Digital Economy Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:43 pm on 13th September 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Conservative, North West Hampshire 5:43 pm, 13th September 2016

It is a great pleasure to follow the speech of my hon. Friend Mark Menzies, and a joy to rise and welcome this Bill. I wish to raise four points. The first is to welcome the universal service obligation. My constituents speak of little else in the bosky lanes of North West Hampshire these days. They have doused the flames burning on the effigies of my right hon. Friend Mr Vaizey and started to hoist portraits of my right hon. Friend Matt Hancock alongside those of the Queen in the village hall in the hope that they may finally be connected to the real world.

All of this is remarkably good news, until it is not, which is a little bit like my own internet service where I am offered a particular rate until it is not that rate. That happens to me most of the time, particularly when the kids all get home from school. Will the Minister clarify what 10 megabits per second actually means? Is it a minimum? Is it permanently 10? Will 10 drop to two when everybody gets home and starts playing their games or downloading pornography? It will interesting for people to know those things. The critical figure for areas such as mine will be the capped cost to BT or to the other providers of putting a service into our homes. If that is too low, there might as well be no universal service obligation; the farm drives and tracks of North West Hampshire will not be troubled by fibre or copper and so on, because the cost cap is too low. I gather that we will not get that figure until the end of the year, and my constituency will have to wait with bated breath. Until then, the promise is nothing more than that. Clarification from the Minister of what is intended would be fantastic.

Secondly, the Minister may have to enter into a tussle with the Housing Minister on the Neighbourhood Planning Bill as to which Bill will contain a provision making it compulsory for broadband to be fitted to all new housing. It is fairly obvious from the contributions of my hon. Friends and other Members this afternoon that there is a strong swell of opinion in the House that that should happen, and that developers will have to swallow it up. Given the assistance that they will be getting from the Government in expanding their businesses across the United Kingdom in the next few years, the least developers can do is fit this now essential utility to the houses that they build. I would recommend that the Minister speak to the Housing Minister, because someone somewhere will table an amendment, and it will get huge support in the House.

Thirdly, I alert the Minister to an amendment that I intend to table on Report. The Whips will not put me on Bill Committees, but I will table an amendment on Report, if it does not emerge beforehand, on the subject of business rates. It is a technical point, but it impacts heavily on competition in the sector. I know the Government are keen to promote competition. At the moment, BT has a fairly good deal from the valuation office on business rates on its network. Business rates are chargeable on a fibre broadband network. BT pays a lump sum, which reduces as it loses market share. If it expands its network, it pays no more—just that lump sum.

However, a new entrant to the market, putting in fibre broadband, will be required to pay business rates on that network. Paradoxically, that rate bill will be higher than the charges that BT would levy on it for renting the line from BT, thereby entrenching the BT monopoly. This differential treatment under the non-domestic rating system cannot be right. I will be tabling an amendment requiring the valuation office to produce a report annually on the impact of the rating system on competition in the sector, because we are asking people to compete to put fibre into the home, particularly across rural networks, and they are doing so with this huge hidden bill, which does not accrue to the major competitor—BT.

Finally, I want to address the issue of pornography and filters on the internet. That is, as many Members have said this afternoon, an enormous issue not only for parents but for society. It is having a massive impact on the way in which boys and girls see one another and the way in which they deal with relationships, and sex. The Government have tried, over the past few years, in coalition and now, to take steps towards dealing with that, but sadly, I am afraid, to little effect. Although the Bill makes a brave attempt, I must tell the Minister that I do not see it having a significant impact on the availability of pornography on the internet, for some of the reasons that other Members have elucidated.

Most of this stuff comes from overseas. Much of it comes from the United States, where it is protected under constitutional rights, apparently. Much of it is free—it requires no online transaction via credit card or otherwise. It will be easily available to anybody who wants to get it who does not have a parent who puts a filter on.

I would very much like to see the Government shift their target away from the providers of websites to the people who could do something to filter the content—the internet service providers. We know the ISPs can identify these sites because they do so already for parental filters. If someone puts a parental filter on, they will identify the site and block it. There is no technical reason why the ISPs could not also identify it and put an age filter on, that would appear every time someone tried to access it, that required a credit card number or required the usual age verification applied by gambling sites. The ISPs could easily put such measures in place.

If the Minister will forgive me, I would point out that the Government are missing the target by going for the sites, which move around the world, between jurisdictions and between countries, whereas the ISPs, who are here and who we could get hold of, could technically achieve what we want for us. This is a very pressing issue indeed and we have talked about it for the 18 months that I have been in the House, and for the previous 10 years when I was watching from outside. The time has come for the Government to do something really bold about this—to move forward in a way that no other country has, by requiring age verification for pornography, at the level of the ISP. Those organisations are the newsagents who stop the magazine. They are the television company that is broadcasting the programme. They are not free of obligation in this menace to our young people and they should start to play their part. I call upon the Government to oblige them to do so.