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7 Apr 2010 : Column 1111

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted to support the amendments tabled in the names of my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson) and for Selby (Mr. Grogan). My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East has put his finger on the problems with the Bill, which are twofold. First, the Bill needs proper scrutiny in this House. That was the basis of yesterday's Second Reading. I did not speak because I hoped that the Government would listen to wiser, brighter and more technically advanced voices than mine, and realise that we need to be careful about what we introduce at such a time. I hoped they would also realise that what seemed merely a technical Bill has become emotive and-dare I say it-quite dangerous. My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East has just proved how difficult it will be to word the measure. He showed why we need proper scrutiny in Committee in the normal way, but that is not happening at all.

My hon. Friend's second point was that the Bill started with quite a narrow focus, but now seems all-encompassing. As he rightly said, the real worry is that we shall pick up the very people we do not want. We are looking for the pirates, the cowboys, the commercial operators and we shall end by picking up children.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): My hon. Friend referred to proper scrutiny. The word he left out was "democratic"-the phrase should be "proper democratic scrutiny". The Bill has been scrutinised in the other place, but it is exactly the kind of measure that deserves the scrutiny of those who represent electors and who have much greater contact with citizens when dealing with matters of this kind. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Mr. Drew: I completely agree. Perhaps my position is unusual, but the Bill is getting me more of a postbag, and certainly more electronic contact, than any other issue at present. A few of us are standing for re-election and could do with getting on with that rather than trying to understand the Digital Economy Bill and trying to explain to people why what they think should be happening-proper scrutiny-is not happening.

I take the wise words of my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East: we need to tighten up the provisions. Like him, I should like to see clauses 11 to 18 go, but we are making a fist of at least refocusing the Bill, to make it narrower. What happened in the other place was almost the reverse of what normally occurs, which is tightening up things that have not been done satisfactorily in this place. Now we have the obverse; the other place seems to have gone on a fishing trip to extend the Bill-I say no more-and we have to try to make good the damage in the most limited time and in the most limited ways.

I can assure the Committee that our constituents-the people who have e-mailed and written to us-will be watching. They will not be at all pleased, just as they were not pleased yesterday when there was no vote on the Second Reading of this controversial Bill-its first hearing in this House. They will not be happy unless we give the Bill some scrutiny.

I finish on that point. I do not want to say more on this amendment, as I want to speak on the second group. However, as a number of Labour Members have chosen to stay here and make representations, I think it is fairly clear that we feel very unhappy.

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Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): It is with great pleasure that I follow my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew).

The amendments could have the generic title-"The all-praise to Lord Carter amendments", because they seek to restore the Bill to his White Paper. I say quietly, and in parenthesis, that the subtitle might be, "Let's dare to question the wisdom of Lord Mandelson". I encourage my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to do that, because I know how closely he worked with Lord Carter on the original proposals that the amendments seek to restore by narrowing the scope of the Bill.

I have been contacted today by no fewer than three Ministers in Lord Mandelson's empire-I admit that that is a relatively small proportion of the total-and all of them expressed disquiet and said that we should continue to question the measures. They said, "We were all lined up with Lord Carter and we conducted an extensive consultation on illegal peer-to-peer file sharing and what should be done about it, but we are deeply unhappy with the wording of the Bill because it is now much broader and talks about online copyright infringement."

9.15 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): My hon. Friend makes an important point. Does he accept that amendment 34 would bring some sanity to the Bill because it quite specifically states that action should be taken only against those who financially gain from such activity? That is different from the catch-all provision in the Bill that, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson) pointed out, will pick up all kinds of people who merely share information.

Mr. Grogan: My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson) has been working on the amendments night and day in the limited time available-[Hon. Members: "One night and one day."] Yes, but he has done a remarkable job. I am attracted by amendment 34, just as I am attracted by amendment 36, which would restore the United Kingdom view of the internet. Up until now, it has been assumed that a subscriber to an internet access service is responsible only for the actions that they take, but the Government's provision has the problem that it goes down the lines of the French model-it was actually rejected in the French courts-that a person is liable for any activity that takes place on an internet access service to which they subscribe.

Lord Carter would be proud of new clause 3 because it would restore the balance of the Bill by incentivising those who file share and internet service providers to develop new economic models that would result in a return to rights holders-the approach is as much carrot as stick. The stick that Lord Mandelson introduced-again, I speak softly-has completely distorted the Bill.

I urge the Committee to think carefully about the amendments. We look forward to hearing the Government's response. I do not think that there will be any alternative to voting against Third Reading, given the Bill's lack of democratic scrutiny.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): We have a very short time in which consider the Bill. Would it not have benefited from pre-legislative scrutiny,
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given that it is so technical and few Members probably understand all aspects of it? If it were to be defeated on Third Reading, I would look forward to it coming back and being scrutinised in such a way.

Mr. Grogan: Many Members in the Chamber-sadly I will not be one of them, because I shall not be here after the election-would make excellent Chairs of such a scrutiny Committee. There would be several candidates, and I would imagine that the Chair would be elected by the whole House-that would be a good way for the new House of Commons to start.

I will be interested to hear my right hon. Friend the Minister's reply to this short debate. I urge him to return to a position that reflects the spirit of what Lord Carter proposed.

Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): It is alarming, although not surprising, that it took me a search of the internet to discover exactly what amendments had been tabled, rather than finding out through the Vote Office.

I have raised my confusion about the Bill with the Secretary of State privately. I own the e-mail system that is predominantly used by my family-I sign it off. If one of member of my family was illegally file sharing, I could have my e-mail taken away, or rather I would say to them, "Apparently you're illegally file sharing, so if I was you, I'd go along to Gmail or Hotmail and open an account, and could you come off the family account?" Under the Bill, all that will happen is that we will endlessly change our ISPs and e-mail addresses. That is not a solution to the fundamental problem that I think that hon. Members want to solve. The critical point is that the intellectual copyright of musicians and artists must be protected online as well as offline. I support what my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson) said, but I do not understand how we got into this situation so late in the day, notwithstanding the apparent scrutiny that the Bill received in the House of Lords.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): It strikes me that a lot of the difficulties that we are experiencing and hearing about are not dissimilar to those encountered in previous attempts to resist the growth of modern technology. Even in the 16th century, there was an attempt to track down people who set up secret presses; it made no difference. Although the attempt to prevent what is regarded as an illegal use of technology is understandable to achieve certain objectives, it seems to me that, underneath that, there is an attempt to stem a tsunami. The number of people who have connected with their MP, with the public at large, on radio and on television represent a significant core-perhaps even a significantly vast range-of people who simply are not prepared to accept the restrictions that the Bill suggests should be imposed on them.

Perhaps there are all sorts of legal reasons why the proposals in the Bill have been assembled in a way that would achieve the objectives of the industry, but I have been reading material from the Open Rights Group, the Internet Service Providers Association, the BPI, which represents the UK recorded music business, and others.
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The chair of the Creative Coalition Campaign and general secretary of Equity says:

I have no doubt that there is a strong degree of truth in the assertion that people engaged in the creative industries provide a lot of help and sustenance to the economy, but I believe also that it is wrong to pass laws that will be ignored.

As I described, people simply refused to accept restrictions on freedom of printing, and the same is true of freedom of expression and freedom of speech. We hear a lot of talk about freedom of information. I know that some will say that information can be freely available only if it is regarded as legal information, but over the past few months we have had some experience of illegal information being made available, with interesting consequences. I would not advocate that, but I will say that there is an element of, not only uncertainty, but impossibility in seeking to restrain something without proper consultation, without a properly considered Bill and without the sort of analysis that the subject requires. I have listened carefully to Labour Members; not one has yet suggested that they think that the legislative proposals set out in the Bill are understandable and capable of being explained to the people who would be affected by them. That is the practical question, which, among other reasons, will lead me to vote against Third Reading of the Bill.

I think that this is a bad Bill in the sense that is being rushed through. It is unthinkable that a Bill of such importance is being rushed through simply because the Prime Minister-I say this with respect to Labour Members-has set out in his five pledges something that approaches the content of the Bill. In addition, we are told that paper amendments are coming down from House of Lords as we speak.

The bottom line is that we are dealing with a situation that calls out for proper scrutiny. I have just attended the proceedings on the Finance Bill; not one single Government Member was present during the whole course of those proceedings. Perhaps one popped in for 20 minutes, but that was that. However, I have just come from the Dining Rooms and there are about 100 people sitting there, all talking to one another, and I suspect that they are there for a purpose. I suggest that the Government take that on board and realise that they are really up against it. The Bill should not be rushed through. It is not the Dangerous Dogs Bill; it is a very different type of Bill.

Mr. Don Foster: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the deliberations in another place, which I think he will acknowledge were extensive, finished on 15 December? There have been three weeks-and in some days, business collapsed and ended early-in which we could have had much greater deliberation on this very important Bill.

Mr. Cash: That is fascinating and very important. It illustrates the point that I have been trying to make, which is that the Bill is being pushed through in a way that is completely contrary to all the discussion that we have had over the past few months about radical parliamentary reform, which I strongly advocate, as
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does my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) and many others in all parts of the House. The Wright Committee proposals have just been kicked not just into touch but into the gutter. The reality is that proposals such as those in the Bill would never get past a House Committee, or a Back-Bench business committee. An example is being set; what the Government have disgracefully done this afternoon with regard to the Wright Committee proposals could be balanced by a significant revolt against the way in which the House is being treated with regard to the Bill.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): I will not spend time on the lecture delivered by the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), but I agree with him. He has turned cash-and-carry filibusters into a central part of the British constitution, and in this instance, he is absolutely right. I made my main position on the Bill absolutely clear yesterday, and I will not repeat what I said then. I shall be very brief. The central point is that we should not be discussing a series of amendments of this kind, although they are good and welcome amendments, at this late stage in the Bill's progress. The issues should have been discussed in proper scrutiny by the House of Commons, with representations from outside. Pre-legislative scrutiny would have been very helpful, too.

The main point is that the Bill uses a sledgehammer to crack a nut, so we are inducing a lot of fear in young people. I have had lots of representations-mainly by e-mail, it has to be said, which is a nuisance; I find it difficult to deal with. I have also had representations from young members of the Labour party-we have quite a number in Grimsby-who are all concerned, or frightened, that their harmless peer-to-peer file-sharing activities will be clamped down on. They fear that that will cause trouble for their family's internet connection and will lead to it being cut off. That is exactly the problem. We are not talking about big commercial operators who are defrauding the system; those should indeed be dealt with. The measures will have extensive repercussions for ordinary people with teenagers in the house, or young people around, who share files among themselves, thereby endangering the whole family.

Jeremy Corbyn: I do not know why my hon. Friend thinks that it is only young people who are worried about file sharing on the internet. An awful lot of very serious people are worried that they will lose their internet connection-internet connections that the Government spend a great deal of money promoting. Is he not aware that the measures could lead to the closure of internet caf├ęs?

Mr. Mitchell: My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

The Chairman: Order.

Mr. Mitchell: I was not speaking for the silver surfers, of whom my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) is obviously one.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) could not hear me, but I was getting up to say that because he kept turning away from the Chair, I could not hear him. I am sure that I was the greater loser; he should address the Chair.

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9.30 pm

Mr. Mitchell: I am very sorry that my internet connection with you was cut off, Sir Alan, but that is an illustration of what could happen to quite ordinary families, whether the people using the internet are silver surfers or teenagers. The danger is that file sharing, peer to peer, will endanger the connection for the whole family.

Mark Lazarowicz rose-

Mr. Mitchell: I will have to give way to another silver surfer.

Mark Lazarowicz: Is not one of the problems that the whole basis of this measure is that it assumes that the internet providers will not make mistakes? Many of us have people coming to our surgeries with problems with mobile phones or internet access, so mistakes are frequently made. Without an adequate appeals procedure, people will be doubly at risk of being cut off, and not just because they may be downloading illegally. They may be doing nothing wrong at all, but a mistake may have been made, against which they have no valid right of appeal.

Mr. Mitchell: That is true, and that is the second reason for supporting the amendment. My third reason would be that it is quite possible for people to snitch and sneak on each other, and report each other to the internet service provider just to make trouble. Again, that trouble can lead to a disconnection. For all those reasons, this use of a heavy weight to crack a quite trivial problem, which fails to deal with the commercial-

Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab) rose-

Mr. Mitchell: I am not sure how to describe my hon. Friend. He is certainly not a silver surfer.

Stephen Pound: More "Teenage Kicks", I would have hoped. As ever, my hon. Friend makes a persuasive point. But what happens if you have a young band of transcendent genius, such as Stiff Little Fingers or The Undertones, which is denied the opportunity of its royalties? Does he not realise that there is a case to be made for intellectual property and money coming to those start-up bands?

Mr. Mitchell: To answer my hon. Friend's transcendent genius, there is a case to be made for protecting intellectual property, and the Bill tries to make it. But it does so by placing a heavy weight of retribution on people who are not infringing intellectual property for commercial gain, which is what the measure is aimed at. That could be dealt with by altering the Bill, which proper scrutiny would have brought about, rather than by rushing through a piece of legislation that is bound to be damaging because it interferes with the activities of a lot of young people and produces an atmosphere of fear.

I am all in favour of dealing with commercial infringements for gain and for money, but those that are carried on by young people, peer to peer, should be excluded from the province of this Bill, and the amendments certainly try to do that. That is why they are worthy of support.

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