|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Con):
This afternoon, on the very day when time has finally been called on a weak, dithering and incompetent Government,
we are faced with a weak, dithering and incompetent attempt to breathe life into Britain's digital economy. One does have to admire the Government's chutzpah, because one of their five key election pledges is apparently to build a high-tech economy. This afternoon the country will be able to judge them by their record, because we have an entire parliamentary Bill setting out their vision-one of the very last that this Parliament will debate.
Instead of a big, ambitious vision for this country, we have a digital disappointment of colossal proportions. As well as the controversial measures it does contain, we should not forget what it does not contain, because it is a catalogue of ducked decisions. The Government have ducked sorting out digital radio switchover, which the Secretary of State has just talked about. They are giving Ministers the power to switch over in 2015, yes, but without taking any of the difficult measures necessary to make it practical or possible. They have ducked reforms to help our struggling local newspaper and radio sector, when local newspapers are closing every week and local radio stations are losing so much money that their very existence is being cast into doubt.
The Government have ducked reforms to give Britain a credible path towards super-fast broadband, leaving us languishing with one of the slowest broadband networks in the developed world. They have ducked public service broadcasting reform, failing both to clarify the limits to commercial activity by the BBC and to ensure that it has strong competition from an independent sector that will still be burdened by outdated regulation.
Mr. Hunt: I am very happy to give that assurance, because we want Channel 4 to provide strong competition for the BBC for the type of programmes that the market will not provide. We are one of the few countries in the world that has such competition in the non-commercially viable parts of the sector. Channel 4 was set up by the last Conservative Government and we are proud to have done that.
One final thing that the Government have ducked, which is incredibly disappointing, is the possibility of giving the public a right to access Government data sets, which was mentioned in the "Digital Britain" White Paper, and which President Obama has successfully introduced in the United States. It would have been a huge leap forward for our digital economy for people to be able to access those data.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in allowing the copyright that local authorities often require for Freedom of Information Act purposes, the Government have gone one step worse? People can be cut off for looking up freedom of information on the net.
Mr. Hunt: I share the hon. Gentleman's concerns. The presumption should be that the public have a right to see Government data sets unless there is a very good reason why they should not. Allowing members of the public to mine those data has huge potential in all sorts of ways.
Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): On the subject of the Government ducking issues, does my hon. Friend not feel that it is incumbent on them to outline exactly which elements of the Bill will be subject to the super-affirmative procedure that the Leader of the House referred to earlier?
Peter Luff: I cannot resist the pun: another of the ducked decisions is on ducts. Is my hon. Friend aware that access to ducts other than BT's-for example, waterways and sewers-is currently outside Ofcom's powers? Its response tells us that
"regulatory intervention in relation to infrastructure beyond the telecommunications sector would be a matter for the Government."
Mr. Hunt: My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and indeed the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills, which he chairs, wrote an excellent report on that very topic. If we are to stimulate investment in next-generation fibre networks, we need to break open all the infrastructure monopolies, whether on pylons, water mains or sewers, not just those on BT's ducts and pipes. That is the only way that we can stimulate such investment, and it could have been in the Bill, because it requires primary legislation. It is not: another opportunity has been missed.
All too often, where the Government have suggested change they have resorted to the Labour comfort zones of tax, regulation and subsidy as the answer to every problem. On tax, there is a phone tax to pay for next-generation broadband, which means that older people who do not use the internet will be paying for younger people who want faster connections. Even on the Government's own figures, such a tax would put 200,000 people off taking up a broadband connection. On regulation, the Government's reliance on Government levers is so heavy that Ofcom is mentioned 187 times in just 50 clauses of this Bill.
Mr. Hunt: I shall give way in a moment. On subsidy, we find the misguided attempt to prop up ITV regional news by tapping into the BBC licence fee. As a former US President once said, the trouble with government is that it always thinks:
"If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidise it."
Mr. Watson: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would wish to acknowledge the great progress that has been made on data sets. Just last week, Ordnance Survey released its geo-spatial data, which are the jewel in the crown for the Free Our Data campaign; I know that he would wish to give credit for that. Even at this late stage, is he determined to collude with the Government in forcing through the copyright infringement parts of this Bill?
Mr. Hunt: First, I should say that I am prepared to concede that some progress has been made in opening up Government data sets, but the process needs to go much further. The law needs a presumption that the public can access those data, rather than a presumption that they cannot unless there is a very good reason for them to do so; a big psychological shift needs to take place.
There is no question of our party colluding with the Government. We have examined this Bill clause by clause, and we agree with the hon. Gentleman that it could have been massively improved had this House been able to give it proper scrutiny in Committee. The Government have had plenty of opportunities to allow such scrutiny, and it is a matter of huge regret that we have not been able to provide it. This concern is shared by the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson), by my hon. Friends the Members for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) and for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff)-the Chairs of the two Select Committees-and by many other Members in this House.
Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): Is there not one other thing that the Secretary of State ducked: an explanation of why this Bill has been started so late in this parliamentary Session, which means that we have to rush it through? The Bill includes the stuff about orphan works, which for some reason the Secretary of State did not mention, and for which he has given no explanation whatsoever?
Mr. Hunt: As ever, my right hon. Friend makes an important point. Orphan works legislation is incredibly important, because there is a potentially huge benefit in being able to unlock for the public archives such as those of the British Library, the BBC and universities, but there is a big problem in establishing the ownership of the rights to those works. This Bill was an excellent opportunity to sort out that problem, but under its provisions as drafted, it would be possible for someone to remove an image and all its identifying marks, and for that image then to end up being pirated all over the world. Again, these provisions could have been sorted out and improved by proper scrutiny in Committee in the House of Commons.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): I am delighted that my hon. Friend has drawn attention to that matter. I know that the photographic industry is terribly concerned that there is no way in which a photograph on the internet can be protected from having its provenance removed. It seems that there is a culture of, "Use it now and pay later-if you're found out." That will deter photographic agencies from putting their data on the internet in the first place.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is why we cannot support clause 43. We would like to support the objectives of that clause on orphan works, but unintended consequences occur unless the wording is right, as the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) pointed out. The question is: why has a debate on such a crucial Bill been left to the very last minute? The Government could have brought this Bill before Parliament ages ago, because these issues have been in the public domain for years. Dr. Tanya Byron, whom the Secretary of State mentioned, told the Government two years ago that a new age-rating system
for video games was needed. The Gowers review of intellectual property is so old it is practically out of copyright. Ofcom wanted the Government to establish a new model for public service broadcasting regulation six years ago, but as the Government have progressively run out of steam, we have had a lighter and lighter parliamentary timetable, and instead of getting on with it, we have had endless dithering and prevarication.
Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): In business questions, I raised the point that the wash-up is supposed to be for non-contentious material. I do not for one moment believe that my hon. Friend has colluded with the Government; that is not his nature. A small-indeed, pitiful-amount of this very modest Bill is acceptable to probably everybody in the House. However, it is not satisfactory for a Bill to be effectively rewritten and subjected to a super-affirmative resolution. Would it not be better for him to resist the bad bits of the Bill in their entirety and let a new Conservative Government bring in a decent Bill?
Mr. Hunt: I share my hon. Friend's concerns, and the principles that he has outlined are, broadly speaking, the principles that we have been following. I think that he will understand, however-I have spoken to him about this-that we cannot reject the Bill in its entirety, because it contains some very important measures. However, I shall come on to talk about what we will do with some of the more contentious areas in the Bill.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): I think what people outside the House want is an assurance that the good, as well as the bad, will be properly scrutinised. If this miserable Government cannot plan the timetable to give us that time, why can my hon. Friend not offer us that pledge, on the assumption of a Conservative victory in the election?
Mr. Hunt: We are stating categorically that we reserve the right to review anything that becomes law as a result of the wash-up, if we win the next election, and we will indeed review it, if it turns out that the legislation is flawed. However, the country and the digital industries that the Secretary of State talked about are in an invidious position. Legislation is urgently needed to protect jobs, and their competitive position. It has taken this Government 13 years to bring these issues before the House, and the industries are worried that if the whole thing is killed now, they might again have to wait a very long time, and that their competitive position will be eroded.
The Government have left industry in an extremely difficult position. My particular bugbear is their obsession with consultations and reviews. We have had two public service broadcasting reviews, and two consultations on community radio, two on the phone tax, two on product placement, one on video games, one on regional news, one on listed events and one on spectrum. When Stephen Carter took over the broadcasting and communications brief, we hoped that that might change, but when he published his "Digital Britain" final report we had another 12 consultations, and even he, despite having accepted a peerage, was not prepared to stay even 12 months to see his report turned into legislation.
We agree with the Secretary of State about the critical importance of the digital and creative industries-the largest independent television production sector in the world, the second largest music exporter in the world and, depending on how we measure them, the third largest film and video games industries in the world. When we desperately need to rebuild a broken economy in proven areas of British competitive advantage, what way is this to treat those industries, and what way is this to treat Parliament-denying us the chance to debate, scrutinise and amend this vital legislation?
Mr. Binley: My hon. Friend is a great supporter of the music industry, which at the moment is losing about £200 million a year from illegal downloads, but receiving very little help from the service providers. Will he give an undertaking that when he is the Secretary of State, he will ensure that the cost of informing infringers is shared more fairly-perhaps on a 50:50 basis-to protect artists' rights, and that we do more in that respect?
Mr. Hunt: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the issue of costs, because that is very important. There is a need for responsibility on both sides of this debate. Internet service providers have to recognise that they have a critical role in tackling digital piracy, and it is not satisfactory for them just to say that they are a mere conduit and can have no responsibility for what is carried on their networks. On the other hand, however, the legal costs of securing court orders must be borne by the rights holders, whether in the music, film or sports industries, because they are the ones with the commercial interest in ensuring that digital piracy is stamped out. So getting that balance right is one of the areas of which it would have been good to have had much more scrutiny.
Mr. Cash: In relation to the clauses that deal with infrastructure, does my hon. Friend agree that there is a serious problem with the basic question of digging holes? All over the country, holes are being dug without the necessary degree of coherence to facilitate movement on our roads. Does he agree that if we had the chance, we would introduce measures to bring coherence to the public utilities' street works codes?
I want to say plainly to the Government that, while we recognise that some parts of the Bill will have to be let through if we are to avoid serious damage to the economy, other parts of it are totally unacceptable, and we will use every parliamentary means at our disposal to remove them. They include the additional duties for Ofcom, which are at best unnecessary and at worst completely distorting. For example, the duty to promote investment in communications infrastructure is already covered by the Communications Act 2003. Indeed, following a year-long campaign by the Conservatives, with support from the Select Committee, Ofcom did precisely that by announcing a consultation to allow other people access to BT's ducts and poles in order to lay super-fast broadband fibre. However, there are no measures in the Bill to broaden that access to sewers, water mains and electricity pylons. Where are the measures to make it
easier to get planning approval for fibre? Where are the proposals to regularise business rates so that they do not discourage investment in fibre? They are not in the Bill. For this Government, the answer is not to do something but to lay yet another regulatory duty on Ofcom. In this case, that duty is unnecessary, bureaucratic and costly, and it will go.
John Robertson: It is not for me to give the hon. Gentleman a history lesson, but he might perhaps remember what happened when the Conservative Government completely tore up the road works legislation so that the Clyde cables could be put into the ground. That played havoc with the streets of Glasgow, and even today we have roads that have never recovered from what his party did to the infrastructure of the area, thanks to all the cable and TV people.
Mr. Hunt: All I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that, thanks to the actions of the last Conservative Government, we now have a cable network covering half the country that has not cost the taxpayer a penny, a satellite network covering the whole country without any cost to the taxpayer, and a deregulated telecoms infrastructure that has made our international calls the cheapest in the world. That is all because we understand how proper regulation can work.
Another part of the Bill that is totally flawed covers the Government's plans for regional news. The Bill makes provision to subsidise ITV regional news by accessing the licence fee. Our starting point has to be, however, that our local media are in crisis, that newspaper and commercial radio groups are under severe pressure, and that we have never had proper local television in this country. London, Ontario has two local TV stations, despite being one twentieth the size of our London, which has none. Birmingham, Alabama has eight local TV stations, despite being only a quarter the size of our Birmingham, which has none. So will the Bill sort that out? No, it will not. Instead, Government subsidies will solidify the old, failed regional news model, encouraging media groups to put all their energy into lobbying Ministers for more subsidy, rather than finding models that attract viewers and listeners in the marketplace. Instead of measures to stimulate investment, innovation and change, the Bill proposes plans for regulation and subsidy that are so flawed that even ITV now thinks they will make a bad situation worse. ITV is right, and that clause will go.
We have already mentioned another fundamentally flawed proposal-clause 43, which deals with orphan works and extended licensing. These measures have the right intention, and with proper scrutiny could have yielded huge benefits for consumers and authors alike.
Kate Hoey: Will the shadow Secretary of State reiterate a point? He probably realises that the UK photography industry has got together, is well organised and is keen to work with the Government to secure legislation that is right; what they do not want is something to be pushed through. Will the hon. Gentleman reiterate what I thought I heard him say earlier-that the Conservative Front-Bench team would not allow clause 43 to go through?
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|