Digital Economy Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:33 pm on 13th September 2016.

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Photo of Mark Menzies Mark Menzies Conservative, Fylde 5:33 pm, 13th September 2016

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Antoinette Sandbach and an even greater pleasure to see the Secretary of State in her place. We have heard about the work of previous Secretaries of State in getting the Bill to where it is today, but I want to put on the record my appreciation for what the current Secretary of State will do to ensure that the Bill is implemented in full. I support this Bill. It is necessary and its time has come, but that does not mean that it could be improved. With that in mind, I will refer to clauses 75, 76 and 77.

Clause 75 deals with regulatory aspects of Ofcom and the BBC, and in my capacity as vice-chair of the all-party group on the BBC I have received representations from members of the National Union of Journalists. They approach the issue not out of a desire to see no change but out of wanting to ensure that the editorial integrity of the BBC is protected. As someone who appreciates the value the BBC has to offer and the Government’s intention, which is not to try to impinge on that editorial independence, I urge the Government to give dutiful consideration to these clauses, to ensure that at no future point could the BBC’s editorial independence be infringed.

Clause 75 aims to amend the Communications Act 2003, allowing for provision to be made in the new BBC charter and framework agreement so that Ofcom can regulate all the BBC’s activity, in its new role as an external regulator. I ask the Government and the Minister: are explicit safeguards in place to bar Ofcom from interfering with the BBC’s editorial independence? Are explicit safeguards in place against a watering down of BBC public service commitments, for example, to children’s programming? In the past, Ofcom has allowed other UK broadcasters to water down their public service remits, so will the Minister assure me that the clause will guard against the BBC doing this in future? I would appreciate it if he responded to that in his wind-up.

Clause 76 would insert a new section into the 2003 Act, transferring powers in respect of over-75 licence fee payers to the BBC. Following consultation, the BBC will independently determine the concession, with the power to make changes to it, including by changing the eligibility criteria, the level of the concession and the qualifying age. I invite the Government to reconsider the impact that transferring the cost of the over-75 licence fees will have on BBC funding, and, therefore, the threats to future programme content. Representations have been made to me by the NUJ, which fears that this measure will result in a net 20% cut in licence fee funding. It has suggested that over five years the cut could be up to £1.3 billion.

Such a cut could not only have an impact on the original content of drama productions and documentaries, but could threaten local radio and unique radio stations such as the BBC Asian Network, BBC Radio 1Xtra and BBC Radio 6 Music. Those of us in this House in the last Parliament when the BBC proposed cuts to local radio stations will know that our mailbags were bursting like never before. The BBC was forced to back down on that, so I say to Ministers: let us not put the BBC in a situation where as a result of our not thinking through the long-term consequences of transferring the licence fee for over-75s the BBC in future years has to cut services such as local radio or original drama, because there will be a political price to pay. By transferring the cost of the licence fee, we will not have done a really clever thing by taking the political consequences away from government; there will be political consequences, but they will come further down the line. I would like assurances from Ministers that this £1.3 billion cost suggested by the NUJ is indeed not a real number, and that the arithmetic and the work on this has indeed been done.

I note that the BBC management have accepted these changes, but that does not allay my concerns. I hope that the Minister does not fall back on the default position of saying, “It has been agreed by the BBC management.” It may have been agreed by them, but my constituents pay the licence fee, I represent them and I want to hear reassurances that an agreement between government and the BBC management does not compromise the quality of broadcasting in years to come. If I can get those assurances from the Minister, he will be back at the top of my Christmas card list.

Let me move on to discuss clause 77. The timing in this Chamber is not something that always works well, but today Patricia Gibson introduced a ten-minute rule Bill. My goodness what an excellent Bill that was, because it sought to address the issue of nuisance calls. The proposals in clause 77 are welcome, as they improve the current legislation, but they do not go far enough. A Library briefing document says:

“A new section would be inserted into the Act, placing the Information Commissioner under a duty to publish and keep under review a direct marketing code of practice. In the Government’s view, this would make it easier for the Information Commissioner to take enforcement action against those organisations in breach.”

That was written in the assumption that we are dealing with honourable people, but we are not. The companies that overwhelmingly engage in direct marketing are rogues and shysters. For example, I have a constituent who is in the early stages of dementia. She receives calls almost daily. When she picks up the phone, she hears a message that goes something like this: “Something wrong with your boiler?” When my constituent tries to gather information so that she can deal with the matter, she discovers that the person making the phone call is withholding their number in breach of current guidelines. The caller will not give out the name of the company and will not identify who they are calling on behalf of, and, guess what, they do not have a website. When a person tries to go online to lodge an official complaint, they are asked about the company’s website, the name of the company and its telephone number.

I say to Ministers and officials that we are basing a law on the hope that we are dealing with honourable people. We are dealing not with honourable people, but with the lowest of the low. They are people who are prepared to break the law as it currently stands and to prey on the vulnerable in their tens and hundreds of thousands. They are people who are making an absolute mockery of this place. I say to the Government that if they seriously want to do something about tightening up nuisance calls to the most vulnerable people in our constituencies, now is their chance. They should listen to what the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran put before this House today, because she was talking about fining the directors and holding them to account. It is about questioning the integrity and ability of those directors to be performing such responsible duties as the law currently now permits them.

The law as it currently stands permits fines on companies —but only if we can track down those companies. As the hon. Lady pointed out, these companies—these shysters—will collapse the company, so the fine is never paid. The next day, they will pop up again with a new identity, preying once again on the vulnerable people we were sent here to represent.

I am proud to represent Fylde in this Parliament, but Fylde, like many other constituencies, is made up of very many vulnerable people. I am also proud to support this Government. I will be proud to support this Bill, but I will be even prouder if my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State ensures that, in Committee, we do something to tighten regulations so that we can take on the rogues and shysters and make this her first truly remarkable piece of legislation that transforms the lives of many vulnerable people throughout this country.