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6 Apr 2010 : Column 848

Mr. Hunt: I am happy to reiterate my opposition to clause 43, and to say that we are not prepared to let it through as part of the wash-up process. What is needed is a proper reform of copyright law, and my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) has said that under a new Conservative Government he will ensure that such proposals are put before the House. Let me provide an example of where this is already going wrong. An image of none other than the great Lord Mandelson himself is apparently being used to market a Russian vodka, with the caption, "When only the best is good enough". If ever we needed proof that captions to pirated images can be misleading, surely that is it. We cannot support these measures as they stand-but what an opportunity has been wasted.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman has been explicit in saying that his party will resist clause 43, and some other parts of the Bill, in the wash-up. He has not been explicit, however, about clauses 10 to 18. If I understood him correctly, he said that if they did not work he would change them when the Conservatives were in government. Can he therefore explain the difference?

Mr. Hunt: I absolutely can explain the difference. The measures to which the hon. Lady refers are so critical for the 2 million jobs of people employed in the digital and creative industries that there would be an economic cost if we were to delete all the relevant clauses there. I would not want to look those people in the eye and say that we had done nothing to help them. These measures are imperfect and I am concerned that they will not be effective, but I am satisfied that on the balance of our responsibilities to the people working in these industries, the sensible thing to do is to let them through but give a clear undertaking that if a Conservative Government are elected, we will amend, change or delete measures as necessary with the utmost speed, to ensure that they do not do the kind of damage about which I know hon. Members throughout the House are concerned.

Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): I am full of admiration as my hon. Friend has striven to make the Bill workable, but I am still concerned about the unintended consequences highlighted by the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey). Is he saying that he is going to allow these elements of the Bill through, but then, if the Conservatives are in government, create a new parliamentary opportunity to review them, or is he going to take a chance on them not working? I have to say that if it is taking a chance on them not working, I will not vote in favour of the Bill.

Mr. Hunt: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his intervention. I share his concerns about the process, but if he looks at the measures he will see that there are quite long time gaps before it will be possible for a Secretary of State to lay regulations before the House to allow, for example, for the suspension of internet accounts. There is a period of time during which we can come to understand the likely impact of these regulations and how they could be framed in order to avoid unintended consequences.

One thing that particularly concerned me about the drafting of the regulations at an earlier stage was the chilling possibility that a rights holder could contact an internet service provider directly and say, "We're concerned
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about this website. If you don't block access to it we'll get a court order, and you'll be lumbered with the costs because you haven't behaved reasonably." My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley), who was here earlier but is no longer in his place, raised the issue of costs. It is very important to frame costs issues so that only where a court order has been properly obtained-in other words, where there has been due process-could access to a website be blocked. To answer my right hon. Friend's question, yes, we absolutely are making a commitment that if these regulations are flawed and have unintended consequences we will bring measures before the House as a matter of urgency; it is incredibly important to get them right.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): I note the hon. Gentleman's point about ensuring that if these measures go ahead the regulations that follow will have to be absolutely right. Does he therefore agree that clause 11 should include a requirement for a super-affirmative resolution, not only stipulating that there must be more consultation but providing an amendable resolution for the new House then to be able to consider and, if necessary, amend?

Mr. Hunt: I would like to know whether the hon. Gentleman is asking for a super-affirmative resolution on the clause that his party proposed in the House of Lords but is now campaigning against, because I am not sure that the original intention behind super-affirmative resolutions was to clear up the mess caused by Liberal Democrat YouTube U-turns. However, we want proper safeguards for all these measures, and particularly measures involving copyright infringement, because we have to ensure that they are used only in extremis.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con) rose-

Mr. Hunt: I shall give way, but for the last time.

Robert Key: Is my hon. Friend content with clause 31, on the digital switchover? It is estimated that the costs to the consumer will be £800 million, and there is no sign of manufacturers of DAB radios producing cheap radios, no estimate of the cost of throwing away millions of existing FM sets, no sign that the motor car industry is going to come up with the goods- [Interruption.] A Labour Back Bencher says, "Yes there is," but I have read all the papers and although there are one or two pious hopes, there is nothing more than that. This will be extremely expensive, and the 2015 deadline is unattainable. Is my hon. Friend content, therefore, or will we make some further promises?

Mr. Hunt: I share my hon. Friend's concerns, because I think that clause is so weak that it is virtually meaningless, as it gives the Secretary of State the power to mandate switchover in 2015 but the Government have not taken the difficult steps that would have made that possible, such as ensuring that the car industry installs digital radios as standard, as my hon. Friend suggests, and that there is proper reception on all roads and highways. As a result, a lot of people are very concerned that 110 million analogue radios will have to be junked in 2015. In particular, I would have liked the Government to find out whether we could move from DAB to the DAB plus technology, which most people think will be far more effective. If they had done that, this measure would not threaten smaller local radio stations.

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Mr. Simon rose-

Mr. Hunt: I will give way to the former Minister with responsibility for creative industries, and then I will make some progress.

Mr. Simon: Given the hon. Gentleman's desire to move to DAB plus, what does he suggest the 8 million people in this country who have bought very expensive DAB radios should do?

Mr. Hunt: First, let me say that when the hon. Gentleman stepped down as Minister for the creative industries, it was a great shame that he was not replaced. It would have helped in the sensible framing of the Bill if we had had a Minister with that responsibility now, but there is none. The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is simply this: when we migrate from one technology to another-whether analogue to DAB, or DAB to DAB plus-we need some kind of help scheme, as we have with TV digital switchover, but there is no mention of a help scheme in this Bill. That serves to highlight why the Government have ducked the important decisions.

I conclude by talking about what this Bill should have contained. It should have asked one simple question: what needs to be done to stimulate investment in Britain's digital and creative industries by both domestic and international companies? Companies that thrive in the digital world tend to be small, nimble and fleet of foot. They thrive on competition and deregulation, not subsidy and regulation. A Conservative Government will end the micro-regulation of the broadcasting sector. We will stimulate investment in a new generation of local television, radio and newspaper companies by removing the cross-media ownership rules at the local level. Because we want these companies to employ more people, we will reverse the tax on jobs-the national insurance increase-that the Government plan, and we will go further, encouraging job creation by ensuring that start-up companies need pay no national insurance at all on their first 10 employees for the first year.

We will reduce corporation tax by simplifying complicated allowances, aiming for Britain to have one of the most competitive tax rates in Europe. That will help all companies, but in the creative and digital space people need something more-a proper digital infrastructure. By considering some of the recommendations of the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills, we will deregulate access to BT's ducts and pipes, as well as water mains, sewers and pylons, and stimulate investment in next-generation broadband by other players, not simply depend on BT. Where the market will provide, we will let it; where it will not, we have said we will continue the levy on the licence fee that is currently imposed for digital switchover, to ensure that no one is left out of the digital revolution, especially in rural areas.

In short, we could have had a proper Digital Economy Bill. We wanted an iPod, but we got an Amstrad. We wanted digital switchover, but we ended up with analogue switch-off. It is time to reboot Britain, and only the Conservatives can deliver that.

Several hon. Members rose -

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I remind all right hon. and hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 12-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions.

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5.15 pm

Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt) ended his speech by referring to the fast-moving and nimble industry, and he is right in that. In my short speech I want to refer specifically to internet-related and people-related issues, and to what is and what is not in this Bill, as good governance of the internet and the part that legislation and regulation should play have been of great interest to me in recent years.

Perhaps I should explain that the word "interest" does not mean that I have any personal interest in these issues, but that some of the costs of travel in putting the British Parliament and the UK in general at the cutting edge of internet governance have been met by Nominet, the not-for-profit company that is the UK's domain name registry, and by EURIM, the not-for-profit company that brings together parliamentarians and industry in large numbers to address the public and industry interests in information and communications technology issues and that works with other all-party groups for that purpose.

I welcome the framework for domain name registration offered in the Bill and I note specifically that an undertaking was given in the other place that the powers that are given to Government would be used only if necessary. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury will reinforce that undertaking when he sums up the debate.

My interest arises simply because the internet is now enormously important to every single one of us, whether we are technically minded or not and whether or not we use the internet. I want our children and grandchildren to be safe users of the internet and I want people to feel safe, which is essential if we are to overcome the growing digital divide. If we are to bring that about, we need standards of behaviour on the internet, just as we do in the real world.

Such standards need to be underpinned by legislation, which is why I welcome the Bill, but I also want to warn against the drift into overreliance on legislation which has bedevilled us in how we have dealt with bad behaviour in the real world for decades, if not centuries. That is not a new idea. Gibbon, in "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", told us that laws rarely prevent what they forbid. As a legislator, it seems to me that legislation is precious and should be used sparingly and flexibly. The internet is so fast, so pervasive and so international that firms are often making profits now from products that they had not even started to design only a few months ago. That means that legislation will find it extremely difficult to keep pace. We, as legislators, need to adopt a different approach to deal with those issues.

The Bill meets my criteria, because it includes necessary elements but demonstrates potential for flexibility. That is important because of the wide-ranging nature of activity. Ofcom has been very successful in working with industry, in working in the interests of the public and of business, and in teasing out ways of making changes over time.

The "Digital Britain" final report, last July, was an enormously ambitious project that sought to bring together a huge number of strands-indeed, some nine or 10 Government Departments-on a range of issues which are almost as broad as the whole statute book and not just a single Bill. When I dealt with the Company
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Law Reform Bill-the biggest Bill in history-I thought that was complex, but the internet and the issues that are dealt with in "Digital Britain" are far more complex. In that regard, I am pleased that not all of that scope is being approached through legislation. We need flexibility and, I suggest to my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench, not so much consultation, but partnership. We need to bring together those who have a part in industry, users and those who are developing usage, to deal with complex issues in a speedy way that reflects change over time.

There are some enormously important matters of definition behind the Bill's content. There is the question of how its measures will affect small businesses, hotels, community centres and libraries-the sort of organisations that provide internet access. Those places are vital to getting people connected, to bridging the digital divide and to people who travel and move around a great deal. They are sometimes a lifeline for internet users who cannot afford their own dedicated connection and equipment. What does the legislation mean? There are a number of technical measures that public access organisations can take to protect themselves partially, but they are expensive, difficult to manage, restrictive and not difficult to circumvent. Many places may simply withdraw access rather than risk going to court or having to spend a great deal of time, effort and money on restricting or modifying their networks. That is an important point, because the greater the restrictions and the limits on flexibility, the more we build in and continue the dangers of the digital divide. A Minister in the other place sought to reassure people regarding these issues, but they still cause great worries. I ask the Government to address that area, not necessarily through over-meticulous regulation, but by working with industry, users and the sorts of organisations I have mentioned-they could use the internet crime reduction partnership, which I chair-to design solutions. Let us have co-operative solutions. Let us do this together and recognise that too much legislation, and definitions that are too narrow, might produce obstructions.

That different model has been tried and tested. We saw in the blocking of child abuse sites-I do not use the word "pornography", because we are talking about the abuse of children-the great danger of an impetus towards instant legislation. People get angry about that sort of issue and say that there ought to be a law against it. Why has there not been a law? It is partly because the activity itself is illegal and partly because people recognise the complexity of dealing with the internet in that regard. What we have seen in that area is a consensus that was achieved in partnership, going back to the very last days of the previous Conservative Government. It started with industry working with the Government; Parliament providing engagement across parties; children's charities showing enormous leadership; and, particularly-not necessarily immediately, but after time-the full engagement of the industry. The conclusion that has been drawn from reviewing that activity is that we achieved far more together, in a year or so, than we could possibly have achieved in 10 years of simply using a legislative and regulatory approach. That is a good lesson.

It might be comparatively simple to get unity of purpose against child abuse, as it is one of the simplest things to deal with, but agreement on issues of regulation
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and other aspects of internet use is far more complicated. However, that does not mean that we should not put our energies in that direction and seek to achieve an approach to regulation, legislation and good behaviour that depends on people working together co-operatively-in a consensus or coalition of the willing-against those who would damage industry, society and our infrastructure. We know that those people are out there and are acting in great numbers at the present time.

I support the Bill, but I call on the Government to reform the way that, going forward, its internal governance is undertaken. There is a tendency at the end of a piece of legislation to disband the Bill team and have new people writing the regulations. Instead, I hope that the Government, industry and users-wider civil society, as it might be called-will work together to ensure that we get something that matches the internet's speed of development and international reach.

In the internet's early days, there was a mythology that it would be characterised by absolute freedom, but that idea was as fragile and unrealistic as the talk of freedom of behaviour in the 1960s. An enormous amount of internet-related activity is based on trust and the quality of relationships. We need to interfere as little as possible with the energy, creativity and imagination that has driven the internet since its birth. My plea is for a light touch from the Government, and for careful work in the international dimension to achieve the necessary protections mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State when he introduced the Bill today, without slowing the speed of growth and development, or the development of imagination and creativity.

I heard one critic complain this morning that all the detail would not be in the primary legislation but would be left for Ofcom in developing guidance. That is true, and legislators are of course fearful when that is the case, but it is also a great reassurance. It offers a new way of doing things if we can avoid the temptation to fall back on Whitehall's traditional approach of definition from the centre, and look instead to securing greater engagement from the creative individuals across industry and business who have such a great part to play.

Ofcom has demonstrated a capacity to work in that way. I hope that the Minister who sums up the debate will indicate that expectation of how Ofcom and Government Departments will use the powers available to them under the Bill. If that is the case, I will be happy to support the Bill going through into legislation.

5.26 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): It is totally inappropriate for a Bill as important as this to be given so little time for debate in this House. I should remind the House that it would have been possible to handle this rather differently. After all, there were lengthy deliberations in another place, but all stages were completed some three weeks ago, on 15 March. Since then, there have been many days when we could have debated the Bill, and I am particularly mindful of the fact that the business allocated by the Government's business managers collapsed early on a number of those days. Surely that is another reason why it would be a good idea to have a Back-Bench committee deciding the business of the House.

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