Digital Economy Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:52 pm on 13th September 2016.

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Photo of Graham Jones Graham Jones Labour, Hyndburn 4:52 pm, 13th September 2016

I am pleased to speak briefly to the Bill. I am glad that it has come before the House and that we will have the opportunity in Committee to debate it, refine it and take forward some of its welcome elements.

First, I want to talk about the universal service obligation. I welcome the commitment to improve access. Internet speed is enormously important in the digital age, and the USO will give those who have a poor connection the legal right to request a faster one. Some of the 5 million people who have suffered from the Government’s failure to deliver fast access to the digital economy will finally be able to access faster internet, albeit at an unambitious 10 megabits per second rather than the genuinely superfast speed of 24 megabits per second.

I want to touch on intellectual property, which Nigel Adams mentioned. At the other end of the spectrum, an issue has been raised with me, on which I would like some clarification from the Minister. By and large, live music performance licences are paid via intellectual property and redistributed among the music industry. A performer at a small festival has to pay an intellectual property licence fee, even though they have no intellectual property because they only do small live performances and they do not release records. That fee is taken from the poorest and given to mega-bands such as U2 and well-known music artists. The Bill offers the Government an opportunity to look at music licences for those at the very bottom end, who do not have any intellectual property but who are paying intellectual property rights to some of these famous musicians. That is a transfer of money in the wrong direction.

I move on to the issue of online pornography and abuse. Although I welcome the increased protections for children against adult content online, I am concerned that the proposals do not have a lot of teeth. There needs to be a firming up of what is in the Bill, and I hope that that is done in Committee. There have been no concrete plans for the enforcement of those protections, particularly when non-UK companies are involved. My hon. Friend Sarah Champion has raised many of the concerns with the Bill.

The Information Commissioner has quite rightly pointed to the consequences of failing to think through these plans, highlighting the possibility that information on passports or driving licences may be misused when collected as part of an age-verification system.

The Bill lacks much-needed provisions against online abuse, which is often ignored by companies that are not responsible for the content they host. As we have all seen in recent times, there is a growing tendency for people to say things that are simply abusive and to get away with it. The UK is shamed by the level of abuse that we seem to find acceptable, and something ought to be done in the Bill to tackle that.

On the Government’s plan for increased data sharing, I have a particular issue I want to raise. More generally, however, the Bill makes it easier for public sector organisations to share data without individuals’ explicit permission, which I welcome. My one concern in this area relates to where there are two-tier authorities. I hope the civil servants are taking note and that Ministers are listening. Lancashire County Council wanted to increase the uptake of free school meals, but information on benefits, such as council tax benefit and housing benefit, is held by the district councils. The county council does not have access to such information and cannot reach out to vulnerable people in society who may be entitled to such support. In the past, I have been asked by the county council to intervene. It is wrong that unitary authorities can share such data, whereas Lancashire County Council and Hyndburn Borough Council cannot do so. This issue ought to be resolved, because it affects constituents, such as mine, in two-tier authority areas, where there are very serious concerns and where progress could be made in reaching people who are not receiving the benefits to which they are entitled.

On the lack of protections for workers in new digital markets, which have been mentioned, employment opportunities in companies such as Uber or Deliveroo are proliferating. Such companies provide many workers with benefits, such as flexible working hours, but without protections, such opportunities will turn sour, leading to distrust between employers and employees, as shown by the recent Uber protests. Workers on casual contracts in the gig economy—my hon. Friend Mr Wright said a lot about this—are less likely to be awarded credit or a mortgage, have fewer protections against redundancy and often have no guaranteed hours. The Bill does absolutely nothing to provide safeguards for this rapidly expanding group of people.

I have been a critic of the Government on how they have gone about renewing the BBC charter. Although the BBC accepted the funding deal in 2015 and assumed the annual cost of free TV licences for the over-75s, the extra cost of £608 million is unduly burdensome on an organisation that is already strapped for cash, with the quality of its content beginning to fray. There is the issue of budgetary pressures, with the merger between BBC News 24 and World News—or the proposal for their amalgamation—leading to a reduction of news services and the danger that we will be left with a monopoly for Sky News if we keep going down this road. I am deeply concerned that the BBC should provide choice and competition with other providers, by which I do not necessarily mean Sky, but primarily Sky in this case.

The Government’s handling of charter renewal has been far from satisfactory, particularly in relation to the BBC Trust and the Government’s involvement in the appointment of some of the trustees. Carried out behind closed doors, without any public consultation, that process lacked transparency and called into question the BBC’s independence. These issues were raised by my hon. Friend Chris Bryant, and I share many of his concerns.

The hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty touched on retransmission fees. Public sector broadcasters have given their content, for free, exclusively to Sky and Virgin to deliver on other platforms. It is welcome that the Government are addressing that issue. Such public sector broadcasters ought to be protected if they are forced to provide their content on such platforms. They ought to be financially recompensed for the ability of Sky and Virgin to carry complementary and additional programming services on their platforms. The alternative is to allow the public sector broadcasters to withdraw that provision, which would probably not be welcome. It would be better if Sky and Virgin were forced to pay to transmit the five channels.

One issue not covered in the Bill—I ask the civil servants and the Minister to take note of this—is the value of the electronic programme guide. We should deal with that. Increasingly, it is valuable real estate on television. It ought to be for Ofcom to determine the permissible parameters and scope of the electronic programme guide for various broadcasters. As anyone who watches Sky knows, it has put the guide one tier down. Viewers are presented with Sky content on the splash screen. The EPG is valuable real estate for promoting products. We have to click the programming guide. There is nothing in legislation or regulation that says that the guide has to include public sector broadcasters at the top. Sky and Virgin do that voluntarily.

I believe that Ministers should look at the issue of the electronic programming guide. It should be under Ofcom, and there should be a regulatory framework for its delivery. We may start to see advertising on the guide. Furthermore—this does not relate to Sky or Virgin—smart TV manufacturers are putting their own EPG on. Companies such as Netflix want to link up with those manufacturers to put themselves ahead of the BBC. There is a real issue here. We are starting to see a fragmentation of exceedingly valuable commercial space. There ought to be a new clause in the Bill dealing with that issue.

I move on now to an issue that really pains me, and one on which I want to see the Government come down hard. It is all very well talking about 10-year sentences for intellectual property crimes, but when will we see 10-year sentences for some of the people who, through direct marketing, scam some of the most vulnerable people in society? We keep seeing programmes and exposés of companies that seem to keep most of the receipts from telephone marketing and pass on very little to the charity on whose behalf they are calling and seem to frequently call the same vulnerable, elderly people to take huge sums off them. That is a scam. It should not happen in today’s Britain. We should not condone such behaviour. We should look after the vulnerable.

There should be thresholds on how much those companies can skim off. The national lottery can take 0.5%; I do not see why those marketing companies cannot be told that they will get 0.5% and the rest will go to the charity. It should at least be explicitly clear how much is being raised for the charity. Vulnerable people are being repeatedly targeted, and that needs to be dealt with, so does unsolicited junk email, which costs British business considerably.

We talk about a digital economy, but when I speak to businesses they say that they are sick of and fed up with the amount of junk email they receive. It hinders their businesses, and is costly and burdensome. It needs to be dealt with. We need a more robust Government approach, as we do for the all junk mail that comes through our letterboxes. My suggestion to the Minister is that those sending it out should be obliged to put a return to sender postal address on it, so I can march down to my local post box with all that junk mail I do not want to send it straight back to the company that sent it to me; then, I hope, they would get the message and not send any more. The amount that is sent out is outrageous.

Finally, there is the issue of selling on of mailing lists. There is a lack of transparency on internet sites about when people have to opt in or out, and whether personal information can be used. Ultimately, it is a scam in which information is sold on. Then we get that abundance of unwanted emails because someone has commercialised our data. That bulk commercialisation is unacceptable, and the Government have to step in, for no other reason than that if we ask business people in this country they want to see something done about mass marketing that is affecting and costing their businesses.