With this it will be convenient to consider the following:
Government amendments (a) to (c) in lieu of Lords amendment 1.
Lords amendment 2, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendment (a) in lieu.
Lords amendments 3 to 39.
Lords amendment 40, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendments (a) and (b) in lieu.
Lords amendments 41 to 236.
Lords amendment 237, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 238, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 239, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendments 240 and 241.
Lords amendment 242, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendment (a) in lieu.
Lords amendments 243 to 245.
Lords amendment 246, and Government amendment (a) thereto.
Lords amendments 247 to 289.
I am delighted that today we have a final opportunity to scrutinise the Digital Economy Bill and, I hope, get it on to the statute book before the Dissolution of Parliament. The Bill has been widely supported during its passage and tackles head-on some serious issues that many in this House feel strongly about. It will help us to extend digital connectivity, protect children from online pornography and better deliver Government services. The other House has made some amendments to the Bill, so I shall go through them in turn.
Lords amendment 1 challenges the Government to be more ambitious on universal digital connectivity. The universal service obligation forms part of our plan to deliver better connectivity, helping to ensure that everyone gets decent broadband and no one is left behind. However, we have serious concerns about whether the amendment is deliverable. As drafted, it is counterproductive to the implementation of a USO, because of the risk of legal challenge and the delay that that would cause. We are legislating for the USO under the EU telecoms legislative framework, under which a USO is intended to ensure a baseline of services where a substantial majority has taken up the service but the market has not delivered, and where users are at risk of social exclusion.
According to Ofcom’s latest data, in 2016, take-up of ultrafast broadband with a download speed of 300 megabits per second and higher was less than 0.1%, so we are nowhere near being able to demonstrate that the majority of the population have access to full fibre with a download speed of 2 gigabits per second. We therefore cannot accept Lords amendment 1, and we are not in a position of a substantial majority having taken up superfast broadband. I do, however, support the ambition of better, faster, more reliable broadband, so the Government propose an amendment in lieu that requires any broadband USO to set a download speed of at least 10 megabits per second, and requires the Government to direct Ofcom to review the minimum download speed in the broadband USO once superfast take-up is 75%. That gives the assurance that any USO speed will be reconsidered once a substantial majority of subscribers are on superfast.
Lords amendment 2 seeks to tackle a number of issues relating to mobile phones and frustrations about the service we receive. I understand those frustrations—I represent a rural constituency, so am often subject to them—and the Bill is designed to address them through the new electronic communications code, new switching and information powers, the enabling of automatic compensation, and the strengthening of Ofcom’s hand in the interests of consumers. Lords amendment 2 is an understandable reaction to the faults in the market, but it is not the answer, for the following reasons.
First, the requirement to allow customers to roam is unclear, and there are doubts about whether it would work legally, as acknowledged by the Opposition Front-Bench team in the other place. Although superficially attractive, roaming is the wrong solution. It would stymie investment by operators—why would they improve their coverage when a competitor could reap the rewards as their customers roamed on to their network? By contrast, taking roaming off the table in 2014 locked in £5 billion of investment to improve the UK’s mobile infrastructure, and 4G coverage from all operators has grown from 29% to 72% in the past year.
Secondly, the Bill already has greater provision on switching than the Lords amendment would require. That provision concerns operators of all telecom services—including fixed line, broadband and pay TV—not just mobile phones. Ofcom is better placed to ensure that operators adhere to procedures that enable easy and quick switching, thereby compelling operators to improve the level of their service.
Thirdly, the Government intended to look into bill capping in the consumer rights Green Paper, and it is already offered by some providers. Although we cannot accept Lords amendment 2, we can see the benefits for consumers of being offered the choice to limit their bills and avoid bill shock. We have therefore put forward an amendment in lieu that requires providers to make sure that as well as new customers, those with existing contracts have the opportunity to place a limit on their bill. This will not affect any obligations regarding contacting the emergency services, be that by voice call or text message.
We agree with the spirit of Lords amendment 40 and the proposed code of practice for social media platform providers on online abuse. We take the harm caused by online abuse and bullying very seriously. We offer an alternative provision that we think will achieve the intended outcome and which will form part of our work in the next Parliament to tackle serious harms and online threats and improve internet safety. Our amendment in lieu will provide a code of practice that will help to protect the users of online services and set out the behaviour expected of social media companies. The code is intended to give guidance for how social media providers should respond to harmful behaviour such as bullying. Good work is being done by some companies to prevent the use of platforms for illegal purposes and, when it is reported to the police, potential criminal conduct will continue to be liable to investigation, as with any other offence. We already expect social media providers to work closely with law enforcement in relation to potential unlawful activity taking place on their sites.
Other uses of social media might be cruel, upsetting, or insulting, but nevertheless legal. More can be done to tackle online abuse, such as bullying, and the other serious issues that face our children and young people. The code will set out guidance about what social media providers should do in relation to conduct that is lawful but that is nonetheless distressing or upsetting. Our intention is that the guidance will address companies proportionately. The biggest social media companies have recently put in place some improvements to make their platforms safer, but we all agree that they still have some way to go, and the amendment in lieu will help to achieve that.
Lords amendments 237 to 239 would establish a BBC licence fee commission to make a recommendation on the level of the licence fee required to fund the BBC, for a full public consultation on the appropriate level of BBC funding. However, we do not believe it is right for an unelected body effectively to set tax rates. It is a long-established principle that the Government do not consult on the level of taxation, so the amendments are not only impractical but unnecessary.
Lords amendment 242 would extend the public service broadcasting prominence regime for TV to on-demand menus and platforms, and I know it is a favourite of the Opposition Front-Bench team. We recently consulted on this idea and concluded that we could see no compelling evidence to change the regime, but I understand the impulse behind the amendment—to ensure that PSB channels are readily available as technology changes. However, the technologies of broadcasting and internet-based on-demand viewing are completely different, and amendment 242 goes far beyond the current prominence regime because it would extend the regime to content originating from the non-PSB portfolio channels of the commercial PSBs. It also seeks to give absolute prominence to PSB content by removing Ofcom’s discretion in applying prominence rules, and to extend the current definition of an electronic programme guide to include smart TV interfaces, which manufacturers tell us would create the need for bespoke products for the UK market, putting up the cost of a television. Therefore, we cannot accept the amendment, but we do understand the strength of feeling in both Houses on this issue so we have tabled an amendment in lieu of Lords amendment 242 to place a new requirement on Ofcom to report on the ease of finding and accessing PSB content across all television platforms. If Ofcom’s report makes it clear that there is a problem in this area, and one that can be fixed only by legislation, then, assuming that this Government are returned in June, I can commit to bring forward that legislation as soon as possible.
Another area that has raised serious concern is secondary ticketing. I pay tribute to colleagues across this House for their work on this, particularly my hon. Friend Nigel Adams, who is in his place in a bright blue suit. Since this issue was last debated in the House, we have published our response to the Waterson review, accepting the recommendations in full; introduced Lords amendment 247 to provide the power for Government to introduce a criminal offence to stop the use of bots to purchase tickets in excess of the maximum specified; provided funding to the National Trading Standards for enforcement action; and facilitated the sector’s participation in cyber-security networks. The Competition and Markets Authority has launched an enforcement investigation into suspected breaches of consumer protection law in the online secondary ticketing market.
However, that was not enough. The noble Lords have also added Lords amendment 246 to the Bill, requiring ticket resellers to provide buyers with the ticket reference or booking number and any specific condition attached to the resale of the ticket. We agree in principle with the amendment. We do, however, have concerns over its practicality, and the provision relating to the restrictions on tickets duplicates existing provisions in the Consumer Rights Act 2015. Therefore, we have tabled our amendment to Lords amendment 246, requiring that any unique ticket number must be identified, which we intend to have the same effect. We will also continue to work with industry to reduce the risk of fraud or unwarranted cancellation of tickets. I hope that that satisfies my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty.
I also wish to say a few words about some of the amendments that we are proposing to accept on age verification for people accessing online pornography in part 3 of the Bill. This is a hugely important part of the Bill and has been welcomed across the House. Although the intention is to protect children, the scope of material for adults that the regulator can act against has prompted much debate. In the other place, we heard concerns that the current “prohibited material” definition may be going too far in the type of material that the regulator is able to block above and beyond the age verification requirements, and that would give the regulator extended powers of censorship beyond that originally envisaged in the Bill.
Our goal here is to ensure that children are prevented from accessing online pornography. Our amendment therefore redefines the scope of the material, taking an approach based on the definition of an “extreme pornographic image” in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. I can confirm that this does not change the definition of what is, and what is not, lawful for adults to view. In Lords amendment 45, we have made it absolutely clear that content behind age-verification controls can still be subject to criminal sanctions provided by existing legislation.
What is illegal offline is illegal online. Where material is criminal in nature and not hosted in the UK, the National Crime Agency’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre works with international partners through Interpol to address this material in that jurisdiction. As those who are interested in consuming this material are likely to be of interest to law enforcement, CEOP considers all aspects of illegal images of children as it is the appropriate body to tackle this issue. I recognise that, for many, the Digital Economy Bill represents unfinished business in reforming the law in this area. Our internet safety strategy, which is already under way, will look into the question of safety on the internet. We agree with Lords amendment 41, which requires the Secretary of State to produce a report on the impact and effectiveness of the new regulatory framework for online pornography. The amendment includes a requirement that the Secretary of State consults on the definitions used in the Bill.
The power for the regulator to direct internet service providers to block non-compliant sites is a significant step. The ISPs should take reasonable steps to block non- compliant sites when directed by the regulator to do so, but we should recognise that no solution is 100% effective.
I am delighted that we have been able to make this much progress in this Bill to protect children from harmful content online. I pay tribute to the work of many Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Devizes (Claire Perry) and for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), the former Secretary of State, the Select Committee and others. I look forward to putting this Bill into action.
Let me turn now to the other amendments proposed by the other place. Lords amendment 46 fulfils our manifesto commitment, just in time, to enhance the public lending right by extending it so that authors of e-books and audio books have the right to receive payment from a Government fund for the remote lending of these books from public libraries across the UK.
Lords amendment 240 concerns children’s TV programming. We support children’s TV and have extended the tax relief for animation and high-end programmes to children’s TV. This amendment, which was proposed, and strongly supported, by Baroness Benjamin in the other place, empowers Ofcom to support children’s TV further if necessary.
Lords amendment 241 concerns the accessibility of on-demand programmes. We debated that on Report in this House last November. I pay tribute to Action on Hearing Loss as well as to the many hon. Members who have pressed this matter. Ofcom will now have the power to ensure that subtitles or other appropriate provision is put in place.
Lords amendment 243 concerns listed events. In the UK, the listed events regime operates to protect free-to-view access to the coverage of sports events with a national significance. This amendment will ensure that the regime is future-proofed as the way people watch TV changes with new technologies.
Lords amendment 244 creates a new power for the Secretary of State to set a strategy and policy statement relating to telecommunications, the management of radio spectrum and postal services, which Ofcom, as the regulator, will have regard to when carrying out its statutory duties. During the passage of this Bill, there has been debate on the state of the UK’s fibre networks, the ability to switch communication provider, the quality of business connectivity and other matters such as the universal service obligation, which are all vital to our future economy. This new measure will allow the Government to establish a clear policy direction on all these matters to ensure greater coherence in an increasingly complex and interlinked environment. I pay tribute to, and thank, Ofcom for the work that it has done supporting the passage of this Bill. It is an excellent regulator.
On Report in this House, we agreed that the parental control filters on internet connections are a very important tool in protecting children from harmful material online. I agreed to ensure that the Bill was amended in the Lords to tackle concerns that the EU net neutrality regulation would render these controls, which have worked well, illegal. Lords amendment 245 delivers on that promise.
Lords amendment 249 responds to an operational requirement of the police who need support in tackling gangs, particularly those in large urban areas, who supply drugs, especially class A drugs, to suburban areas, and market and coastal towns. To support their market expansion, gangs recruit, exploit and use children and vulnerable adults to carry drugs and money through deception, intimidation, violence, debt bondage and grooming. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire for his long campaign on this and to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend Sarah Newton. With this amendment the police will be able to disrupt the mobile phones on which the drug gangs rely.
Lords amendments 249 to 252 are the start of our reform of the Data Protection Act. The new legal framework will come into force in May 2018, and these amendments pave the way by ensuring that the future funding mechanism can be put in place on time and provide certainty to data controllers.
Lords amendments 253 to 255 concern the Crown guarantee for BT pensions. These amendments are necessary following the announcement on
The provision in the Bill is to ensure that those whose pensions are protected under the Crown guarantee, which was provided at the privatisation of BT, will be able to retain that protection when they transfer to the separate organisation, Openreach. For those who are not leaving BT Group, there will be no change to their pension arrangements, so they are not negatively affected. Therefore, the provision is not necessary. It is necessary to allow this split to take place without detriment, and without added benefit, to any current BT employee, so that the Crown guarantee continues to operate essentially as it does today.
Further technical amendments have been tabled, including to safeguard journalists from data protection laws when whistleblowing—this was brought to my attention by my hon. Friend Sir Peter Bottomley and Helen Goodman—and to refine the electronic communications code. That is one of the core measures of the Bill which, for all its technicality, will be a crucial enabler of better connectivity and a driver of the digital economy.
Just before I conclude, let me say that improvements have been made to the Bill thanks to the work of many people on both sides of the House, but—
The Minister spoke about missed opportunities. Does he recognise that he leaves this Parliament with data sharing and the rights of citizens over their own data in exactly the same state—if not worse—of chaos and total mess across Departments that was the case when he took up his role, I think just over a year ago?
The hon. Lady is usually reasonable and constructive, so a sense of electioneering must have got into her. I am afraid that I do not recognise that description. We have made considerable progress in the Bill on data sharing, but of course the rules around data will have to evolve, not least because European rules will come into force before we leave the EU. Yes, there is more work to do, but I think that she must have had the rosette on a little bit too often recently, given that she is so churlish about the progress in the Bill.
Will the Minister answer the question? Do citizens own and control their own data—yes or no?
Well, of course citizens elect the Government, and in many cases the Government are responsible for data. Having democratic legitimacy behind the control of data is critical to a functioning democracy. No doubt we can return to this issue in the future. There are no Lords amendments on that subject, and I consider that the Bill represents significant progress.
I pay tribute to Louise Haigh. She has worked hard on the Bill and made a number of suggestions that we have taken on board. She has been a pleasure to negotiate with and very effective. When I am complimentary about her, she always tells me that I am damaging her career no end, so I hope that she will take my compliments in the spirit in which they are intended.
The Minister knows that it makes me deeply uncomfortable when we agree on anything, and that also applies to compliments paid from the Dispatch Box, but it is a great privilege to speak for the Opposition today during the closing stages of this Bill. Thanks to the deliberations of hon. Members on both sides of the House, including the Minister, and what I would describe as exemplary cross-party working, the Bill is in considerably better shape than when it was introduced last year.
The Bill still does not go far enough in a number of crucial areas. It represents a missed opportunity to update our infrastructure, skills strategy, finance, the responsibilities of the behemoths of the digital age, and the rights that individuals should have in this era when data is increasingly the currency that matters above all. Nevertheless, there have been some useful changes, and I am grateful to the Minister for his considered exposition of the Government’s position, especially regarding the amendments, with which we are not in dispute.
I will deal briefly with each of the Lords amendments in turn. Lords amendment 1 will increase the USO to superfast levels to ensure that every household and business in the country can benefit from speeds of at least 30 megabits per second. The benefits of that do not need repeating, as we have considered them at length during many debates in the short time that I have served as shadow Digital Minister, and the House is united on the need for much improved broadband speed and reliability across the country. Indeed, I note that the Minister’s constituency has fallen down the rankings for superfast availability during his tenure in his post, so he will be particularly keen to tackle this issue.
Just 59% of rural Britain has access to superfast speeds, while an utterly shocking 40% of people in rural hamlets do not have access to even basic broadband. In my city of Sheffield, superfast access is by no means universal. In fact, we have the poorest availability of any major city in the UK. I appreciate the Government’s argument about the universal service directive, although it is disappointing that more of an effort was not made at an earlier stage of the Bill’s passage to test that argument, given that Ofcom has clearly made the case that it is better value for money for the taxpayer to intervene in the market now and futureproof it for a speed of 30 megabits per second.
The European Commission provided only non-binding guidance in its latest review of universal service in 2011, so it is not entirely clear that a superfast designation is beyond the scope of its directive. Of course, the legal mechanism of a USO is only one of the tools that the Government have at their disposal to deliver decent broadband to all, including more highly specified services.
Nevertheless, Government amendment (c) in lieu of Lords amendment 1 directs Ofcom to continuously review broadband take-up across the UK and to review the USO accordingly, effectively tying the USO to the rest of the market and ensuring that the last 10%, 5% or 1% do not fall too far behind the rest of the UK. Of course, we would have liked the Government to back 30 megabits per second for all, and I do not accept that millions of consumers and businesses should simply be left behind. This was an opportunity to prepare the UK for the ubiquitous future demanded by the digital revolution, and although the Government’s amendment is a first step, it is a baby step and nothing more.
On Lords amendment 2, it is fantastic that the Government have now accepted the case that we put forward on mobile bill capping. Government amendment (a) in lieu of the Lords amendment will allow consumers to set a financial cap on their monthly bill when they enter a contract with their telecoms provider. Some mobile providers are offering bill caps already. Tesco Mobile and Three are leading the way, and BT Mobile has a cap of £5. In addition, some smaller companies have bill caps—Plusnet has a smart cap automatically set at £10, and iD Mobile has a £5 cap on its Shockproof tariffs. That proves that it is both possible and commercially viable for all companies to introduce such a measure. However, there is not currently the sector-wide standard that we would like. Amendment (a) will secure the same basic protections across the whole sector for all consumers, and we are delighted that the Government, who opposed such a measure earlier in the Bill’s passage, have seen sense and been persuaded by the sheer strength of our arguments
On pornography and age verification, under part 3 of the Bill, Members from all parties in the House have worked together in partnership, and very often in unison. The original intention of protecting children from the harmful effects of pornography remains. I am delighted that the House has worked together to ensure that we will have one of the most effective regimes in the world for protecting children from pornography.
The digital age brings with it responsibilities, and part 3 of the Bill is a recognition of that fact. However, its provisions have grown beyond the narrow bounds of age verification during the Bill’s passage. The blocking measures relating to age verification, which we supported, have also brought us into the contentious areas of what is categorised as extreme pornography or prohibited material. Our consideration of the Bill could have been a welcome opportunity to debate fully what should and should not be accessible on the internet, but due to the late tabling of Government amendments on Report in the Commons, debate was curtailed. It is vital that these issues are properly debated because we are treading a very thin line between protection and censorship. We are pleased that the Government have chosen to accept our reasonable amendment that will require the Secretary of State to produce a report on the impact and effectiveness of this regulatory framework. Crucially, the Government will also be required to consult on the definition of extreme pornography in the Bill.
Does the hon. Lady agree, however, that in setting out these definitions on a spectrum ranging from prohibited material to extreme pornography—I will speak to this later—we have left ourselves in something of a quandary, as material that she and I would probably agree is completely unacceptable can in theory be viewed behind age filters? I heard that the Minister was prepared to consider this unfinished business. Will the hon. Lady, on behalf of her party, commit to trying to work out these definitions in the next Parliament to ensure that we arrive at a better place?
That was exactly why we pushed for an amendment in the Lords and it is why we are so pleased that the Government have accepted it. We need consultation, as well as a clear definition of extreme pornography and prohibited material. My understanding of the legislation is that nothing extreme, prohibited or otherwise will be able to be viewed behind age verification filters. If something is determined as pornography and analysed as such by the British Board of Film Classification, it will be required to be behind such filters.
The hon. Lady is right, but she will know that the original definition referred to five statutes. We now have a definition that is much tighter, specifically because items that were included under the broader definition are now deemed not to be obscene—I agree with that. The problem is that there is material that, according to 85% of people who have viewed it, should not be accessible on the internet for any age group. Such material could be accessible behind those filters for anyone to see. That is the problem that we need collectively to solve.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. It is true that such material is currently available without any AV filters, so we have made substantial and welcome progress in this area, but the consultation in the next Parliament will be crucial. We look forward to participating in that debate and ensuring that we get the best possible regime for online pornography.
Several Government amendments on age verification were tabled in the Lords. We understand why technology cannot be dictated in legislation or even guidance, but the effectiveness of AV measures will obviously be determined by the technology that is used. If we are not careful, we could end up with age verification that is so light-touch as to be too easily bypassed by increasingly tech-savvy under-18s, or that is far too complicated and intrusive. That could push viewers on to sites that do not use age verification but still offer legitimate content, or completely illegal sites that stray into much more damaging realms. Equally, we must ensure that privacy and proportionality are at the heart of the proposals, so I push the Minister to say more about that.
The BBFC has intimated that its likely preference is age-verified mobile telephony, but there are significant privacy issues with that approach. We should proceed with extreme caution before creating any process that would result in the storing of data that could be leaked, hacked or commercialised when that would otherwise be completely private and legitimate. Concerns have been raised about whether the BBFC is appropriate to be the AV regulator, not least in relation to its conduct in lobbying Members of this House and the other. I am grateful that the Minister has listened to those concerns and that guidance will now be produced by the Secretary of State, meaning that there is proper accountability, and then issued to the regulator. I want to ensure that the report that the Secretary of State produces on the effectiveness of the regulation covers the regulator itself, so I would be grateful for clarification about that from the Minister.
On the social media code of conduct, we are delighted that the Government have taken a decisive step in the right direction. Amendment (a) in lieu of Lords amendment 40 requires the Secretary of State to issue a code of practice for online social media platforms in relation to bullying, directing insults, or other behaviour likely to intimidate or humiliate. It is difficult to understate the importance of tackling bullying and offensive behaviour online. Although social media has brought about transformative and significant changes for the good, it has also facilitated an exponential increase in bullying. It is estimated that seven in 10 young people have experienced cyber-bullying, with 37% of those people experiencing it frequently. Cyber-bullying can lead to anxiety, depression and even suicide.
This is the first time that social media providers will be subject to legislation on this issue. They will be required to have processes in place for reporting and responding to complaints about bullying. As the Minister said, some providers have taken steps to address these issues, but the pace of change has to keep up with the scale of the problem. It is absolutely right that the Government have taken decisive legislative action to make the internet a safer place for its users. I would be grateful if the Minister would confirm that there will be full public consultation when drafting the code of conduct.
On public service broadcasting prominence, we are happy to support Government amendment (a) in lieu of Lords amendment 242, which requires Ofcom regularly to review electronic programming guides in relation to public service broadcasting and the implications of changing technology for public service broadcasting. We are pleased that the Minister has confirmed that any necessary powers will be transferred to Ofcom, should it be required to intervene.
We are delighted that, after many years of campaigning, not least by my hon. Friend Mrs Hodgson, significant progress has been made on efforts to tackle abuses in the secondary ticket market. Fans across the country will be thanking her, the Minister and all those involved in the campaign, but we recognise there is still more to do and that the Waterson review must be implemented in full in the next Parliament. We are pleased that the Minister has again seen sense by accepting Lords amendments on e-lending and on-demand accessibility.
The Bill has been improved significantly and it has been a privilege to enter negotiations with the Government. It has also been a privilege to negotiate with the Minister, as he said it had been to negotiate with me. However, I must say that this Bill is not legislation for the digital economy. The tech sector waited eagerly for well over a year for the Government’s strategy and vision for this crucial area of our economy. To say that it was disappointed with the lack of ambition and strategic direction in the Bill and the Government’s eventual strategy would be a gross understatement. Our burgeoning digital economy is the largest in the world, growing at a rate that we could hardly have expected even a decade ago, but after seven years of a Conservative Government, 12 million people still lack basic digital skills.
Some 3 million homes and businesses do not have access to superfast broadband. Britain does not even feature on the fibre broadband league table, and our 4G mobile coverage lags firmly behind that of our major competitors. Too often, workers find themselves overworked, underpaid and exploited by bosses they never meet who do not even fulfil their basic duties as an employer. People across the country suffer from digital exclusion because our infrastructure is second-rate and our digital skills programme is well behind the times. Now should have been the moment to lay the foundations for not just a world-leading digital sector, but a truly world-leading economy with digital inclusion at its heart. Those foundations must be built on the responsibilities of employers towards the burgeoning workforce, of the digital giants to their users, and of the Government to create the environment in which digital can transform the economy.
Although the Bill undoubtedly brings forward some welcome changes, it has revealed an alarming lack of ambition for the country and a worrying indication of the Government’s priorities in relation to tech as we Brexit. I can assure the House that come
I welcome the Bill and the Lords amendments supported by the Government. This debate takes place against the background of the UK’s creative economy, which is the leading creative and tech economy in Europe. London is by far and away the leading creative and tech city in Europe and one of the major centres of the world. The creative and digital economy has been a major factor in our growth and is a great success story for this country. The Bill brings in a series of necessary and welcome measures for reform, but builds on a position of considerable strength, where the UK tech and creative economy is the envy of Europe and many others in the world.
I thank the Government for their intervention in online ticketing resales and abuse in the secondary ticketing market. This follows the campaign of Mrs Hodgson and my hon. Friend Nigel Adams, who have championed the cause. They brought it to the attention of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, and we held our first hearing on the matter in November, just before we debated the Bill on Report in the Commons. With cross-party support, we tabled an amendment seeking legislative reform to combat the use of bots and the failure of people correctly to identify tickets sold on the secondary market. The Minister said that the Government would consider the representations made, including amendments in the Lords. That has taken place. I congratulate him, the Secretary of State and the Department on the interest they have shown in the subject, on the important roundtables they hosted and on the decisive action that was taken, with the support of the Lords, to amend the Bill.
It is important that people who buy tickets online know what they are buying. I welcome the Competition and Markets Authority’s decision to open its investigation to ensure that the existing consumer protection legislation is being enforced. I also welcome the Minister saying that a ticket should have a unique reference number that people can see on the ticket when they purchase it. That would make it easier to identify the reseller.
There is also the question—perhaps the CMA could address this in its inquiry—of consumers buying tickets but not being clear about the seat number and row number. A reference number might not tell them where in a theatre the ticket is for. People end up buying, at high and inflated prices, a cheap ticket at the back of the hall that they were not aware they could have bought themselves in the first place. Many of the venues that gave evidence to the Select Committee complained about that, and it should be addressed through the CMA investigation to make sure that existing consumer protection legislation is enforced and that action is taken against people who breach it. However, the amendment to make sure there is a unique reference number is a welcome addition.
I also welcome the amendment to ban the use of bots to harvest tickets for mass resale. There has been widespread abuse in the market, and I am glad that these reforms will lead to decisive action to combat it.
I want briefly to touch on the code of practice for online social media platforms, which was rightly born out of the debate about internet safety and, in particular, cyber-bullying. This will be an interesting issue for the future, because many of the practices of social media companies are giving cause for concern. One of them is linked to the sale of tickets online, particularly where social media platforms promote and support secondary ticket sites, with tickets being fraudulently acquired or fraudulently sold, which should not be the case.
In the context of the debate about social issues such as fake news, it is also important to consider the broader social obligations social media companies and platforms have to protect users from harmful or misleading content, to make sure there is fair redress for those who are its victims and to recognise that companies do have an obligation. When looking at some of these important issues after the election, we might even consider placing in statute a broader obligation on companies that is linked to the failure to act. If someone refers evidence to a company that harmful, misleading or elicit content has been distributed on a site, and the company fails to act, there could be some measure of redress against the company. That would be an important first step in looking at a code of conduct and at the broader social obligations of social media companies, and I would welcome that, too.
It is only fitting that you are in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, because this is my last opportunity to speak before we break up, and you were there for my maiden speech. It is lovely to see you there.
I welcome the changes to the Bill. We have worked very well together, as the Minister and Louise Haigh outlined—at least, he is wearing red socks, so she might have had some influence on him, although she is shaking her head, and I think she is correct. None the less, it is excellent that we have been able to go on a journey with this Bill. A huge amount of work was needed; when we sat in the Bill Committee, there was a lot of concern that the Bill needed significant improvement. Even though we have managed to put a lot more into the Bill—something my colleagues and I have urged all along—there are still some deeply worrying issues, particularly around data sharing, which will need to be revisited.
It will not surprise Members who know me to hear that I would like to focus my comments exclusively on connectivity, especially given that the hon. Lady has covered every other aspect so wonderfully. Connectivity is a fundamental issue in rural communities and the lifeblood of our communities. It is no longer the roads, although people still complain about them, but the superhighways of the internet that people are desperately concerned about.
We therefore welcome the Government’s move on the universal service obligation. As we have heard, however, we would have liked to see more ambition, and the 30 megabits option, which was one of those proposed by Ofcom, highlights that that was possible. I do not accept the Government’s argument that it was not possible to be more ambitious because of the mechanism itself. If that truly is the case, we are perhaps choosing the wrong mechanism. If we are not choosing the wrong mechanism, we perhaps need to put in place other measures to ensure that rural communities are not left behind.
In areas in my constituency such as Oxnam, Bonchester Bridge and the Ettrick valley, 10 megabits would be a huge step forward, as people there have 5 or 12 kilobits or 1 megabit. Ten megabits would be welcome, but it will be overtaken in Scotland by the Scottish Government’s commitment to 30 megabits. The Minister has talked that down and said, “You’re not showing more ambition in Scotland. We could go further—things are open.” Well, I am afraid that the end product lets us down. In Scotland, the Scottish Government have committed to 30 megabits to 100% of the population over the current Scottish Parliament.
Let us look at what will happen with the Government’s offer here and at the trigger mechanism of a 75% subscription rate. In 2016, only 31% of people were getting 30 megabits; in 2015, it was only 27%. How long is a constituent in England, Wales or Northern Ireland going to have to wait before the USO catches up and gets to 75%? The USO could be either a really ambitious measure to close the digital divide or simply a safety net, and it is quite clearly the latter, which is fine—as long as it is clearly articulated as such—because other things can be done.
As the Minister knows, I have been a huge advocate of vouchers. I was disappointed that a voucher alternative was not included specifically in relation to the USO, but I welcomed the Government’s move at the end of last year to hold a consultation on vouchers. That consultation is ready to report, but we are going into purdah. On this occasion, I accept that that is a valid excuse for not continuing our discussion for a number of weeks. However, I urge the Government to live up to their ambition.
The Minister says that fibre means fibre and that fibre is the future, and the Chancellor talks about millions of pounds for fibre and 5G, but they need to ensure that that money is universally available, because based on the Government’s strategy to date, most of it, if not all of it, will flow to urban areas if there are no specific policies to ensure that it also goes into the rural economy. In their rush to get back up the fibre league tables, the Government will inevitably show the same pragmatism they have shown on superfast. I therefore urge them to use the opportunity of an election to put in their manifesto a commitment to vouchers and to empowering rural areas.
I have set up a Scottish borders digital forum, which brings together all the community councils. We have been looking at solutions and options, and we are considering how we not only catch up but put in place structures that ensure we do not fall behind in future. The USO will not help us do that; it will push fibre slightly further away, and we will see copper and perhaps some wireless. If we get the right support, communities in my constituency such as Newcastleton or those in the Lammermuirs, which want to do community fibre schemes, could leap ahead, and that is where the voucher schemes could prove so valuable. Perhaps the Minister could confirm, if he is not saving this for some future date, whether vouchers are something that he could support and that fit into the current model. They would allow constituents in the borders to see their speeds leap forward.
If we do not show more ambition, and put more money in, the Government’s policy will widen and cement the digital divide. They will be telling constituents in rural areas, “You can only get 10 megabits,” while people in the cities are suddenly getting gigabits. I am sure many hon. Members here—not least those in rural constituencies—think that that would be a failure of Government policy. So let us take this opportunity to show ambition and to ensure that we realise the full potential of fibre and connectivity into the future.
I close by again thanking the team here for the way it has worked. I would like to have been consulted a bit more and to have seen a bit more foresight and ambition in the whole scheme, but the Bill does represent progress, even though it is, as was said, a baby step.
Thank you, Madam Speaker, for giving me this final opportunity to speak on this Bill. I am particularly pleased given all our hard work and the fact that the Government have made the completion of its passage a priority during this final week.
I will confine my remarks to Lords amendments 246 and 247, which address problems in the secondary ticketing market that I, along with many other music fans, have been personally affected by. We have refined these proposals through various stages of the Bill Committee and discussed them at length in the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. I thank the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend Damian Collins, for helping us to get the time to hear detailed evidence on this very important issue. I also thank all my colleagues on the Committee for their tenacious advocacy for producers and fans of sports, theatre and music, and their constructive work to allow the Committee to make some unanimous recommendations for the Bill Committee.
I thank my hon. Friend for his words. Does he agree that it was particularly regrettable that Viagogo decided not to appear in front of the Committee when it should have given important evidence to us? Many people will draw their own conclusions as to its reasons for not appearing.
I could not agree more. It is despicable that Viagogo has dodged and been slippery around attending the Select Committee. There have been so many victims of Viagogo that it should have taken the opportunity to come and explain how it markets itself and presents its website. I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend.
I do not know if you are going to mention Claire Turnham and her campaign at this juncture, and I do not want to steal your thunder if you are, but I just wanted to mention—
Correct—his thunder. I wanted to mention that I have had an email from Claire Turnham, as I know you have—[Interruption.] He has, I mean. You would think I would have got the hang of this by now, Madam Deputy Speaker—I have been doing it for 12 years. I am obviously demob happy. I do apologise, and I will try to get the protocol right. Claire Turnham has been in touch, and the numbers are shocking—£51,000 has already been refunded to the victims of Viagogo. I was astonished, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman was, that there are still 418 members waiting to join the group.
I can assure the hon. Lady that my thunder is still very much intact and has not been stolen. I totally agree. The campaign that Claire Turnham has run has been exemplary, but she should not have had to run it. The customer services team at Viagogo should have dealt with the complaints that were flooding in. We will see, but I suspect that we have not heard the last of Viagogo in this place.
Although we have not been able to conclude the inquiry due to the impending Dissolution, I hope that our successor Committee, however it is comprised, will adopt the evidence that we have already heard and continue this work. I thank Mrs Hodgson, who has campaigned for years to get wider attention for the problems with secondary ticketing. Based on the number of people across the country who have shared their stories of being ripped off or missing out on a favourite show because of the practices of parasitical touts, I imagine that a large number of colleagues across this House have also heard from affected constituents how these practices are poisoning our cultural wells both for fans and creators.
Amendment 247 will prohibit breaches of ticket sales limits, helping to combat touts who use bot software to gobble up tickets before genuine fans can get them. I originally tabled a version of this amendment in Committee, and, thankfully, members of the Select Committee unanimously added their names. I am grateful to Ministers, particularly my right hon. Friend the Minister for Digital and Culture, a huge Paul Simon fan who has had experiences trying to gain Paul Simon tickets; to Members of the other place for their co-operation in fleshing out the legal details for a workable law; and to the Secretary of State for her work in engaging very closely with the industry.
It is particularly important that the amendment provides for an unlimited fine when someone is found guilty of this offence. Fans and ticket agents have been engaged in a technological arms race against increasingly sophisticated touts who can make tens of thousands of pounds of profit in one go from, say, just one pair of Adele tickets. To prevent fans from being fleeced and to protect the rights of artists to decide how they want to sell their tickets, we needed to make touting a genuinely bad proposition for those seeking to make a quick windfall, and a smaller fine could not have done that. I am very pleased that this law has teeth.
Amendment 246 seeks to augment the Consumer Rights Act 2015 provisions that require transparency and declaration of certain information to the buyer during any ticket resale. We have heard time and again from fans who have bought tickets from touts only to find that they were misled about the validity of those tickets or where the tickets were located, or even denied entry; and, on the other side, from artists and venues who have anti-touting policies but cannot enforce them because touts and resale websites either flout the Consumer Rights Act or are not required under the Act to declare enough information for them to identify and cancel these tickets.
Some of these stories are heart-breaking. As we have heard, one of the worst offenders has been the company Viagogo, which, in addition to often completely ignoring Consumer Rights Act requirements to declare information such as the face value of the ticket, has often even failed to display to consumers the full price they would be paying for the resold tickets. As a result, fans who thought they would be paying a couple of hundred pounds would end up instead finding that their credit cards had been charged amounts into the thousands. For some, the dire financial straits this put them into has led them to have panic attacks and even to consider suicide. The Victims of Viagogo group organised by Claire Turnham has identified approximately £108,000 of refunds owed, of which less than half has been refunded, and the group has hundreds upon hundreds more ripped-off fans waiting to join. Even when a refund is given, people are still left without tickets for events they were excited about, with disappointed children and a family day out ruined, as was the case for one woman who hoped to surprise her husband with concert tickets when he came home from serving in Afghanistan. As we have heard, our Select Committee invited Viagogo to give evidence and respond to our questions, but it left an empty chair. I hope that our successor Committee does not let this pass.
Lords amendment 246, and the Government amendment to it, are important because adding an unique ticket reference number to any ticket resale will allow consumers to check with a venue, in advance of the purchase, whether that ticket will be valid, and also allow artists and venues to enforce their terms and conditions and to cancel touted tickets. There is no point in making a rule if we cannot enforce it, and it is high time for touts to learn that they cannot simply continue with impunity. I therefore ask that Ministers work with the industry to establish in regulations what constitutes a unique ticket number that will be identifiable to agents and venues. If this happens, it is genuine progress, and I am grateful to the Government for getting behind it. Originally, however, Lords amendment 246 included the addition of a requirement for the CRA to list any terms and conditions associated with resale of a ticket. The Government amendment has deleted that provision, contending that this is already covered under section 90(3)(b). What I have learned seems to indicate to me that the position is significantly less clear. An unequivocal statement from the Minister would therefore be a welcome step, and I would also be grateful if we could look into this further in future.
Going back to the point about a law being only as good as its enforcement, one problem we have is that there have not yet been any prosecutions under the Consumer Rights Act for violations to do with secondary ticketing, and instead the Competition and Markets Authority is undertaking a review. The review is welcome, and should I be re-elected I will be most interested in its conclusions. There have clearly been many and myriad violations of the CRA with regard to ticket reselling. Without having been able to test the law’s function in court, we do not know whether it is legally effective and fit for purpose, not to mention the fact that the lack of prosecutions means that the law is not serving as the robust protection for consumers that it was intended to be.
For example, Metallica—a group with which I am sure you are familiar, Madam Deputy Speaker—has a very popular UK tour coming up this autumn. There are strict conditions attached to the tickets, including that the lead booker must enter with others in their party, which is limited to a maximum of four. They must also present photo identification matching the name on the purchase. All those conditions have been clearly listed by the primary sellers, namely Ticketmaster and the Ticket Factory. However, the FanFair Alliance, which does great work in this area, has found multiple listings on Ticketmaster’s secondary sites, Get Me In and Seatwave, as well as on those of the other two major resellers, StubHub and Viagogo, which do not note those conditions. It is a disaster waiting to happen for fans, if the venues follow through on enforcing those conditions.
Whether the problem is one of enforcement of the CRA or of the CRA being unclear, it certainly needs to be sorted out, because it is obvious that the conditions are not being consistently declared. Personally, I cannot see how it would be harmful to make the Consumer Rights Act absolutely clear on that issue, and I would appreciate clarification from the Minister.
Although we have achieved great progress, problems remain with secondary ticketing and they need to be considered in future. A number of dodgy practices are yet to be investigated. This week I heard from someone who recently resold spare tickets on StubHub. He told me that he had priced the tickets below those offered by other sellers and closer to their face value, but instead of a fan buying them it was StubHub itself that bought the tickets, presumably to resell for an even greater profit.
The potential use of Google AdWords is also an issue. Ticket resellers, including Viagogo, spend top dollar to advertise themselves highly in Google’s search results, often masquerading as official ticket resellers when in fact they have not been authorised by the venues or the event organisers and are selling tickets that are invalid if resold. I understand from Google that it wishes to be vigilant of deceptive advertising but that to act on those issues it needs evidence and examples to be reported, either from consumers who have been turned away from events after buying a ticket from a company using a sponsored link on Google, or from the Advertising Standards Authority. Such information has not been forthcoming thus far.
In conclusion—I can see the joy on the Whip’s face at those words. [Hon. Members: “More!”] There is more, if Members would like me to continue. [Interruption.] I will not quote any of Metallica’s lyrics, but only because I do not know them. I thank Ministers, the Secretary of State and colleagues across this House for helping to make some real progress in this Bill and I look forward to seeing its measures enacted.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Gentleman, who I have got to know very well in our time campaigning on this issue during this and the last Parliament. It is a real delight that we have reached this stage and I rise to speak in favour of Lords amendments 246 and 247 on the resale of tickets. It is with great delight that I welcome the news that the Government accept those Lords amendments and that they will make it on to the statute book before this Parliament dissolves.
It goes without saying that we would not be in this position without the concerted cross-party campaigning to put fans first in this broken market. None of that would have happened without the campaigning by me and others over the years. The list is very long, so I hope that the House will indulge me. It includes the steadfast support received from my own party’s Front Benchers, especially in recent years. The shadow Minister, my hon. Friend Louise Haigh, made an excellent speech today; I sincerely hope that she will be returned so that she can continue in that vein.
Conservative Members have also given support, including, most notably in the last Parliament, Mike Weatherley, the former Member for Hove and Portslade, who I know is a friend of Nigel Adams. Mike Weatherley and I founded and co-chaired the all-party parliamentary group on ticket abuse. In recent years, the hon. Gentleman, Damian Collins and other members of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, including Nigel Huddleston—I was going to say the gentleman sitting over there wearing a red tie, but that would have made me sound like David Dimbleby—have worked tirelessly on its investigation into the secondary ticketing market. I sincerely hope that the Committee will pick up on the issue again in the next Parliament, so that all of the inquiry’s hard work is not lost. I am sure that that will happen.
I also acknowledge the Minister’s customary good humour and willingness to listen, which, along with the work of shadow Front Benchers in the Lords and those who tabled the amendments, has ensured that we have reached a satisfactory conclusion. I also thank the Secretary of State, who I am pleased to see in the Chamber. More than three years ago, when she was a Home Office Minister, she met me and the former Member for Hove and Portslade to discuss the fraud aspect of this issue. That proves that Ministers have long memories, so such meetings are worth it.
In response to a point raised by the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend Nigel Adams, we are clear that section 93 of the Consumer Rights Act requires secondary sellers to provide information on ticket restrictions on resale.
Excellent. I was going to come on to that issue, following on from the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty. I will have to remember not to press the Minister on it, because he has already addressed it. That is welcome and I am pleased that he has put it on the record.
I also commend the sterling work over many years by colleagues on both sides of the House of Lords. Way back in 1997, the Labour peer Lord Pendry, the then shadow Sports Minister, was the first to coin the phrase, “put fans first”, so I cannot claim credit for that, as I did not invent it. He campaigned on the issue way back then, but sadly for him and, indeed, for us, he was not made a Minister in the Government that followed, so he was not able to ensure that this happened 20 years ago. That shows that this day has been a very long time coming.
More recent contributions have been made by Lord Stevenson and Baroness Hayter from the Labour Front Bench, Lord Clement-Jones of the Liberal Democrats and the amazingly talented late Baroness Heyhoe Flint of the Conservatives, who tabled the first relevant amendments in the Lords and who sadly passed away a few months ago. She was a joy to work with. Without this campaign I would never have had the chance to know her and I wish I could have had that privilege for longer.
I also want to give a special mention to the former Sports Minister and Conservative peer, Lord Moynihan, whose renowned tenacity during debates on the Consumer Rights Act 2015 and the wash-up at the end of the last Parliament ensured that we got certain measures on to the statute book. Without him, we would not have progressed to where we are now, as we would still be at base camp waiting for the weather to shift. He has been the most amazing ally and expert in this crusade, and all fans across the country who are not ripped off in the future should know his name and thank him.
Having finished the thank yous, I turn to the business at hand. Lords amendments 246 and 247 will take us one step closer to ensuring that fans are finally put first in the secondary market, something has been sorely lacking for years. At this point, I was going to press the Minister on the point that he has clarified, so I thank him again for doing so. Accepting the Lords amendments is a fitting way to end this Parliament, and I am confident that any residual issues will be picked up quickly once Parliament returns following the general election.
None of us know or can predict what will happen come polling day, but if the good people of Washington and Sunderland West re-elect me, and if other Members present are re-elected by their constituents, I will definitely get right back to businesses and pick up where we leave off today, because there are plenty more issues to continue to campaign on. We have taken one step closer, granted, but we are still far from our cross-party vision of a fair market that ensures that fans are not ripped off.
We need to consider the enforcement of current legislation, such as that which is being investigated by the Consumer Markets Authority, as the Chair of the Select Committee mentioned. We need to support the victims of viagogo, who, as the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty mentioned, have been unfairly and ripped off by one of the worst players in this market, which, disgracefully, did not attend the Select Committee when called to do so. We should definitely revisit that question to see whether there are ways to force companies that have their head office overseas to come and give evidence in this place. It seems wrong that they can evade that by saying that they are not based in the UK when all their customers are based in the UK. We should also ensure that the Waterson review’s recommendations are implemented fully and effectively. The list of things that we need to put right could go on, but those are just a few of the many issues that must be picked up in the next Parliament.
Finally, I want to again thank the Minister, the Secretary of State, my Front-Bench colleagues, Members from across the House and our colleagues in the other place for committing so much time to this campaign. For the early part of the past eight years, I felt like a lone warrior, but I have welcomed the momentum and support from Members of both Houses that have built up around the campaign. That momentum cannot slow when the newly elected House returns in June. Fans deserve for us to campaign for them at every opportunity and to put them first. Let us all commit to continue to fight for them until this market is cleaned up, then our work will be done.
It is a pleasure to speak today, because, as in the case of my friend Calum Kerr—I call him my friend with sincerity—you, Madam Deputy Speaker, were in the Chair when I gave my maiden speech. You will also be in the Chair while I make my final speech of this Parliament.
I support the Bill wholeheartedly as it is consumer-friendly from beginning to end. That will be of extreme benefit to my constituents; it will improve their lives and enable them to grow their businesses and have more fulfilling careers. In particular, I want to highlight the points made about the universal service obligation, switching mobile phones—this has been an ongoing debate for a while and it is good to see resolution on it—and all the initiatives with digital government. I also appreciate the intent of many of the suggested amendments, if not their exact wording, and agree with the Minister that those that have been accepted are there to improve the Bill.
I would also like to echo the comments of many other Members by saying that in the development of the Bill and in Committee—we almost have an alumni network of Committee members in the Chamber today—it has been very nice for me, as a relatively new MP, to see Parliament working at its best, when we work across parties, have meetings and discussions, and disagree respectfully, but come to reasonable conclusions because we have the same intent in mind. We see the theatre of Prime Minister’s questions and other events, but Parliament does a lot of work across the parties. I echo the comments in praise of the work done by many colleagues over many years, well before I came to the House of Commons, to make significant progress on a vital Bill.
I respectfully disagree slightly with Louise Haigh. I would not like to run down the UK digital economy. We have the largest digital economy in terms of percentage of GDP in the world and this Bill will enable us to be even more successful. We need to ensure that we have an enabling Bill to continue that success. We should not take our digital leadership for granted, and measures in this Bill will therefore be a huge advantage.
The Minister mentioned further work being required in several other areas. I agree with him, particularly on bill capping and many of the topics to do with the significant changes required in secondary ticketing. The devil will be in the detail on secondary ticketing. I completely understand the rationale for having a booking number or unique reference number for secondary ticket transactions, but we have to be very careful that that does not have the unintended consequence of opening things up to more fraud. We must be very careful about the details of that element of the Bill.
Finally, I want to comment on the internet and social platforms. I know a fair bit about this because, as many Members know, I worked for Google before I came to Parliament. It is a great company, as are all the major internet players. They do a lot of good, but they also need to take their responsibilities far more seriously than they have of late. I welcome the changes, and significant progress has been made on child exploitation images and age verification. It was alarming for me to learn that 1.4 million people under the age of 18 accessed pornography in the UK just last year.
The scale of inappropriate content online now is huge. YouTube alone has 400 hours of video uploaded every single minute of every single day. A lot of that content is perfectly acceptable—fine, fun, entertaining, newsworthy and so on—but some of it is inappropriate and the scale of the inappropriate material is shocking, and this comes from someone who worked in the sector for a while. Every single day, Google removes 200,000 videos that have been flagged as inappropriate. Last year, Google removed 92 million videos from YouTube for being inappropriate, up from 14 million the year before. Clearly, Google are being active and other social media platforms, particularly Facebook and Twitter, are being somewhat active, but we need to send a message loudly and clearly, particularly when we consider the social media code of conduct, that although they are doing something they are not doing enough.
If that means that they have to spend millions, tens of millions or billions working on making sure that we, our children and our families are protected and can operate online in safety, so be it. I would prefer the companies to do this of their own volition and to take appropriate action by investing considerably in technology and human resources—bodies to make judgments and assessments on the appropriateness of content online—but I hope that I can work with colleagues across the parties when we come back to Parliament, as I hope we will, to ensure that if they do not act we will take action for them.
To get back to the Bill, I am at a slight disadvantage compared with other Members who served on the Committee and have a better insight into the Bill. I want to restrict my speech mainly to Lords amendment 1. I found myself somewhat in agreement with Calum Kerr—we come from rural areas, although his is in Scotland and mine in Northern Ireland, and we find ourselves in fairly similar places on this matter. At one stage, the Minister said that the Bill was unfinished business and I think that he will find that as time goes forward it will continue to be unfinished business. Technology is moving on so fast that we will see more demands, no matter what area that is in. That is my one concern about the Bill; it might not be future-proof. I accept that there is movement in reducing the proposal from 30 megabits per second down to 10 megabits for broadband.
I understand that argument, and one reason we rejected Lords amendment 1 was precisely because it was not future-proofed and contained specific figures. The powers in the Bill require Ofcom to review speeds so that as technology advances so too can the expectations and demands of the universal service obligation.
I thank the Minister for that clarification, which is useful for someone such as me, who does not have that specific insight. And hey, if we can get 10 megabits per second to all the householders and businesses in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, that is great. It is a huge job of work, as less than 40% of businesses and households in my constituency have access to 10 megabits per second. If we can get to that grade, I say bring it on, and the sooner the better. I want to see businesses flourish. In an area that is very rural, many of the application forms of agriculture now have to be done online. It is a requirement, and we do not have the access to the high-speed broadband needed to do that.
Will the hon. Gentleman accept from me that there are rural areas in England, too? Although the Government are to be congratulated on what they are doing, does he agree that we must do more to ensure that geographically isolated areas do not remain digitally isolated?
I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman—he has my full support in his attempts to resolve that matter.
I will give hon. Members an example. My young son got a new PlayStation 4 for Christmas 16 months ago, and I promised to download him a game for Christmas. I gave him the voucher on Christmas morning in the hope that the game, which was some sort of simulator, would have downloaded by lunchtime, but it had not even downloaded by new year’s day—it took 10 days to download. Such things are frustrating for young people. They also have to be able to do their classwork and their student work, so they rely on being online. There is now a great deal of reliance on being online.
I want to put on record my appreciation for the fact that the Government have introduced this important Bill and ensured that it has made progress. I accept the Minister’s suggestion that Lords amendment 1 was not future-proofed, but I emphasise that we must continue to look at the matter regularly, because changes will be required.
I want to make three points, and I will not detain the House for too long. First, I want to set out for the benefit of the Front Benchers the concern that I still feel about some definitional points; secondly, I want to talk about how far we have come; and, thirdly, I want to echo what has been said about how cross-party working can deliver in this place.
Both Ministers have received a letter from me on the part 3 amendments. I understand how we have reached the current position. We expressed concern during various briefings about the fact that definitional questions about the difference between “prohibited” and “extreme” were not thrashed out in Committee. I commend Ministers for the very productive Committee proceedings. Despite what the Opposition Front-Bench team have said, I think that the Bill was greatly improved by the current ministerial team, who showed a real willingness to engage, listen and improve the Bill. I feel strongly that we are in a much better place after Committee than we were when we started.
We have had concerns about the definition of “prohibited material”, which is now a clear, appropriate and workable definition guided by five different statutes, one of which is the Obscene Publications Act 1959. That Act gave rise to the concern about whether certain acts—I will not trouble Hansard to check whether certain terms are permissible; I will simply not use them—that were once considered to be illegal are no longer considered to be so, and thus should not be captured by the definition of “prohibited”. I think that the concern over those very specific items led the Government to narrow the focus too much to a definition of extreme pornography. That definition leaves in the middle a lot of material that is not currently captured by statute, but is considered to be anything from life-threatening, at worst, to damaging at best.
By my reading, the definition of extreme pornography makes space for two things: all but the most extreme forms of sexual violence—by that I am referring to choking pornography and multiple sexual acts on one woman or man—and non-photographic child sexual images, including animation. The latter particularly concerns us, because we have all worked hard to ensure that this whole area is outlawed, without any discussion of what is permissible. I think we would all support the complete removal of that whole area from the internet.
It was a great privilege to work with the hon. Lady on the Committee. Does she share my concern that we do not yet have enough information or clear, research-based evidence about the long-term impact of viewing or appearing in all sorts of different types of pornography?
The hon. Lady has worked assiduously in this area, and I thank her for our many conversations and the improvements that we have made together to the Bill. She is quite right: in some ways we are conducting an experiment with the unknown, in terms of child-rearing and the way in which young people absorb information about the world. It is not for me to stand here and pontificate about what might or might not be harmful, but according to research that Care and others have shared with me, when people are shown images of activities that will now be permitted behind an age verification screen, between 74% and 81% favour preventing any access to them. That is the joint response from men and women, although unsurprisingly women have a stronger sense that such images should not be visible to any age group.
The Bill will mean that we use the definition of “prohibited material” in the offline world, but the narrower definition of “extreme pornography” in the online world. When people are asked whether that is sensible, 82% say that the regime should be as tough or tougher for online material, given its ease of access for the generation we are trying to protect.
I want to put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend, who, like others, has improved the Bill no end through her work. I reiterate that what is illegal offline is illegal online. For online, we have used the Bill to introduce and enforce age verification. Age verification can, of course, take place only online, because it is about stopping people from viewing such material online. I therefore think the point that she has just made is taken care of.
As for definitions, we had to use an existing definition but, as I said in my speech, we regard that as unfinished business. We have accepted an amendment that compels the Secretary of State to report, after consultation, between 12 and 18 months after this Bill is enacted. That report will provide the opportunity to take all the research into account and reach a good settlement that has strong support behind it, rather than doing everything in a rush just before the Dissolution of Parliament.
I appreciate the Minister’s comments, and he neatly anticipates what I was going to say: I have no intention of causing trouble at this stage, because he has assured us from the Dispatch Box and in meetings of his firm commitment to making sure that these definitional questions are resolved in such a way as to enable all parties to support them.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way a second time. I want to put on record a further concern that I raised by tabling a probing amendment in Committee, but that remains unresolved. Regardless of the appearance of the acts, I am concerned about the welfare and safety of people who may have been coerced, forced or violently pushed into appearing in pornography. We may not be able to tell whether that is the case from viewing such material, and I am very concerned about the effect that that can have.
The hon. Lady raises an important point about such material, which is easily available and, in some cases, marketed for commercial purposes. Many of us believe—evidence is emerging to back this up—that it may be extremely damaging to people who view it, particularly if they are underage, as well as to those who are coerced into performing such acts. I hope that the hon. Lady shares my relief and satisfaction about the fact that Ministers accept that, and that they are prepared to continue to consider the question of who this material is harmful to.
That brings me neatly to my second point, which is to emphasise quite how far we have come. I pay tribute to many colleagues, some of whom are not in the Chamber. Some, like Fiona Mactaggart, are standing down. With me, she led the cross-party inquiry into the original question about what we should do in this space. In the face of much prevarication and pushback—not from within this place, but primarily from the industry—we managed to deliver a result that was effective and proportionate. I thank all colleagues, including Ministers and shadow Ministers, for continuing to work with such commitment.
I want to refer to the recent conversations that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has had about banning extremist material or making its dissemination more difficult. In this space, none of us is a technological expert—with the exception of my hon. Friend Nigel Huddleston, who can probably claim to be one—but I think that we understand what our constituents want. Whenever we want to change something in this space, we get the response, “Oh, don’t trouble your little heads about the internet,” or, “You innocent people know nothing about this, so how can you possibly stand up and talk about stopping extremist material or preventing children from accessing material online? You do not really understand that the internet is a special place and it should be different.” I have never understood why we should allow the internet to be a special form of content dissemination when we willingly accept self-regulation and Government regulation of other forms of media distribution.
What has been so good about the journey we have been on since 2012 is that we have seen an increase in corporate social responsibility, as my hon. Friend said. We have seen internet service providers—led, I might say, by TalkTalk and Sky, which were then joined rapidly by the others—really going out there to put in place family-friendly filters and to invest in education about online safety. I was delighted to see that the proposed changes for PSHE—personal, social and health and economic education—include conversations about how our young people can be safe digital citizens online.
I want to report back from a visit I recently conducted to the wonderful Internet Watch Foundation in Cambridge. It has benefited substantially from increased funding from the industry as the result of the work that we have all done. That work has enabled it to go into places such as the dark web, where it knows that people are exchanging child abuse imagery, and to block that material and take it down. It is extremely grateful for the work the Government have continued to do and the support it has received from right across the House.
However, I share the concerns raised by my hon. Friend. I still think that companies out there are hiding behind their legal jurisdiction in the United States, and therefore their adherence, as it were, to a very different set of freedom of speech standards. Secondly, they are giving the slightly shoulder-shrugging response, “Well, if you make it illegal, we will comply,” which is not the way to build Government and consumer confidence in their platforms. I am afraid that time is running out for companies such as Facebook to be saying, “We’re really sorry that a video of a man hanging his 18-month-old baby was on the internet.” If the company can be so clever as to make an advert for a specific colour of shoes, which I had browsed once, that will follow me around the internet almost in perpetuity, I think it has the technology—the pictorial and IP addressing technology—to deal with that. It would probably say, “Look, she does not know the right words,” but I am a politician, not a technologist. I think that the industry is stuffed full of very clever people who could make this change happen if they wanted to, and they should stop looking for individual or collective Governments to force them to do so.
Finally, I want once again to put on record my thanks to all Members who have campaigned with me. Together we have really made a difference. I also thank Ministers, who have really taken this seriously and worked very hard to deliver real progress. Should I be lucky enough to be re-elected in a few weeks’ time, I guess I will be happy to continue this journey, particularly in relation to the definitional clarity that would enhance this space even further.
Lords amendment 1 disagreed to.
Government amendments (a) to (c) made in lieu of Lords amendment 1.
Lords amendment 2 disagreed to.
Government amendment (a) made in lieu of Lords amendment 2.
Lords amendments 3 to 39 agreed to.
Lords amendment 40 disagreed to.
Government amendments (a) and (b) made in lieu of Lords amendment 40.
Lords amendments 41 to 236 agreed to.
Lords amendments 237 to 239 disagreed to.
Lords amendments 240 and 241 agreed to.
Lords amendment 242 disagreed to.
Government amendment (a) made in lieu of Lords amendment 242.
Lords amendments 243 to 245 agreed to.
Amendment (a) made to Lords amendment 246.
Lords amendment 246, as amended, agreed to.
Lords amendments 247 to 289 agreed to, with Commons financial privilege waived in respect of Lords amendments 248 to 254.
We now come to my favourite piece of parliamentary procedure, so in my last session in the Chair, I am delighted to ask the Whip to move the motion for the Reasons Committee.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (
That Matt Hancock be the Chair of the Committee.
That three be the quorum of the Committee.
That the Committee do withdraw immediately.—(Chris Heaton-Harris.)
Question agreed to.
Committee to withdraw immediately; reasons to be reported and communicated to the Lords.