Parliament

Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill

Published date : 17 May, 2023
The SNP welcomes very much the aims and objectives of the Bill, which broadly speaking fit well with the enhanced protections we have been calling for in the online space for some years.

For markets to be effective, they need a number of things, chief among them good market information for those participating, low barriers to entry, trust, the rule of law and a means of enforcing contracts where they are made. As the Minister alluded to, when the online marketplace emerged, there was always a risk—especially as it deals with entities that span several jurisdictions—that, for all its opportunities, it would become if not exactly a dystopian wild west, then certainly a less well-regulated space than physical trading spaces, which are more visible and more easily influenced by existing regulations. Given all the leaps and bounds that there have been in e-commerce, there is a need for the regulation of that marketplace to catch up and to rebalance it in the interest of consumers.

The Minister was correct to say that big does not always equal bad, but it is past time that we recognised that large digital entities with a significant public affairs presence can go around and say the right things, and even if their practices are not at variance with that, they can appear to be beyond the reach of and unbound by the obligations placed on other smaller market actors outside the digital space. That has long been an issue of concern, and anything that helps to rebalance that situation is a good thing.

We believe that conferring powers and duties on the Competition and Markets Authority to regulate that competition responsibly; updating powers to investigate and enforce both competition law and consumer protection law, where needed, and to resolve disputes; and enhancing protections in respect of unfair practices such as subscription traps and prepayment savings schemes, are good things in and of themselves and we welcome them.

To set out the scope of why those powers are necessary, recent figures from Action Fraud estimate that elderly people lose £1 million a day in the UK through online scams. The consumer organisation Which? estimates that one third of people in the UK experience at least one problem with a product or service each year, at an estimated cost of £54 billion, which is a tremendous drag on the economy. It prevents that money from being spent more productively in the economy, it reduces confidence and in many ways it reduces the competition that we would all like to see.

It is important to ensure that when people engage in the online market space they can do so with confidence, and we must recognise the role that the state has to play in that. No amount of competition can ever replicate what the state can do to act as the referee where necessary in this space, using a light touch. We very much welcome what the Government are setting out, particularly in defining organisations that have strategic market status and the additional responsibilities that will accompany that status.

The Bill goes a considerable distance to achieving those things but, given the scale of scams and unfair practices that, sadly, we witness on a daily basis, we think more needs to be done and that the Bill needs to go further in some respects. Like those on the Labour Front Bench, we believe that there are other areas where the Bill needs to go further.

At the risk of being criticised for making an unfavourable comparison with the Beelzebubs at the European Commission, there are many provisions in this Bill regarding firms with strategic market status that are broadly similar to those in the EU’s Digital Markets Act. The Bill falls short in that it does not explicitly include an equivalent to the EU’s right to redress, which would allow consumers to be paid with damages where they are misled by traders. Although the Bill gives the Secretary of State the power to do that in future through secondary legislation, it leaves a gap now, and there is the risk that that right will, over time, be watered down or removed entirely because there is no commitment to introducing it. If the ministerial team offer me some assurance about that, we can maybe explore it further in Committee, but that matter threatens to leave UK consumers behind.

The dangers there ought to be clear. Just last month, it was revealed that thousands of people from the UK who found themselves stranded in Dover following delays in coach trips faced losing their entitlement to compensation amid what was being billed as the “bonfire” of EU regulations. Rocio Concha, the director of policy and advocacy at Which?, noted that it is clear—or it was at that point, at any rate—

“that the government does not…have a firm enough grip on the extent of legislation which is at risk of simply slipping off the statute books by mistake.”

I welcome the Government’s change in tone last week, but right to redress is nevertheless an important consumer protection, and we certainly do not want to be in a position where our consumers have less leverage in that sense than their counterparts elsewhere in Europe.

Another area in which we believe the Bill should be getting its feet wet is greenwashing. It is not just in financial losses or deficient goods and services that consumers can be badly let down; it is also in goods marketed under misleading pretences, particularly when it comes to their environmental credentials. The Bill does not set out standards and practices that should be adhered to when making environmental claims. To give an example, in February, the Corporate Climate Responsibility Monitor found that many companies were involved in making misleading claims about their plans to tackle global warming and climate change. Sustainability is increasingly important for consumers choosing where to spend their money—particularly younger consumers—so it is vital that measures are put in place to ensure that people can have confidence in the claims being made for products, rather than being misled, wittingly or otherwise.

In terms of how the European Union is tackling that, around 230 separate sustainability labels and 100 green energy labels are commonly used across the EU, each with vastly different levels of transparency. Half of them offer weak or non-existent verification and 40% have no supporting evidence at all. The situation in the UK will be similar. Ensuring that labels and claims can be treated as credible and trustworthy would allow consumers to make better-informed purchasing decisions and boost the competitiveness of businesses that want to play a responsible role in the marketplace in terms of driving up standards to meet consumer demand. I urge Ministers to look at what the Commission is doing in that respect because this is a sufficient deficiency and a missed opportunity to make the Bill better than it already is.

The next point that I wish to endorse is one that was made by the right hon. Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) about charity lotteries. They do an awful lot of good, they give people an awful lot of enjoyment and they raise an awful lot of money for good causes. They are already in a very highly regulated marketplace, but we are concerned that the legislation could, in its present form, have a detrimental impact on their ability to raise funding and to give money to good causes. That concern applies in particular to clauses 148 to 253, which would—at least in my reading of them—introduce a significant number of new requirements on subscription products and pre-contract information. Schedule 19 already rightly contains a number of operators in the economy that are deemed sufficiently well regulated to be exempt from the requirements that the Bill would place upon them. I suggest that charity lotteries also fall into that category, and I urge Ministers to give that due consideration and make the necessary changes to schedule 19 to make it crystal clear that charity lotteries are exempt.

Another missed opportunity is on drip pricing, whereby companies add additional fees and costs that were not clearly stated at the beginning of a transaction. That tactic is commonly used by some airlines: the price given at the start bears little resemblance to the price that appears at the end, once the consumer has paid for everything that they assumed would come automatically with stepping on an airliner. The US is planning a crackdown on that through the Junk Fee Prevention Act. It would be a missed opportunity if the UK Government did not follow suit in the legislation before us.

I welcome the commitment to tackling fake reviews, which can cause a great deal of distress and harm. Many can be absolutely malicious—not on a personal level but in trying to discredit competitors and therefore reduce competition. That practice certainly requires a different approach in legislation, but it is unclear at this stage how the Bill would seek to deter it. If any ban is to work, it will have to be enforceable, it will need to have teeth and there will need to be appropriate redress.

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The right hon. Member is absolutely right that it is not easy, but that does not mean it is something that we should avoid trying to tackle, or that we should not try to come up with a way of improving the competitive environment. I am certainly more than happy to engage on an open and constructive basis with anyone about how we might do so.

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I thank the Minister for his intervention. Indeed, I would be quite happy to see what comes back from that consultation, because there are areas of real concern. If we can find consensus on how those matters can best be tackled—we might not be able to please everybody, but we can address them as best we can—that would be a welcome step forward.

In closing, the Bill is important for growth and competition, but also for consumer protection. The exchange that we collectively had just now on those matters was encouraging, and I would certainly like that spirit to continue in Committee. I do not think I have ever managed to successfully get something passed in Committee; I look forward to that changing.

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I hear the hon. Member for Pontypridd say “Good luck”, but we will see how it goes. The Bill certainly does much that it needs to, but there are quite a few things that it misses; let us see what we can make it hit over the period ahead. As the Bill progresses, I look forward to working with others where it is possible to do so, in order to do precisely that.

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