Digital Economy Bill [ Lords]

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 6:17 pm on 6th April 2010.

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Photo of Austin Mitchell Austin Mitchell Labour, Great Grimsby 6:17 pm, 6th April 2010

My answer is simple: I do not know. That is why I do not want the Bill to be rushed through; my education is involved here, as well as the education of all the people who are concerned about this throughout the country. The House will often find it difficult to come to a verdict on these issues without hearing further explanation and having further discussion, without the Committee work that is involved and without the hearings involved in pre-legislative scrutiny, which Lord Puttnam has told us that we should have had on this Bill. So I am not going to propose an alternative solution, but I am worried that the one proposed in the Bill frightens a lot of people in the country. I want to allay their concerns and to be able to explain to them that it is not damaging and it is not dangerous-if that is indeed the case. I do not know whether it is.

So another argument for having further consideration of the Bill is that the voice of the young is saying, "This threatens us." These people may be nerds, fanatics or zealots for all I know, but they are concerned and worried, and they will not be bullied into accepting the Bill. We have to weigh their voices, listen to what they are saying and discuss their concerns. I cannot do that and the House cannot do it if we are half in campaigning mode, if most Members' minds are back in their constituencies and if most Members are worrying about what will happen to them or are thinking about the coming joys of retirement-that is a pleasant occupation, which I hope I shall not be enjoying. We cannot give full consideration to the Bill in that state of mind. Logic says to the Government and the precautionary principle says to me, "If it is doubtful, if you are not sure, if you have not consulted and if there are voices that need to be heard, do not rush into doing anything. In particular, do not rush into legislation."

What would a delay of another three months or so in order to discuss the Bill properly and give it full consideration do? There would be no danger in taking such an approach. A delay of three months would not produce the collapse of the creative industries, which has been held up as the threat hanging over us. This needs to be settled and discussed by the Commons through its full procedures; this should not be a rushed Bill, carried on the basis of the half attention of a discredited, dying and distracted Parliament. If the Bill is passed in that form, it will not have legitimacy and consent, and it will not be accepted in the way that it needs to be. There is, thus, a strong argument for delay. The Government say that they are going to provide for all this in regulations, but regulations do not receive the full discussion. Thus, they do not carry the full confidence of the people on whom they are imposed that having a full discussion in this House would.

I can best voice the concerns that have been put to me by quoting from an e-mail from a woman, who cites the words of Charles Stross. The e-mail states:

"This seems to be a draconian and heavy handed bill aimed at appeasing big business and I do not believe its being granted royal assent is in the best interests of British citizens."

Why is that? Well, Mr. Stross has said:

"I'm a self-employed media professional working in the entertainment industry, who earns his living by creating intellectual property and licensing it to publishers. You might think I'd be one of the beneficiaries of this proposed law: but you'd be dead wrong. This is going to cripple the long tail of the creative sector-it plays entirely to the interests of large corporate media organizations and"- messes-

"on the plate of us ordinary working artists."

I was selectively quoting there. Mr. Stross continues:

"Want to write a casual game for the iPhone and sell it for 99 pence? Good luck with that-first you'll have to cough up £50,000 to get it certified as child-friendly...Want to publish a piece of shareware over BitTorrent? You're"- up against it there, mate-

"all it takes is a malicious accusation and your ISP (who are required to snitch on p2p users on pain of heavy fines) will be ordered to cut off the internet connection to you and everyone else in your household. (A really draconian punishment in an age where it's increasingly normal to conduct business correspondence via email and to manage bank accounts and gas or electricity bills or tax returns via the web.) Oh, you don't get the right to confront your accuser in court, either".

Nobody can be happy with legislation passed on that basis.

I wish to comment on other aspects of the Bill that concern me and I would like these to be discussed at some length. I cannot agree with my hon. Friend Derek Wyatt in his analysis of the digital radio switchover. Clearly the industry, in the main, supports digital switchover, but of course a switchover to DAB radio by 2015 is wholly impractical and out of the question because that is too soon. It will be much more difficult to switch over to digital radio than it was to switch over to digital TV, because that process was helped by the mass subscription to Sky and by the development of Freeserve. Such provision does not exist in respect of radio, because there are 120 million radios in this country and sales of digital radio have not taken off. Digital radio is quite expensive and if we make it compulsory, that will be a heavy tax on the consumer. One of the lower prices for a digital radio is about £85, and that price has increased with devaluation. So this would be a heavy burden to impose on the consumer, and if we require switchover, it would leave about 120 stations still on FM and locked out in the cold. We do not have to switch over at this speed and we do not have to switch over to DAB because we could move to DAB plus, which would allow both services to be run concurrently.

I am worried about the digital switchover for radio, because the crucial factor here is car radios, for which the technology is never sold effectively. Like Mr. Whittingdale, my experience with DAB in the car has been totally unsatisfactory. Not only is it messy, but it is difficult to pick up a station, and the signal cuts in and out and fades away, so one is constantly having to switch back to FM. Digital car radio sales are crucial, but such sales have been low and there is no sign of their taking off. Only 1 per cent. of cars are fitted with a digital radio, and until there is a mass fitting of digital car radios we shall not be able to have an effective switch-off. I am worried about that provision.

The photo provisions have been well dealt with. Mr. Foster mentioned the access to orphan works, which we all welcome, but let us not forget that that can be a threat to existing photographers, for whom their photography is a living and who thus need the royalties to be paid. As Tom Stoddart, a well respected and well known photographer, has said in submissions to us, the metadata that are attached to the photograph can be simply cut off, junked and lost, so there is no attribution to an author. There is no definition of the search that the photograph user has to make. It could be totally perfunctory, and used in undesirable situations and without payment to the author of the photography. That problem with so-called orphan works is not satisfactorily dealt with in the Bill.

My last point concerns regional television. I grew up in regional television and I am a strong supporter of it, and the way that ITV has been treating its regional commitment is outrageous. It should have been held more firmly to the contract pledges that it submitted when it got the contracts in the first place. Ofcom has given it an easy option, and so has failed in that respect. The experiment with three new providers is a brave and effective one, and I am glad to see it going ahead in Tyne Tees, Scotland and Wales-I hope it is successful-but it does not have a firm financial base. The original hope was to cream something off the licence fee, but that has not happened. There will be a substantial cost to the operation, and an even bigger one if it is extended to other companies, as it should be if ITV is going to wriggle out of its regional commitments.

The Conservative party's hope that the market will provide is laughable. The market certainly will not provide regional television; it is a regulatory requirement. It is ridiculous to argue that the ITV companies are so overregulated that they cannot provide regional television, because it is regulation that is keeping regional television there-and we want to keep it. I wish the experiment success. It is a brave idea on the part of Ministers, but it needs a firm financial base if it is to be extended to other companies and organisations, as it should be. ITV's roots have to be in the regions, because that is how it builds up its audience in the early part of the evening. Only an ITV that provides effective regional television can compete with the BBC. Regional television has increased and improved enormously over the past few years, and is now leading the field. ITV needs to fight back, and if we can help it with these sorts of provider experiments and by providing a new financial basis, we should do so.

I do not want to continue at length sorting through this rag-bag-one never knows what kind of smelly garments one will find when sorting through such a rag-bag-but it is unsatisfactory that we are putting this rag-bag into the wash-up. I know that hands that do dishes can be as soft as your brain, with bright, green Fairy liquid, but a wash-up is not a satisfactory way of dealing with measures as important as this to the future of radio, television, the internet, and the music and film industries. We should not be considering this at this hectic, break-neck pace; we should be postponing it for three months and giving it full and proper consideration in the next Parliament, when Labour can reintroduce the Bill and we can get back to it.

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