Digital Economy Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:50 pm on 13th September 2016.

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Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston Conservative, Mid Worcestershire 5:50 pm, 13th September 2016

It is an honour to follow my hon. Friend Kit Malthouse who, as always, brings passion and insight to the debate—a difficult act to follow, but I will try.

Technological advances, including the internet, have transformed the way we communicate and the way we are informed, educated and entertained. This Bill will help bring legislation, regulation, consumer rights and protections up to date, but this is an evolution. We are only at the very beginning of the digital journey and I suspect that during my time in this place, we will see many further such Bills. I strongly support the Bill, particularly as it is a very consumer-friendly Bill, with many measures to protect and strengthen the rights of our constituents.

Like many colleagues, I have been approached by constituents and other stakeholders who have expressed concerns about elements of the Bill and have suggested some potential changes. I am sure the Minister and the Department have likewise been approached, and I am confident that plenty of time will be set aside during the Committee stage to scrutinise the details and for certain amendments to be made to avoid some of the unintended consequences that various players have highlighted and that we have heard about today.

The previous Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend Mr Whittingdale, has commented that this Bill

“will put in place the foundations for the digital future” and

“make the UK a world leader in digital”.

I respectfully suggest that we are already a world leader in the digital space, and the focus should therefore be on sustaining our leadership position, which we cannot and should not take for granted. So far digital is clearly a UK success story. The UK is one of the most sophisticated and advanced digital economies on the planet. At 12.4% of GDP the UK has by far the largest digital economy in the G20—not just slightly larger than that of any other nation in the G20, but miles ahead. The next largest is South Korea at 8%. Our digital economy as a percentage of GDP is three times that of Germany and four times that of France.

Average spending online in the UK per head is double the European average, and more than 1 million jobs are sustained by the digital sector in the UK. The sector is growing at about twice the rate of average GDP growth. The strength of our digital sector is something we should be shouting from the rooftops, and as a nation we should be very proud about it indeed. Yes, we have adopted and leveraged the applications and service offerings of the global giants such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook, but we have many home-grown success stories, too—ARM Holdings and Micro Focus being particularly newsworthy recently.

The speed and enthusiasm with which the British public adopt new technologies and are willing to experiment with new ways of doing things is key to our digital success as a nation. The sophistication of our much maligned financial services sector has also played a key role in our digital success. We are willing to transact online only because we are confident that our transactions are safe and secure and the risk of fraud is low. Other nations with far less sophisticated and secure financial services sectors have seen much lower consumer willingness to transact over the internet and share financial information online. That has held back their digital development. This Bill will help provide the solid foundations for future digital growth, with its emphasis on enabling digital infrastructure, consumer rights, protecting intellectual property and ambitious goals for Government digital services. Although much has been achieved, there is still much more to do.

We have made huge progress in broadband, but if my mailbag is similar to that of other hon. Members—and I suspect it is—residents and businesses contact us all the time to express dissatisfaction with their current level of service. Problems often relate, though not exclusively, to BT and Openreach, which has a lot to do to improve service. Improvements also need to be made in mobile coverage, in rural areas in particular. The Bill identifies improvements both in the regulatory framework and in making switching service providers much easier, which I applaud. It will encourage price competition and enhance customer service levels.

I know that my constituents will welcome the improved level of information that will come as part of the new power for Ofcom to order communications providers to release data to help them make more informed choices. Of particular help will be the ability to obtain address-level data on broadband speeds, addressing the issue of advertised estimated broadband speeds only at postcode level, where actual speed can vary significantly from property to property, depending on how far the property is from a cabinet.

Overall, the Bill places significantly more power in the hands of Ofcom—a highly respected regulator. It is worth noting that Ofcom already has oversight over many aspects of the UK’s fast-changing broadcasting landscape. If the new governance and regulatory structure proposed for the BBC is adopted, as we suspect, Ofcom will take on additional responsibilities relating to the BBC. I would appreciate the Minister’s comments on how he envisions Ofcom’s new powers over the BBC being exercised in practical terms, and particularly as they relate to online offerings, the regions, BBC production and transparency.

The UK broadcasting industry, and particularly the public sector broadcasting industry, has been extremely innovative in developing online TV propositions, with Channel 4’s Catch Up service and the BBC’s iPlayer leading the way. The future of Channel 4 has been the subject of much debate recently, and the Minister may wish to comment in the context of the digital evolution of the UK economy on possible future changes in the ownership and governance of Channel 4.

Let me move on briefly to the issue of protecting children from online pornography. I welcome the Government’s desire to restrict access to harmful sexualised content that could change children’s attitudes towards sex and relationships, as has been mentioned many times today. There have already been welcome steps in this regard, not least from internet providers themselves in providing family-friendly filters free to customers to filter out unsuitable content. Most of us would agree that providers of pornography should have age verification controls in place to prevent children from being exposed to it. I therefore welcome the proposals in the Bill for age verification and particularly for the regulator.

However, the regulation must have teeth to deal with those content providers that do not have controls in place, even if they are based overseas. The civil sanctions the Bill introduces are an important step, but I understand that the Bill does not provide for the actual blocking of non-compliant websites, and I would ask the Minister to continue working with all stakeholders in the sector to find a way to block sites and therefore clearly meet our manifesto commitment to stop children’s exposure to sexualised content online.

In conclusion, I have touched on only a few aspects of a very wide-ranging Bill with some very welcome components. As I said, the UK already has a digital lead, and it is a leading digital economy in the world. The changes the Bill will introduce will help the UK to retain a commanding digital position for many, many years to come.