Committee (4th Day)
Relevant documents: 14th Report from the EU Select Committee, 24th and 26th Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee, 17th Report from the Constitution Committee and 8th Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights
My Lords, hybrid proceedings will now resume. Some Members are here in the Chamber respecting social distancing, others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I will immediately adjourn the House.
I will call Members to speak in the order listed in the annexe to today’s list. Members are not permitted to intervene spontaneously. The Chair calls each speaker. Interventions during speeches or “before the noble Lord sits down” are not permitted.
During the debate on each group I invite Members, including Members in the Chamber, to email the clerk if they wish to speak after the Minister. I will call Members to speak in order of request and will call the Minister to reply each time. The groupings are binding and it will not be possible to degroup an amendment for separate debate. A Member intending to press an amendment already debated to a Division should have given notice in the debate. Leave should be given to withdraw amendments. When putting the question, I will collect voices in the Chamber only. If a Member taking part remotely intends to trigger a Division, they should make this clear when speaking on the group. We will now begin.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 149. Anyone wishing to press this, or anything else in this group, to a Division should make that clear in the debate.
Clause 38: Information-gathering powers
149: Clause 38, page 29, line 36, after “evidence” insert “or is subject to legal professional privilege”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment makes explicit reference to legal professional privilege in Clause 38(8).
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 149. It will not surprise the House to learn that I am very grateful to the Law Society of Scotland for its help in briefing me and preparing this amendment. I state once again for the record, as on the register, that I am a non-practising member of the Faculty of Advocates, so have had cause in the past to be deeply grateful to solicitors in Scotland.
Amendment 149 amends Clause 38, which relates to information-gathering powers, setting out the powers the CMA will have to gather information in support of its functions in this part; under subsections (2) and (3), it will be able to provide an information notice or require the production of a document by an individual business or public authority. The notice must describe the type of information required and when and how it is expected to be relayed. Under subsection (6), the notice must make clear which precise function of the CMA is relevant, as well as the legal and financial consequences of non-compliance. Subsection (8) sets out that no information can be requested if it could not be compelled to be given in the course of civil judicial proceedings before the court, and that a notice may not require a person to go more than 10 miles from their residence without having their travelling expenses paid or offered to them.
This begs a question, which has been identified. Through this amendment, I would make explicit reference to “legal professional privilege” in Clause 38(8), for the very simple reason that a person should not be compelled, as I just stated, under subsection (8),
“to produce or provide any document or information which the person could not be compelled to produce, or give in evidence, in civil proceedings before the court”.
This provision may apply to legal representatives, but that should be made clear by a reference to “legal professional privilege” in the clause. My direct question to the Minister is this: why is it specifically not referred to? I am sure he will say that it is implicitly relied on, but I pray in aid that legal professional privilege is the client’s privilege, not the lawyer’s privilege. It is an essential aspect of the rule of law which enables clients to consult freely with their lawyers and is widely recognised in statute. I would like it in this Bill, unless I hear extremely good reasons from my noble friend why it is not already there. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have two amendments in this group. I also support the amendment just explained by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh.
This group concerns the information-gathering powers in Clause 38; it applies to Clause 31, under which requests for a report from the CMA may be made by anyone, and to Clauses 32, 33 and 34, under which administrations may request, respectively, advice on proposed regulatory provisions, reporting on the impact of a regulatory provision and reporting on a regulatory provision that is or may be detrimental to the market.
To prepare reports, information needs to be gathered. The powers enable the CMA to ask any person for any document in their possession or to require any person who carries on a business to provide estimates, forecasts, returns or other information as may be specified. As the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, has already highlighted, it can further specify the time and place at which, and the form and manner in which, the information is to be provided. It may also require conversion of a non-legible record into a legible and intelligible copy of information. There is no acknowledgment of how onerous this may be other than in subsection (8)(b), which says that travel expenses must be offered if a person has to go more than 10 miles from their place of residence. This could impose significant burdens on individuals or small businesses, to whom time is money.
It does not indicate that the information sought is only that which is readily available; it seems there is nothing to stop it requiring the preparation of estimates rather than, say, just the forwarding of those that might have been given to customers in the course of business. Many businesses may well be happy to assist in what is tantamount to a survey about the effects of regulation, just as many respond to consultations, but for small businesses it could be a burden. For sole traders it may mean a significant loss if income is dependent on work, whether that is as a plumber, lawyer, childminder, shopkeeper or anything else.
I am aware that the template of CMA market study investigations and Section 174 of the Enterprise Act have been followed, but are we truly looking at comparable circumstances? Market studies have more statutory requirements and guidance around them, such as the requirement of a market study notice and all the defined stages and practices. That does not seem to have been transposed into this. Nor are the circumstances those of known market deterioration caused by market participants—for example, it may just be about proposed or enacted regulation, with any flaws caused by administrations, which is completely different from when businesses, collectively or individually, have themselves created oligopolies, monopolies or concentrations.
In Amendment 150, I put forward that there should be provision for loss of earnings—why not, if the circumstance is that the expertise of the business is being sought? An alternative way to collect this kind of information is through consultations or by commissioning research. The CMA is empowered already under Section 5 of the Enterprise Act to commission such reports without resorting to enforced business responses. The members of the panel that will prepare the reports are being paid for their expertise, so why not those others who are being harvested for information?
My Amendment 156, would insert a new clause:
“The CMA must take account of the effects of additional duties imposed on small business in its approach to the exercise of its functions under sections 31 to 34, and its powers under sections 38, 39 and 40.”
This is not a strong amendment, but at least it makes the point, as otherwise there is no guidance. I am sure that MPs would interest themselves in the sorry stories they will be sent if there are burdensome requirements but, absent something like this, they have nothing to point to when overstepping has taken place. I will return to this matter in the context of penalties in the next group, but when there has been no wrongdoing that brings about the request for information—possibly burdensome requests, enforceable through fines rather than encouragement—it seems a wholly disproportionate measure. As I have said, I do not believe the cause is comparable with current CMA market studies.
Whither now the comply or explain principle—I have always been more of a “make them comply” person, as my track record will show, but these measures offend me in principle and seem to come from the department against business. I can see the matter is different if the business is under investigation for their own doings, but there is no distinction made in the clause. Clause 39 has a “without reasonable excuse” provision and I intend to probe that in the next group but, for now, can the Minister clarify the limits to the burden that can be put upon small businesses and the circumstances envisaged? Something of record has to be made.
As a final related point, there are also circumstances, of course, where much more has been opened up for challenges by businesses through Clause 31, giving the CMA reach into both administrative decisions and to other companies. My noble friend Lord Fox will say more on that.
My Lords, I will be very brief, as the noble Baronesses, Lady McIntosh and Lady Bowles, have explained this group extremely clearly. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, said, these measures just offend me in principle. The Government seem, time and again, to understand big business, and are happy to give very large amounts of money and all sorts of leeway to such businesses and organisations but, at the same time, quite often miss the point on small businesses, which often struggle to survive—particularly during lockdown.
Small businesses can be the creative heart of our society at times—creating jobs for a lot of local people and, indeed, more widely. Will the Minister listen and understand that such intrusive and burdensome measures really do impact on small businesses that are already struggling to survive? I know it is very difficult for the Minister to commit to anything, but surely he is prepared to discuss this sort of issue with noble Lords and perhaps come to some sort of agreement.
My Lords, I was glad to see Amendment 149. It is always good to be clear about legal privilege to avoid needless or inappropriate fishing expeditions by regulatory staff, and it matters for in-house counsel as well as for external lawyers. It would be good to be clear on the Government’s intentions.
I also support the sentiment behind Amendments 150 and 156. We need to look after small business, the economic dynamism of which reflects a UK sector that was the envy of everyone when I was the Competitiveness Minister in Brussels. There is much in this Bill that they might fear: rules of which they are unaware; costs, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, suggested, from burdensome requests; big fines; and quasi borders created between the different nations of the UK. I worked with the Federation of Small Businesses on regulation and getting them paid on time, and I try to promote a positive climate for the scale-up of small businesses, rather than a sale to a Silicon Valley, or other, giant after a short run of success. How will the Bill help small businesses, and are there dangers lurking here?
My Lords, I am very pleased to support these amendments, the first in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, and the other two in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles. In relation to the amendment on legal privilege, I note that the Lords Constitution Committee report on the UK internal market Bill says:
“We welcome the confirmation by the Lord Chancellor that information protected by legal professional privilege will not be required to be disclosed to the Competition and Markets Authority under the information-gathering powers in clause 38.”
Can the Minister provide any further detail from the Lord Chancellor in relation to this particular issue? Can he say how and when the Government will bring amendments on Report dealing with this specific request to allow protection for clients in respect of the information-gathering powers?
In relation to the two amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, I would say that the last thing we need, particularly with Brexit hitting so many businesses and with the impact of Covid and the lockdown, are any more limits to business or on businesses. They have already suffered considerably, particularly the small businesses of sole traders or freelancers.
I think simply of the Northern Ireland situation, where the majority of businesses are small and, combined with the impact of Covid, many could close, resulting in loss of jobs and trading. There are some 148,300 small and medium-sized enterprises in Northern Ireland out of a total population of 1.8 million. This is the fewest of any UK region, as recorded in September of this year.
Another worrying factor is that research by Ulster Bank, a subsidiary of NatWest, shows that any hope of a V-shaped recovery in Northern Ireland has been snuffed out with Covid. I can understand and agree with the sentiments conveyed by the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, that we do not want to see any further limits on businesses. In that regard, can the Minister advise noble Lords on what discussions he and his colleagues in BEIS have had with the devolved regions regarding these measures in the UK internal market Bill? Maybe he will surprise us and illustrate that there has been quite a bit of discussion.
My Lords, I support Amendments 150 and 156, and indeed broadly support Amendment 149. My noble friend Lady Bowles, in characterising the information-gathering powers that are attempted to be brought in through this Bill, ably described the wide, broad remit that is being given to the CMA. I fully support and share her case, which was well put, as to why we should be concerned about this.
This is not just a burden on small businesses. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, I have experienced the sharp end of a market study. It is a lot of work. This Bill envisages more than that for all businesses. No such undertaking should be given lightly without understanding what it will do—particularly, as many speakers have said—for smaller and medium-sized businesses. There should be limits.
More broadly, as prefaced by my noble friend Lady Bowles, during the debate on Clause 31, my noble friends and others raised the potential for universities to be dragged into the ambit of the CMA and the OIM—not least because of the different tuition fee regimes that exist within our nations. As we all know, this is a devolved responsibility. Despite their efforts, Ministers did not satisfactorily explain how this would happen, including in the letter.
We now turn to Clause 38, which, once again, broadens the powers of the CMA and enables it to be involved in these matters. The powers which are envisioned, though extensive and with little or no restraint, further stoke the fears harboured by Scottish universities. It could work the other way around. It could be the English university fee policy that is being challenged. This power is wider, with very few limitations.
I wish to probe the potential role of the office for the internal market under Part 4 of the Bill in relation to tuition fees. According to Universities Scotland’s brief, the powers in the Bill could
“give the OIM/Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) the power to investigate and reach a view on whether differential student fees represent a distortion of the new UK internal market. Regardless of the non-binding nature of the reports and advice of the OIM/CMA, it would have to be taken seriously by Parliament (Holyrood or Westminster). This could introduce new and greater basis for individual challenges to the variable fee regime within the UK, brought by individuals who feel they are discriminated against. … If this understanding is correct, this would apply in both directions, with possible challenges brought by Scottish domiciled students/individuals who consider the fee policy as administered by universities in England to discriminate against their options.”
That is one example of the consequences of this Bill. Will the Minister tell your Lordships’ House whether it is intended or unintended? If it is intended, why do Her Majesty’s Government see fit to mess with this devolved responsibility? If it is unintended, can the Minister acknowledge the issues that pervade this Bill?
In the Minister’s letter to my noble friend Lord Purvis of Tweed, which I hope has been placed in the Library, the Government accept that there are issues about university services. It highlights the power to amend exclusions after the Bill is enacted. This should be clarified by a government amendment before Report, not afterwards.
There are many other examples. In the short time we have had to examine this Bill, we have uncovered anomalies, irregularities and mistakes not just in relation to universities but in the food, alcohol and energy sectors. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, also raised queries about the legal profession. In the spirit of whack-a-mole, I can add more, such as the water industry. Powers under Clauses 31 and 38 could mean that the CMA could be asked by an investor in an English water service company to investigate, let us say, the mutual Welsh Water company. Water is to be considered as a UK market, where it was not before. Once a case is opened, who knows where it will end up? Is this accidental or deliberate?
At the same time as the Government accrue these badly-defined powers to the new OIM and CMA, corporate lawyers on behalf of big businesses headquartered in the UK and beyond are sharpening their pencils. As the Government seek to regulate on a UK-wide basis services that until now have managed very well without Her Majesty’s Government’s help, consumer lawyers are looking into their practice development strategies and preparing to sell litigation ideas to future clients. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, put it, this will be “a lawyer’s paradise”. At its heart is the Government’s decision to sideline the flexibility of the common frameworks and pursue the central ambition of trying to create a rigid one-size-fits-all regulatory structure to deliver a one-size-fits-all United Kingdom. The persistent and obvious flaws in this Bill demonstrate that this one-size-fits-all approach is impossible, even if it were desirable, which it is not.
My Lords, this debate has raised some interesting and important issues. I have listened with care to all the speakers and particularly to the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, based on information provided by the Scottish Law Commission, whose help I also acknowledge. I look forward to the Minister’s response. The noble Baroness, Lady Bowles of Berkhamsted, raised a number of issues to which I wish to return. Other speakers have made small but important points on SMEs and the role of Northern Ireland.
The noble Lord, Lord Fox, picked up on the recent letter from Ministers about university fees, particularly in Scotland, and questioned whether this could constitute indirect discrimination. This was also raised in an earlier group. Like the noble Lord, I wonder why this could not be better dealt with by the common frameworks approach. This should be applied to all aspects of managed divergence, in relation not just to goods but also to services and the regulation of professions. We will return to this on Report.
In respect of the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles of Berkhamsted, the powers included in Clauses 38,39 and 40 are quite extensive and detailed. Do they go beyond the existing powers of the CMA? Are they new because of the responsibilities that will accrue to the CMA or the office for the internal market under this Bill? Or do they simply repeat existing powers reframed in some way to suit the new circumstances? I would appreciate the Minister’s response. As other speakers have said, this additional activity is very detailed and gives specific examples of what can and cannot be done and how it is to operate. Does this not play to the concerns raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, in an earlier amendment that asking the CMA to extend its focus and the range of its work might blur the good work it does at the moment? Does the Minister accept that there might be a problem here?
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Fox, raised issues around university tuition fees and water services. As he said, I have written to him and to the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, about the points they raised in earlier debates. I am told that these letters have been submitted to the Library but there may be a slight delay in their publication. I confirm what I said there about the exemption in the legislation for public services. More details are set out in the letters. If for some reason they have not yet been published, the noble Lords, Lord Fox and Lord Purvis, should get in touch with my office, which will be happy to furnish them with a copy.
Regarding Amendment 149, as previously noted, Clause 38 is based on the CMA’s existing powers under the Enterprise Act 2002. The clause has appropriate modifications to allow the CMA to gather information from businesses, individuals or public authorities. I can tell the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, and the noble Lord, Lord Fox, that this includes an existing exclusion for information that is subject to legal professional privilege from being required to be produced or provided to the CMA, whether that information is subject to legal advice privilege or litigation privilege. That confidentiality of communication between lawyers and their clients is protected by subsection (8) and therefore no amendment on the subject is needed.
Amendment 150 seeks to add new wording to the end of Clause 38(8). In reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, and the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, I emphasise that the powers in question have to date functioned effectively for the Competition and Markets Authority and all its stakeholders without any need to provide further clarification as sought by this amendment. The Government remain confident that the CMA will continue to apply a flexible and pragmatic approach that will maintain the already high confidence of stakeholders in fulfilling its information-gathering power in Clause 38.
Amendment 156 would add a new clause to place a duty on the Competition and Markets Authority to consider impacts on small businesses when undertaking its functions in Part 4. I understand the concerns of the noble Baronesses, Lady Bowles and Lady Jones, and my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe. The Government are aware of the importance of recognising the impact on small businesses. However, the interests of small, medium and large businesses will be taken into account by the OIM in its monitoring and reporting functions, so there is no need to add a specific reference about the impact on small businesses. This is because Clause 32(4) sets out a function for the CMA to advise and report on a regulatory proposal prior to it being passed or made in law. The CMA will examine the potential economic impacts of the proposal on the functioning of the UK internal market. This could include a proposal’s impact on competition or trade distortions, indirect or cumulative economic effects or impacts on prices.
All these assessment criteria are highly relevant to and must cover impacts on small businesses. In order to serve all those with an interest in the internal market, the advice and reporting in question will of course account for the impacts on consumers, professionals and businesses of all sizes, in all sectors.
In the light of the reasons I have set out today, the Government do not consider that the amendments in the group are necessary. I hope that noble Lords will withdraw or not move them.
I have received a request to speak after the Minister from the noble Lord, Lord Fox.
I much appreciate the Minister’s answer. The questions I asked about university tuition fees were in the light of having read his letter, which my noble friend Lord Purvis made available to me—there is no need to send it to me. In it the Minister states that,
“we are aware of the questions raised in relation to university services and how they may interact with the Bill”,
which is good. The letter continues:
“We have the power to amend the exclusions Schedule and will keep the area of higher education under close review.”
It therefore seems that the Government are planning to do that after Report. My point is that it would be a boon to our process on the Bill if the Government were to consult before Report and come back with something that I am sure, given what the Minister said, would merely fulfil their ambition for the Bill while settling concerns in the university sector.
I thought that I had put the matter to rest by writing the letter to the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, on which the noble Lord, Lord Fox, has commented. In our view, there is no doubt that the regulation of tuition fees is outside the scope of the Bill and, therefore, beyond the scope of the office for the internal market’s functions. But as the letter to him confirmed, we will keep the matter under review and not hesitate to take action if there is a problem, which we do not believe exists.
The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, also wish to speak after the Minister.
I asked the Minister a specific question on whether the framing of Clauses 38 to 40 was exactly the same, or differed from, the existing powers of the CMA. He did not answer that. I do not want to delay us too much today but perhaps he could write to me about it.
I would be happy to write to the noble Lord but, as I said, the powers to date have functioned effectively and are based on the CMA’s existing powers.
I have another couple of points for clarification by my noble friend. First, does legal privilege apply to in-house counsel, provided that they are properly qualified lawyers? I would be happy for the Minister to write to me about that. Secondly, he referred in the debate about small business to Clause 32(4), and helpfully explained that the CMA will advise on regulatory proposals before laws are made, which provides an opportunity for small business interests to be taken into account. However, my concern was also about enforcement of the law, which would bear particularly harshly on small businesses that do not have the same fancy legal departments as others. I am not sure that the clause deals with that but would be delighted if I was wrong.
On my noble friend’s first question, she will notice that Clause 38(8) states:
“A notice under subsection (2) or (3) may not require a person … to produce or provide any document or information which the person could not be compelled to produce, or give in evidence, in civil proceedings before the court”.
I hope that that resolves the matter. I will write to her on her second point.
I thank everyone who has contributed, including my noble friend the Minister in summing up the debate. We had an excellent discussion on the issues, and I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, for raising them because they are pertinent. I am slightly confused as to why it is necessary to include in the Bill powers that already exist. We are told that they are not new, yet my noble friend will not agree to include in the Bill a matter that is already causing alarm.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, for alerting me to the Constitution Committee report in that regard. It has highlighted its concern and received a verbal undertaking from the Lord Chancellor. I should repeat that we are referring to the Law Society of Scotland, not the Scottish Law Commission. If both the committee of this House and the Law Society of Scotland are concerned, that verbal reassurance is not enough. I may well reflect on the matter and come back on Report. However, for the moment, I am grateful for having had the opportunity to debate this matter and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 149 withdrawn.
Amendment 150 not moved.
We now come to the group beginning with the question that Clause 38 stand part of the Bill. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. Anyone wishing to press this question or anything else in the group to a Division should make that clear in the debate.
Debate on whether Clause 38 should stand part of the Bill.
My Lords, the previous group has already set the scene on Clause 38, where I propose some changes to help small businesses, at least. The point remains that the CMA, or OIM, is an opining body, often for the benefit of Administrations, even if most of those are not happy with how it is set up. I also clarify that I am not against the CMA per se. I have responded to its consultations, been quoted by it and would give it more powers in competition matters. Even if it were the chosen body, I would still consider the same procedures and culture not right for monitoring the internal market, so to copy and paste legislation created for the competition field is not appropriate. I mention again the different approaches of DG COMP and DG Internal Market as an illustration.
In this group, I am further probing the constraints on information-gathering powers. As I have said, they often apply to individuals and businesses that have not done anything wrong, nor have their actions, individually or collectively, distorted the market. If the regulations are amiss, that is created by Administrations. With all due respect to the response the Minister gave on the previous group, that is different from competition matters, which the businesses and their actions have brought forward. I find it alarming that there is no understanding of the fundamental difference between applying competition law and monitoring an internal market, but it is early days and this is all new.
I accept that an investigation into and report on the activities of companies that are causing distortion, as could be the case under Clause 31, is different. Then, it is perhaps reasonable to use the existing CMA powers and scope. But I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, that the format of these enforcement powers is copied and pasted from the CMA in its role dealing with companies that potentially threaten the public interest, where there is at least a suspicion that competition laws or norms, such as market concentration or fair pricing, are being challenged. In the Bill, individuals or companies are being used as sources of information for things that they have not brought on themselves, and that is the difference. It is why having the same laws is not appropriate. For this reason, I object to the compulsory scope of Clause 38 for all circumstances, and the same applies to the enforcement and penalty powers in Clauses 39 and 40.
Clause 38(6) states that the notice will be sent with
“information about the … consequences of not complying”.
That is a frightener. Is that the way to treat business? Was it consulted upon? We challenged the Minister on Monday about the information he had been given to say to us, stating that using the CMA was consulted upon. Even if there were a few throwaway lines like “such as the CMA” in response, was any consultation conducted on whether CMA market study legislation fits the rather different circumstance of investigating Administrations’ actions? If businesses or individuals decide that they do not wish to or cannot provide information, and the CMA decides, under its own rules, that their excuse is not reasonable, they can be dealt with as obstructing and fined.
There was an interesting exchange on fines on Monday, when the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, asked whether a Member of the Senedd could be fined. The Minister said that they could be asked for information, but not fined. Now we see another way to get some of that information: turn any business that had been in discussions with the Senedd into the informer. Who knows? Perhaps one day we might even get some of the unpublished consultation responses that the Government sit on.
The only ray of hope is a reasonable excuse for failing to comply, and I would like guidance on what is reasonable. Is it a reasonable excuse that the person does not have time or cannot afford to attend wherever they are summoned, from a loss-of-earnings perspective? Is it a reasonable excuse that the businessperson concerned also has childcare responsibilities, which make it difficult to attend as well as costly? Is it a reasonable excuse, as there is no suggestion that they have done anything wrong and it would be inconvenient, that they wish to decline to do it? Is it a reasonable excuse that they do not have ready estimates and forecasts, and that it takes them away from fee-earning work to construct them? Is it a reasonable excuse that they do not keep those kinds of records? Is it a reasonable excuse that a Member of the Administration has the information and has declined to produce it?
Freedom of information requests can be declined for taking too much time and involving too much expense. Does a similar consideration apply here, at the discretion of the person from whom the information is sought? Why is it any different when they have not done anything wrong? The Minister knows full well that businesses want a smooth-running internal market but, frankly, how many board members want to add CMA or OIM internal market information requests to their risk register? A good place to do business—what are you thinking?
On the other side, there are also circumstances where much more has been opened up for challenge by businesses through Clause 31, giving reach into administrative decisions; and, as mentioned in the impact assessment on page 29, legal actions may occur, possibly as a follow-on. This may also extend beyond UK shores, so can the Minister explain the scope for investigative actions from other countries that the provisions in the Bill create? For example, will the CMA accept third-country complaints under Clause 31? Or, when we get to it next week, under the wording in Clause 50, what third-country actions are opened up in services that are beyond the WTO provisions? Using the example mentioned by my noble friend Lord Fox, an English water company might actually respect the mutual Welsh water companies, but could a foreign water company intervene?
I am assuming that the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, has scratched from this group, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Tyrie.
Some very interesting points have just been made that bear serious consideration, and the concerns we have just heard are reasoned, particularly on SMEs. At the very least, the Government may wish to offer a review of the CMA’s use of these powers, after an interval, to give us the assurance that they are being proportionately deployed and to see whether they need some amendment. The argument that they were derived from legislation the purpose of which was very different is well taken and might point to further amendment.
Overall, I support the Government in what they are trying to do here, having decided to create the OIM. It is true that the powers are robust, but they will need to be. If the CMA is to be expected to offer timely and high-quality advice, it will need to secure information quickly, without being given the runaround by devolved Administrations or parts of the private sector.
The penalties proposed are a weakness, though. Crown immunity will be in play for the devolved Administrations. I would be interested to know what thought the Government have given to the penalties that can be imposed for non-compliance in those cases. Public censure might help; on the other hand, a devolved Administration standing up to nasty Westminster might win local plaudits, resulting in the opposite effect. A lot of careful thought needs to be put into this issue if these measures are to be made effective. The proposed fines on the private sector are capped at £30,000. I simply do not see that sum troubling a recalcitrant or determined large third party. Has the Minister considered larger fines in certain circumstances?
It might be helpful to make one more general point. The CMA’s existing arrangements for securing compliance and information gathering across all its other functions are manifestly inadequate, as I saw it during my time there. They should not be used as a benchmark. Incidentally, the £30,000 figure comes from the merger regime. Something has to be done. The European Commission recently fined Facebook £1.6 million for not supplying information, while the CMA recently fined Amazon £30,000 over the merger with Deliveroo for not supplying information. That should give some idea of the disparity.
In February 2019, the CMA put proposals to the Government for improvements to information-gathering powers across all its functions. First, it needs to be able to gather information from a much wider range of sources to reflect the increasingly digital nature of the information that it is trying to collect: iCloud, machine-learning algorithms and so on spring to mind. These are not at all easy to capture with existing legislation. Secondly, and even more importantly, subject to safeguards, the CMA needs a general information- gathering power outside the context of a formal investigation. I do not like giving general powers, but I think the CMA now needs this to find out what is really going on in markets and enable it to think through much better than it can at present. It needs to be able to use the full range of tools to best bear down on consumer detriment. It is struggling to do that at present, and increasingly so with the growth of rip-off culture.
When the Minister returns to his department, he will find the proposals, of which I am just touching the surface, have been fully developed by the CMA and are sitting with his officials. Will he agree to take another look at those proposals to see what might usefully be drawn from them? For improving the ones we are discussing today, quite a lot of what is in there is likely to be relevant. Will he agree to report back to the House on what he has found?
I have been following this Bill closely, particularly Part 4, which I have an interest in because of my previous job. Some very important points have been made across the Committee, not least in Monday’s relatively brief debate on Clause 28 about whether the CMA is the appropriate body in the beginning to have responsibly for these functions. Those points are sufficiently important for us to have another look at them on Report. I hope the House will find a way to enable us to do this.
My Lords, this Committee is nearing its end, apart from Part 5. I support the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, in her forensic efforts to probe the purpose of Clauses 38 to 40. I welcome my noble friend Lord Tyrie to today’s debate. Although I do not agree with him on fines or general powers, he makes a very good point about digital information. I am sorry he was not here for the debate on where the OIM sits. As he says, that is something we hope to debate again on Report.
On the plus side, these clauses give a great deal of detail. I usually complain to the Minister that EU exit Bills fail to do just that and leave too much to regulations. On the minus side, these are extremely strong powers of enforcement with very high penalties—for example, fixed fines of up to £30,000 would make many a small company bankrupt. There is no due diligence defence that I can see or provision allowing a reasonable excuse. The CMA can use its own discretion to decide whether a request for information has been complied with and can impose a financial penalty if it thinks there has been obstruction or delay. Such powers are fiercer than those of the police. The Minister will be able to tell us whether the CMA has those powers in relation to competition law and perhaps explain in each case why they are justified in the internal market Bill which, as many have said, is a little different from competition law.
Moreover, we do not know to which regulations these various measures and penalties will apply. Can the Minister kindly take us through some examples of their proposed use? He may have done this elsewhere; if so, I am sorry if I missed that. Perhaps more importantly, could he lay some sample regulations for us to review before Report, as his predecessor did so helpfully on the Bill relating to nuclear issues on EU exit?
I worry that both Houses of Parliament have been distracted by unease with Part 5 of the Bill into agreeing wide-ranging, open-ended and burdensome powers in these clauses and, for the first time, on services, the beating heart of the economies in all four nations of the UK. All this has been relatively lightly scrutinised despite our efforts, and experience shows that some nasty surprises might be in store. I am keen to work with others to minimise those while generally supporting the Bill’s direction of travel.
My Lords, once again this has been a short but important debate. I congratulate noble Lords on speaking on this. Once again, I find myself in complete agreement with the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, and my noble friend Lady Bowles. It was good to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Tyrie, whose experience is important.
During her speech, my noble friend Lady Bowles sought to characterise the difference between getting information from potential recalcitrants—people who are suspected of or known to have distorted the market—and getting information from people to create a picture of a market. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Tyrie, will not mind me saying that the sort of language used about needing more sanctions and similar issues is coming from the mindset of dealing with recalcitrants. That is where the experience of the CMA has lain to date. There is a real concern that in creating this new role the culture of having to fight to get what you need is transferred into this second activity, and that is not appropriate.
I was interested to hear the point of the noble Lord, Lord Tyrie, about Clause 28 and looking again at the positioning of the OIM and CMA. I would be very keen to hear what he has to say.
May I not respond? What a shame.
Perhaps the noble Lord can put his point in writing, or speak after the Minister if it is a question to him.
Enormous care is needed, at the very least, but it is not clear in the Bill where that care is and how careful the Bill is; it seems quite careless. We come back to whether the Bill is deliberately underwritten or accidentally underwritten because there was not enough time. There is plenty of scope for the Minister to answer the questions set out by my noble friend Lady Bowles, the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, and the noble Lord, Lord Tyrie, and to nail how this will work, what it is for and how small and medium-sized businesses in particular will be protected from an overzealous information-gathering process.
My Lords, this debate is perhaps even more important than some of the others that we have had. The real advantage of a stand part debate is that one can question the purpose of a clause rather than getting down into the weeds of amendments.
The issue that the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, has raised is fundamental to how we have been looking at this. She asked—these are actually my words, although the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, said much the same—whether the competition regime was appropriate for work on the internal market. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, gave away in an earlier debate that this may have been written hastily over the summer; it certainly sounds like a cut-and-paste job, done without stopping to think. Just because it is the same organisation at the same address in Holborn, or wherever the CMA is these days, you cannot just cut and paste it; as the noble Lord, Lord Fox, was saying, it is about the culture of that organisation as well as whether the structure is available. There is a fundamental question here, which my noble friend Lord Stevenson dealt with under Amendment 115, of whether the OIM should be within this framework, as well as the even broader subject of whether these sorts of penalties are appropriate for such a different role.
There are some specific issues in these clauses, such as whether it is appropriate for the Government to be able to amend the list of exclusions without any involvement of the devolved authorities. We have discussed such matters before, but under this legislation the fixing of penalties could again be altered without any involvement of the devolved authorities. This is serious stuff. They are a part of the overall governance and working of the new internal market, yet the Bill is written as if this is simply a Westminster responsibility.
I come to what the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, was saying: exactly what is covered by these clauses? In an earlier debate I asked the Minister to set out what services were covered, but obviously I was mumbling at the time because he wrote me a very nice letter on 2 November telling me about the services that are excluded, which of course already exist in the Bill. The question that I was trying to ask is: what services will be covered? I still cannot get a handle on that. This is really important given what has been said about whether the demands and penalties applying to services that are covered are appropriate.
Obviously I was not very clear about what I wanted but I had talked about housing and whether someone organising a register of housing would count as a service. I was talking about landlords but the letter refers to social housing. We are talking not about social housing but about landlords of private housing. I am involved with another part of the Government, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, in chairing something to try to set up a code for property agents for when the Government are ready to fulfil what they have already promised—that is, to set up a regulator of property agents. They are already a service but the circumstances are different—buying and selling a house in Scotland is very different from England; if you buy there, you tend to go to a solicitor rather than an estate agent—so there are different ways of a service being developed or in existence. Once they are regulated, perhaps property agents will count as a profession, which is a different issue, but before then, as a service, are they going to be covered by these sorts of requirements?
If that is the case—and this is the main thrust of what I want to say on this group— how will these services know that they are covered by this provision? It is important for anyone risking breaking the law, in the sense of civil law, and being charged a penalty to know that that law applies to them. If they do not define what they are doing as a service and therefore do not know that they are captured by this provision, they may find it difficult to understand that they could be required to provide information. I can imagine that this could really affect property agencies. They need to know that it covers them, which is quite an issue, but it is also unclear to me whether the level of penalties is appropriate for this area. For a small housing management group, for example, this daily rate of £15,000 will basically wipe out its business if it has an £80,000 annual turnover. We are talking about levels of penalty.
It seems to me that those agents are covered by this, but I am unclear about the appeals process. If they are asked a question, how do they know that it has legal force behind it? Even if they are told that—most of these people will of course not have lawyers —and there is a penalty, do they have any appeal? I could not find one in the Bill but I am sure the Minister will be able to tell me; it is quite unusual to have a penalty without any sort of appeal. I could not work this out but I am sure the Minister will.
My main ask is: can we know the sort of services that will be covered? Perhaps we could hear more—not in legal language but in language that I can understand—about how they would know and about their rights to appeal any fixed penalty.
I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, if she found my letter disappointing; I will try to do better next time. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, looks disapproving; I am not going to write him any more letters if that is the case.
With regard to exclusions on services, all services subject to the authorisation requirements or the regulatory requirements are affected under the Bill unless they are specifically excluded from some or part of the rules under Part 2. I hope that that clarifies the noble Baroness’s question—if not, I will be happy to write her another letter. She is shaking her head in disbelief.
I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, with regard to her question on consultation, that we consulted on the general office, what enforcement provisions there should be and whether or not it should be included as part of an arm’s-length body. Once we had made the decision that it should be located within the CMA, there was of course extensive discussion between officials and the CMA on the powers and how they will be enforced. I say to my noble friend Lord Tyrie that I am of course aware of the proposals that he refers to on the CMA and I will be happy to take another look at them.
Addressing the specific questions on this clause stand part debate, I will set out the rationale for these clauses. Clause 38, as I believe we already discussed in the previous group, sets out the powers that the Competition and Markets Authority will have to gather information in support of its monitoring, advisory and reporting functions. As I said previously, in order to carry out its functions the OIM must have access to high-quality information to produce accurate, relevant and credible reports. Clause 38 will ensure that the CMA is able to require the assistance of third parties to perform its functions and is able to independently gather evidence in a timely manner.
I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, agrees with me that presenting analysis based on partial or inaccurate information could be detrimental to the regulatory decisions taken as a result of OIM reporting and monitoring and would damage the reputation of the OIM among many key stakeholders in these fields. The powers in this clause are therefore put on a strong statutory footing. They will ensure that the reporting that the OIM undertakes will be as effective and comprehensive as possible for the benefit of policy-makers in the UK Government and the devolved Administrations, significantly strengthening existing stakeholders’ ability to navigate the new UK internal market.
Clause 39 describes what action the CMA is able to take in response to non-compliance with the information requests described in Clause 38. As noble Lords said, the CMA has existing powers under the Enterprise Act 2002 regarding non-compliance with its information requests. This is necessary to enable the CMA to carry out its functions effectively. As with Clause 38, the provision for the OIM in Clause 39 is modelled on those powers. The clause will allow the CMA to determine the most appropriate policy approach and the amount of any financial penalty to be imposed within the limits that have been prescribed. The clause also sets out the conditions where financial penalties may not be imposed because more than four weeks has expired since the CMA exercised its relevant functions.
Clause 40 sets the parameters that the CMA should consider for financial penalties in cases of non-compliance with an information-gathering request notice. Let me first say that I understand the concerns of noble Lords, but the preference and expectation will always be that information gathering is on a voluntary basis. The Government do not anticipate that the CMA will need regularly to fall back on the information-gathering and non-compliance powers. However, it is important to ensure that this facility is available to the CMA to detail how penalties will be set. As with other provisions, the Government have chosen to mirror the relevant provisions of the Enterprise Act 2002.
I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Tyrie, and my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe that the Secretary of State will make regulations specifying the maximum amounts in practice within the specified ceilings for these penalties in consultation with the CMA and other interested parties. I can confirm for the benefit of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, that the devolved Administrations will of course be consulted as part of this. In addition, and as noted in our debates on previous groups, I confirm to the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, and the noble Lord, Lord Tyrie, that the CMA will not be able to issue a financial penalty against the UK Government or any devolved Government. Let me be very clear about that. Let me also assure the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, that the Government are committed to not taking any steps to bring in the financial penalties until there is credible evidence that there is a need do so, so we will not commence these provisions without that credible need being demonstrated.
I will deal with a couple of other questions. The noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, asked about third-party requests. Such requests would be permissible if they were within the scope of Clause 31 and the CMA thought that they were appropriate. As I confirmed earlier, the White Paper invited consultation responses on how the functions to be delivered should be implemented as well as on whether an existing arm’s-length body should deliver them or bespoke arrangements should be established. As is obvious, we decided after that consultation that the OIM should be situated within the CMA.
With the reasons I have set out, I hope that I have been able to reassure noble Lords on their legitimate concerns and on why this clause should stand part of the Bill. I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.
I have had a request to speak after the Minister from the noble Lord, Lord Fox.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his answer. I have two questions. First, does the Minister understand the difference between a voluntary activity and a voluntary activity where there are potential fines? It is the difference between cleaning the house voluntarily and cleaning the house knowing that I could have my tea withdrawn if I did not. There is a very big difference. That needs to be understood in terms of the culture of the way in which this information is sought. Does the Minister understand that difference?
Secondly, my noble friend Lady Bowles asked a series of questions about what is permissible as a reason for not delivering information. There was a huge multiple choice question and an overarching question. I think that the Minister dodged—sorry, I withdraw that word. The Minister did not answer any of those points. They were an important element of my noble friend’s questions so will he address them, perhaps generally today and more specifically, bearing in mind the very specific questions that she asked, in one of his letters?
With regard to the noble Lord’s first question, I understand why his cleaning abilities might not be up to standard and he might not get his tea. With regard to the questions asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, on reasonableness, we certainly do not intend to create disparity within the CMA over the functions it carries out and the processes it follows.
To be serious, of course I understand the difference between being asked to do something voluntarily and being asked to do something voluntarily with the back-up of potential penalties. The powers and penalties in question are similar to those used by the CMA for its existing functions, such as conducting market studies. This will ensure consistency in the way that the CMA, under its existing and its OIM capacities, interacts with stakeholders across all its functions. We do not intend to commence the powers on fines until it is proved that they are necessary, as I said.
I have had a request to speak from the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe.
I thank my noble friend for his assurance on commencement. He did not answer my specific questions, but I think that the answer in general terms was that the Government have taken the same powers as the CMA has on competition and applied them pro rata. Perhaps I can pick up something that the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, said earlier. I wonder whether we could look at this line by line to see whether things are or are not all the same; that would be a helpful Committee-type process.
I really got up to ask a question about examples. The Minister helpfully gave an example of a penalty regulation—he said that he might make regulations with penalties under £30,000, perhaps at a lower level for particular things—but I am confused about what kind of regulations are going to be made here. That may be an impossible question to answer but if my noble friend could give us some more examples, perhaps ones that are in draft or have gone out to consultation, it would be incredibly helpful.
I referred in my earlier speech to the need to make regulations setting the maximum penalty, which the Secretary of State will do, but I will write to my noble friend if there are any other examples of regulations that we feel we may need to make.
Does the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, wish to respond to any of the points made?
Yes. My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate; I think that it will be even more interesting when we read it in Hansard.
I think that there is still a sticking point, which was exemplified by one of the Minister’s comments. He said that he did not want there to be disparity between procedures in the CMA. The point that I have been making, which seems to have been supported by all the speakers in this debate, is that they are for different things. The noble Lord, Lord Tyrie, acknowledged that it was for a different purpose. My noble friend Lord Fox referred to people being recalcitrant rather than doing nothing. I was trying to say that, within competition policy, the Government are pursuing miscreants, but they are pursuing innocent people for information. In fact, at the beginning of his response, the Minister said that the purpose is to gain the assistance of third parties. That was the first time I had heard a reasonable word about this. The Government are asking the private sector to give assistance. They can go to the devolved Administrations but there is complete asymmetry: the Government cannot fine them but people who find it too difficult to give assistance are at risk of a fine.
Of course we expect reasonable behaviour, but we do not always get it. I point to that wonderful machinery of HMRC on loan charges and ask whether we have evidence that we always get reasonableness where we want it. I am not yet satisfied. There have been some interesting suggestions about reviewing how it has gone, that we can have sight of the regulations, or that we can examine procedures that are likely to be implemented. Surely we could do some of these things between now and Report.
I still think that where we are essentially sampling and wanting views from people in the market, the burden is on the sampler, not the samplee. This is therefore a matter I wish to return to on Report, but I hope it is something we can solve. On Monday on our first group, people said that patent attorneys were vital for the country, so I had a smile on my face. Maybe now noble Lords actually know where I learned to be a nerdy pedant.
The point is that we have to have protections in the Bill where, if something unjust happens, somebody can say, “Hang on a minute, look, it says here that that excuse was reasonable,” or, “You can’t make me do this because I haven’t done anything wrong.” You cannot go around arresting people without reasonable suspicion. I do not think we should fine people without reasonable suspicion that something wrong was done in the first place. We cannot just invent a wrongness by saying, “I wanted you to give me some information and you said no”, which is basically what the powers in the Bill do.
I thank noble Lords. I look forward to a letter with some more answers to my questions from the Minister. I do not think there is anything to withdraw because this is a stand part debate, but obviously I will not call a vote.
Clause 38 agreed.
Clause 39: Enforcement
Amendment 151 not moved.
Clause 39 agreed.
Clause 40: Penalties
Amendment 152 not moved.
Clause 40 agreed.
We now come to the group consisting of Amendment 153. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. Anyone wishing to press this amendment to a Division should make that clear in debate.
153: After Clause 40, insert the following new Clause—
“Duty to consider the internal market when considering mergers
In section 58 of the Enterprise Act 2002 (specified considerations) after subsection (2E) insert—“(2F) The need to promote the better operation and improvement of the United Kingdom internal market is specified in this section, having regard to—(a) the need to promote research and development and innovation in new and existing industries and enterprises, and(b) the need to act in the interests of United Kingdom public policy.””
My Lords, before I speak to the amendment, I will slightly cheekily ask something about the previous group. At the very end the Minister said that the Government would not commence the powers unless they felt they needed to, or some words like that. As he indicated, each bit of the Bill can be brought into force on different days, as the Secretary of State may by regulation decide. When the Minister responds could he say whether that would be by the affirmative procedure and whether the House would consider the commencement date at that point? He could have some assistance if he does not know. How such things are done is beyond my understanding. It would be quite interesting to debate at that point whether the powers should be taken. I am sorry to ask the Committee’s indulgence to deal with the previous group, but I am sure that everyone is very forgiving.
Amendment 153 seeks to insert into the CMA’s powers a clear and specific reference to the need, when regulating takeovers in the new and initially demanding internal market, to promote research and development and innovation in new and existing industries and enterprises, as well as the need to act in the interests of UK public policy. The latter point is key to attracting long-term investment, as the CMA needs enhanced tools to intervene against hostile takeovers.
There has been a catalogue of such hostile takeovers, such as of GKN by Melrose in 2018—surely a bleak day for British industry, with perhaps 6,000 jobs with the UK’s third-largest engineering company suddenly in the hands of new owners following a very narrow vote by shareholders in favour of the takeover of a 250-year old company. That vote was swung by hedge funds and arbitrageurs who owned 25% of the shares, which had been very recently acquired. Their short-term interest in making a quick profit came at the expense of the jobs, skills, research and development of this major industrial company, to the detriment of UK plc. Needless to say, the result has not been good. Not all takeovers are bad, but when Melrose’s own website describes its strategy as “Buy Improve Sell”, with its objective to achieve a significant increase in shareholder value often in as little as three to five years, one has to ask whether this is in the interests of UK plc.
Last year, Unilever, our third-biggest company by market value, only just escaped a hostile takeover bid from Kraft, which took over Cadbury in 2010. Unilever’s proposed move of its registered office to Rotterdam, which did not actually take place, would have meant that Dutch law, which provides a public interest defence for the company from predators, would have been available. Sadly, we do not have that in UK law. We must now strengthen our laws against hostile takeovers and takeovers generally that are not in the public interest, not just because it is the right thing to do but to encourage long-term UK and overseas inward investors that their investment is safe from short-termism.
Until recently, the law provided only three grounds on which the Business Secretary could refer a takeover to the CMA, which then decides whether it should be blocked. The first is media plurality, the second UK financial stability, and the third national security. The addition of a fourth—public health—earlier this year was most welcome, as it allows for, in its words:
“The need to maintain … the capability to combat, and to mitigate the effects, of public health emergencies”.
Ideally we should add a fifth—the need to foster and promote research and development and innovation in new and existing industries and enterprises—and a sixth: to act in the interests of UK public policy.
As the Business Secretary I think accepts, there remains a concern about foreign takeovers of British companies on the cheap. We need to ensure that, in considering relevant takeovers, the Business Secretary can refer a takeover bid, and the CMA should be able to consider whether the bid is in the interests of research and development or science and technology, or in the public interest generally. That would cover cases where the national interest should be considered, but where the definition happens not to fit neatly into one of the existing categories.
I acknowledge that any such new grounds for referral by the Business Secretary are outwith the Bill’s scope, but as the CMA now stands more alone in the world of competition regulators outside the EU family, we need to give it the tools, as it oversees the development of the internal market, to put the national interest and support for research and development clearly into its thinking and terms of reference. This will help UK plc to build back better after Covid, in the national interest. This is something the Bill allows us to do, adding a useful tool to what the CMA will do. I beg to move.
My Lords, the idea behind this new clause has validity, and particularly will after the pandemic, whenever it is over. There is little doubt that some companies will be strong after the pandemic because they happen to be in a particular market, and others will be extremely weak and looking to be rescued somehow. The only problem I have is that the new clause refers to the
“duty to consider the internal market”
when in fact, that is the only market that will apply from 1 January onwards as far as the UK is concerned. So, it is not as though it is one of several markets; it is the only market in my judgment.
The noble Baroness is quite right that in some of the markets, there are already signs that things are happening. In the fintech market, things are undoubtedly moving quickly—for example, in sections such as payments and operations. You only have to read the Financial Times regularly, as I am sure a lot of noble Lords do, to see that things are moving all the time there. Equally, a fair number of our universities have what you might call cradle operations or primary operations, whereby they are looking to develop research that they believe might be marketable. Many are quoted companies; others are not. There is a lot of activity happening.
Although it is undoubtedly true that we want to see both paragraphs (a) and (b) happen, given the original role of the CMA, which emerged from the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, I think it pretty inconceivable that it would not look at these aspects. My noble friend on the Front Bench will be able to clarify that more than I am able to.
If there is not sufficient cover within the current Bill and other parts of the law, I hope my noble friend will look upon the amendment seriously. If that degree of cover already exists, I can understand why, although the issue is worth looking at and talking about, it may not be appropriate to deal with it in a new clause.
I rise to speak to Amendment 153 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter. This is a new clause relating to mergers that might affect the internal market. She may have a reasonable point that this is a matter of public policy about which we should be concerned. It is odd the way mergers involving an overseas player without a UK business cannot be stopped under merger law—think Cadbury, think ARM, as well as GKN Melrose, which the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, explained was a particularly heinous example—because there is not the necessary lessening of competition. Although she did not say so, perhaps there is a parallel concern about takeovers important to one of the devolved nations or to a particular R&D base.
However, I do not think this is a big risk, as representations would be made to the CMA and taken into account in consultation and decision-making by the CMA, which is domestically focused and operates across the UK. My concern is that the new clause would be a major change to the way merger law works; I do not think it right to try to change one aspect in this Bill. Therefore, I cannot support this amendment.
My Lords, I support the new clause in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town. As she said, it would insert into the CMA’s powers a clear and specific reference to the need, in the new internal market and the regulation of takeovers, to promote research, development and innovation in new and existing industries and enterprises, and to act in the interests of UK public policy.
We already know that the CMA has a number of responsibilities, including protecting consumers from unfair trading practices, investigating mergers between organisations to prevent a reduction in competition and taking enforcement action in relation to anti-competitive practices by businesses and individuals. It will have more burdens as a result of the Internal Market Bill. Put simply, it will be responsible for strengthening business competition and preventing and reducing anti-competitive practices.
The new clause seeks to nail down the role by referring to promoting research, development and innovation in new and existing enterprises. It would also assist with business development and innovation and in so doing, help to encourage overseas investment with job creation and sustainability—central facets of UK economic policy. It could also help to steady the market.
The Institute for Government has already stated that there is a clear gap in the Government’s plans for how governance of the internal market will function at a political level, and it is not clear how disputes concerning the functioning of the internal market will be managed. It is therefore important that this power be inserted to ensure greater protections where there may be hostile takeovers.
In devolved Northern Ireland, companies are generally small. However, the agri-food sector would sit under the new dispensation via the Northern Ireland protocol. There have been takeovers by companies based in the Republic of Ireland, so how would that fare if there were problems with the competition elements in the internal market Bill? The new clause in the name of the noble Baroness might assist in this regard.
The Institute for Government also notes that the office for the internal market within the CMA has very limited powers and, in many cases, can choose not to exercise them. It is worth noting that it can also request specific documents from any individual, business or public body to support its functions. Although it will be able to impose certain financial penalties, it will not be able to request any information that a business, individual or public authority would not be compelled to reveal in court, hence this new clause, on the need to promote the better operation and improvement of the UK internal market.
I therefore have no hesitation in supporting the new clause. It would promote much-needed research, development and innovation in new and existing industries and enterprises, and pump-prime UK public policy on the economy and finance in particular.
My Lords, at the outset I should say that, because of my past but discontinued interests, I will not be speaking to the specifics of the example that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, brought up; rather, I will speak generally on this issue.
I speak to support the spirit of this amendment. It is a shame that the noble Lord, Lord Tyrie, is not still here because I would have welcomed his view on this issue. As the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, said, there are examples of Secretaries of State who wanted to do more but were constrained, and Cadbury is a good example of that.
However, after two dozen or more hours in Committee, I find myself at last coming to agree with something that the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, said, and that is that this issue goes wider than simply the nature of the Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, said the same thing. It is an important issue, so we should be thankful that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, has brought it up. It is clearly inadequate; the Secretary of State needs a better armoury to assess the public interest and deal with what will undoubtedly be, as the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, said, a flood of potential acquisitions and hostile takeovers.
This may not be the right Bill to be doing it in, but it is a big issue. That said, it also opens up the question of how the new office for the internal market relates to the Secretary of State and the CMA when it is dealing with a hostile takeover that the Secretary of State has called in. As the Bill stands now, allowing for the fact that the Minister may not accept the amendment, how do the Government envision the interactivity between the office for the internal market, the CMA and a hostile takeover bid that the Secretary of State has called in? Who does what, and where?
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, for her amendment. I understand her concerns but, as I am sure she is aware, the internal market Bill is concerned with protecting the flow of goods and services across the UK after the end of the transition period. It is not concerned with the general merger regime, nor with Ministers’ powers to intervene in mergers. Noble Lords should be aware that they will have the opportunity to debate these matters further in the Government’s forthcoming national security and investment Bill.
Will that be soon?
It is forthcoming. Noble Lords will know that I cannot go further in terms of dates. It was flagged up in the Queen’s Speech and is forthcoming.
The grounds for ministerial intervention in mergers are deliberately precise and limited, in order to maximise transparency and predictability for businesses. The effect of the amendment would be to broaden the grounds upon which Ministers may make a public interest intervention in mergers. This would constitute a significant change to the UK’s approach to merger control which, as noble Lords observed, currently puts the emphasis on competition-based assessments by the Competition and Markets Authority, with narrow and specific grounds for ministerial intervention.
It is not clear how such a change would materially assist with the effective operation of the UK internal market which is, of course, the focus of this part of the Bill. The CMA already has significant powers and expertise to investigate the benefits and risks of mergers in relation to competition. An excessively broad power to intervene in the affairs of investors, shareholders and company boards risks stifling competition, innovation and creativity. This could lead to worse outcomes for both businesses and consumers, as well as stifling inward investment. For these reasons, I cannot accept the amendment and hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw it.
Before I sit down, I will answer the other question which the noble Baroness asked about the previous group. The power for the Secretary of State to specify the maximum penalties for breach of information-gathering notices will be brought in by negative SI. This mirrors Section 111(4) of the Enterprise Act 2002.
The Minister is very polite. What he really wanted to say to me was: “Nice try”. There is a serious point here. As I said in my introduction, I know that the basic power is outwith the scope of this Bill, but there is some urgency to this question. The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, used the words “greater protections are needed against hostile takeovers”. They may not be exclusively from outwith the UK, but those are some of the ones where there have been particular problems. I think it is agreed that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, said, there is a weakness in our armour because you cannot argue against them on the grounds of competition. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Naseby. The problem is that it is not within the tools of the CMA. It cannot use as a ground the need to either respond to public policy or promote particular industries. If it does not affect competition, it is not within its powers.
This does need to be added. The noble Lord, Lord Fox, is right that this is perhaps not quite the right mechanism, but we are delighted to know that there is a Bill coming and I look forward to the Minister accepting an equivalent to Amendment 153 at that point. I will, needless to say, use today’s Hansard to support that amendment to get this in then. I look forward to the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, and other noble Lords supporting me at that time.
I wanted to table the amendment to this Bill because of the changes there will be when we have got the internal market growing and we are looking for new investments. Even those who think everything is going to be wonderful after Brexit know that we are going to need a lot of support to get the economy going again after Covid. There is a slight weakness, so it would have been nice to have been able to put this clause in at this point. It was a nice try, but I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 153 withdrawn.
Amendments 154 to 156 not moved.
Clause 41 agreed.
Amendment 157 not moved.