Digital Economy Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:59 pm on 13th September 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe 2:59 pm, 13th September 2016

As has been acknowledged by Members on both sides of the House, the creative economy in the UK is fast-paced, dynamic and world-leading; it is growing faster than other sectors of the economy. Britain leads the world in many areas of online retail. Tech businesses and tech hubs have been a part of the regeneration of many of our cities, and London has established itself as one of the most pre-eminent cities for technology and the digital economy in the world. We are rightly world-leading, and we should be proud of that. However, it has been said as well that this is an incredibly fast-paced part of the global economy, and we cannot afford to stand still and not respond to the challenges of the growing digital economy and the need for increasingly better infrastructure to support businesses and homes up and down the UK.

I welcome, as many speakers have, the measure in the Bill to bring the infringement of copyright offline and online into sync and to greatly stiffen and strengthen the penalty for it. Having a 10-year sentence for online infringement of copyright—similar to that for offline infringement—is absolutely the right thing to do, and I congratulate the Government on bringing that measure forward.

Protecting the IP of creators is an important part of the success of the creative economy, and so is creating the infrastructure necessary for businesses to compete in the digital age and for homes to receive the connectivity they need to access the services they rely on and the content they enjoy. Openreach has been a key part of the delivery of broadband services in this country; it is right that it has been part of our debate today, and it was a key part of the recent inquiry by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. There are undoubtedly challenges for Openreach in its customer service. I think all Members who have engaged with BT on behalf of their constituents would say there is room for improvement in customer service, and when BT has come before the Select Committee it has recognised that. It is not alone in being a provider that needs to improve on customer service.

However, the challenge and the question we face is, how do we complete the final 5% of the delivery of superfast broadband in this country as quickly and as effectively as possible and continue to improve services for other customers too? Is that job made easier or harder by the separation of BT from Openreach? Of course, as the Secretary of State rightly said in her opening speech in the debate, nothing should be off the table. There are stiff challenges for BT and Openreach to meet, and Ofcom is overseeing that as well. They have to work harder to improve customer service and the service that they offer to other corporate customers— other providers they work with. However, we are better able to extend the coverage of our network to meet the USO with Openreach operating inside the BT group. However, if it cannot meet the targets they have been set, nothing should be left off the table, as the Secretary of State rightly said.

The USO itself is widely welcomed by Members on both sides of the House. There are key questions, obviously, to be resolved. First, who will deliver the USO? My right hon. Friend Mr Vaizey rightly said that it could be Openreach, and BT has said itself that it could deliver it, but that question still has to be resolved. Who will be the deliverer, and how will it be paid? The Government’s preference is naturally for an industry-led solution, and the Select Committee supported that view in its recent report. However, the delivery of the USO has to be affordable; there is no point having a notional legal right to have access to superfast broadband services if no one will pay, or can afford to pay, for their delivery. That remains one of the questions that has to be answered. I know that Ofcom is consulting on the delivery of the USO, and that will be one of the important questions it has to consider.

In the Select Committee investigation, we also looked at over-building, which is an important part of the delivery of the final 5% of broadband services. There are many smaller providers that may be prepared to go into a community that is currently poorly served by internet provision, but they are reluctant to do so because they do not know whether Openreach is about to go into the area itself, and Openreach— because of market sensitivity—has been reluctant to share information and maps showing where it intends to go next. We are now dealing with some of the most marginal areas in the country—areas that have so far been excluded from the roll-out of superfast broadband and that were not prioritised in the Broadband Delivery UK roll-out because they are so marginal. I do not believe that the commercial sensitivity and the cost to a provider can be so great that that provider cannot give communities certainty about whether they are about to benefit from the further roll-out of superfast broadband and, if they are not, whether another provider may step in and provide that service instead. At the moment, the threat of over-building has held people back.

In the delivery of the USO—certainly if it is supported at any level with public money, just as the roll-out led by BDUK was—it is also right that we consider whether we are subsidising areas that are already commercially viable and that are part of the Openreach plan, but that should perhaps have been taken out because someone else would have come in to provide services. That money could have been used to support another site. I accept what the former Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage, says—that a substantial amount of clawback money has come from the Openreach contracts, and that will be reinvested. However, there have been cases—we certainly saw cases in the Select Committee—where the Openreach roll-out through BDUK went into areas that could have been supported by commercial operators, and we do not want to repeat that.

With regard to Ofcom’s role in overseeing the BBC, it was right that the BBC Trust was replaced with a new body. It is right that Ofcom should be the body that oversees complaints to the BBC. There is one very important area where I would certainly welcome greater clarity, and it is going to be one of the thorniest areas that Ofcom has to deal with. Ofcom is responsible for evaluating distinctiveness in BBC content—it will be required to give rulings on that. That is very different from black and white breaches of a code; it involves a very subjective view. How that subjective view can be consistently enforced and delivered by Ofcom remains to be seen, but it is a very important area.

The former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend Mr Whittingdale, touched in his speech on the question of appeals against Ofcom rulings. Part of the Bill changes the nature of appeals against Ofcom rulings so that it is not a question of the merits of the argument, but really a matter of law, as it would be in a judicial review, as to whether Ofcom is right or wrong. In the past, there have been cases where Ofcom has got it wrong, and the Competition and Markets Authority has come in and told Ofcom that it has got it wrong. We do not want to see a situation where the wrong ruling is given and no challenge can be made to it because there was no fair judicial process. Ofcom should give greater consideration to the views of other authorities that regulation competition and markets before coming to a decision. I understand the point that we do not want see vexatious and spurious appeals constantly made to Ofcom simply to delay the inevitable enforcement of the right decision, but at the same time we want to make sure that Ofcom is getting the decisions right and taking on board all relevant pieces of information.

Finally, I would like to add my comments to the argument made by other Members—the hon. Members for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr) and for Rotherham (Sarah Champion)—about online pornography. I certainly support the measures in the Bill to have age verification on pornographic websites, but there have to be some teeth to the enforcement of that. If an offshore operator simply refuses to comply, what would be the sanctions? Yes, it is great that information is shared with PayPal or a credit card operator, but are they required in any way to stop payments to the site? The ultimate sanction, of course, would be site blocking as well. I appreciate that that can be a bit of a wild west when we are dealing with offshore operators that can consistently change the services they offer, but there have to be some teeth; otherwise, offshore operators will simply pay no attention, and we will not have made the progress that we want. However, this is an important issue; I am glad to see it on the face of the Bill, and I would certainly welcome more guidance from Ministers as we go through this debate.