relationship between the CMA and the FSA as will be, and possibly other parts of the financial regulation side”. I fear that what he actually said is that the abyss has been rolled over by the Treasury.
Quite often in consumer law, we find that general consumer propositions are deemed by the Treasury and the Bank of England not to apply to them. That may indeed be part of the reason why the previous system of regulation of the banking system fell flat on its face. The Minister and his colleagues in this need to be a bit braver in facing up to the Treasury and ensuring that it is subject to the same possibilities of market and consumer abuse as other sectors and therefore should be covered by the same propositions, even though there would be some slight variation in the range of powers. I hope that at some stage in the Bill there will be a point where we take on board the final version of the Financial Services Bill and put that back in.
On Monitor, I fear the Minister is making a serious political misjudgment. It is true that during the course of the NHS Bill the House eventually accepted that there should be a significant increase in competition within the health service structure, but when you look at the actual decisions that will have to be taken by the individual bodies within the health service, their prime concern is that patients and patient groups get the best integrated service for their condition. Therefore, for example, commissioning bodies will need to ensure that, where they commission services from one particular trust or specialist service, that will continue without competitive challenge through the course of treatment for those patients for a number of years. Otherwise, the specialisms within the health service will be destroyed and the seamless journey that is part of Monitor’s objectives for the individual patient will be interrupted by somebody saying, “Actually, you have not observed competition rules in this respect”.
That is not to say that there are not some aspects where there is an overlap. I am saying that the relationship between the CMA and Monitor is different from that for the other sector regulators. I would take it out of that list and the other lists that appear here. If there needs to be a separate memorandum of understanding, let us provide for that, but it will not be the same. If the Government hint that it is the same, I am afraid that there will be a reaction out there that they will find difficult to contain. That will be at best an embarrassment and at worst a threat to the other changes they are trying to make within the health service. I plead with them on this. It is in the interests of Monitor to devise its own structures and relationships and not to assume that it will operate in the same way as a competition authority in other markets. I hope that the Government will change their attitude on this in the course of the Bill. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 24BFA withdrawn.
Amendment 24BG not moved.
24BH: Schedule 4, page 91, line 27, at end insert—
“Consumer research16A (1) The CMA must make arrangements for ascertaining information with regards to—
(a) the state of public opinion about the manner in which financial services are provided to consumers;(b) consumer experiences of consumers in relation to the provision of financial services, including—(i) handling of complaints by financial institutions, and(ii) resolution of disputes with financial institutions.(2) The CMA shall consult concurrent regulators where necessary.
(3) The CMA shall publish the conclusions from research carried out under sub-paragraph (1) every two years.
(4) The CMA shall report to the Secretary of State its conclusions and any recommendations arising from research carried out under sub-paragraph (1) every 2 years.
(5) The Secretary of State shall publish a response to any such report within 60 days and lay a copy of that response before Parliament.
(6) This section does not restrict the CMA’s power to make any arrangements that it considers to be incidental or conducive to the carrying out of any of its functions.”
My Lords, despite the financial sector nominally being competitive—in that there is a choice of banks—we have seen a real lack of satisfaction with banks among consumers.
We do not need to rehearse the mis-selling scandals, with unwitting customers, including small businesses, being sold—as a nice little earner—products that they do not need. We have a reminder of the banks’ record in the newspapers today. Furthermore, we know how hard it has been for people to switch bank accounts— a case made very strongly by the noble Lord, Lord Flight, who is not in his place now, during the discussions on the Financial Services Bill. We know that banks have been unbelievably slow to react to complaints about bank charges—in fact, without the OFT a number of malpractices would still be going on—and that they remain resistant to transparency on fees and charges. Indeed, what I find odd is that no other supplier of a service can simply remove money from one’s bank account without first submitting an invoice or agreeing the amount with the customer.
Banks are slow to deal with complaints, they are resistant to the ombudsman’s activity, and it sometimes feels as though they exist for their staff and their bonuses, rather than to serve the consumer. This smacks of a failing market. Therefore, Amendment 24BH seeks to test that allegation by asking the CMA not to rely on a collection of anecdotes—which does not evidence make—but to undertake some serious consumer research into this market, and to present that, together with any recommendations flowing from it, to the Secretary of State, who should then report back to Parliament.
The other evidence of the lack of a functioning competitive market is the virtual seizing up of finance for small and medium-sized enterprises, and indeed for high-growth businesses, as set out earlier by my noble friend Lord Mitchell. Yet we know that our economic regeneration, and our future, rest on their shoulders. Something is amiss.
This does not feel like a competitive industry when customers cannot get what they want: money for investment. Thus Amendment 24BJ seeks to force the CMA to undertake some serious research on competition in the financial services sector. When we discussed these issues during our debates on the Financial Services Bill, we were told that the CMA would be the lead regulator on competition—the FCA’s role being to promote competition, it seems, rather than deal with its absence—so now we ask the CMA to do just that. I beg to move.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, for these amendments.
To be effective, the CMA needs to be able to independently determine its own priorities, but its ability to do this would be undermined by the obligation under Amendment 24BH to undertake regular reviews of one particular sector. As we have discussed, the Government are of course determined to improve financial regulation. Markets and market regulation evolve and, by requiring the CMA to carry out studies every two years, this amendment might have the effect of limiting the ability of the CMA to carry out higher-priority work.
The CMA also needs to be able to choose which tool to deploy. During the course of a targeted investigation, Amendment 24BH could require the CMA to produce a general report on the financial sector. In these circumstances, the reporting requirement could waste resources, interfere with an investigation or even act as a disincentive to initiate a separate investigation in the first place.
Finally, while the CMA will be the central competition authority, the FCA will be the lead regulator in the financial services sector, funded by an industry levy. It would be duplicative for the CMA to be required to carry out detailed scrutiny of conduct in the financial services sector at taxpayers’ expense, as required by Amendment 24BH. The OFT and the Competition Commission’s scrutiny powers will be transferred to the CMA by order, under this Bill. New arrangements for co-operation between the CMA and the Financial Conduct Authority will ensure that the two bodies work well together. They will both, of course, have the power to carry out research and publish reports, as envisaged by these amendments. I therefore ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
I thank the Minister for that. There is one bit of that which I can accept—that it may not be necessary to do this every two years. But there is a major problem in this sector of financial services, and it is time that the Government accepted that. In the Financial Services Bill they are rejigging the architecture, a bit like this, taking the FSA and splitting it in two, sending one bit to Threadneedle Street and letting the other bit stay in Canary Wharf. None of that will seize the problem of the banking industry. I wonder whether the Government are ever going to do it. This was another way to say that this is an industry, and a market, that needs looking at. If it is not going to be done by the FCA, which is not going to have the same powers, surely it should be done by the CMA—if not every two years, even as a one-off now—to see whether we can sort this industry.
This is something that we will certainly need to come back to. The Minister referred to arrangements between the CMA and FCA, but so far the Government have absolutely refused even to accept the obligation to have an MoU between those two. We will come back to that in this Bill. There is something fundamentally wrong in this enormously important sector, which is failing to serve consumers and industry, small companies in particular, and no one seems willing to do anything about it. We will come back to this, maybe without the reference to “two years”. For the moment, I withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 24BH withdrawn.
Amendments 24BJ and 24BK not moved.
Schedule 4 agreed.
Clause 21 : Abolition of the Competition Commission and the OFT
Debate on whether Clause 21 should stand part of the Bill.
My Lords, this is a draconian clause. It follows a scheme of the Public Bodies Act in abolishing the Competition Commission and the Office of Fair Trading. It is not an even-handed abolition, because, as I have argued previously, the Office of Fair Trading really continues. It is changing its name to the Competition and Markets Authority, but it is in effect the OFT. I asked about Part 4 and did not get an answer to it. I asked why the Government had made the choice of creating a new body as opposed to continuing with the OFT, and did not get an answer to that either.
At the moment, I am yet to be convinced that these dramatic changes to the structure of the competition regime are justified. That needs to be seen against a background in which the annual cost of the OFT is somewhat over £70 million and the cost of the Competition Commission is somewhat over £15 million. So in the actual money figures, it is 80% the OFT and 20% the Competition Commission. I cannot accept that any argument has been made about money. It is not really claimed in the impact assessment—“ultimately” is the word that is used. I simply do not see that this is an important consideration in the change in structure, and I am conscious of the need to restrain public expenditure. It is said in several places in the Bill that all that this provision is intended to do is to make it somewhat more straightforward for the two organisations to reduce their costs in line with the existing government public spending targets.
We are left with a situation whereby the OFT is taking over the Competition Commission. The commission is disappearing as an executive body and will have no management role—it will not manage itself. It is being turned into panel of mostly, if not all, part-time members—we have not been told—who are part of the Office of Fair Trading. The risk that this will go wrong greatly outweighs any benefits. We have already talked about the need to do things in a more timely fashion. How could I disagree with that? I remember carrying out investigations and coming up with an answer pretty quickly, and it can of course be done under the existing regime. There is nothing wrong with the law.
The money and the timeliness have gone. What else is left? Something is said about the duplication of the provision of information but, unfortunately, I do not see how that holds because if you make a reference, surely the people who will come to some form of judicial judgment have to start from a zero base. They simply cannot rely on what has been done before. Of course they will gather as much information as they can, but that will not stop them needing to obtain self-standing information of their own, in order to come to a semi-judicial decision.
I ask my noble friend: has the department taken legal advice? Has it been to the Attorney-General? The risk that this regime will be challenged is real. I am not just making it up. I cannot see where the benefits outweigh the risk. It seems to me that the risk outweighs the benefits by many times in terms of both time and money. I urge my noble friend to go back and give this another thought because, quite honestly, the game is not worth the candle, the risk is far too great, and the benefits do not exist—and if they do, I have not been told about them. I cannot even imagine what they will be when I am told about them, but I should like to hear them.
I remain unconvinced, as my noble friend Lord Razzall, who is no longer in his place, said. I conclude by saying that I am not in any way casting the smallest of aspersions on the noble Lord, Lord Currie of Marylebone. How could I do that? I was born in the borough of Marylebone. What he has done was done in good faith—being taken on as chairman-designate of something that, at the moment, I believe to be a greatly mistaken structure.
My Lords, the Committee will be delighted to hear that because I have already made a number of points regarding Clause 20, which obviously related to Clause 21 also, I will not repeat them. However, I must continue to express the concern that was not answered, although I made the point, about the period of hiatus between enactment and the appointment of the new board. None of that can take place. I do not know what the housekeeping requirements are regarding new buildings or offices, but the fact remains that it will be a very damaging hiatus. In particular, as I mentioned at the time, is the effect that the Bill will have on the Consumer Credit Act. Appeals that are brought under the Consumer Credit Act will be in some sort of abeyance. Nothing will happen until the new legislation is enacted and all parts of the various appointments to the two bodies that we have been discussing this afternoon have been made. A lot of concern has been expressed by those in the financial sector about this and we deserve some sort of answer at this stage.
My Lords, I refer to my entry in the House of Lords register of interests. This gives me a good opportunity to ask one question of the Minister: has he noticed that this Part of the Bill refers to many things which were in the Financial Services Bill and that both are entirely different from everything else the Government are doing? In every other part of the Government’s actions we are reducing the amount of regulation. Much of the Bill is about that, but when we get on to the financial services arrangements, we are laying more and more emphasis upon more and more regulation and there is no indication, in my view, that it is going to be any better. It is really beginning to bug me that much of what has gone wrong was, of course, the fault of the financial services—I am not for one moment denying that—and certainly the fault of the banks, but I cannot honestly say that the regulator has come out of it with a great deal of praise. Indeed, a number of the things that went wrong can be laid directly at the door of the regulator. So the regulator then comes back and says, “Well, the only way to solve these problems is to have more regulation and more powers, so we can get it more wrong.”
My worry is simply that everywhere else in the Government’s programme, the Government have made the argument that if we have too heavy regulation, we do not have innovation, we do not have new things, we do not have new ideas and new mechanisms to meet the new circumstances of Britain, which after all is in competition with the rest of the world. That is the logic, that is the argument; an argument I buy into. The one area in which that is evidently not true is this one. So now we have had two Bills which interrelate and in this Part of the Bill, which is otherwise an admirable Bill, it has merely gone on doing what the Financial Services Bill had so wrongly done elsewhere. So we have an attitude to regulation which is entirely inconsistent.
We have just had two Bills going through the House of Lords and noble Lords may have noticed that the passage of the Civil Aviation Bill was entirely filled with speeches by Ministers about how wonderful it was that the public was now going to have a great deal more say and more appeal, and the regulators were not going to be able to ride roughshod over customers, businesses and the like. At exactly the same time, we introduced another Bill saying there are going to be no appeals, the public are not going to have a say, businesses are not going to have a say but instead we will have tougher and tougher regulations. I find this incomprehensible and as I have tried on several occasions to raise it in detail it would help me a great deal if the Minister would explain the rather curious mismatch.
Of course, the party opposite has not raised this very much because it wants more regulation in every circumstance: we know that. I raise it at this opportunity because I cannot do it on the amendments of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, but I think that in 10 years’ time—probably in five years’ time—people will look back at this period in Parliament and say, “What the blazes were they doing making the British financial industry less able to compete and less able to innovate, when they were doing so much good stuff in the whole of the rest of British industry?”.
I shall try to resist temptation. As to spectacles, of course it was the consumers who most wanted opticians not to be regulated. It has benefited us all because we have been able to buy much cheaper glasses than we used to.
I would like to ask the Minister, in the complete secrecy of this room, with only a few Hansard writers and television watchers present, that if his Government had not wanted a bonfire of the quangos, would this merger ever have gone ahead? Was it just another number in the bonfire of the quangos or did BIS always want this?
Before the Minister replies, I would like to thank the noble Baroness for her comment. There may well be another, very general, explanation. I have worked in the public sector in a number of different bodies. I once received a letter saying that the Minister understood that I did not wish to be reappointed to this body because I was too busy—it was a Department of Trade and Industry body—but that was not the reason. The reason was that I had attended a meeting and voted against a grant to a company because I thought it was not a sound company. However, the grant was passed and paid out and the business went bust. I was too clever because I had got it right and so I had to be removed.
There are few of us here but this important general explanation will be reported in Hansard. There is a strong wish in departments—this is a general comment—to reduce the independence of public bodies, to centralise their activities and to get them back as close to the Ministry as they can. The Competition Commission has been an independent body for 60-something years, so how did it get into the Public Bodies Act that these two organisations would be merged? It cannot have got in as a result of the Cabinet Office saying, “Have you got any good ideas?” There must have been somewhere in the purlieus of BIS a document saying, “Would it not be a good idea to reform the competition regime?”
I believe that this merger has not ever been given the proper consideration by the Government that it needs to assess the risk in what is proposed, and to offset that risk against the apparently negligible benefits.
To add to what my noble friend has said—we are fortunate to have him here today—I would like to know whether the Bill ever went through Cabinet. I find it difficult to believe that some of these points would not have been raised at that time, and properly so.
My Lords, the CMA will be equipped with a wide range of tools to remedy anti-competitive practices and to promote effective competition in markets across the UK economy. It has been somewhat of a challenge today to answer the questions raised by my noble friend Lord Eccles, but I am prepared to have another go.
At the beginning and at the end of the day, my noble friend raised the question: why reform the current institutional structure; why make the change? I reiterate that bringing the Competition Commission and the competition functions of the Office of Fair Trading together in a single body provides the opportunity for greater coherence in competition policy and practice, a more streamlined approach to decision making, a stronger oversight of the end-to-end case management process, as I mentioned earlier, more flexibility in resource utilisation and better incentives to use anti-trust and markets tools to deal efficiently with competition problems.
Furthermore, it provides a single powerful advocate to speak for competition across the economy in Europe and globally. While it is not a central driver for the creation of the new CMA, there will be scope for some long-term savings, in particular in corporate governance, back-office functions and accommodation costs. I reiterate that this process is not solely about saving on costs. Some costs will be saved, and it is fully expected that some synergies will be made, but a vast number of skills will be transferred over to the new CMA. I hope that that helps somewhat to allay my noble friend’s fears.
My noble friend Lady Oppenheim-Barnes also raised some questions about the fundamental concept of setting up the CMA. Ministers consider competitive markets to be vital to the economy. That has been said many times in recent weeks and months. BIS Ministers have consistently made it clear that the main purpose of the exercise is to strengthen the competition regime and to support growth rather than to cut costs. The new CMA will be sufficiently resourced to deliver its functions but will not be immune from wider pressures to help deal with the UK’s massive deficit. Savings delivered by the creation of the CMA will mainly be from streamlining, which I mentioned earlier, and eliminating overlaps between phase 1 and phase 2 of investigations. These savings will help to deliver the Government’s existing spending review targets.
The Government are committed to ensuring a smooth transition process and will work closely with the OFT and the Competition Commission to minimise disruption to the organisations while they continue to carry out their important roles and services. I wish to reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, that this whole process was looked at most carefully in Cabinet.
In response to a question raised by my noble friend Lady Oppenheim-Barnes on the transition, as we are aware, the Government have appointed the noble Lord, Lord Currie of Marylebone, as chair designate of the new CMA and is in the process of recruiting the chief executive designate. Together they will lead the transition to the new CMA. During our Second Reading debate, the noble Lord, Lord Currie, said that in addition to creating a high-performance organisation he was committed, in transition terms, to ensuring,
“that the casework of both the Office of Fair Trading and the Competition Commission continues unimpeded and that the transition of work in progress to the new authority is entirely seamless”.
He assured noble Lords:
“We will safeguard business as usual.’—[Official Report, 14/11/12; col. 1561.]
Finally, I shall answer a question raised by my noble friend Lord Deben about what will happen to the Financial Services and Markets Act in relation to the OFT oversight of the regulatory regime, if I read him correctly. Consideration of competition must be a central feature of the new financial services regulatory regime so we will therefore retain a regime for scrutiny of the regulation of financial services by the CMA. This will apply to both the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority.
Clause 21 and Schedules 5 and 6 provide for the transfer of relevant tools and functions of the OFT and the functions of the Competition Commission to the CMA. The new authority will operate the anti-trust mergers and markets regimes and will determine regulatory appeals and references made to it in the major regulated sectors. It will carry out various ancillary competition scrutiny functions and provide businesses with advice and guidance to help them to understand and comply with competition law. Schedule 5 also provides that certain functions under the Enterprise Act, in particular phase 2 of the mergers and markets processes, will be the responsibility of groups of independent panellists. I commend Clause 21 to the Committee.
Before my noble friend sits down, could I ask that my questions that have not been answered are dealt with in writing? I would appreciate that. As far as I am concerned, this is definitely not the end of the matter. I will review my very real worries about what is being done here and no doubt come back to them at the next stage of the Bill.
I did not necessarily expect to answer all my noble friend’s questions. However, I have attempted to address on many occasions the question that he has put in terms of the fundamentals of setting up the CMA. I hoped that I had answered him. Clearly I have not and I will certainly write to my noble friend to address the questions that he feels are unanswered.
For the last time, the fundamental question is: are the Government sure that the supposed benefits outweigh the risks? We have not really coped with that at all today. There is a real risk. When the thing is not broken, why try to mend it? The competition regime has been very good over many years. In my opinion, the Government are taking a quite unjustifiable risk of running that regime into a brick wall. That is the question and that is why I am not satisfied that the Government have really thought this through if they cannot tell me that they have taken proper legal advice about the risk they are running. For a very long time, the whole of business and industry has understood that this was done in two places. There was a reference from here and an investigation and determination over there. Change that and—believe you me—a lot of people, when they find out that that is what has happened, are not going to like it. If their lawyers come with them, there could be real trouble. I feel very strongly that the matter of risk needs to be dealt with. It is not a matter of efficiency or effectiveness—you can imagine all sorts of efficiencies, effectiveness and even economies—but a matter of risk.
Clause 21 agreed.
Schedule 5 : Amendments related to Part 3
Amendment 24BL not moved.
Committee adjourned at 7.47 pm.