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Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill

Volume 743: debated on Tuesday 26 February 2013

Report (1st Day) (Continued)

Amendments 47 and 48 not moved

Amendment 49

Moved by

49: Schedule 4, page 108, line 44, after “20” insert “(3)”

My Lords, the smooth transition from the current competition authorities to the new CMA will be essential to ensure that competition enforcement and consumer protection are not undermined. Amendments 49, 50, 55 and 88 are minor and technical, and seek to assist with that process.

Amendment 49 amends Schedule 4 to make clear that the CMA will not be required to publish certain reports, such as an annual plan or concurrency report in relation to the period before it takes its competition and consumer functions. Amendment 50 makes it clear that when a member of the Competition Commission panel is also appointed to the CMA panel during the transitional period, the period when he or she holds both appointments will not be double counted. The Bill requires that the total length of the two appointments must not exceed eight years.

Amendments 55 and 88 add a new clause which seeks to allow the OFT and Competition Commission to consult on behalf of the CMA on, among other things, new guidance before the CMA becomes fully operational, and make clear that this new clause comes into force on Royal Assent. This is a time-limited provision that seeks to enable full and timely consultation on guidance, rules, statements of policy and other matters relating to competition reforms in the Bill. I beg to move.

I certainly have no objection to any of these amendments. The Minister referred to a smooth transition. There is one other aspect necessary for a smooth transition to which we referred earlier: greater clarity about those OFT functions which are going outside of the CMA. Clarity on this is necessary over and above what is provided in the Public Bodies Act orders, which we are about to consider. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that there will be a further White Paper on the consumer landscape. I know he cannot confirm that there will be a consumer Bill in the next session—he cannot pre-empt the Queen’s Speech—but I assume that Government policy is moving in that general direction. With those caveats, I am fully in support of the amendments.

As noble Lords will note, these amendments, while minor and technical, are vital to the smooth transition to creating the CMA, notwithstanding the noble Lord’s comments, and ensuring that competition enforcement and consumer protection remain at the forefront of activity. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is working closely with the Competition Commission and the OFT to allow for this smooth transition to the new authority, including the development of guidance for business. These amendments will assist in that process. To conclude, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, may not be surprised to hear that I cannot commit further to future consumer issues or Bills, but I fully note his comments.

Amendment 49 agreed.

Amendment 50

Moved by

50: Schedule 4, page 109, line 17, after “Commission” insert “(excluding any period when he or she also holds office as a member of the CMA panel)”

Amendment 50 agreed.

Schedule 5 : Amendments related to Part 3

Amendment 51 not moved.

Schedule 6 : Regulatory appeals etc: minor and consequential amendments

Amendment 52

Moved by

52: Schedule 6, page 176, line 33, at end insert—

“( ) In paragraph 7, in sub-paragraph (3), for “Competition Commission” substitute “Competition and Markets Authority”.”

Amendment 52 agreed.

Clause 22 : Transfer schemes

Amendments 53 and 54 not moved.

Amendment 55

Moved by

55: After Clause 22, insert the following new Clause—

“Transitional provision: consultation

(1) This section applies in relation to a provision of this Act under or by virtue of which the CMA has a function of consulting another person in preparing rules, statements of policy, guidance or general advice or information.

(2) At any time before the provision comes into force, the Office of Fair Trading or the Competition Commission or both bodies acting jointly—

(a) may carry out any consultation that the CMA would have power to carry out after the provision comes into force, and(b) for that purpose, may prepare drafts of any documents to which the consultation relates. (3) At any time after the provision comes into force, the CMA may elect to treat any consultation carried out or other thing done under subsection (2) by the Office of Fair Trading or the Competition Commission (or by both bodies acting jointly) as carried out or done by the CMA.

(4) The Secretary of State may direct the Office of Fair Trading or the Competition Commission, or both of them acting jointly, to exercise a power conferred by subsection (2).”

Amendment 55 agreed.

Clause 41 : Cartel offence

Amendment 56

Moved by

56: Clause 41, page 38, line 20, leave out from beginning to end of line 2 on page 39

My Lords, I shall speak also to the other amendments in the group, all of which deal with broadly the same issue: the regime on cartels.

In Clause 41 the Government have made a bold and necessary step, despite criticism from significant sections of business, to make the cartel criteria work. They seek to delete the requirement that for any cartel operation to be an offence under the 2002 Act it has to have been committed dishonestly. That is an unnecessarily high threshold of proof, which has greatly restricted the competition authorities’ ability to use their cartel powers to deal with cartels. The issue should be whether a cartel has been established that restricts competition and is to the detriment of consumers, not whether lies, fraud and deceit can be proved. Scrapping those dishonesty criteria in the first three subsections of Clause 41 is very welcome.

However, there is a “but” coming. The rest of Clause 41 rather spoils and undermines it. Subsections (4) and (5) limit the occasions when an offence can be committed and provide an absolute defence. New Section 188A in subsection (5) states that an offence has not been committed if, despite a cartel-like arrangement, customers are told; or, in the bid-rigging situation, the assessors of the bidders, the clients, have been told; or the arrangements have been published; or that they are made in order to comply with another legal requirement. I fully accept the last defence—it makes sense—but the rest do not make sense. A damaging cartel arrangement can exist whether or not customers are told; a damaging cartel arrangement on contracting bids can be damaging to consumers and can exclude new entrants—small business mainly—whether or not the client has been told; and consumers and small business can suffer detriment whether or not such arrangements are published.

The purport of the notion about publication seems to go back to the old days when registered cartels were recognised and protected. It goes back two or three turns of the competition law provisions and is not sensible in this day and age. It is out of kilter with the rest of the Bill.

Unfortunately, it goes further than that. Even when an offence has been committed, new Section 188B in subsection (6) provides in absolute terms that it is a defence if there was no intention to conceal the cartel arrangement; or, extraordinarily, that it was disclosed to legal advisers. Again, cartels can damage consumers and potential small business new entrants whether or not concealment was intentional and whether or not my learned friend has been informed. The effect of the cartel is therefore the issue, not the motivation and not the way in which it has been communicated.

My amendments would delete all reference in subsection (5) to no offence being committed under new Section 188A(1). That is, the only context in which an offence could be deemed absolutely not committed would be where it is to fulfil another legal requirement. The rest of the amendments would delete all references to a defence and replace it with a relevant mitigation. I recognise that there is some mitigation if you have told the customers or the client, but it is not an absolute defence. It needs to be taken into account by the court, but it does not prevent the court reaching a “guilty” verdict. Otherwise, if you do not adopt those two deletions, the positive move by the Government in the first couple of subsections of Clause 41 will be seriously undermined. I therefore hope that the Minister will recognise the sense of that and understand that the very positive consensus on the main issue in relation to this clause will be undermined unless we modify it broadly speaking according to this group of amendments. I beg to move.

My Lords, there is wide agreement in both Houses that having to prove “dishonesty” makes the criminal cartel offence unnecessarily hard to prosecute, so it is right that Clause 41 removes the dishonesty requirement. However, in the Government’s view one cannot simply remove that requirement and leave the offence otherwise unchanged. Rather, we have had to think through the implications. In place of the dishonesty requirement, the clause provides that the offence is not committed if customers are notified of relevant information or if that information is published in a prescribed manner. These are the provisions which Amendments 56 and 57 would remove.

The reason for allowing this protection is that a limited number of agreements may technically fall within the terms of the cartel offence once the dishonesty requirement has been removed but are lawful under the anti-cartel provisions of the civil anti-trust regime that governs which agreements businesses may enter into. In such cases, it is right that we allow individuals to ensure they do not commit the cartel offence by checking that under the arrangements customers would be informed or the arrangements would be published as prescribed.

This approach builds coherently on existing provisions of the offence in Section 188 of the Enterprise Act. Subsection 6 provides that,

“arrangements are not bid-rigging arrangements if, under them, the person requesting bids would be informed of them at or before the time when a bid is made”.

All the arrangements caught by the offence involve price fixing, market sharing, output restrictions or bid rigging. These are all potentially damaging. Where such arrangements are put in place, the parties should be prepared to justify their actions. In principle, and in most cases, it is reasonable that they provide notice of the arrangements to those likely to be affected by them, their customers, either directly or through publication as prescribed; and it would be unreasonable to prevent, as these amendments would, individuals entering into perfectly legitimate activities which they are prepared to publicise in one of the specified ways, just as the present offence provides in the case of bid rigging.

In the majority of cases, of course, the types of agreements caught by the offence will be clearly detrimental to consumers, and the participants will know that they are engaged in unlawful conduct. In those cases, the arrangements will not be published but will be kept secret, and quite rightly the individuals involved will be exposed to prosecution and punishment. Our intention is to remove the prosecutorial difficulties with “dishonesty” while ensuring that only conscious participation in hardcore cartels, which ought to be blameworthy, is caught by the offence.

Notwithstanding those provisions, however, businesses and their legal advisers continued to have some concerns that the amended offence would criminalise the participation of individuals in commercial conduct that would otherwise be lawful. I hope that there is widespread support for the view that it is right to crack down on cartels, but that we ought not to chill businessmen from engaging in legitimate business activities that serve and benefit customers.

Concerns were also expressed about the practicality in certain circumstances of disclosure or publication and the protection of commercially confidential information. In a limited number of cases, for example in relation to arrangements for the joint underwriting of certain insurance contracts, prior disclosure of the arrangements might be difficult. In such cases, customers would be aware that such arrangements were common even without notification or publication and would be untroubled by it. In other cases, the information would already be publicly available in an appropriate forum, such as technical standards. To meet these concerns, the Bill was amended in another place, including by providing individuals with a defence where they did not intend to conceal the nature of the arrangements in certain circumstances or they took reasonable steps to disclose them to professional legal advisers for the purpose of obtaining advice. This builds upon the present approach in the Bill of blessing arrangements that have been publicised or notified.

Amendments 56 to 61 would drastically dilute the protections that these provisions afford by removing the circumstances where the offence is not committed and transforming the defences into relevant mitigations. This would not provide protection to those who were engaged in otherwise lawful behaviour but who, for example, had neglected for whatever reason to give the arrangements the appropriate publicity. It would also discourage parties from entering into agreements that are exempt from the anti-trust prohibitions because they bring gains to consumers where prior disclosure would compromise the benefits the company gains from the agreement. Rather, the individuals would have no defence, but they would be able to plead a relevant mitigation in order to reduce their sentence. That is an unattractive prospect that is likely to chill legitimate business activities, contrary to the Opposition’s stated intention.

I thought it might be helpful to address some points that were raised by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, concerning the Government’s approach. What characterises the kind of hardcore cartel activity that we wish to make it easier to prosecute from legitimate behaviour is that it is clandestine to a high degree. That is where the bar is set. Those responsible meet in secret, use code words and communicate through unofficial channels, thus bypassing a company’s normal procedures. This element is already recognised in the Bill by the provisions that take outside the offence arrangements that are disclosed to customers or publicised. We therefore think it appropriate to give further comfort in relation to the offence by providing individuals with a defence that they did not intend to conceal the nature of the cartel arrangements from customers or prosecutors, or that before making or implementing such arrangements they took reasonable steps to disclose them to professional legal advisers for the purpose of obtaining legal advice. In the light of these explanations, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

My Lords, I find that reply very difficult to understand. I appreciate that there will be circumstances in which it is sensible for a restrictive practice to be agreed, communicated and, in one sense, registered in order to meet certain other objectives. Those may be legal requirements, quasi-legal requirements, safety requirements or in the broadest sense in terms of people protecting investments and so forth. However, I do not think that it is an absolute defence. It is something that the authorities will need to take into account in terms of motivation and judging whether the companies involved were acting reasonably, but it is not an absolute defence. I find that part of it particularly difficult to understand and particularly undermining of the Government’s general approach on this.

In terms of cartel offences not actually being committed, from the way the Minister has described it, it looks as if, in the bidding arrangements, any restriction would be on the bidders that the client was prepared to consider. It would not depend on their technical ability or their financial viability, but could be purely arbitrary; that is, the old boys’ network. That is effectively what the cartel offence in relation to bidding was attempting to stop. You go to the usual suspects only to bid for a contract and as long as you tell those bidders that you are restricting it to them then there is no problem. It is not even committing an offence. It is not even that there is a justifiable move. It is absolutely the case that an offence is not committed.

I can see there are restricted circumstances, for example in the insurance arrangements to which the Minister referred, where such a restriction of the impact would be sensible and necessary. However it is much narrower than the provisions of Clause 5(1) and (2) in terms of an offence not committed, and Clause 5(6) and Clause 6 in relation to the defence. I fear that the good intention in the Government’s changes could be undermined by markets or clients having too broad an ability to actually restrict the market. This would be to the detriment of other companies and ultimately the detriment of consumers. I will withdraw in a moment because there is no point in pushing these amendments tonight, but I think the Government need to reflect on these issues.

I am going to slightly abuse the process of the House. I am sorry I have not given the Minister notice although I have given it in various other contexts. I should have raised this on the earlier group of amendments relating to concurrent regulators, specifically in relation to Ofcom. I am not expecting an answer from the Minister on this tonight, but I am giving him notice and ask if he could write to me, or more appropriately to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson.

I raised this point in the immediate debate after Leveson, in the debate we had the other week and in Committee on this Bill. Would the Government use the opportunity of this Bill—with its section dealing with the competition powers which we are just about to leave—to address the plurality issues that Leveson raises? Leveson made the point that if you want a truly free press you have to have diversity of opinion, and to have that you need plurality of ownership. Clearly there are parts of this Bill which relate to the newspaper industry. I am sorry I did not mention it before the dinner break because it was more appropriate to the discussion of the relations between the CMA and Ofcom, but I will now give notice to the Minister that we may be coming back to this. The last occasion on which the Government had an ability to deal with this was the week before recess when the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, raised the issue of plurality with his DCMS colleague and was told that the Government are still thinking about it.

The competition section of this Bill is an obvious possibility for raising and implementing the plurality dimensions of Leveson. It has not got anything to do with the other areas which deal with behaviour and royal charters. Nor is it to do with the arguments about freedom of the press and regulations, but plurality is a separate section and—as I say—I have raised it on a number of occasions in various contexts. It would be useful if we could know the Government’s position on that before we reach the end of Report. I am sorry that I have done that out of order. Going back to being in order, subject to the points I have made, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 56 withdrawn.

Amendments 57 to 61 not moved.

Clause 46 : Power to remove concurrent competition functions of sectoral regulators

Amendments 62 and 63

Moved by

62: Clause 46, page 43, line 13, leave out from “may” to “so” in line 14 and insert “make a sectoral regulator order if the Secretary of State considers that it is appropriate to do so for the purpose of promoting competition, within any market or markets in the United Kingdom, for the benefit of consumers.

(1A) A sectoral regulator order is an order that amends one or more enactments”

63: Clause 46, page 43, line 22, leave out “An order under subsection (1)” and insert “A sectoral regulator order”

Amendments 62 and 63 agreed.

Amendment 64 not moved.

Amendments 65 to 68

Moved by

65: Clause 46, page 43, line 32, leave out subsection (4)

66: Clause 46, page 44, line 5, leave out “An order under this section” and insert “A sectoral regulator order”

67: Clause 46, page 44, line 7, leave out “an order under this section” and insert “a sectoral regulator order”

68: Clause 46, page 44, line 21, leave out “subsections (1) and (4)” and insert “subsection (1A)”

Amendments 65 to 68 agreed.

Amendment 69 not moved.

Amendment 70

Moved by

70: After Clause 46, insert the following new Clause—

“Orders under section 46: procedural requirements

(1) If the Secretary of State proposes to make a sectoral regulator order, the Secretary of State must carry out the first stage consultation.

(2) The first stage consultation is consultation with—

(a) the regulator whose functions would be removed by the order,(b) the Competition and Markets Authority,(c) where the regulator is the Office of Rail Regulation, the Scottish Ministers,(d) where the regulator is the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in Northern Ireland and the Department for Regional Development in Northern Ireland, and(e) where the regulator is the Water Services Regulation Authority, the Welsh Ministers.(3) If (following the first stage consultation) the Secretary of State still proposes to make a sectoral regulator order, the Secretary of State must carry out the second stage consultation.

(4) The second stage consultation is consultation with—

(a) the persons consulted at the first stage,(b) any bodies who appear to the Secretary of State to represent the interests of persons in respect of whom the functions that would be removed by the order are exercisable (“regulated providers”),(c) any bodies who appear to the Secretary of State to represent the interests of persons who use the services supplied by regulated providers, and(d) such other persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate.(5) The Secretary of State must give the following information to each of the persons consulted as part of the first stage or second stage consultation—

(a) an explanation as to whether the Secretary of State is proposing to remove the functions of the regulator mentioned in subsection (2)(a) of section 46, the functions of the regulator mentioned in subsection (2)(b) of that section or both sets of functions;(b) the reasons why the Secretary of State considers it appropriate to make the order.(6) The reference to the Competition and Markets Authority in subsection (2) is to be read, in relation to any time before the commencement of section 20(3), as a reference to the Office of Fair Trading.

(7) In this section, “sectoral regulator order” has the same meaning as in section 46.”

Amendment 70 agreed.

House adjourned at 9.05 pm.