Digital Economy Bill [ Lords]

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 8:51 pm on 6th April 2010.

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Photo of John Grogan John Grogan Labour, Selby 8:51 pm, 6th April 2010

It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend David Cairns, who made a powerful speech. I think he may have instituted a parliamentary first by referring to one of his constituents as "bonkers". Certainly none of my constituents in Selby are bonkers-well, perhaps just a few. My hon. Friend did the House a service in clarifying the position on Channel 4, which can now plan for the future with certainty, given the assurances from both Front-Bench teams this evening. I shall not repeat his litany of the great achievements of Channel 4. An important feature of the Bill is to widen its remit and recognise its multifarious activities. My hon. Friend missed out "Channel 4 News", "Dispatches" and also Channel 4 racing, which I would like to mention as another of its great contributions to the life of the nation.

My hon. Friend was perhaps the first in the debate to talk seriously at length about regional news. A year ago everyone was doing that; there is now a hiatus and it looks as if the clauses on regional news are going to be lost. He is quite right that if that is going to happen, there must be something to replace them.

I always thought that under the previous chairman of ITV, Michael Grade, the case that ITV regional news must necessarily collapse was overstated. There is a residual value in the licence-not least the third place on the EPG, or electronic programme guide. If deregulatory measures can be introduced, an economic model can stack up to fund the future of ITV regional news. That question is particularly relevant in Scotland, as Scottish Television has to be considered separately. If independently funded news consortiums are not going to appear, all parties have to think about how to keep regional news on the air. Part of the contribution should come from the residual value of the licence that ITV already has, and perhaps ITV can gain some assistance from other measures.

There have been some magnificent speeches in this debate. A number of right hon. and hon. Members have pointed out that it is completely unprecedented for a controversial Bill to appear in this House after the Prime Minister has gone to the palace to ask for a Dissolution, and to be dealt with in the wash-up the next day. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport did his best at the beginning of the debate to try to find some precedents, but all those he mentioned, including the Gambling Act 2005, had already had a Committee stage.

I looked at all the Bills that received a Second Reading after a Prime Minister had gone to the palace-I went back as far as 1987-so I challenge the Financial Secretary to consider what he regards as the most controversial non-Finance Bill to go through the House in this way. I managed to find the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Bill in 1987, the Architects Bill in 1997, the Lieutenancies Bill in 1997 and the International Organisations Bill in 2005. What they all shared in common was that there was no dispute between hon. Members in respect of them. It really is shameful that we are proceeding in this way. Some hon. Members have said that it is a price worth paying, or that it has to be done now and we are where we are. Well, it does not have to be done now. This House is alive and kicking for another 48 hours.

I always take great notice of what Chief Whips say, and the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip inspired the following headline in The Guardian newspaper last week:

"Liberal Democrats say Digital Economy bill should wait for next government."

The Liberal Democrat Chief Whip was reported to have

"hoped that the arguments being put forward-that the issues needed more debate than has been possible-might sway one of the other parties into delaying its passage."

He was reported to have said that he hoped

"that the government and the Conservatives will agree that it shouldn't proceed at this stage".

I had great hopes of Mr. Foster, therefore, but that did not quite seem to be his message today, so there has been a slight shift in position-and not the first one. I have great admiration for the hon. Gentleman, however, and I know he has to accommodate different members of his own party, as we all do. The position that he has now come to is an interesting one, and I shall return to it.

Two great debates on this Bill, with commercial interests on both sides, have been referred to tonight. I will not rehearse all the arguments, but one of the debates is on digital radio. The Opposition Front-Bench team seems to be saying that it opposes the current model the Government are suggesting. The Opposition spokesman suggested that he was now in favour of DAB plus. It is interesting that hundreds of radio stations listened to by our constituents throughout the land, such as Minster FM, are being offered no digital future whatever in this Bill. What they are being offered, at best, is a place on a joint FM and digital electronic programme guide that is still being developed, and even if they get on that device, they will still not have all the advantages of being a digital station in terms of extra advertising potential and so forth, and they will be very much second-class stations. Under the Bill as currently drafted, that is the future.

Helpful amendments were tabled by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords suggesting that before any switchover there should be full consideration of all local and community stations. I will retable those amendments today; I hope that the hon. Member for Bath will support them, and that they might tempt the Conservative Front Bench, too, in the negotiations for the wash-up. There is another side to the debate, to do with the BBC and some other digital radio interests. This reinforces the point that we should still have a full Committee stage-and if we cannot have that, we should pass the Bill on to our successors.

Many Members have mentioned activities by those in another place, saying that they have sat up through the night and considered these measures in great detail, so we need not trouble our little democratic heads with them too much, because they have done the business for us-but an awful lot has been happening down there in the other place. The hon. Member for Bath has been accused of writing new clause 18. He is not its author, however. I was at a reception where five separate lobbyists all claimed to be its author. Indeed, a gentleman who goes under the name of Richard Mollet is one of the lobbyists on one side of the debate, and a memo of his was exposed to the world. He wrote:

"Some of the amendments I distributed yesterday were ruled out of order by the Public Bill Office, on the grounds that they were introducing too dramatic a change."

Apparently, amendments were being handed out by both sides.

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