Digital Economy Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:46 pm on 13th September 2016.

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Photo of Calum Kerr Calum Kerr Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Environment and Rural Affairs), Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Digital) 1:46 pm, 13th September 2016

You get no praise at all then—pot/kettle, by the way. My eyes are still running at the thought that the love child these Ministers gave birth to was a Christmas tree; that made my eyes water.

We are glad that the long-overdue measures to reform the electronic communications code are being brought forward, especially when we consider that the code has not really changed since the introduction of many of the digital technologies we now take for granted.

While we support these changes, the system that is put in place must have a balanced approach. Providers must not be held to ransom, but, likewise, landowners should be entitled to receive fair compensation. On top of that, when taking forward such extensions to permitted development, we need to ensure an appropriate balance is struck between facilitating the roll-out of such infrastructure and having appropriate planning controls on the impacts of such development on amenity and the environment.

A particular area of concern is the way in which existing agreements will be affected by these changes, as the shadow Minister raised. This is a key area that we will want to look at in Committee. It is vital that where public assets are used for the siting of equipment, the loss of income to the public sector is considered. The Government need to outline how they will reconcile the code with the Treasury’s Green Book requirement to obtain best value from public sector assets. It is important for these measures to take account of who current landlords are. In many instances, they are local authorities or the fire service, for example, and in Scotland not an inconsiderable number are the Forestry Commission. While we understand the Bill is not retrospective, substantial amounts of money could come out of the public purse when contracts come up for renewal.

Of course, increasing coverage is welcome, but a key question that the new code raises is whether mobile operators should be allowed to renew old contracts on the same basis as the new regime, or whether we should have a different regime for renewal. We should also consider commitments on any savings being reinvested into infrastructure.

My party welcomes the fact that independent operators are excluded from the provisions of the new code. Only about a third of UK mast infrastructure is shared, whereas in some countries, such as the United States of America, it is about 80%. It is important as we go into the Committee stage that we do not allow these independent operators to be pulled into this legislation. I agree with the former Secretary of State, Mr Whittingdale, that this is already covered under Ofcom, and it strikes me as somewhat perverse that at the time when we are having a big discussion as to whether Openreach should be independent, we do something that might damage independent infrastructure in telecoms provision.

We also welcome some of the adjustments the Digital Economy Bill makes to spectrum policy in these islands. Although it highlights fixing mobile coverage, reform of the code will go only so far. The most powerful lever we have remains licensing. So when it comes to the next round of licences, let us look at far greater coverage and consider setting conditions for licences that meet a higher standard in terms of population and geographical coverage. We also encourage the Government to look at how spectrum policy has been developed in other countries, such as Germany where an “out to in” strategy ensures that rural areas, rather than getting left behind, are done first.

The measure contained in the Bill relating to compensation is overdue, especially as the digital communications review laid bare some fairly stark statistics on how poorly the sector has performed in customer service. Disappointingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, there was some pushback against this idea in some of the briefings. However, the sector has had its chance, and everyone recognises the need to improve. It is clear that we need to do something about automatic compensation. We need to reject the arguments from the sector that automatic compensation would inhibit the management and maintenance of good quality networks.

I worked at the same company as the shadow Minister, Chi Onwurah, some years ago—a Canadian company called Nortel. I did not have the technical expertise she has, but even I know that when you build a network, you build it to be secure and resilient and you build it in such a way that it can be upgraded and maintained. Perhaps the operators think that everyone in this House can be hoodwinked by a couple of technical excuses, but let me assure them that we cannot. This is clearly an area in which policy will have to evolve. We need to come up with a scheme that is fair but we also need to look at the behaviour of the operators and look for the improvements that the Bill is intended to drive. It is not meant to be penal; it is meant to drive improvement.

When we talk about customer service, we also need to consider the changed world in which we live. In the days of telephony, the question was simple. It was a binary system that either worked or it did not; it was either on or off. In the age of the internet, things are far more complex. A headline download speed is not a guaranteed download speed. Services are contended, and I would contend that that highlights the need for services to be granular. We should look at the average speed that a customer can expect, as well as the maximum speed. People would then have a clear choice and be able to sign up for a service that does what it says on the tin.

The SNP welcomes the introduction of age verification for online pornography, but we have concerns around how the measure will be enforced. We will need to look carefully at this in Committee. With so many sites based overseas, the challenge of tackling non-compliance will be complex. The Government should consider going further and look at steps such as transaction blocking in response to non-compliance. They also need to do more to put in place incentives for compliance, and we should consider measures that would offer the regulator the option of blocking sites that are non-compliant. We welcome the provisions in the Bill, however.

We share the Opposition’s reservations about the outsourcing of policy on TV licences to the BBC. In Scotland, we have recently classified loneliness as a health issue, and clearly benefits relating to those in old age have a significant role to play in tackling this. We recognise that the Government’s decision to pass the baton on this policy to the BBC is based on a financial settlement, but we want to challenge the thinking in this whole area when the Bill reaches Committee.

We believe that public sector broadcasting always needs to be challenged and updated, but we acknowledge its unique role in society and we are fundamentally supportive of it. We therefore welcome the repeal of section 73 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 and recognise the importance for public service broadcasters of having the ability to realise the value of the content they create. This is a long overdue step and we join the calls from across the House for the Secretary of State not to hesitate in putting these powers in place.

On intellectual property, we are supportive of the changes in the Bill that will give the protection of intellectual property online a status that is equivalent to the regimes in place for offline material.