Digital Economy Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:04 pm on 13th September 2016.

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Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Conservative, Bexhill and Battle 6:04 pm, 13th September 2016

Madam Deputy Speaker, you are the fourth occupant of the Chair since I sat in the Chamber four hours ago to listen to this fine debate. I will endeavour to get your title correct, but I keep having to cross out my notes. The situation resembles that involving Labour Front Benchers over the preceding months.

Despite great work by East Sussex County Council, too many parishes in my constituency are in the final 5% that do not have a connection to fast broadband. With an ageing constituent profile, it is essential that we balance our local economy by attracting more people to work and live in our locality. With a daily commute that, when Southern trains are running, perhaps takes too long for many, we have the perfect opportunity to deliver the connectivity that will attract those who are looking to work in or run businesses form the beautiful east Sussex area of outstanding natural beauty. Who would not want to do that?

I therefore welcome the introduction of a universal service obligation, which will give the final 5% fast broadband. For many of my rural constituents, that will be akin to building a new road or railway line. It is vital for our whole economy that we do not leave those residents behind.

With that in mind, I want to repeat a request I made to the previous Minister covering this brief. As I understand it, the Government expect the USO to work akin to the telephone USO, pursuant to which BT covers the first £3,400 and the consumer pays costs above that threshold. With Openreach dominating the market, I am concerned that it will determine the cost to be greater than the threshold and that rural residents could therefore be priced out. Would it be possible for the market to be opened up, so that any provider could tender and that, if it could deliver below the threshold while Openreach proposed to deliver above it, Openreach would then have to charge at the lower rate or, preferably, outsource the work to the cheaper provider? That would not only deliver the USO to more consumers, with no extra cost, but open up a market that I contend is too heavily dominated by BT Openreach.

To that same end, I am conscious that assessing broadband coverage can be determined only on a property-by-property basis at present. Would it be possible for the Government to ensure that that information is instead published as open data, so that competitors to Openreach can better fill the void?

On a separate, stand-alone note, I understand that a breach of the data-sharing rules, as prescribed by clause 58, may result in criminal sanctions. Given the proportionality involved, may I suggest that that be reclassified as a civil matter?

I am the new chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on the BBC, and two measures will have an impact on the BBC. First, clause 76 will transfer the responsibility for the policy of free TV licences for over-75s to the BBC. The cost of the policy will be met by the BBC as the Department of Work and Pensions reimbursement is phased out over time. That will ultimately lead to the BBC being required to find an extra £750 million a year to break even.

Those who bemoan the loss of “The Great British Bake Off” to Channel 4 need to understand the environment in which the BBC now operates. Given the requirement under the charter renewal to outsource more programme making, such situations are only going to reoccur. I regret that the BBC has to fund a policy that was devised by the Labour party as an election giveaway and from which it is now deemed politically infeasible to withdraw. It should not be for a public broadcaster to deliver welfare, and if the provision is not welfare, we should ask why it exists in these times of austerity. Although I do not welcome the transfer, I ultimately accept that we are where we are, so I welcome clause 76, which will confer policy control on the BBC, so that it can assess the policy’s future.

Clause 75 will transfer the BBC’s regulatory oversight to Ofcom. I welcome that change as a means of reforming the blurred lines of regulation. I also welcome the related introduction, via the charter review, of a new unitary BBC board, the majority of whose members will be appointed by the BBC itself. When it does so, it would be welcome if the BBC considered appointing a staff member to the board. In her speech on the steps of 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister called for more worker representation in the boardroom, and it would be good to see the BBC leading that charge.

May I suggest that Ministers consider adding a new clause to this excellent Bill to strengthen our free-to-air listed sporting events? These sporting celebrations allow our nation to come together and be inspired by the finest athletes, sportsmen and sportswomen. To put that in context, 13 million people watched the Wimbledon final, but fewer than 1 million people watched the Open golf and our cricketers beating Pakistan via pay TV. More than 45 million of our nation’s people watched the Rio Olympics.

When considering the health and wellbeing benefits that such inspiration can bring, I am concerned that the current rules protecting free-to-air may need an update to maintain the current regime. The current rules require the content to be free and to be “received” by 95% of the population. I understand that the Government will continue to support the current listed events policy, but there is a danger that, with an increasing number of household media platforms, we will soon find that less than 95% of the population receive the content via their television set. I hope that the Minister will agree to use the Bill as a means to review the legislation to ensure that the free-to-air genesis continues. It would merely require the addition of the words “or capable of being received”.

To conclude, I warmly welcome the Bill and the support that the Government are giving to the digital economy, a sector that accounts for 10% of our businesses and 5% of our workforce. Those innovators are a huge growth opportunity for the whole UK, and I look forward to this Bill passing into law.