Digital Economy Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:11 pm on 13th September 2016.

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Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport 6:11 pm, 13th September 2016

It is a pleasure to wind up on behalf of the Opposition. I congratulate all hon. Members who have spoken in this debate and made so many important and interesting contributions. My hon. Friend Chi Onwurah made an excellent speech setting out Labour’s view of this most significant Bill. She has a fine academic background and considerable experience in the digital economy sector, and she speaks with great authority on the subject. I congratulate her on what she has said today.

I should also congratulate the Secretary of State on what I think was her first Second Reading lead speech. I have no doubt that she will be making many more. Another Member with significant expertise and experience in the sector is Calum Kerr, who made an excellent and well-informed speech on behalf of the Scottish National party. The former Secretary of State, Mr Whittingdale, naturally made a very well-informed speech; he was, of course, the Bill’s primary progenitor, and he was still the Secretary of State on its First Reading.

There were other interesting speeches as well. I could not be here for the whole debate, because I had Front-Bench duties for two shorter debates in Westminster Hall. Indeed, I think the Minister was in a similar situation, because we were opposite each other at that time. We had some interesting speeches from Sir Alan Haselhurst, my hon. Friend Mr Wright, my right hon. Friend Fiona Mactaggart—she made a first-class and powerful speech on the need to protect our children from pornography—the hon. Members for Devizes (Claire Perry), for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan), for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach), for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton), for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak), for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) and for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), and my hon. Friends the Members for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) and for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss). I was particularly taken with the last speech by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle, and I strongly agreed with what he said about listed sporting events.

Some 56 years ago, I studied electronics as part of my A-level physics, when valves were just being replaced by germanium diodes in the early, almost prehistoric, years of the digital revolution. I made a great leap forward by soldering a germanium diode into my crystal set, which made my late-night listening to jazz programmes wonderfully more vivid. I was grateful for that. It was the beginning of the miniaturisation of electronics, which led on to the digital economy. The leap from the valve to the germanium diode was the beginning of it all.

Some 20 years later—some 35 years ago—I was a research officer for the trade union that was then called the National and Local Government Officers Association. I wrote two pamphlets, one of which was on the future of new technology. I only half believed it at the time, but it came to pass almost before the ink was dry. In fact, I thought it was wholly unrealistic that we would one day be able to go to the supermarket and have our bank accounts debited directly. I just thought that was highly improbable, but it actually happened very quickly.

The other pamphlet was about workers’ rights and protecting workers in the new digital economy. The Bill contains much that we support, but we believe it requires substantial amendment, which we shall achieve in Committee. As it stands, the Bill does nothing to protect workers’ rights in relation to new digital labour relations, but new rights and protections are vital. Thirty years on from my pamphlet—I may dust off my now ancient pamphlet and bring it along to the Committee—problems for workers have intensified and must be addressed.

Other concerns about the Bill include the absence of any legislative framework for data sharing and the lack of provision for the protection of citizens’ identities through digital communications. We welcome the proposed universal service obligation, but lament its late appearance and the slow and inadequate roll-out of universal fast broadband. The protection of consumers from nuisance calls and the provision for marketeers to be prosecuted are again welcome, if late in the day. Labour also supports the introduction of further measures to protect children from pornography, but enforcement must be strengthened to make it effective. Protection against online abuse, which is frequently directed at women, also needs to be much strengthened.

The area in which we fundamentally disagree with and fundamentally oppose the Government is their decision to transfer the funding of television licences for the over-75s to the BBC. I should declare an interest in this, having just reached that great age. I have not yet claimed my free television licence, but I may do so in the near future. Free television licences, introduced by Labour, are a social benefit and should continue to be funded by the Exchequer, not squeezed out of the jobs and livelihoods BBC employees, nor paid for indirectly by other licence fee payers, and they should certainly not be paid for by elderly pensioners. The idea that policy and paying a benefit should be decided by an independent public service broadcaster and funded by viewers and listeners, not by the Government, is complete nonsense and utterly unacceptable. We shall pursue this matter in Committee.

As we have said, we support much in the Bill, but there are substantial omissions and errors that we want to correct in Committee and possibly on Report. We will not oppose the Bill this evening—we will abstain—but that does not necessarily mean that we accept that the Bill is all positive, because there are things that desperately need to be corrected. I thank hon. Members for their contributions. I have listened to them with great interest, and I hope that we can have equally important and useful debates in Committee.