Digital Economy Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:33 pm on 13th September 2016.

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Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon 1:33 pm, 13th September 2016

I believe that access to wholesale infrastructure providers’ masts is regulated by Ofcom in any case. We were advised that this was not a significant problem, although we looked at it quite closely at the time. We decided that it was not necessary to extend the provisions to cover wholesale infrastructure providers.

One thing I would say to Ministers is that alongside the reform of electronic communications codes, there have been some welcome changes to planning laws, which will enable higher masts. As we move into the next generation of 5G services, a huge number of very small transmitters are going to be required, which might need to be attached to lamp posts in cities, for example. We do not want to need individual planning applications for every single one. Given that 5G is coming down the track fast, we might need to look at planning laws again. I leave that issue with the Minister.

Provisions on the universal service obligation are also a major step forward. Whether or not the USO is a legal necessity remains to be seen, but it is certainly sensible to put the provisions in the Bill. BT is already saying that it can deliver it without a legal requirement, but this should certainly spur it on in its efforts to demonstrate that that is possible. Mr Cunningham raised his concerns about the BT. Now is not the occasion to rehearse all the arguments for a digital communications review. Ofcom has, I think rightly, put forward proposals to make a clearer separation between Openreach and BT Retail, but there is still some concern that those proposals do not go far enough. It will be necessary for BT to make it absolutely clear that there is full separation and a level playing field. I say to Ministers that they will want to look at that carefully. If it is not working sufficiently, it will need to be revisited.

Ofcom is obviously playing a key role throughout this process. One measure we thought about for a long time was Ofcom’s request for changes to its appeals procedure. BT has strongly opposed that, but Ofcom believes it to be necessary. One reason why it is necessary is that it has become apparent in recent years that almost every single decision taken by Ofcom is promptly challenged in the courts. Ofcom is not determining these matters; they are being determined by the judicial process that is then triggered by the communications provider. That is not how it was supposed to work, and it has resulted in lengthy delays in putting through some quite important measures. On balance, the change to the nature of the appeals process—the hurdle that has to be met to allow a judicial challenge—is a sensible one. This has become apparent simply because of the number and extent of the judicial challenges that have occurred over the last few years.

Let me say a few words about one or two other measures in the Bill. Copyright is one of them. I am delighted that the Bill equalises the penalties for online and offline copyright infringement. I have brought with me a copy of the Select Committee’s report “Supporting the Creative Economy”, published in September 2013. One of its key recommendations was that the penalties should be equalised, and that it should be made clear that infringement of copyright online was as serious as infringement offline. That will send a clear message, but more still needs to be done.

As my right hon. Friends will know, the Conservative party manifesto stated that we would put pressure on search engines to try to prevent illegal sites from coming up at the top of a search. I know that round-table discussions have been taking place for a considerable time, but it is a matter of great concern that no significant progress has yet been made. In the most recent attempt to find out whether or not there had been an improvement, a Google search was made for “Ed Sheeran Photograph download”, with “Photograph” being one of Ed Sheeran’s most recent songs. Only one of the top 10 listings involved a legal site, and the legal site was YouTube, which, of course, is owned by Google.