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Standing Committee C
Wednesday 9 January 2002
[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]
Penalties for criminal offences
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Benton. Given the way in which the Bill was dealt with on Second Reading, it seems that it is fairly uncontroversial and enjoys support throughout the House. However, I do not want to take matters for granted, so I shall recap on the essential points of this substantive clause to give members of the Committee an opportunity to respond if they wish. Unless major discussion points arise from that, I hope that we can proceed quickly.
The key point under the clause is to harmonise trade mark legislation and copyright legislation. By that, I mean legal tidying up, not the introduction of new offences. Copyright theft is a significant offence. It is not a victimless crime, and it has major repercussions. It is theft in a service-based, knowledge-based economy of large sumsabout £10 billion a year, but it could be moreand an activity that has a substantial impact on consumers. In many instances, it results in the diminution of quality, but it can involve dangerous products. Examples quoted on Second Reading were of toys and the adulteration of goods that could cause serious injury. Given the disparities in the treatment of different types of intellectual property crime, the most serious aspect is that copyright crime has come to be regarded as a soft option in the criminal community.
Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): I have been following the hon. Gentleman's argument with considerable interest and support. Is he aware that when the European Leisure Software Publishers Association intervened in attempting to stop such copyright breaches, it found that, in 80 per cent. of the cases, not only was there a breach of copyright, but such organisations were involved in other criminal activities, including the distribution of illegal drugs?
Dr. Cable: Yes, the hon. Gentleman is right. He has extensive knowledge of the computer industry and information technology, and I am sure that he has such information on good authority.
One of the initiatives that prompted the Bill is the growing amount of evidence from the criminal intelligence service that large-scale organised criminals, including drug dealers, are becoming
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involved in the business, and that it is a relatively safe option for them If they manage to convert the proceeds of their crime into copyright pirating, the maximum sentence is two years, which in practice would probably be reduced to one year. For a major organised crime syndicate, that would not be a deterrent. Several examples have been quoted in the past of the police trying to bring to justice a major criminal who is known to them who was involved in copyright theft. Large amounts of resources being expended on a major trial and a perfunctory sentence being passed obviously sends out the wrong signals.
I shall pull together the threads. Problems arise not because of any passive intent in the law but as a result of the sequence of legislation. Copyright legislation was introduced in 1988, with a two-year maximum prison sentence. Subsequently, under trade mark law, people began to become more aware of the criminal involvement and the seriousness of the theft, so tougher sentences of 10 years were applied. The Bill is an attempt to reconcile the two.
To reassure Committee members who may be wondering why people should go to prison for 10 years for what might be a non-violent crime and whether the term is excessive, the proposed term corresponds to comparable criminal sentences, such as those for fraud. In addition, only in the most severe cases, involving major criminals, is a 10-year sentence likely to be sought by the prosecuting authority and imposed by the courts. The Bill provides for summary sentencing in magistrates courts.
Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): As the hon. Gentleman knows, I support the measure, but I have a question about the tariff. All too often, we pass laws that specify maximum sentences as X or Y, but in reality tariffs produced by judges, with the blessing of the Lord Chancellor or the Lord Chief JusticeI forget whichdetermine on a day-to-day basis the sentences that are imposed. Is the hon. Gentleman reasonably convinced that, on paper, increasing or harmonising the maximums will translate into higher sentences on the ground?
Dr. Cable: I believe that there is sufficient awareness in the prosecuting authority and the judiciary of the seriousness of the offence. I think that only in a relatively few cases will an exemplary sentence would be imposed, which is essentially what we are talking about. Hon. Members may have noticed a slight qualification. The maximum, 10-year, sentences apply only to particular types of copyright offencethe most serious, which involve large-scale importation, such as smuggling, or the manufacture of goods. Ten years is the upper end of the range. I am sure that in practice the judiciary will recognise the most serious cases and will apply the maximum sentence if it believes that a deterrent is necessary. I am happy to respond to questions about the clause.
Mr. Waterson: I am pleased to be debating the Bill under your firm but fair guidance, Mr. Benton. You will have noticed that no amendments have been tabled. The Bill has support from all parties and quarters of industry and from consumer
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organisations, among others. It is rather like the dog that did not bark. I have received no briefings from anyone who is unhappy with it, and if other hon. Members have, I should be interested to hear about those anxieties. For once, this is a measure that has some unanimity behind it.
I commend the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on having been fortunate enough to come high in the ballot and on having adopted the Bill as his baby. It is refreshing to consider a measure backed by Liberal Democrats that is not anti-business, and for that we are grateful. I know how much work can be involved in introducing a private Member's Bill. Back Benchers do not have the back-up of the civil servicenor, indeed, do Opposition Front Benchersand a great deal of effort is involved. It is right to debate the measure in such a friendly spirit.
A glance at the Bill's sponsors shows how wide the support is. It includes several of my hon. Friends, not least the Olympian figure of the shadow Attorney-General. We can therefore firmly say that everyone, including, I believe, the Government, supports the Bill.
If it helps you, Mr. Benton, I had proposed to make several comments about clause 1, and perhaps stray slightly further than I might usually to make some general points about the Bill, and confine my remarks to those, unless points are made in later, detailed debates. I shall discuss some important enforcement issues when we consider clause 6, which seems an appropriate point. I hope that that helps you. I shall proceed on that basis.
I strike a note that might be regarded as rather churlish. On any view, the Bill should be a Government measure. Although I do not suggest that the Bill is what is colloquially known as a handout, it would have been better if the Government had
found the time to introduce the measure. They are obviously keen on the Bill, and have, quite properly, allowed officials to assist in drafting explanatory notes and the like. It is a matter of principle whether time allocated for private Member's Bills, which is limited enough already, should be used to introduce what might otherwise have been Government legislation. As I have said, no amendments have been tabled, and there have been no hostile briefings of which I am aware.
The Bill is fairly technical, and that, no doubt, explains the paucity of the number of people listening to our deliberations. It deals mainly with procedural matters and penalties, rather than substantial matters of law on intellectual property. That is not to say that we do not recognise how important intellectual property is to the country. It is a great British success story, and encompasses a range of matters. CDs, computer software and Dyson cleaners are all examples of British ingenuity that can be called intellectual property. Such property needs protection because so much money and so many jobs are at stake. There is also the issue of public safety.
Michael Fabricant: I was interested to hear my hon. Friend's remarks about British intellectual property. Does he agree that it is fortunate that we hope to pass
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the Bill at a time when China has just joined the World Trade Organisation and can honour its obligations to international copyright law?
Mr. Waterson: My hon. Friend, who is something of a boffin on these matters, makes a telling point. I hesitate to use the word anorak. He is the Opposition's Barnes Wallis on these issues. He is right, and let us hope that constructive engagement with the Chinese, for example, will ensure that piracymuch of which is a far eastern phenomenonwill decrease.
The Bill deals with criminal, rather than civil, aspects of intellectual property law. We accept that civil remedies are available and are pretty accessible to most people in the world of intellectual property. Intellectual property law is one of the big growth areas in British legal services, which are marketed across the world.
It is important that the Bill is seen to be debated properly, but it is also important that it is seen to receive the whole-hearted support of everyone in the House. That will show that Parliament takes the threat of intellectual property piracy seriously. The Bill is measured and does not try to do the unattainable. It takes a sensible approach to harmonising penalties and sorting out search warrants and forfeiture proceedings. It would make such proceedings more accessible, as long as issues of enforcement were tackled.
Some intellectual property rights owners might query whether the Bill goes far enough, but when we consider such legislation, our concern must be based on the art of the possible. I do not think that we have a sufficient answer to the question of enforcement. Much of the burden of enforcing the Bill will fall on the police or local trading standards officers, and we know how much pressure they are under already. The problems that the Bill attempts to tackle cannot be overstated, and I agree with the comments made by the hon. Member for Twickenham in his introduction.
We have heard from the Alliance Against Counterfeiting and Piracy, which might be called the midwife of the Bill. One of its briefings states:
''The Alliance firmly believes that intellectual property theft should not be treated more leniently than theft of physical property''.
That is important. All too often, it is possible for members of the public to think that the matters that we are discussing are unimportant. However, in terms of pure money value, they are frequently much more valuable than physical property, which seems at present to have wider protection.
We have all seen the briefings from the alliance, and other organisations, about the industries that they represent. The businesses that the alliance represents account for 5 per cent. of all employment in the United Kingdom, and they generated more than £80 billion for the Exchequer in 1999. Estimates of the losses caused by counterfeiting and piracy vary between £8 billion and £9 billion, and it is staggering that they do not include losses caused by counterfeiting and the piracy of business software, which I assume takes place on a massive scale.
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We have also received a more recent briefing from the alliance, which covers much of the same ground. However, it also touches on an important point that the hon. Gentleman made in his opening remarks, which is the relationship between white-collar crime and more serious criminality. The European Leisure Software Publishers Association has found that evidence of further crimes was uncovered in 80 per cent. of the raids that were conducted in 2001.