Digital Economy Bill [ Lords]

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 6:33 pm on 6th April 2010.

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Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Chair, Business, Innovation and Skills Committee 6:33 pm, 6th April 2010

It is a great pleasure to speak after Mr. Mitchell. His optimism will ultimately prove to be misplaced, I hope, but I found myself in total agreement with the broad thrust of his remarks. Derek Wyatt talked in his interesting remarks about the lack of vision in the Bill. Legislation is not always the best place to find vision, as a general rule; the nearest we get to it in this legislation is the title-the Digital Economy Bill. As the hon. Member for Great Grimsby said, it is a rag-bag of measures that do not live up to that relatively grand-sounding title.

I cannot overestimate the importance of the Bill-or, at least, of the things that it deals with-to the future of the British economy, society and culture. The internet has already transformed our lives-even now, as I speak, I see hon. Members tweeting and taking text messages. I welcome that, but the transformation has only just begun, and getting this right is hugely important. I have some sympathy with the Government. I was a special adviser at the Department of Trade and Industry when the then Government produced the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, and even then we were discussing, at official level, how to cope with legislation that can keep pace with environments as fast changing as those we are dealing with in this Bill. That was before the digital revolution, and the rate of change has been transformed.

Nevertheless, this is the most profoundly unsatisfactory constitutional process I have engaged with in my 18 years in the House. In his opening remarks the Secretary of State promised my hon. Friend Mr. Whittingdale that he would write up a list of precedents, but I do not believe-I could be proved wrong-that there is a single precedent for giving a major and controversial Bill a Second Reading once a general election has been announced. It is a scandal that the House is being asked to agree that tonight.

I have given the matter careful consideration and I make this commitment: if there is a Division, I will support the Bill because, under a true constitutional process, it deserves a Second Reading; it does not, though, deserve what will happen to it thereafter. However, I broadly support the aims and objectives of the Bill and will vote for its Second Reading should there be a Division-but I shall do so under duress and protest, because I hate and loathe the process in which I am forced to participate.

I was disappointed even by the length of the Secretary of State's opening speech. He rattled through whole sections of the Bill in sentences and phrases, when the normal process is to explain what each clause or group of clauses will do. He gave us an 18-minute tour d'horizon rather than a serious analysis of the Bill, which denied many hon. Members the opportunity to cross-examine him on details. That cross-examination matters. It matters also that my hon. Friend Mr. Hunt, the shadow Secretary of State, was so responsive to interventions, because I hope that he will be responsible for implementing the provisions of the Bill when it becomes an Act. Things he says from the Dispatch Box are important for the assurance they provide to the outside world. I would have liked many more opportunities to get such assurances from the Secretary of State, but because of the nature of his speech they were not forthcoming.

The following is extraordinary. On 23 March, I received a letter from Lord Young of Norwood Green, the Minister with responsibility for postal affairs and employment relations. I do not think that my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford, who is the Chairman of the other relevant Select Committee-the Culture, Media and Sport Committee-has received such a letter. It lists 22 letters of clarification and explanatory notes made available after the House of Lords debates. I have not had the opportunity to examine all 22 notes and letters of clarification, although I have examined one or two of those on issues of particular concern to me. Nevertheless, here is a level of detail still being explained in correspondence to the House.

I have a particular concern that I believe I can drop-given the limited time of my speech, I will do so-about the requirement on Ofcom to have a health check on the nation's communications infrastructure and services. The directory inquiries service providers were worried that the current wording fails to consider barriers faced by consumers accessing third-party services. I understand that a Minister-I do not know which one-has corresponded with the directory inquiries providers and given them reassurances. I hope that that letter will be put on the public record, although it would have been much better to have won those reassurances before the Committee, so that the internet and business communities could have known what was being said, rather than their being provided in back letters between Ministers and special interest groups.

Having said all that-I have said already that I will support the Bill-I believe that the Government are right, at the end of the day, to choose creativity over internet freedom. I believe that that fundamental choice, which is made in the Bill, is the right one to make. I will not labour the points made by the Creative Coalition Campaign, which I agree with strongly, about the importance of the creative arts and industries to the UK; I say simply that every industry operating in the UK is creative, and I do not particularly like the phrase "creative industries". In the modern world, Rolls-Royce has to be as creative as video games providers. The creativity that the Bill seeks to protect lies at the heart of Britain's future economic success, so the Government's basic choice is right.

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