Digital Economy Bill [ Lords]

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 7:41 pm on 6th April 2010.

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Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham 7:41 pm, 6th April 2010

It is a disgrace that the House is not treated with courtesy by the Government. It is quite wrong that a Bill of such importance and magnitude was not tabled earlier. It is quite wrong that there is an attempt to rush through all parts of the Bill without proper scrutiny and debate.

Not so long ago there was general agreement on both sides of the House that the House had not done a serious enough job of scrutinising legislation and providing the kind of commentary and critique of draft legislation that it should. The House was right to understand that there is a concern out in the country that this Parliament, of all Parliaments that I have had anything to do with, has let down the public by not getting sufficiently involved, and not finding a way of making the Government give it enough time to do the job properly.

We have heard from Members on both sides of the House why we need time to discuss the Bill. There may be quite a lot of agreement about some of the important things in the Bill. I am sure that no one in the House begrudges a great artist or creator of music or words fair return for their labour, but many complicated issues are involved in determining how we secure that return without impeding too much on everyone else's freedoms. It is difficult to do it in the rather clumsy way that the Government have come up with so far in the relevant early clauses of the Bill.

We need scrutiny not just of the things that cause disagreement across the Chamber-there are several of those, as we heard from Front-Bench speakers on both sides of the House at the opening of the debate. We also need scrutiny of the things that the Chamber largely agrees about, because it is in those areas that it is more likely that mistakes will be made-that the language will be wrong and that the Bill will not carry into effect what the House wishes, because the Bill will have got through without the challenge that we need.

It was for good reason that our predecessors in this place said that there should be a Second Reading of Bills to discuss the principles-"Is it a good idea to have a Bill on this at all?" "Broadly, how do we go about doing it?"-then a little pause to reflect on the Bill, and then a Committee stage, on the Floor of the House for important Bills or upstairs for others. Members of the House most interested in the legislation could go through the Bill line by line, mainly asking the question, "Will this particular phrase, clause or line help us achieve the aim of the Government?"-or the common aim where there is general agreement.

This Government have had 13 years to introduce important legislation on the digital revolution. I cannot believe that any previous Government dared to hold a Second Reading of an extremely important Bill after they had announced the intent to dissolve the House as quickly as possible. It beggars belief that this Government could insult the Commons, and the public we represent, in that way so shortly after it was a matter of common agreement that we needed to do a better job of scrutinising, debating and discussing legislation for the sake of enacting legislation that works.

The legislation has 11 principal areas and themes. The debate in this shortened time available for Second Reading may discuss only three or four of them in detail; most will go unremarked, or will be mentioned en passant by speakers mainly interested in something else, because there is not even proper time for a full Second Reading debate, because there were questions, statements and so on before we got to Second Reading and we are all under time pressures to limit our speeches as a result. Naturally, Members are concentrating on the things that are most difficult or that matter most to them, so those of us concerned enough to be in the Chamber will only be able to discuss some elements. It is quite understandable that, now that an election has been called, some Members feel they have duties elsewhere. If they feel that they are not immediately required for a vote, they may be tidying up their affairs or communicating with their constituents. This is not a good time to be discussing something so technical, difficult and important.

One of the big issues that we have heard about so far relates to the powers that the Secretary of State should take under the legislation and the powers that should be delegated to Ofcom to tackle copyright infringement. The House will know that I am the author of johnredwood.com. Members may know that I do not seek to charge anyone for using that wonderful resource about modern British politics, and they may also know that I have received several offers from people wishing to advertise on my site for a reasonable fee and I have always turned them down because I do not want it to be a commercial site.

Like me, many people see the web as a wonderful means for creating a community of people interested in a subject that matters to them. It can create argument, discussion and debate, and provoke ideas, viewpoints and discussion, which is entirely helpful to the democratic process or whatever interest has led people to set up a site. As has been said, even under this rather crude legislation, there is nothing to stop people such as me continuing to offer a free service without worrying about infringement of copyright. I should be happy for anyone to reproduce anything I have written on the site as long as they do not libel me or lampoon it too much. It is perfectly good for people to use the site; it shows that the site is of interest and of use.

However, there are people who are trying to make a living from their creative work and they naturally want a sensible legal framework that enables them to protect their legitimate intellectual property and to continue to make a living. We know that the internet has brought great good. It has involved many more people in many more activities. It informs people much better and enables them to research much more quickly and easily topics of interest to them. It allows communities to communicate one with another and allows events to be publicised. It brings all sorts of goods to local society. I hope Members share the perception that there is much good in the internet and would not want the legislation to damage in any way the good that the internet can do.

Let us think about the comparison with protecting the copyright of an author who chooses to publish their written words not on the web but in the form of a newspaper or magazine article, or a book. In the past, many of us in the House have written articles or books for which we may have been paid small sums. We have some protection in the copyright under existing copyright laws. The House should remember, however, that there is no comprehensive protection in copyright law for the written word published in those ways. If I publish an article or a book, I am sure that people may lend the book or article to others for free, and I have no right to say, "You must not do this. I demand a royalty every time that book or article is lent to somebody." We do not go that far. We feel that it is part of a free society to allow people to lend books or articles to their friends, family, neighbours or whoever.

It is also probably the case that, quite often in the furtherance of education, the better articles-one hopes-and the better chapters or sections of books are reproduced on copying machines and used as teaching materials that are provided to pupils and students in schools and universities. I am sure that very often the school or university does not bother to contact the author to seek permission and does not bother to ask the author whether they would like a token payment to allow them to reproduce such material. It would be a pretty odd author who got really hot under the collar about that and started to sue the schools, although they could, because they would understand that such activities are quite helpful to them in building their reputation and name in some ways-again, assuming that their work is not lampooned or completely shredded-and one has to live in a free society and we want people to be educated. We should approach any suggestion that we need tighter regulation of the internet with that in mind. We are not looking for something completely comprehensive. We need to live and let live.

Quite a large number of people outside the House are worried about our rushing through, for example, clauses 10 to 18 tonight-if that is a serious proposition between the two Front-Bench teams-because although if many of those people were challenged they would probably say, "Yes, of course, someone who has sung or written a great song should get some money for its reproduction," they are very worried that we will criminalise people who are doing very minor things that are quite normal to do with, for example, copies of magazines and newspapers, that we will get the wrong people, or that the person who has a series of internet facilities in an organisation will be picked on when they cannot control the use of such material or cannot even establish who used it or whether it was a persistent offence.

A lot of this could be sorted out if we had time to go into the detail and if we had time to examine the language that the Government propose, to discover whether they have got the balance right. All hon. Members would agree, from whichever direction they approach this argument, that we need a balance. No one says that there should be no copyright at all for anything. No one would take the opposite extreme and say that, every time that anyone says, does, sings or whatever anything, that creates an important copyright that they should be able to defend against everyone. That would be ludicrous, and it would greatly extend our traditional copyright law on newspapers and books. We need a workable compromise.

I will not have time to consider these clauses in any detail, I am afraid, because my time will be artificially restricted by the guillotine and the proposals for today, although they are wide-ranging enabling clauses. If people are worried, such clauses lead to greater suspicion. We are invited to believe that, under the orders that will implement these wide-ranging clauses, provisions will be made that will produce such a judicious balance. We are being asked to buy a pig in a poke, or to sign a rushed cheque against an invoice that we have not been sent. That is not good practice. We need more from Ministers to persuade us that they have thought through these complicated issues about balance and that they have in mind practical orders that would not make unreasonable intrusions into the freedom of those who provide such web and internet services and would not restrict the rather minor examples of freesharing that are common in a free society and that one needs to be able to enjoy.

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