I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
We live in a digital economy. Almost £600 billion of online sales were made in the UK in 2014. That is the largest per capita online sales figure in the world, of all the major economies, at just over £1,500 per head. To put that figure in context, it is more than 50% higher than that of the United States, which is the next highest valued market. The rate of job creation in digital industries is nearly three times as fast as in the rest of the economy; it was 1.56 million in 2014, and it is growing. Supporting the digital economy was core to our manifesto, and that is why this Bill is a central plank of the Government’s legislative programme in this Session. The Government are working tirelessly to help people and businesses to benefit from digital.
On that point about benefit, is the purpose of part 5 to claim rights of ownership over all data? The definition of benefit in clause 29 is so broad that I cannot think of a piece of information that would elude it. Can the Secretary of State name a piece of information that falls without that clause?
I think my right hon. Friend has just made a bid to serve on the Bill Committee. He has clearly taken a great interest in the Bill—although, as a former Whip, I wonder whether that much interest qualifies anybody to be anywhere near a Bill Committee. I assure him that that is not the function of the Bill or the intention behind it. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be able to explore that question further during our line-by-line scrutiny in Committee.
To return to digital, our £1.7 billion roll-out plan means that 95% of all homes and businesses will have access to superfast speeds by 2017. We have one of the fastest 4G roll-outs in Europe, and 98% of premises will have indoor 4G coverage by the end of 2017.
My right hon. Friend raises, quite rightly, the impressive programme for the roll-out of superfast broadband. Does she share my concern that too many new homes are still being built without that as standard? Will she work with her colleagues across the Government to make sure that that situation changes?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her intervention. When she was Secretary of State, she was involved in much of the work that has put us in the situation we are in today. That is an extremely good situation, but there is still much more to do. She makes an important point about new build, and I assure her that I am discussing it with my colleagues in Cabinet.
May I congratulate the Secretary of State on her new post and welcome her to it? I pay tribute to her predecessor and to the former Minister with responsibility for the digital economy, who did assiduous work on this. The Secretary of State mentioned 95% coverage by 2017 and linked it with mobile coverage, but many of the areas in the 5% that will not be covered do not have 4G or 3G coverage either. Will she tell the House that when the roll-out plan for universal broadband is done, she will consider giving that to areas such as mine, which could be a pilot scheme? It is a serious point, because if people do not have mobile or broadband, they do not have communications in the 21st century.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I have a similar constituency, so I know well what it is like to be in the last 5%. This is all about connected and joined-up digital, and making sure that we give everybody access to the digital economy, whether they are in the final 5% or in the 95% that is already in the plans. I will say more about the universal service obligation shortly.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to shaping the digital world to ensure that no one is left behind. Is she aware that those who are deaf or who have hearing loss are being excluded by the lack of subtitling? That is required on linear television, but it is not provided on the vast majority of on-demand services. Will she look at that exclusion? There is a huge opportunity to amend the Bill, so will she think again about extending the Communications Act 2003 to include the deaf and those with hearing loss?
The hon. Lady makes a very good point. I am aware of that point; it has been raised with me, and I am working on it with the Minister for Digital and Culture to improve the situation. I hope that the hon. Lady agrees that there has been progress in that area, but I fully take the point that we always need to do more. If she will forgive me, I will make some progress now, because I am aware that many right hon. and hon. Members want to contribute to the debate.
When it comes to broadband coverage, we are ahead of our major European competitors. In 2015, the UK maintained its No. 1 position for the widest access to superfast broadband, ahead of Germany, France, Italy and Spain. That connectivity drives business. Edinburgh, for example, has a thriving FinTech sector; Cardiff and Swansea have a particular specialism in cyber-security; Belfast’s strengths include app and software development; and Manchester boasts a world-class digital media cluster. The Government are supporting and enabling that, by providing funding through Tech City and supporting businesses through UK Trade & Investment.
Most fundamentally, we are ensuring that our citizens have the skills to keep the UK ahead. We were one of the first countries in the world to put computer coding in the national curriculum, and we are focusing on digital skills for adults, so that no one is left behind. The House may be interested to know that last year the most popular A-level was mathematics, and I am extremely pleased to hear that it is doing so well in the A-level stakes.
The Government are also digitally transforming. Our Government Digital Service has made us one of the world’s first “digital by default” countries—a model that has been copied around the globe. We are aggressively modernising the way in which the Government interact with citizens. Managing information well brings benefits, such as allowing drivers to share their licence information with insurers and car hire companies, which makes transactions faster. There is a new system to ensure that the electoral roll tallies with benefits data to stamp out fraud, and there are automatic fuel discounts for vulnerable pensioners.
On sharing information, does the Secretary of State agree that technologies such as blockchain will challenge how we share information and, critically for the financial sector, how we make payments more quickly and get rid of the middle man?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We are already looking at this and trialling it. The more we can do to use data and digital to enable people to transact more quickly, the better. Clearly, we have the challenges of data protection; we must ensure that people’s data are protected. There is a tension, but it is one that we are acutely aware of and working on.
We can be proud of our successes, but the Government’s ambitions are greater than that. Although 19 in 20 premises will be able to access superfast broadband, one in 20 will not. For that significant minority, the Bill brings good news. Implementation of the new broadband universal service obligation will require the designated communications provider to connect customers on demand at an affordable price. Eventually, technological developments will allow everyone to have a superfast connection, but until then the Bill will provide a safety net, so that by 2020 a minimum broadband speed of 10 megabits per second should be available. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) murmurs from a sedentary position, but that is the absolute minimum safety net.
The Secretary of State forced me—she virtually begged me—to stand up. I hear all the self-congratulation, and as much as I admire the former Minister with responsibility for the digital economy, the truth of the matter is that the original target was to get all the superfast broadband done by May 2015. That target has not been met, and the new target is December 2017. The Secretary of State is talking about a superfast speed that would not be recognised as superfast anywhere else in Europe, and 10 megabits per second is simply not enough to deliver for this country.
I am sure my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) will be delighted to be admired by the hon. Gentleman, but the hon. Gentleman is simply misrepresenting the position. Is he saying he is opposed to that position? Is he saying he is opposed to the Bill? Is he saying he is opposed to the measures in the Bill, which will make sure we have the maximum roll-out so everybody has access to broadband?
The Secretary of State is asking me questions now. It is normally the other around. If she is going to keep on stimulating me in this way, let me say that, no, I think the Bill should be far more ambitious. We should be making sure that 4G is available to everybody, not have 70% of people in rural areas not getting any 4G at all, and we should have a universal service obligation of 15 megabits per second.
The hon. Gentleman should listen to the rest of my speech and then support the measures the Government are introducing. We want to make sure that we deliver—to ensure that there is access to broadband, that there is access to 4G and that everybody is connected.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, notwithstanding the comments of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), no infrastructure, resources or finances were in place to deliver the USO previously, and that substantial progress has been made during the past six years to get on with the job?
My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head, as he always does. He is absolutely right. I want to make it clear that the Government will not allow people to be left behind. Whether they are running a business, staying in touch with distant family, watching catch-up television or helping children with homework, everyone should have a right to decent connectivity.
I want to make some progress, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.
To engage citizens digitally, we need the market for communications services to work for them. They need to be able to assess quality, and they need to navigate an increasingly complex array of choices. They also need to be confident that in making such choices they will not suffer hassle and disruption, and end up disconnected and out of pocket. The fact that recent surveys show that less than half of respondents trust their communications provider and that customer satisfaction in the sector is low is a real worry. The future of our economy depends on digital connectivity, and the Bill will address these problems head-on.
Consumers need information, but not the spreadsheets and reports that Ofcom produce. During the summer, the Competition and Markets Authority argued that to guide consumers in choosing banking services, apps need to be developed to guide consumers through the plethora of different products. This is no gimmick. These are technologies to empower consumers and drive the economy, and the communications sector is no different. The Bill provides the necessary powers to ensure that we can deliver this change—informing consumers, helping them to switch providers and compensating them if things go wrong.
Underlying such support for consumers, we need a strong and effective regulator that is able to tackle market failures and to keep the system in balance. Ofcom needs to make important decisions not just on implementing consumer-switching regimes, but on how core infrastructure is accessed and shared, how the radio spectrum is licensed and managed and how we can grow connectivity and capacity, migrating from yesterday’s copper to tomorrow’s fibre technologies.
Given that the extent of fibre to premises is so low in this country at only 1%—we are in danger of falling behind other countries in future—should not the regulator be confident in looking at the monopoly and in breaking it up where necessary to encourage more investment and competition? Does not BT’s monopoly with Openreach now need attention?
This is related to the right hon. Gentleman’s point. What comfort can the Secretary of State offer my constituents, in relation to developments in the heart of our capital city without fibre connectivity, who are trying to engage with BT Openreach to get a connection and are getting no response, even through me?
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman contact me, and I will make sure that those points are raised. In response to my right hon. Friend, I have been clear that we will not stop or cease until we get the right result. If that means the structural separation of BT and Openreach, this Government are prepared to consider that. Ofcom has made some recommendations. We are looking carefully at them, and Ofcom is consulting on them. We need to make sure we get it right and that we get this delivered, but nothing is off the table.
The Bill will ensure that Ofcom is held to account, but not at the expense of delay and intransigence. As well as holding industry to account, we must of course be supportive. The Bill will bring billions of pounds of benefits to industry. The new electronic communications code recognises that digital connectivity is as important as a connection to water or electricity supplies. Providing new rights to install communications infrastructure will herald a revolution in rural connectivity, bringing the digital economy to all parts of our nation.
I would be very grateful if my right hon. Friend outlined how the reforms—for example, to prevent abuse of the wayleave system—will reduce the costs of providing infrastructure, so that places such as my Chipping Barnet constituency can get full access to fast fibre broadband?
If my right hon. Friend will allow me, I will come on to that later in my speech.
As well as reforming land rights, the Government are reforming the planning system. I think that my right hon. Friend was referring to that. The Minister for Housing and Planning will shortly introduce regulations to ease the installation of vital masts to fill not spots. The Bill will ensure that the planning reforms introduced in 2013 for five years, for poles and cabinets, can be made permanent.
The radio spectrum—the invisible resource on which all modern technology relies—will be better managed to ensure that we maximise capacity and avoid interference and that the UK is ready for the arrival of 5G, the future of mobile connectivity. We will lead the world on that, thanks to this Government’s £11.6 million investment in the innovation centre at the University of Surrey.
As well as access and infrastructure, the Bill will tackle harm online. First, our manifesto pledged to protect children from online pornography. Children now spend more time online than watching television, and one in five children recently surveyed had encountered pornographic images that had upset them.
I of course support the Government’s intention to protect children from inappropriate content, but does the Secretary of State agree that compulsory, age-related sex and relationships education in our schools must be central to protecting children?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point about having age-appropriate and good-quality sex education in schools, as I very much advocated during my previous job in the Home Office. However, we need to be clear that we have an incredible problem of pornographic images being available to children. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children reports that children as young as seven are being treated for addiction to pornography. This cannot be addressed through one measure alone, but the measures in the Bill will help. There is no silver bullet; a joined-up approach across the whole Government is needed to deal with it. I hope that he agrees that as we age-classify films, restrict age-inappropriate broadcasts to after the watershed, put age-inappropriate magazines on the top shelf and keep children out of sex shops, so equivalent and proportionate measures are needed online.
The Government have already made good progress on this subject. Frist, since 2013, public wi-fi is automatically filtered and pornography is blocked in many places that children regularly visit. Following agreement with the Government, the four largest internet service providers offer their customers family-friendly filters, which, since last year, are now turned on by default. The Bill now goes further. Pornographic websites will be required to have adequate age verification, which is equivalent to what the gambling industry already implements. The regulator will pass on details of the non-compliant to credit card companies and other service providers to enable them to withdraw business support. We will drive cultural change in the sector to ensure that children are protected.
Secondly, we will protect consumers from nuisance calls. The Government have already taken steps on this matter. In May, we required direct marketers no longer to withhold their caller identification information, so that consumers can see the number of who is ringing. The Information Commissioner seeks to enforce the law, and we will help her further by placing the direct marketing code on a statutory footing, so that penalties stick.
Thirdly, we will help to protect businesses from attacks on their intellectual property. Burglars can be sentenced for 10 years in prison, but the criminal gangs making vast sums of money through exploiting the online creations of others only face a two-year sentence. We will increase the sentence to 10 years. Criminals such as Paul Mahoney, who profited by almost £300,000 and cost industry millions by facilitating access to illegal films on the internet, need to be sent a clear message. We need to ensure that enforcement agencies and their partners have the right set of tools to tackle all types of piracy, which is why those measures are so important. We will make it easier to register designs, cutting costs for our creative industries while increasing protections.
As we build our digital economy, investing in infrastructure and empowering citizens, the Government must transform and become more digital. The Government want to use and manage the vast amounts of information we keep better. Let me be clear that that is not to develop some Big Brother state that sees and knows everything. We want to manage information better for the same reason that shopkeepers, farmers, insurers, car manufacturers, educators—practically anyone in our economy who has ambition—do. Quite simply, we want to deliver better services—to create, to improve and to deliver in the public interest, for the citizen’s benefit.
The Bill will allow public services to be targeted and delivered better. If one arm of the public sector knows who needs a service and the other arm is trying to deliver that service, the two need to be brought together, to work for the public benefit. Of course, we are doing that already in many places, but often only after legislating to enable specific data-sharing arrangements. All that takes time—time we do not have and can now save because of the Bill.
As the private sector knows well, information is a mineable commodity, from which value can be extracted. That value to the Government will come in better decisions, based on quality research and statistics. The Bill will allow us to spot problems and grasp opportunity for the benefit of everyone.
We will shortly be publishing the draft BBC charter for the next 11 years. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) led one of the largest and most open consultations ever conducted, and the new charter will provide the foundations for a stronger, more independent, more distinctive BBC that will inform, educate and entertain for many years to come.
I am about to conclude and I know many Members wish to speak, so I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.
The Bill will provide the necessary powers to enable Ofcom to take on its new regulatory role and to allow the BBC to manage TV licensing for pensioners.
The Bill is good news for all. It is good for people wanting to get online, for telecommunication companies wanting to grow their sector and build consumer confidence and for creative industries wanting to protect their property and have an economy to sell into. It is good for families wanting to help their children with homework on the internet, without stumbling across harmful material. It is also good for civil servants who want to be entrepreneurial and deliver better services and for people who want to transact with the Government efficiently, without burdens and bureaucracy. We will grow the economy and we will grasp the future. I commend the Bill to the House.
I think we can all agree with the Secretary of State that we are living in a digital economy. Indeed, one of the relatively few subjects that can unite the House now is the importance of that economy. It gives me great pleasure to respond for the Opposition on this subject, particularly as a chartered electrical engineer—that is a declaration both of interest and of pride.
The smallest of British businesses can now have global reach through e-commerce. Artisan craft makers can trade on Etsy with very low transaction costs. Even the most niche products can be sold around the world to their fan bases. You may not be aware, Mr Speaker, that there is a T-shirt dedicated to you, with the slogan “Fear the Speaker”, which is available on the internet for your fan base. All markets can be catered for—
Yes, all sizes, as well.
We know that the International Trade Secretary believes that our businesses are lazy, but I know many that are cutting a swathe through the internet, as opposed to the golf course. Greater connectivity can help businesses to work on the move or to use new workspaces rather than traditional ones. We are also seeing new types of work, new products and markets, and digital tools that help current businesses to be more effective. Whether it is farmers relying on GPS to guide their tractors or start-ups using blockchain to address financial inclusion, digital infrastructure, tools, skills and platforms are the building blocks of the British economy.
The good news is that we are a great digital economy—indeed, we are Europe’s leading digital economy. We are only at the start of the digital revolution, with the internet of things, big data and artificial intelligence set to transform the way we live and work. Now is definitely the time to bring forward a Bill to set out the vision and policies to place the UK at the top of the global digital economy. Sadly, this is not that Bill. TechUK, the digital sector trade body, described it as fixing some basics. That was rather generous. The Bill is an excellent example of that old “Yes Minister” trick of putting the difficult part in the title so it can be ignored in the document itself.
There are some good measures in the Bill, so let me begin with those. First, the universal service obligation is a long overdue half-step in the right direction. The last Labour Government left fully costed plans for universal broadband coverage by 2012. [Interruption.] I am afraid that is the truth. Members may not like it, but it is in the documents—I helped write them. The Conservatives’ bungling procurement process and total lack of ambition left many behind, particularly in rural economies. The National Farmers Union and the Countryside Alliance have been vocal in highlighting the Government’s shortcomings so I will add only that it is an absolute disgrace that in 2016 there are still people in this country—one of the richest in the world—who cannot even download an email.
We also welcome some movement on digital consumer rights; making it easier for consumers to switch between mobile, landline, broadband and TV providers will empower them. We are glad that the Bill gives Ofcom the teeth to ensure that customers are automatically compensated for poor service, but we also want it to be given the resources to make sure it can deliver on that—here I make another declaration of interest, as a previous employee of Ofcom.
We also welcome increased protection for children against pornography, something many on the Opposition Benches have campaigned for tirelessly. We will seek in Committee to improve the practicality and effectiveness of the measures proposed. Parents need to be given more information about protecting their children. Critically, there needs to be compulsory sex and relationships education in our schools, so that we can teach young people about healthy relationships. I heard the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee calling for that this morning.
I agree that denying children access to online pornography is essential, as is ensuring the privacy of adult users of legal adult sites, and ensuring that the Government’s solution works. Does the shadow Minister have a clear idea of how the Bill deals with foreign sites and free sites?
The right hon. Gentleman raises two very important points. There is no clear idea of how the Bill deals with such sites, in particular sites for which no commercial payment is made. There are also privacy issues throughout the Bill. That is one area on which we will seek to work in Committee.
A 21st-century economy needs the infrastructure to deliver a digital economy, so reform of the electronic communications code is long overdue. Frankly, I am very glad the Government have finally begun to build on Labour’s Communications Act 2003. We are concerned, however, that proposals to lower base station rentals may reduce even further the revenues to funding-starved local authorities and we want to hear how the Government will protect them. Newcastle City Council, for example, stands to lose £300,000 a year, which could go to social care, transport and the skills training my constituents rely on.
We also welcome proposals to bring aspects of our copyright law into the 21st century, rewarding artists and our creative industries for the huge contribution they make to our economy. Again, we shall seek to test in Committee how effective the proposals will be in practice.
My hon. Friend touches on an important point. She will know that one proposed change relates to the cable and online transmission of programmes put together by public service broadcasters, and the income they will potentially lose. Will she test the Government in Committee on the timescales for introducing those measures, because I know that the BBC, ITV and other public service broadcasters want the measures in place sooner rather than later?
Absolutely. That is one of the areas on which we will seek much greater clarification.
While celebrating the contribution of the creative industries, we note the Government have not taken the opportunity to update authors’ rights for e-book lending. This part of library lending is growing despite, or perhaps because of, the drastic cuts to library services under this Government, so would now not be an opportunity to update those rights?
There are a number of areas where we have significant concerns. The BBC is one of the cornerstones of our £84 billion creative industries. Its successes are something that we on the Labour Benches celebrate. Protecting the BBC is crucial. The Bill makes policy for funding TV licences for the over-75s the responsibility of the BBC. The National Union of Journalists estimates it will cost the BBC £1.3 billion over five years, and then £750 million each year. That represents a 20% cut in licence fee income, which could pay seven times over for our 30 local BBC radio stations or fund Radio 4 eight times over. It could pay for 30 “Great British Bake Offs”. Ministers would do well to consider that before depriving the British public of their favourite shows. We accept that funding and policy must go together.
On the crucial issue of “The Great British Bake Off”, of which I am an enormous fan, I hope the hon. Lady will correct what she just said and acknowledge that, after today’s announcement, the programme will remain on free-to-air terrestrial TV, on Channel 4.
I thank, or at least I think I thank, the Minister for that intervention, but it is clearly not going to be on the BBC and that is clearly a question of funding. The Government are cutting funding to the BBC significantly. If that is not going to be the case, I look forward to an announcement from the Government that they are withdrawing those measures. My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, has described this as
“a slippery slope towards further outsourcing of a social security system under siege.”
The Bill is not only notable for its inability to respond to the challenges it sets itself; it should be infamous for not even considering the challenges the digital economy presents. It has little to do with the digital economy itself and much to do with the Government’s culture of cowardice when it comes to addressing the key challenge of the digital economy: data. The only measures on data seem designed to extend the current public sector data sharing chaos to a complete free-for-all. Our data are at risk with this Bill. We do not own the data and we are not safe. Anyone can take them and the Government decide what others should see of them.
The Government want to make sharing public data easier if “benefit” can be shown, but that benefit will be decided without proper public scrutiny—indeed, without any debate. Where has the debate been?
Data sharing, as with much of the new and fantastic technologies of the digital economy, can bring huge benefits to making public and private services more effective. However, they need to be used in the context of a framework where we have a sense of data ethics, data principles and the rights of citizens whether they are in fuel poverty or not. We are perfectly capable of achieving that, but we need a Government with the vision to instigate a debate and to set out the right transparent framework. Unfortunately, the Bill just does not do that. As we saw with the failed care.data attempt at NHS data sharing, when the Government fail to set out a proper and transparent framework the cost is borne by a lack of public trust in those services.
I hope the Minister will not continue to use my speech to make inaccurate points. I am very well aware of the data sharing debate. I am also very well aware that it was rounded off without proper agreement on the conclusions. I look forward to the Minister setting out exactly where the agreement that led to the current proposals was debated and agreed with all the stakeholders. He knows very well that he is unable to do so.
The failure to set out a data framework matters now, but it will matter even more in future because the new generation of technology, such as the internet of things, is going to increase exponentially the generation and use of data. To take smart meters as just one example, when security is designed into the smart energy code for energy metering there is no regulatory framework for the data about our homes: when we start making the tea, what time our children go to sleep and when we lock the back door. The previous Secretary of State for Energy told me that the data would belong to the energy companies. She then retracted that statement, but clearly had no idea who the data would really belong to. I doubt she can tell me more now that she is Home Secretary.
It is certainly the case that distributed ledger technology can have great applications in promoting openness, and consumer and citizen trust. Again, however, it has to be set out in the right framework with the right principles. We need a progressive ownership framework for data, one that is debated and discussed by everyone, including those not online. The Government must deliver an effective data regulation framework for the digital era. Without that, the digital economy will be hamstrung by peoples’ fears and companies’ confusion.
Unfortunately, that is not the only gaping hole in the Government’s Bill. The Government cannot tell us who will have access to our digital identities. In order to download an app from Google Play, people must have a Google account, which can then be used to identify and control their device. Who owns that identity? The Bill has nothing to say on cyber-security, despite it being one of the critical challenges of the digital economy. The Bill introduces instead bulk sharing of civil registration data, described by one commentator as suspiciously like an ID card through the back door.
The Bill has nothing to say either on work in the digital economy. A new economy brings new types of jobs and a new set of labour relationships. The Uber driver, the Deliveroo rider, the TaskRabbit worker—none of these workers are employed by the companies they work for; they are all managed by algorithms. The Bill does nothing to protect workers from extra-casualised work, compressed wages, few rights and almost no recourse to justice in the new intermediary economy. These firms are the future, but we must protect the workers of the future, too.
It is not only workers who are impacted by algorithms. Uber knows a person is more willing to accept higher or “surge” prices when their phone is about to run out of battery. They say they do not use this information to charge higher prices, but we have no way of verifying that. I am told that one well-known web-dating site has its algorithm optimised for short-term relationships, which maximises its revenue. Do the people paying their fees know that?
These criticisms are not an attack on the digital economy. I am a tech evangelist. I want the UK to see the advantages of a digital Britain, but that means the whole of the UK. Technology brings astounding new opportunities, but millions of people and businesses are left behind because of their lack of digital literacy. In 2014, Santander found that 34% of UK businesses looking to export do not have their own website, and last year ComRes found a quarter of the capital’s firms have little or no online presence.
In addition, the Government are doing little to tackle harassment and threats online. Our lives are increasingly lived on the internet. There would be an outcry if women did not feel safe walking down the street, yet many do not feel safe going online. Now is the time for a Bill to ready the country for the new digital world, but the Government are guilty of another half-hearted attempt to respond to the 21st century.
We shall not oppose the Bill on Second Reading, but the digital economy deserves better. Instead of leaving a positive legacy, the Conservatives will leave us with another missed opportunity—one whose legacy will be with us for decades to come.
It is a pleasure to welcome the Digital Economy Bill, not least because it still has my name on the front of it. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) and I can claim a degree of joint paternity on this particular measure.
We were very close in our ministerial team!
The Bill is something of a Christmas tree and contains a number of different measures within it. Let me speak first about the two major provisions, which both relate to connectivity. The reform of the electronic communications code has been something that communications providers have been urging for a considerable time. Indeed, it was part of the deal struck with mobile phone providers by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid) in return for their guarantee of extending coverage. An attemp was made to introduce it in the Enterprise Bill in the last Parliament. It has been around for a long time.
I found out from my own constituency about 18 months ago that Vodafone had a problem with one of its transmitters, which led to a large number of my constituents losing the service. That was impossible to put right for something like eight weeks as a result of Vodafone being unable to access the transmitter.
The right hon. Gentleman will know that I raised the issue of BT with him on a number of occasions, particularly with respect to small businesses in Coventry that are struggling with the services they get, along with the general public as a whole. Does he agree with me that it is about time that somebody had a good look at doing something about BT?
I do agree. I shall say a few more words about it in a few moments, but I generally agree with the hon. Gentleman. As for the code reforms, these will make it easier for communications providers to maintain and repair their equipment. This is now an essential part of ensuring that we have an adequate infrastructure.
The right hon. Gentleman says that it will make it easier for providers to repair, but it will not. It makes it easier for them to put new masts up, but it does not make it easier to repair them, particularly when the groupings of “whips”, as they are called—they enable different mobile companies to use similar masts—are expressly excluded. Does the right hon. Gentleman think it would be advantageous to change the Bill in order to allow them to be included?
I believe that access to wholesale infrastructure providers’ masts is regulated by Ofcom in any case. We were advised that this was not a significant problem, although we looked at it quite closely at the time. We decided that it was not necessary to extend the provisions to cover wholesale infrastructure providers.
One thing I would say to Ministers is that alongside the reform of electronic communications codes, there have been some welcome changes to planning laws, which will enable higher masts. As we move into the next generation of 5G services, a huge number of very small transmitters are going to be required, which might need to be attached to lamp posts in cities, for example. We do not want to need individual planning applications for every single one. Given that 5G is coming down the track fast, we might need to look at planning laws again. I leave that issue with the Minister.
Provisions on the universal service obligation are also a major step forward. Whether or not the USO is a legal necessity remains to be seen, but it is certainly sensible to put the provisions in the Bill. BT is already saying that it can deliver it without a legal requirement, but this should certainly spur it on in its efforts to demonstrate that that is possible. The hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) raised his concerns about BT. Now is not the occasion to rehearse all the arguments for a digital communications review. Ofcom has, I think rightly, put forward proposals to make a clearer separation between Openreach and BT Retail, but there is still some concern that those proposals do not go far enough. It will be necessary for BT to make it absolutely clear that there is full separation and a level playing field. I say to Ministers that they will want to look at that carefully. If it is not working sufficiently, it will need to be revisited.
Ofcom is obviously playing a key role throughout this process. One measure we thought about for a long time was Ofcom’s request for changes to its appeals procedure. BT has strongly opposed that, but Ofcom believes it to be necessary. One reason why it is necessary is that it has become apparent in recent years that almost every single decision taken by Ofcom is promptly challenged in the courts. Ofcom is not determining these matters; they are being determined by the judicial process that is then triggered by the communications provider. That is not how it was supposed to work, and it has resulted in lengthy delays in putting through some quite important measures. On balance, the change to the nature of the appeals process—the hurdle that has to be met to allow a judicial challenge—is a sensible one. This has become apparent simply because of the number and extent of the judicial challenges that have occurred over the last few years.
Let me say a few words about one or two other measures in the Bill. Copyright is one of them. I am delighted that the Bill equalises the penalties for online and offline copyright infringement. I have brought with me a copy of the Select Committee’s report “Supporting the Creative Economy”, published in September 2013. One of its key recommendations was that the penalties should be equalised, and that it should be made clear that infringement of copyright online was as serious as infringement offline. That will send a clear message, but more still needs to be done.
As my right hon. Friends will know, the Conservative party manifesto stated that we would put pressure on search engines to try to prevent illegal sites from coming up at the top of a search. I know that round-table discussions have been taking place for a considerable time, but it is a matter of great concern that no significant progress has yet been made. In the most recent attempt to find out whether or not there had been an improvement, a Google search was made for “Ed Sheeran Photograph download”, with “Photograph” being one of Ed Sheeran’s most recent songs. Only one of the top 10 listings involved a legal site, and the legal site was YouTube, which, of course, is owned by Google.
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is much missed by Members on both sides of the House as we debate this Bill. He said that Ed Sheeran’s song was available on illegal platforms. Does he agree that technology companies, and platforms such as Google and YouTube, should be compelled to list only legal sites? At present the pirates are sometimes listed higher up than legal sites, and our British musicians who contribute, I believe, £4 billion annually to the economy are losing out as a consequence.
I think it would be unrealistic to expect Google to establish whether every single site was legal or illegal. What it can do is react when illegal sites are brought to its attention. It does de-list, but new sites then appear immediately. There have been a vast number of complaints from rights owners about particular sites, but they should tweak their algorithms so that those sites no longer appear at the top of the search listings. Measures of that kind have been under discussion for months and months, but the problem still exists.
I suggest to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that there may well be a case for including a legal provision encouraging providers to establish a voluntary code. As she may remember, the Digital Economy Act 2010 contained measures to deal with illegal downloads. That led the industry to reach an agreement with the internet service providers, which made it unnecessary ever to use the law. When it comes to incentives of that kind there may well be a case for legislation, because we cannot allow Google and other search providers to go on allowing people access to illegal sites.
Another matter relating to copyright, which has already been raised, is the repeal of section 73 of the Copyright, Designs and Patent Act 1988, which exempts the cable companies from having to pay copyright licence fees. The original justification for the exemption was that it would encourage the roll-out of cable, and it has largely been fulfilled. However, the law has been abused, particularly by something called TVCatchup which has used it to steal copyright material and make it available without paying any licence fee. The repeal is, I think, absolutely right, although it leaves a question about the relationship between the cable companies—particularly Virgin—and the public service broadcasters. I hope that that can be settled by discussion between them, but Ofcom may still need a back-up role in connection with the must-carry provisions.
The other big issue covered by the Bill is pornography—which, again, has already been mentioned—and age verification. The Bill does not specify how age can be verified, and I must say that I am not entirely sure how the providers will do that. It will not be sufficient to include the question “Are you 18?”, along with a box to be ticked. On the other hand, requiring the user to submit, for instance, a credit card number potentially raises big issues relating to privacy. We must bear it in mind that the content that is being accessed is perfectly legal. Of course it is right for children to be prevented from accessing it, because that can be harmful, but it is legal content for adults, which is why I think the Bill is right not to go as far as blocking access to websites that are providing legal content. However, there are still big questions to be asked, and I am sure that they will be explored in Committee.
I agree with the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) that the Bill should have contained cyber-security measures, and perhaps I should take some responsibility for that. Cyber-security is one of the great challenges facing our country, and I know that Ministers take it very seriously. At present, telecoms companies are required to report a cyber-attack—which TalkTalk had to do not so long ago—but that requirement is restricted to telecoms companies. The truth is that every company is being subjected to cyber-attack, and I think that in the event of a significant breach resulting in the loss of data affecting large numbers of people, companies should make it public and tell their consumers. That is not currently within the law, and we may need to consider it again.
Generally, however, I think that the Bill contains a number of very important provisions which will hasten our progress towards the establishment of a fully digital economy.
I welcome the opportunity to speak about such an important Bill, which contains several measures that SNP Members welcome. We welcome long overdue changes in provisions such as the electronic communications code, moves towards greater consumer protections, and steps that are designed to promote more connectivity. However, I know I am not alone in thinking that the Bill’s title is a bit of a misnomer. At a time when the British economy, with its woeful record on productivity, is crying out for a vision to ride the wave of technological change, we have a Bill that is somewhat cobbled together, and is vague and unambitious. Although it contains several welcome measures, it offers little in the way of direction or strategy. The Conservative manifesto pledged to make the United Kingdom a world leader in digital provision—a place where technology would ceaselessly transform the economy, society and government. I ask all Members to consider whether the Bill really lives up to that vision.
We really should contemplate the remarkable next phase of the information revolution. Phenomenal access speeds through fibre and 5G will allow us to realise the potential that is the internet of things. If we get this right and make the most of these opportunities, technology truly can power our economy. In Scotland, the moves that we are making on that front are strong and unequivocal. The SNP is committed to a manifesto pledge of 100% superfast connectivity. We do not see any reason why connectivity—which is of even greater significance in a country like Scotland, which has a low population density—should be determined on the basis of whether people live in rural or urban areas.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, despite the Secretary of State’s claims in her opening speech that we were soon to have 95% coverage, that does not apply in many communities? Not only is the last 5% often the most difficult and expensive to provide, but the oft-quoted figure is in fact much higher in many of those communities.
It is realistic to assume that more like 25% of my own constituency will not be covered. The concentration of the 5% can be great in rural areas in Scotland, in particular.
A theme to which I shall return is the desire for the Government, with our support, to show more ambition. As the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey)—the former digital Minister—put it, they should embrace McBroadband. Never mind your 10 megabits; let us get superfast everywhere. That is a key ambition on which I hope the present Minister can trump his predecessor. Rural areas already have to deal with poor connectivity. We have poor roads and highways; let us not have equally poor digital superhighways, because digital is becoming ever more important. The Government talk about it as a fifth utility, but with that rhetoric—that status—comes a greater responsibility upon them, providers and regulators to provide equality of access. As we talk increasingly of forms of digital citizenship, it is vital that the large swathes of the country that could be left behind do not become left behind as second-class digital citizens.
We welcome the introduction of a universal service obligation, but, as the Scottish Government pointed out in Ofcom’s digital communications review, it is important that the USO is dynamic and capable of evolving over time. Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, the USO should be framed in such a way that it offers maximum flexibility and does not offer substandard solutions as we try to hit a minimum standard. Ultimately, we want a USO that helps to incentivise network providers to push fibre further and empower communities, perhaps through a voucher scheme or other mechanisms that support local ambition. We want to ensure a framework that does more to improve rural coverage and protects the interests of rural consumers, rather than cementing a digital divide.
The key to an effective USO will be in its delivery. That is a matter that this Bill refers to Ofcom’s technical analysis, but it is worth noting that a simple headline figure of 10 megabits download is flawed. First, a truly effective USO needs to consider not just basic download speed, but upload, latency, data limits and, of course, cost. Everyone should be entitled to a fair standard of broadband, and that is about a lot more than just download speed.
To return to the other point I mentioned, do we really think 10 megabits will be considered sufficient by 2020? Why do the Government think the bar should be set so low? The SNP challenges the thinking that sees 10 megabits as adequate. I found some of the briefings depressing to read, and they smacked of vested interests who, in their desire to leave markets open for future commercial activity, think rural areas should be sacrificed and given a lesser service, which is totally unacceptable.
Beyond any technical aspects of the USO, Parliament should have an ongoing role to play, especially in the matter of funding. I personally believe there is a strong case for an element of public funding, rather than just relying on the industry or an industry levy, but if the option of an industry levy is to be pursued, we would encourage the Government to cast the net as wide as possible, to cover all who benefit from the digital economy.
We welcome measures to improve the ability of consumers to switch providers with maximum ease, and we want to look closely at measures to incentivise quality of service, to ensure these incentives are universal. The Government have missed an opportunity, which I hope they will reconsider, to introduce measures advocated by my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry)—what a magnificent constituency name that is!
Yes, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk is very good, too. But self-praise is no praise.
My hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey gained support from Ofcom and the Government for allowing customers who have signed up to mobile contracts to switch or cancel if they find they have inadequate coverage, and I encourage the Government and Ministers to revisit this and consider whether it might be more explicit.
It is not just in the wired world that change is needed. We welcome the long-overdue measures to reform the electronic communications code.
You get no praise at all then—pot/kettle, by the way. My eyes are still running at the thought that the love child these Ministers gave birth to was a Christmas tree; that made my eyes water.
We are glad that the long-overdue measures to reform the electronic communications code are being brought forward, especially when we consider that the code has not really changed since the introduction of many of the digital technologies we now take for granted.
While we support these changes, the system that is put in place must have a balanced approach. Providers must not be held to ransom, but, likewise, landowners should be entitled to receive fair compensation. On top of that, when taking forward such extensions to permitted development, we need to ensure an appropriate balance is struck between facilitating the roll-out of such infrastructure and having appropriate planning controls on the impacts of such development on amenity and the environment.
A particular area of concern is the way in which existing agreements will be affected by these changes, as the shadow Minister raised. This is a key area that we will want to look at in Committee. It is vital that where public assets are used for the siting of equipment, the loss of income to the public sector is considered. The Government need to outline how they will reconcile the code with the Treasury’s Green Book requirement to obtain best value from public sector assets. It is important for these measures to take account of who current landlords are. In many instances, they are local authorities or the fire service, for example, and in Scotland not an inconsiderable number are the Forestry Commission. While we understand the Bill is not retrospective, substantial amounts of money could come out of the public purse when contracts come up for renewal.
Of course, increasing coverage is welcome, but a key question that the new code raises is whether mobile operators should be allowed to renew old contracts on the same basis as the new regime, or whether we should have a different regime for renewal. We should also consider commitments on any savings being reinvested in infrastructure.
My party welcomes the fact that independent operators are excluded from the provisions of the new code. Only about a third of UK mast infrastructure is shared, whereas in some countries, such as the United States of America, it is about 80%. It is important as we go into the Committee stage that we do not allow these independent operators to be pulled into this legislation. I agree with the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), that this is already covered under Ofcom, and it strikes me as somewhat perverse that at the time when we are having a big discussion as to whether Openreach should be independent, we do something that might damage independent infrastructure in telecoms provision.
We also welcome some of the adjustments the Digital Economy Bill makes to spectrum policy in these islands. Although it highlights fixing mobile coverage, reform of the code will go only so far. The most powerful lever we have remains licensing, so when it comes to the next round of licences, let us look at far greater coverage and consider setting conditions for licences that meet a higher standard in terms of population and geographical coverage. We also encourage the Government to look at how spectrum policy has been developed in other countries, such as Germany where an “out to in” strategy ensures that rural areas, rather than getting left behind, are done first.
The measure contained in the Bill relating to compensation is overdue, especially as the digital communications review laid bare some fairly stark statistics on how poorly the sector has performed in customer service. Disappointingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, there was some pushback against this idea in some of the briefings. However, the sector has had its chance, and everyone recognises the need to improve. It is clear that we need to do something about automatic compensation. We need to reject the arguments from the sector that automatic compensation would inhibit the management and maintenance of good quality networks.
I worked at the same company as the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), some years ago—a Canadian company called Nortel. I did not have the technical expertise she has, but even I know that when you build a network, you build it to be secure and resilient and you build it in such a way that it can be upgraded and maintained. Perhaps the operators think that everyone in this House can be hoodwinked by a couple of technical excuses, but let me assure them that we cannot. This is clearly an area in which policy will have to evolve. We need to come up with a scheme that is fair but we also need to look at the behaviour of the operators and look for the improvements that the Bill is intended to drive. It is not meant to be penal; it is meant to drive improvement.
When we talk about customer service, we also need to consider the changed world in which we live. In the days of telephony, the question was simple. It was a binary system that either worked or it did not; it was either on or off. In the age of the internet, things are far more complex. A headline download speed is not a guaranteed download speed. Services are contended, and I would contend that that highlights the need for services to be granular. We should look at the average speed that a customer can expect, as well as the maximum speed. People would then have a clear choice and be able to sign up for a service that does what it says on the tin.
The SNP welcomes the introduction of age verification for online pornography, but we have concerns around how the measure will be enforced. We will need to look carefully at this in Committee. With so many sites based overseas, the challenge of tackling non-compliance will be complex. The Government should consider going further and look at steps such as transaction blocking in response to non-compliance. They also need to do more to put in place incentives for compliance, and we should consider measures that would offer the regulator the option of blocking sites that are non-compliant. We welcome the provisions in the Bill, however.
We share the Opposition’s reservations about the outsourcing of policy on TV licences to the BBC. In Scotland, we have recently classified loneliness as a health issue, and clearly benefits relating to those in old age have a significant role to play in tackling this. We recognise that the Government’s decision to pass the baton on this policy to the BBC is based on a financial settlement, but we want to challenge the thinking in this whole area when the Bill reaches Committee.
We believe that public sector broadcasting always needs to be challenged and updated, but we acknowledge its unique role in society and we are fundamentally supportive of it. We therefore welcome the repeal of section 73 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 and recognise the importance for public service broadcasters of having the ability to realise the value of the content they create. This is a long overdue step and we join the calls from across the House for the Secretary of State not to hesitate in putting these powers in place.
On intellectual property, we are supportive of the changes in the Bill that will give the protection of intellectual property online a status that is equivalent to the regimes in place for offline material.
I am glad that my hon. Friend has reached this part of his speech. Like me, he welcomes the move to make an online infringement the same as a physical infringement, but does not the Bill need to do more? We really need to tackle the culture of the major search engines and the value gap between those who create the wonderful content that we have in this country and those in big tech who earn money from it. Does he agree that we need to introduce measures in Committee to tackle that issue?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I look forward to tabling specific amendments in Committee.
We on these Benches also offer our support, albeit with reservations, for the measures in the Bill relating to digital Government and information sharing. We welcome the recognition that the Government need to move towards being “digital by default”, and we understand the huge benefits for citizens and for Governments that new approaches to digital and information sharing can bring. Our concerns relate to how these measures will be executed and implemented.
Securing the trust of citizens will be vital in harnessing the power of data to improve the workings of the Government, but we do not want to offer the Government a blank cheque on these matters. We have concerns about the lack of detail on how citizens’ data would be put to use and what form of protection would be put in place to cover areas such as human rights, privacy and data ownership. There is a clear logic, on a purely technical matter such as the universal service obligation, in enabling legislation to allow the detail to be defined by an external agency, but this is an area that requires ongoing parliamentary oversight and it is not clear at this stage how such an obvious democratic requirement will be met.
Scotland already has a well-established data linkage framework and a set of guiding principles designed to proportionately balance the risk to confidentiality against the public benefit of using data for research. The Scottish Government will want to be fully involved in the development of the relevant codes of practice that will govern the disclosure, use and processing of information under these powers. In summary, we welcome several measures in the Bill, which covers a wide range of areas, but we are committed to pushing for much greater clarification and, where we can, for much more ambition as the Bill moves into Committee.
I am grateful for this opportunity to make a contribution to the debate on the Second Reading of the Bill. I cannot help feeling the need to pinch myself when we have a Bill of this nature before us. It seems like only yesterday that we were attending protest meetings in our constituencies at which concerned parents expressed the view that the erection of a mobile telephony mast would endanger their children’s health. Similarly, it seems like only the day before yesterday when we could not have imagined that the provision of broadband would create the amount of weekly correspondence to MPs that I and many colleagues now receive.
I welcome the measures in the Bill to improve the coverage of mobile telephony. Vast tracts of my constituency are untouched by a mobile signal, and that position is becoming increasingly ridiculous. I remember being on a visit to one of the poorest states in India to witness the Department for International Development-supported installation of a basic sanitation system, and I happened to glance at my mobile phone. I noticed that it had a very strong signal—much stronger than the signal in large parts of my constituency.
I do not want to talk about the history of the Bill, or to delve into the role of BT and its relationship with Openreach, but I look forward to the Bill reaching the statute book in a form that will ensure universal broadband coverage that provides a level of service that is, as far as possible, future-proof. Of course I welcome the universal service obligation. I remember thinking, when the former Prime Minister first announced this, that a universal service obligation sounds good until we remember that many properties in this country do not have access to water through a publicly supported main and have to make private arrangements, and that many properties do not have contact with mains sewerage. We must be careful and ensure that universal will mean universal for broadband.
I keep saying to constituents that the more populous areas of the country being favoured in BT’s roll-out is understandable—more income will come in and so on—but that does not take account of changes in the structure of society and in business practice. Reference has already been made to some emerging new needs. It is ludicrous that new businesses in the countryside, often occupying redundant farm buildings and working at the highest end of technology, are somehow relegated to the back of the queue when their contribution to the economy is of enormous potential. The Government and their various agencies are also increasing the amounts of data required to be dispatched and submitted electronically. Those who have read the National Farmers Union submission will know how farmers are supposed to be able to download and upload vast amounts of information. Students are increasingly reliant on submitting coursework through electronic means. There is also a growing habit, not unhelpful in dealing with pressures on public transport, of busy executives working from home for part of their week and expecting the same level of connectivity as in their city or town office. For all those reasons, we must ensure that universal means universal.
Anyone who buys a television set these days is like to buy one that is 4K UHD-enabled and with many gadgets. There will be more unrest among people who want a decent television and to take advantage of better clarity and so on if they find that the TV does not do what it says on the tin because they do not have a basic broadband service upon which they can rely.
Of course I agree with that; I am trying to argue that universal should mean universal. Ten megabits, which is frankly insufficient, is an average figure, and we all know what has been done with average figures on car fuel consumption. The 10 megabits figure must be taken with a slight pinch of salt, and we should aim for a higher standard. If we do not recognise that, we are committing people who live in rural areas to forever playing catch-up.
My other worry relates to the unevenness of provision and not simply between town and country. People are bewildered, if not downright angry, that while they are expected to wait for a 10-megabit download speed—which is perhaps all right if they, like many, get less than 2 megabits at the moment—they hear about other parts of the country, some of them rural, receiving vastly better speeds of up to 100 megabits. They say, “Why is this happening? We hear that there is a roll-out, but when will it ever reach us?” One difficulty is that the superfast roll-out depends heavily on BT’s established network, which creates anomalies. One village in my constituency has three boxes, two of which have been converted to enable a decent broadband service. The third mysteriously has not, yet it serves just as many people as the others. That creates anger in a village that is acknowledged as being rural because people ask, “Why aren’t we being treated the same?” Technical answers about historical reasons are provided when that question is asked.
There has been growth in the number of niche providers that are prepared to offer deals to people living in scattered communities. It is important that that is encouraged, but I also hear that embedded in the roll-out programme is a measure stating that if a commercial company has said that it will provide a service in a given area, no one else can touch it and the company is almost inviolate for a period of time. That cannot be right if we are talking about the urgency of getting broadband rolled out universally.
I want an end to the confusion and I want a greater degree of clarity to be introduced for people so that they understand what they can expect and how they can go about getting it. We need more local initiatives to identify alternative ways of getting superfast broadband. I have seen examples in my constituency of concerned citizens getting together and forming a working group to consider how to get broadband delivered. We should be helping them with that, not necessarily with subventions, but by letting them know how to go about it—perhaps through local authorities. We should not favour one company over another, but simply say, “These are the ways in which you may be able to get broadband faster than through the main roll-out.” That would help to diminish the growing frustration and uncertainty and would help us to enhance coverage. If the increasing number of pathways to broadband were better advertised and better explained, the Government would help more people than just through the broad roll-out programme. Everyone should feel part of our digital economy if we are putting legislation through under that name. To put it another way: we should all be in it together.
As seems common these days with proposed business-related pieces of legislation, the Bill has several disconnected, disparate elements that come together purely for the purposes of providing and securing primary legislative time. Some elements could be positive, but several will prove problematic for the Government.
Part 1 of the Bill, which will bring in a universal service obligation for broadband, will certainly be welcomed by my constituents and not just those in rural areas such as the outlying villages of Dalton Piercy and Elwick, but in the urban part of the constituency. The right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) made an important intervention earlier in which she said that many house builders are not future-proofing their stock. Some buildings and houses in my constituency that are less than 10 years have no broadband connection whatsoever, which seems ridiculous if we are trying to be a leading digital economy. I hope that the Bill’s USO provisions will address that, and I fully agree with what the Culture, Media and Sport Committee said when it agreed with the “compelling case” for establishing a broadband USO.
Part 3, in particular clause 26, which aligns online and offline copyright infringements, is another important step—there should be no distinction. I also welcome the importance that the Bill gives to intellectual property not only in the creative industries, but as a real driver of economic prosperity. Having a comparative advantage through IP is important.
Part 5 will be difficult for the Government to justify. Sharing data and using it as a means of driving forward economic prosperity is important, but the Government have muddied the waters following the sharing of NHS data that came up a couple of years ago. That is a worry.
The Bill contains no consideration of future technology. Blockchain technology has been mentioned before and I know that the Government are aware of it. Indeed, the Government Office for Science recently produced “Distributed Ledger Technology: beyond block chain” a report which features a foreword by the current Minister, the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), and the former Minister, the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey). The Government are thinking about that technology and it would have been good to get some degree of what that thinking looks like and how it translates into legislation.
As I hint at, however, it is not necessarily about what is in the Bill, but about what is not in it. This question needs to be posed: do the digital policy and the Bill enhance Britain’s comparative advantage in the global digital economy? Does the Bill fill any gaps that are holding our potential prosperity and supremacy in the digital economy back? Do its provisions provide a clear strategic vision to ensure that the UK remains the destination of choice for investment and for the attraction of talent and ideas?
In many respects, we come to this from a position of strength. The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee carried out an inquiry on the digital economy, producing a report in July. We found that the UK is one of the leading digital nations in the world: our economy has the highest percentage of GDP invested in the digital economy of all the European nations; and UK digital firms are growing at two and a half times the national average, and have been since 2003. This is a source of pride and strength, and I hope that the whole House can come together on it, but I do not think the Bill helps address key challenges.
The Bill’s First Reading was on 6 July, a mere fortnight after the country voted to leave the EU and a week before the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) became Prime Minister. Although the proposals were very much oven ready—indeed, the Bill had the name of the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), on it—the Bill seems to be at odds with the two preoccupations facing the Government: exiting the EU, and producing a new industrial strategy.
Yesterday, the Minister attended, as did I, and indeed as did the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), who is in his place, a round table meeting at the Google campus on the challenges facing the tech industry in light of Brexit. The Minister heard a tech entrepreneur saying that he is hoping to raise half a million pounds this year, with the aim of raising a further round of £3 million to £5 million next year. He said that potential investors are questioning whether the UK domestic market is large enough to justify funding here in the UK without sufficient access to the European single market. He said that he is facing pressure from investors to base his business in the US. The uncertainty arising from tech firms employing digitally skilled EU migrants and the issue of having full access to the European single digital market are causing uncertainty and disruption. There is a risk that other centres, such as Berlin, will take advantage of that uncertainty, to the detriment of emerging and growing innovative businesses and business models in this country. We could have led the EU on the EU digital single market—it could be made in our image—but, unfortunately I do not think that opportunity will be afforded to us. There are real concerns about access to that single market—I hope the Minister will provide as much clarity as possible on that—and about access to talent.
There is also a mismatch, or certainly a disconnect, between any sort of industrial strategy and digital strategy. As we heard at the Google campus yesterday, businesses and entrepreneurs want to see how the Prime Minister’s welcome rhetoric on industrial strategy translates into proper co-ordination, and how this will be aligned constructively with the digital strategy, which, I think the Minister will readily concede, is being hastily redrafted in light of events from 23 June onwards. A proper industrial strategy will need to have the implications of digitisation, technology and innovation running through all its activities and objectives. I appreciate that there is not necessarily a statutory need for such a pledge, although it is very clear that firms want to see clarity and a strategic vision—that is what they call for in the digital space.
As has been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), the Bill also fails to address one of the biggest challenges facing a digital economy, and the changing structure of the workforce and the nature of work. Technology provides a massive opportunity for a more effective and efficient allocation of demand and supply of both labour and products, services and customers. Such disruption can be a positive thing, increasing quality, choice and service for the consumer. I want Britain to be the destination of choice for disruptive business models that help improve our prosperity. However, some platforms have shown that, far from increasing competition, some companies dominate markets and stifle or undermine competitors. Global in scale, these multinational companies often avoid national tax requirements, so that although they benefit from the social goods of public investment, such as education and infrastructure, they seek to minimise their payment to the public purse for that good.
Perhaps most concerning of all, platform companies are facilitating the rise of the “gig economy”, in which workers are reclassified as contractors and self-employed. That is not necessarily a bad thing—again, greater flexibility could be provided for workers—but these workers tend to have fewer rights to social benefits, to face greater insecurity, to have lower pay, to receive less training and to have poorer prospects of advancing in their career. Innovation should move people through the value chain, increasing their skills and wage levels. Instead, the digital economy seems for too many people to mean growing insecurity and a rush to the bottom in terms, conditions and pay.
There is a need to retrain and upskill throughout every worker’s life. A Digital Economy Bill is probably not the best or only place to consider this, but the ability of Government to maintain an appropriate regulatory regime in the face of such technology needs to be considered strategically, as does the impact of the gig economy. I know that the Minister has taken an interest in the sharing economy, but I hope he will also look at how technology and the changing world of work needs to be addressed. There are positive steps and positive provisions in this Bill, but it is rooted in the 20th century, whereas we should be thinking more about what is required for the 22nd century.
There is much to welcome in the Bill. The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) mentioned the EU, and we should not forget that it was only in 2012 that this Government roll-out of superfast broadband was stuck in state aid bureaucracy; one of my first meetings when I was Secretary of State was with the Brussels officials who were deciding to stand in our way. It required quite a large handbag to get that moving, but the tenacity of the Department and, in particular, of Broadband Delivery UK since then means that now more than 90% of our premises have access to superfast broadband. The Bill will give everyone the right to fast broadband in the future, and it deserves all our support. I am glad to hear Labour’s Front-Benchers say that they will be supporting it.
As the Secretary of State said in her opening remarks, at the heart of the Bill is the importance of shaping our digital world for the future and of a digitally engaged citizen. We cannot allow this to be a missed opportunity; if we are to have a healthy digital economy in the future, we need to tackle the real concerns of digital consumers and the real concerns about online abuse. If we do not do that, some people will choose to absent themselves from the online world, and I do not believe that that is right.
I will focus my comments on that aspect of the Bill, having heard many colleagues talk about a range of other issues. The Bill needs to include a clear definition of what constitutes online abuse. The criminal law is trying to tackle online abuse with a complex set of laws that predate the digital age. The number of convictions under part 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1988 has increased tenfold over the past decade, but before prosecutions can be successfully brought, we require proof of an intention to cause distress and of gross offensiveness. The current level of prosecutions therefore probably very much underestimates the real problem that is there.
It is right that we protect freedom of expression, and that argument is made strongly when we legislate in this space, but there has never been an unfettered right to freedom of expression; with that comes responsibility, and we need to recognise that in law. The Crown Prosecution Service has used guidelines to help clarify the situation, which probably indicates to us that there are some causes for concern, because there is no substitute for making sure that the statutory provisions are clear. As the Law Commission said, there is a clear public interest in tackling online abuse, and that has to be done through clear, predictable legal provisions. This Bill provides an opportunity for such clarification, to tackle online abuse more effectively, and I hope the Minister who responds to the debate will include in his remarks what the Government’s response will be.
There is an opportunity for better support to be provided to victims of online abuse, and I applaud the work of hon. Members who are here today, and of Victim Support and others, who have been tackling this issue. It is right that the Government have taken a thought-leading position on making illegal the posting of revenge pornography online, but we need to go further. We have seen more than 200 prosecutions for revenge pornography, but hundreds of victims are still fearful or unwilling to come forward. More than 1,700 cases of revenge pornography have been reported to the police in the past year, but its victims are three times more likely than other victims to withdraw or to withhold support for police action. The Bill needs to recognise that victims of online abuse and the appalling offence of revenge pornography should be afforded the same right of anonymity as victims of other sexual offences.
I am really pleased to see a commitment to tackle access to underage pornography in the Bill. Obviously, it was in the Conservative party manifesto, but it is a welcome provision none the less. I applaud the Government on the stand that they are taking here. There is not enough time to go into the details of that provision now, but I hope that the Minister will carefully consider, both now and in Committee, the NSPCC’s call for more robust sanctions. We need to look at expanding the role proposed for the age verification regulator beyond commercial sites to include peer-to-peer and other communication products where pornography is routinely shown and distributed.
I realise that there are problems with regard to those who are legally accessing such products, but we must take account of the fact that, by the time children reach the age of 12, more than one in four will have already accessed online pornography. I am talking not about the sort of stuff that is on the shelves of our local newsagents, but about what others would call hardcore pornography. We tackled that issue in the Women and Equalities Committee report on sexual harassment in schools, which was published today. In it, experts widely cited the increased access to online pornography by children as helping to fuel the increase in sexual harassment and abuse among children in schools, and this needs to be taken seriously.
There is one other area on which I hope to encourage the Minister to reflect, and that is the impact on the police. The chief of the College of Policing, Alex Marshall, has said that social media complaints now make up half of all calls to the police. That is an extraordinary fact, yet the Bill makes no mention of how we can lay off some of the charges that are being incurred by the police when they deal with those who produce products that elicit this sort of illegal activity and concern from our constituents and who make a healthy profit out of their online activities. We need to consider a swift plan of action and to put in place a levy to fund additional police costs if online abuse is not tackled speedily.
The online industry is healthy, but it needs to tackle the abuses if we are to move forward in a healthy fashion. We must be clear that we will not tolerate the sort of abuse that has become routine in the past. We need to ensure that there is a co-ordinated approach to the reporting of online abuse, that we design out such abuse from products from the get go and that there is quick action to remove and sanction those who commit online abuse. Indeed, if a code of practice for the industry is not put in place voluntarily, perhaps one should be put in place with a bit of force.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State knows more than many other Ministers about the impact on victims of online abuse, particularly domestic violence victims. We cannot let the Bill be a missed opportunity to encourage more digitally engaged citizens, but we must ensure that we keep those digitally engaged citizens safe and that we tackle the concerns and fears that are now starting to make up a significant part of our postbags.
It is a great delight to follow the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller). She has shown from what she has said this afternoon and from when she was in office the level of expertise, interest and commitment that she has in this area of work. It is always a delight to hear from the right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), who, unusually, was a round peg in a round hole when he was appointed to the job, and he got a little bit rounder as the year went on. Seriously, though, it is a delight to hear from him.
We all know as Members of Parliament that we live in a digital economy, because we have so many emails from constituents and others. This email is not from a constituent, but I thought that I would share it with the House. It says:
Just watched you and that other dull dishcloth of an MP on Daily Politics. You both sum up clearly why Labour will never win an election anytime soon. Uninspiring, pathetic career politicians with no substance or gravitas.
Finally, are you still on Gaydar, Grindr, or Scruff? If so, what’s your profile as I quite fancy you.”
Self-praise is no praise.
As the two former Secretaries of State have already acknowledged, the creative industries are absolutely essential to this country. They were worth £87.4 billion to the UK economy in 2015. Creativity lies at the heart of it all, which is why I welcome all the measures that relate to strengthening the intellectual property law. Some 355 million music tracks and 24 million films were illegally downloaded between March and May of this year. We do need to tackle that if we are to protect those who create that value—those who are at the imaginative heart of this country. My only question about clause 26 is whether the definition is strong enough, but that is a matter for us to deal with in Committee.
We also need a strong and independent BBC. This is one of my biggest disappointments with the Bill and everything that has happened since 2015. The BBC is funded by the licence fee in the main. Last year, that amounted to £3.6 billion. That sounds like a lot of money, but it is worth bearing in mind that Sky in that same year had a revenue of nearly £12 billion, three times as much, and £2 billion of profit. I do have one anxiety. I do not expect the former Secretary of State to respond to this, but I think that in his heart he agrees that it was entirely wrong and wholly inappropriate to put the payment of the over-75s’ licence fees on to the BBC. Even more importantly, a part of the Bill breaches the BBC’s fundamental independence, because it turns the BBC into an arm of the Department for Work and Pensions, and that is wholly to be deprecated. In time, I think that the Government will regret that. There is an element of cowardice in that, because if the Government want to get rid of the free television licences, they should do it themselves; it should be a manifesto commitment in a general election, and then they should proceed. To make the BBC carry out the decision-making process on who gets a concessionary licence is wholly wrong. Incidentally, the whole deal happened after a meeting between the former Chancellor and Rupert Murdoch. It just shows that nothing ever changes in this country.
May I just ask the Minister—I hope that he will be able to respond later—when will we get the draft charter? Lord Ashton of Hyde said in the House of Lords that its publication would be in September. I hope that the Government are not intending to publish it when the House is not sitting, but they therefore have only two more days, and then we are meant to have a debate in October. [Interruption.] The former Secretary of State will doubtless tell us. [Interruption.] Perhaps the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) will tell us later when he gets the chance.
It is always good—is it not, Mr Deputy Speaker?—to see the right hon. Gentleman doing abject.
The digital economy is important beyond just the creative industries. We have the highest rate of contribution to our GDP of any country in Europe. Some 11% of jobs in the UK are now related to the digital economy, and that part of the economy has grown two and a half times faster than any other part. The digital economy also plays to our national strength in terms of the English language, music, drama, sport and gaming. Nevertheless, I worry that the present Government—maybe we did it when we were in government as well—are always wanting to pat themselves on the back, when actually it will be difficult, despite constant striving, to ensure that everyone can participate. There are still lots of people who have just 2 megabits per second. There are people who, when they have 10 megabits per second, will have contention rates that make it very difficult indeed for them even to use iPlayer effectively. I hope that the ministerial team will not want to keep congratulating themselves.
As I said, in many rural areas, including in my constituency, 70% of people have no access to 4G. The former Prime Minister has now left the House, but his obsession with Polzeath was never matched by success, because Polzeath still has terrible mobile coverage. As far as I can see, unless someone wants to correct me, the mobile infrastructure project was a complete waste of money—£150 million spent on 75 masts. That is £2 million per mast, by my rough arithmetic, and that is if all of them were built. It would be nice to know what has happened there.
I support the measures on pornography, to protect young people from images that would be inappropriate for them, but I, like the right hon. Member for Maldon, think that it is too unclear how that will be achieved. If you just ask, “Are you over 18?” it is a bit like going to the United States of America and being asked, “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Nazi party of Germany between 1933 and 1945?” I suspect that not many people say yes.
The right hon. Member for Basingstoke is absolutely right about online abuse. I commend her for the work that she and others have done through her Committee and elsewhere. It is very important because many people, especially women, are finding that the internet is not a safe and happy place to be. It is far from happy. She is right that there is no clear definition of online abuse. The Crown Prosecution Service guidelines are inadequate and are preventing police from investigating in many instances where they should be taking action.
A Demos study earlier this year showed that in just three weeks, 6,500 women were called “slut” or “whore” in the UK on Twitter alone. Half of teachers now report that they receive online abuse either from parents—which is scandalous enough—or from their own pupils, and very little action is taken.
Many Jewish colleagues in the House have had absolutely hideous abuse—the kind of abuse that one would have thought ended in 1945, yet it now seems to be around as part of a supposedly acceptable political discourse.
There are real jurisdictional problems. I reported an instance relating to someone who was making death threats to me into my office and, more importantly, wanted to put antifreeze in halal meat in Sainsbury’s. When an attempt was made to prosecute, because the person was based in Germany, the German police refused to act, on the basis that it was just a British politician being attacked by a British national who happened to be in Berlin. I hope that the Government will examine some of these jurisdictional issues. Facebook, Apple and many others are far too slow in co-operating with the police, and I believe that what counts as evidence of ownership of a site is far too indistinct.
The internet can be an echo chamber, turning mild annoyance into a claustrophobic fury, and under the cloak of anonymity, people think they can get away with anything. We need to put a stop to that.
I am very grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker, that you only showed me a yellow card, not a red card. I will remember that.
What a pleasure it is to speak in what, I gather, is a co-paternity Bill, conceived on many evenings between me and my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale). But I should point out that this is also a vengeful child because five of the nine Ministers who were present in the delivery room are now on the Back Benches or have left Parliament. I hope the Bill is kinder to its adoptive parents.
Let me speak briefly about the most important issue—the introduction of the universal service obligation. What a pleasure it is to hear Members from all parts of the House praise the Minister’s very successful rural broadband programme roll-out, which is bringing superfast broadband to 19 out of 20 homes throughout the UK. They are right to praise it, because it is the most successful Government-sponsored broadband programme in the world, and the Minister should take credit for that achievement.
I received an unsolicited email—it is a rare thing—from the director of the broadband programme in Oxfordshire. He pointed out that Oxfordshire is at 93% with 15 months of the programme still to go. Five million pounds has already come back to the county council from the Government funding and there is £2.8 million further to come—around £8 million of the public sector investment of £40 million, and he thinks that perhaps we will get it all back because of gainshare and take-up. He says:
“I cannot think of any large scale public sector contract which has delivered on time and under cost. Very good contract to work with in protecting the public purse and incentivising successful outcomes.”
I do not have a mains sewer in my house. I recall the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst). We must remember that the broadband programme is an infrastructure programme. You do not just flick a switch and deliver broadband. You have to dig up roads; you have to do engineering work. Openreach, especially the programme director, Bill Murphy, deserves a huge amount of praise for what has been achieved.
I confess that I am utterly confused by those people who want to break up BT and Openreach. Why would one simply adopt the campaign of BT’s competitors? Why would one wish to break up a highly successful British company, post-Brexit when we need all the champions we can get? Why would one break up a company that has delivered such a successful programme? In the words of the chief executive of Virgin Media, an able competitor of BT, “If you want better broadband, pick up a spade.” That is my message to TalkTalk, Vodafone and Sky, who all seek for their own reasons to break up a great British company.
I have two things to say to the Minister. I firmly believe that Openreach can deliver the USO, but it will need his help in easing regulation, particularly for long line VDSL. I also hope that Broadband Delivery UK will continue its excellent work and become a taskforce. A lot of the 5% that still has to be reached is in inner-city areas, and that is usually because of bureaucratic obstacles stopping the roll-out of broadband which have nothing to do with technical challenges. A good and effective BDUK, helping roll-out in cities, would be hugely helpful.
I echo the calls about the frustration with new build. I remember dealing with Linden Homes in my constituency. For the princely sum of £6,000 it could have delivered broadband to all its customers in a multimillion pound development. It point-blank refused to do so. The attitude of too many developers is shocking. The Government refused to change the planning laws when I was a Minister. Perhaps we should look at that again.
The reforms to the electronic communications code are long overdue; we took far too long to bring them forward. They apply just as much to mobile. I recall mobile operators telling me that when they wished to upgrade a 3G mast to a 4G mast at a site in an airport, the rent went up from £50,000 to £250,000. We must reduce the cost of rolling out broadband infrastructure, whether mobile or fixed, and we cannot have our cake and eat it. I heard the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) talking about the loss to the public sector of the £300,000 that Newcastle City Council might lose, but the gain for Newcastle City Council in easing planning restrictions would be better coverage in Newcastle for her constituents and, importantly, for her local businesses, who create jobs and wealth in Newcastle. We cannot allow the landowners to ride roughshod over this Bill, perhaps in the other place. We must reduce the cost of infrastructure roll-out. We need to continue to look at planning reform, particularly, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon said, with the roll-out of 5G.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman, an excellent former Minister, for giving way and it is good to hear a Conservative Member of Parliament taking on the landed vested interests, as it were, but will he say how this Bill will ensure that the benefits of reduced rentals accrue to the users of mobile phones, not simply the mobile operators?
Benefits will accrue to mobile phone users through improved coverage. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) mocked the mobile infrastructure roll-out plan. He got his facts wrong, but that brought home the huge cost and complexity of building those networks. Anything we can do to reduce the cost of roll-out will help the consumer in terms of coverage and, hopefully, cost.
I fully support the measures on age verification and the upgrading of the offence of copyright infringement. It is interesting that hon. Members on both sides of the House have called for a general debate on internet regulation, which is what that is. It will come more and more to the fore. I echo the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and others. It is almost impossible to deal with social media companies. They are like giant children. Suddenly they have 300 million users or 1.2 billion users, and they have to make up some of the regulation as they go along. There was the recent controversy when Facebook banned the iconic photograph of the child in Vietnam. The Government need to work, and work quickly, with those organisations, but even bringing them to the table causes some difficulty.
I fully support the measures on data sharing. That is a huge prize, but we must recognise the concern of consumers about having their private data used. This is about using anonymous data and breaking down the barriers between Departments, which can only benefit citizens.
Let me briefly echo one or two concerns. I had a huge amount of sympathy with what the hon. Member for Rhondda said about free TV licences being imposed on the BBC. It had nothing to do with Rupert Murdoch, by the way, and everything to do with saving money on the welfare bill. It is wrong that we are leaving the decision on free television licences to the BBC. It should be a decision for the Government. There are plenty of ways of updating and refining the way in which the free TV licence currently works, without getting rid of it. The Government should take back not the cost of the free TV licence, but responsibility for the policy.
As Ofcom takes on BBC regulation, I have some concerns that if it takes on the regulation of BBC websites, we will see press regulation by the back door. The press has been assiduous in not allowing its websites to become quasi-broadcasting sites, which would therefore be regulated by Ofcom. With Ofcom regulating the BBC, we must be cautious that we do not inadvertently bring in statutory regulation of the press, which I would oppose.
I shall speak on part 3 of the Bill, but I should like to put on record my support for the recommendations made by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller). We need to use the Bill as an opportunity to examine all online abuse, because although the Government say that the police have powers under existing legislation, they are not using them. To have that on the face of the Bill would be a powerful statement. Online abuse is eroding the lives of many people.
A key role of this House must be to prevent harm and tackle the threats faced by children, both online and offline. The scale of online abuse and exploitation, and the proliferation of pornography and violent sexualised imagery among children, has reached endemic levels. This Bill presents us with an opportunity to offer protection to all children, and I urge this House to do so. Children are at risk every day from predatory abusers who seek to exploit and manipulate their vulnerability. According to the Internet Watch Foundation, in 2015 over 68,000 URLs were confirmed as containing child sexual abuse imagery. That figure is up 118% since 2014. We have to recognise, however, that child abuse and exploitation perpetrated by adults is only one aspect of the many threats faced by children online.
Children make up a third of internet users, and they have never had better access to the internet, with 65% of 12 to 15-year-olds owning smartphones. Their access is often unfettered and unrestricted. A study from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Children’s Commissioner for England found that, of the 1,000 children aged 11 to 18 questioned, over half had accessed pornography, with 94% doing that by the age of 14. Those children were not necessarily seeking out pornography online. Their access was often inadvertent, through a pop-up or while searching for other content.
The growing body of evidence proves to us what we already know. Pornography impacts on the development of children, particularly their understanding of what constitutes healthy relationships, consent and sex. The NSPCC and Children’s Commissioner study found that more than half of the boys questioned believed that the porn that they had seen was realistic. In a Girlguiding attitudinal survey, 71% of girls aged 17 to 21 agreed that online pornography makes aggressive and violent behaviour towards women seem normal.
The consequences of this online material is reflected back as a reality offline. Violence against girls starts at an early age. The Home Office’s 2010 “This is Abuse” campaign found that sexual violence happened to one in three girls and one in six boys.
Through exposure to online pornography from an increasingly young age, and messages conveyed in the media, children are growing up believing that violence and non-consensual sex is not just normal, but to be expected.
The proposals laid out in part 3 to limit children’s access to commercial pornographic websites are welcome, but they do not go far enough. The Government are to be commended for recognising that the internet needs regulation to protect children. Just as children are protected offline—through restrictions on access to sex shops, for example—the provisions in this Bill are an important first step in creating a world in which children are also protected online. They are, however, only a first step. Parity of protection for children between the online and offline world can be better achieved if the Government strengthen these provisions in Committee.
Indeed. My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I do not believe that the Bill goes far enough, but it has the potential to do so.
As currently set out in the Bill, the age regulator covers only commercial pornographic sites. This is not typical of the way in which children access or share sexualised, pornographic and other age-inappropriate content. Will the Minister commit to extending the role of the regulator so that it also covers user-generated sites and peer-to-peer services, such as live streaming and video chat sites, and avoids any unnecessary loopholes that could lead to the legislation being deemed invalid?
The powers of the regulator as set out in the Bill are extremely limited. They provide legal cover only for payment service providers that break their contract with non-compliant commercial pornographic sites. Will the Minister expand the role of the age regulator, to ensure that it has the power to issue fines and enforcement notices, and to enforce the withdrawal of payment services? Online abuse is a problem the world over, and the internet does not respect international borders. Will he therefore give the regulator powers to block sites outside the UK’s legal jurisdiction which do not comply with UK regulations?
Part of the solution must be to support parents to feel confident in understanding the dangers posed by the internet. According to Barnardo’s, half of young people living at home report that their parents know only some of what they are doing online. Will the Minister consider including provisions to provide up-to-date information for parents about parental controls and other ways of restricting children’s access to potentially harmful content, and supporting parents to recognise the dangers faced by their children online?
Finally, preventing access to pornography and indecent material is vital, but it is also necessary to give children the resilience to challenge and contextualise what they see online. It is my view and that of all the major children’s charities that the best way to do this is by providing all children with age-appropriate resilience and relationship lessons as soon as a child reaches school age. This would allow children to see pornography for what it is—a fantasy that predominately subjugates and abuses women.
Girls and boys must not grow up believing that violence and non-consensual sex are normal or to be expected. Sadly, though, that is exactly what the young people I speak to believe. That is echoed in the Women and Equalities Committee’s report on sexual harassment in schools, which was released today. My final request is for the Minister to add provisions to strengthen the content of the e-curriculum taught in schools at all key stages. This should include recognising abuse and exploitation online, mitigating risks and using the internet safely and responsibly. Giving children the knowledge and tools to contextualise pornographic content and to challenge abusive behaviour is the best way to empower and protect them.
As has been acknowledged by Members on both sides of the House, the creative economy in the UK is fast-paced, dynamic and world-leading; it is growing faster than other sectors of the economy. Britain leads the world in many areas of online retail. Tech businesses and tech hubs have been a part of the regeneration of many of our cities, and London has established itself as one of the most pre-eminent cities for technology and the digital economy in the world. We are rightly world-leading, and we should be proud of that. However, it has been said as well that this is an incredibly fast-paced part of the global economy, and we cannot afford to stand still and not respond to the challenges of the growing digital economy and the need for better infrastructure to support businesses and homes up and down the UK.
I welcome, as many speakers have, the measure in the Bill to bring the infringement of copyright offline and online into sync and to greatly stiffen and strengthen the penalty for it. Having a 10-year sentence for online infringement of copyright—similar to that for offline infringement—is absolutely the right thing to do, and I congratulate the Government on bringing that measure forward.
Protecting the IP of creators is an important part of the success of the creative economy, and so is creating the infrastructure necessary for businesses to compete in the digital age and for homes to receive the connectivity they need to access the services they rely on and the content they enjoy. Openreach has been a key part of the delivery of broadband services in this country; it is right that it has been part of our debate today, and it was a key part of the recent inquiry by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. There are undoubtedly challenges for Openreach in its customer service. I think all Members who have engaged with BT on behalf of their constituents would say there is room for improvement in customer service, and when BT has come before the Select Committee it has recognised that. It is not alone in being a provider that needs to improve on customer service.
However, the challenge and the question we face is, how do we complete the final 5% of the delivery of superfast broadband in this country as quickly and as effectively as possible and continue to improve services for other customers too? Is that job made easier or harder by the separation of BT from Openreach? Of course, as the Secretary of State rightly said in her opening speech in the debate, nothing should be off the table. There are stiff challenges for BT and Openreach to meet, and Ofcom is overseeing that as well. They have to work harder to improve customer service and the service that they offer to other corporate customers— other providers they work with. However, we are better able to extend the coverage of our network to meet the USO with Openreach operating inside the BT group. However, if it cannot meet the targets they have been set, nothing should be left off the table, as the Secretary of State rightly said.
The USO itself is widely welcomed by Members on both sides of the House. There are key questions, obviously, to be resolved. First, who will deliver the USO? My right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) rightly said that it could be Openreach, and BT has said itself that it could deliver it, but that question still has to be resolved. Who will be the deliverer, and how will it be paid? The Government’s preference is naturally for an industry-led solution, and the Select Committee supported that view in its recent report. However, the delivery of the USO has to be affordable; there is no point having a notional legal right to have access to superfast broadband services if no one will pay, or can afford to pay, for their delivery. That remains one of the questions that has to be answered. I know that Ofcom is consulting on the delivery of the USO, and that will be one of the important questions it has to consider.
In the Select Committee investigation, we also looked at over-building, which is an important part of the delivery of the final 5% of broadband services. There are many smaller providers that may be prepared to go into a community that is currently poorly served by internet provision, but they are reluctant to do so because they do not know whether Openreach is about to go into the area itself, and Openreach— because of market sensitivity—has been reluctant to share information and maps showing where it intends to go next. We are now dealing with some of the most marginal areas in the country—areas that have so far been excluded from the roll-out of superfast broadband and that were not prioritised in the Broadband Delivery UK roll-out because they are so marginal. I do not believe that the commercial sensitivity and the cost to a provider can be so great that that provider cannot give communities certainty about whether they are about to benefit from the further roll-out of superfast broadband and, if they are not, whether another provider may step in and provide that service instead. At the moment, the threat of over-building has held people back.
In the delivery of the USO—certainly if it is supported at any level with public money, just as the roll-out led by BDUK was—it is also right that we consider whether we are subsidising areas that are already commercially viable and that are part of the Openreach plan, but that should perhaps have been taken out because someone else would have come in to provide services. That money could have been used to support another site. I accept what the former Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage, says—that a substantial amount of clawback money has come from the Openreach contracts, and that will be reinvested. However, there have been cases—we certainly saw cases in the Select Committee—where the Openreach roll-out through BDUK went into areas that could have been supported by commercial operators, and we do not want to repeat that.
With regard to Ofcom’s role in overseeing the BBC, it was right that the BBC Trust was replaced with a new body. It is right that Ofcom should be the body that oversees complaints to the BBC. There is one very important area where I would certainly welcome greater clarity, and it is going to be one of the thorniest areas that Ofcom has to deal with. Ofcom is responsible for evaluating distinctiveness in BBC content—it will be required to give rulings on that. That is very different from black and white breaches of a code; it involves a very subjective view. How that subjective view can be consistently enforced and delivered by Ofcom remains to be seen, but it is a very important area.
The former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), touched in his speech on the question of appeals against Ofcom rulings. Part of the Bill changes the nature of appeals against Ofcom rulings so that it is not a question of the merits of the argument, but really a matter of law, as it would be in a judicial review, as to whether Ofcom is right or wrong. In the past, there have been cases where Ofcom has got it wrong, and the Competition and Markets Authority has come in and told Ofcom that it has got it wrong. We do not want to see a situation where the wrong ruling is given and no challenge can be made to it because there was no fair judicial process. Ofcom should give greater consideration to the views of other authorities that regulate competition and markets before coming to a decision. I understand the point that we do not want vexatious and spurious appeals constantly made to Ofcom simply to delay the inevitable enforcement of the right decision, but at the same time we want to make sure that Ofcom is getting the decisions right and taking on board all relevant pieces of information.
Finally, I would like to add my comments to the argument made by other Members—the hon. Members for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr) and for Rotherham (Sarah Champion)—about online pornography. I certainly support the measures in the Bill to have age verification on pornographic websites, but there have to be some teeth to the enforcement of that. If an offshore operator simply refuses to comply, what would be the sanctions? Yes, it is great that information is shared with PayPal or a credit card operator, but are they required in any way to stop payments to the site? The ultimate sanction, of course, would be site blocking as well. I appreciate that that can be a bit of a wild west when we are dealing with offshore operators that can consistently change the services they offer, but there have to be some teeth; otherwise, offshore operators will simply pay no attention, and we will not have made the progress that we want. However, this is an important issue; I am glad to see it on the face of the Bill, and I would certainly welcome more guidance from Ministers as we go through this debate.
I rise to speak about part 4 of the Bill and in support of musicians, singers, composers and others in the music industry who create and perform music for our pleasure. In the context of the Bill, that means asking the Government to use this opportunity to strengthen existing measures to ensure that artists are properly remunerated for their work online, which they frequently are not.
First, however, I must add that the measures in part 3, in relation to pornography, are a welcome step, but they are nowhere near enough, as other hon. Members have said. I will not discuss these measures at length, and I just want to add my support to the things that the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and others said about the deficiencies of the Bill and about aspects of online abuse. Before I was a Member of Parliament, I worked with men who had abused their partners, and I can provide lists of examples of their use of the internet to track, harass, shame, bully, threaten and abuse their ex-partners. I can also say that many of them, unfortunately, learned their ideas about sexual behaviour from pornography—frequently, violent pornography. The Government have an opportunity that they can grasp. It is not easy—I am not saying that there are simple solutions—but I really add my voice to those of other hon. Members, and I know that the Secretary of State, with her track record on tackling violence against women and girls, will be open to listening to our suggestions.
I must declare my musical interests. I was once a professional musician and a member of the Musicians’ Union, which therefore did make a donation—declared properly in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—to my campaign last year. I am married to a professional musician. Many of my friends and family are also musicians. Having declared my interests, I have to say that I am speaking today about the rights of workers, who include many in my own constituency, to be properly paid for their music, and to support the huge contribution the music industry makes to our economy. I ask the Government to improve on what is currently in the Bill and to do everything they can to stop illegal downloading and piracy.
We all have music in our lives. Special memories always have a specific song playing in the background. Special occasions include a well-chosen piece of music. As I walked to the bus this morning, I had a tune in my head. Whether we love opera or indie bands or can remember all the tunes from “Singin’ in the Rain”—I can—music is a huge part of our lives. The previous Labour Government invested hugely in the arts in a range of ways, and the arts have given a great return on investment. For that to continue, musicians and the creative industry, and every part of the supply chain, have to be properly, fairly and legally remunerated for what they create, whether it is online, in live performances, or in sales of physical recordings such as CDs. This Bill provides a great opportunity for the Government to help to make sure that this happens online. Yet, unfortunately, the content of part 4 leaves so much that could still be done. I hope that we will discuss that in Committee.
I am pleased that clause 26 amends the current legislation on copyright to bring online criminal penalties for copyright infringement in line with off-line penalties, with a maximum of 10 years’ imprisonment. This will target anyone who infringes copyright in order to make a commercial gain. However, I wish to stress to hon. Members and to members of the public that this is not to catch out people who download music and unwittingly download or stream something illegal. I want to make that clear in adding my support to this measure. As far as I understand it, it targets the criminals who make money from distributing music to which they do not have the rights.
I am getting nods from the Secretary of State, so I am glad that I have got that right.
The Bill could and should be a vehicle to boost the UK’s creative industries and the legal economy, and reduce the proliferation of illegal content online. I would like the Government to consider adding two things to the Bill. First, I ask the Secretary of State to consider making online providers who make music available on their sites legally liable to ensure that that music is legally available. This would mean that they would need either to obtain relevant licences or take active steps to prevent infringement, and could not take any advantage of the safe harbours provision in the e-commerce directive, which was written many years ago and no longer covers what we need today.
Secondly, I would like the Secretary of State to consider imposing a code of practice between online intermediaries and those who hold the rights to music in order to deal with piracy if voluntary talks fail. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said, this is not just about music, and he mentioned films. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) referred to e-books. There are many art forms to which this could apply. I am taking music as an example, but it could do the lot.
Estimating the loss to the legal trade in music through piracy is difficult, but using data from Ofcom, there is evidence to suggest that the losses could be anything between £150 million and £300 million a year. Whatever the true scale of the figure, this is a significant loss to the UK economy, to music producers, and above all to the musicians and the artists who make the music.
Online copyright infringement is as serious as physical, off-line copyright infringement, as others have said in relation to online pornography or other aspects of the internet and the digital economy. It is as serious as that. One would not expect to walk into a shop and remove a CD without paying, walk into a club or a local live venue and not pay your door fee, or walk into an orchestral concert without a ticket. The two things are exactly the same.
I have often heard it said that the online world is impossible to regulate—that it is a sort of modern-day wild west. Well, as anyone who loves western movies as much as I do knows, the wild west was eventually tamed—sort of. The good guys do eventually win, usually, and the bad guys usually get taken out—they do in Morricone films, anyway. [Interruption.] Yes, with great music. It is not always the sheriff who is successful in asserting good over evil, and in the online world it does not necessarily have to be the law that intervenes and pursues prosecutions to make it work. Nevertheless, we do need that regulation. Music lovers themselves want to make sure their loved bands and artists are paid properly, and they know that they can be if they pay through legal download sites or through ad content. Musicians and the industry have done well out of an increase in digital music, some of it free to download or available on a subscription service.
My hon. Friend is making a very clear argument about fairness that will have support across the House. Does she agree that a very simple move by the Government would be to extend the public lending right to off-site e-book lending, as that would correct an error that was never intended?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and I completely agree. As I said, the arguments I am making about music can equally be applied to books, to films, and to other art forms.
When music lovers see ads in front of streams of music, they expect that what they are hearing will be legal and that the ads are helping to pay for this. When they use a well-known search engine, which I will not name, to find a piece of music they like, they expect that the links will take them to legal sites where the music industry is properly paid for their work. However, that is not always the case. This is where we have to intervene, as lawmakers, to provide a proper framework for the online wild west.
In some parts of the online world, co-operation is working. For instance, internet service providers are co-operating on the “Get It Right From A Genuine Site” campaign, which helps to educate consumers about the importance of legal sources. However, there is still no clear agreement with the search engines. This is despite a Government-chaired round table process that has been discussing the problem for several years. The search engines need to do their part, now, because the UK Music report published yesterday showed that music contributed £4.1 billion to the British economy last year. We need it to do more, and it can through an online presence.
A thriving digital economy requires each part of the value chain in music production and consumption to get its fair share. Huge global companies that are not paying their fair share for the use of the UK’s music on their platforms should be made to do so. This needs to be resolved to ensure a fair digital economy in the UK, with fair rewards for musicians. I could make plenty of detailed suggestions, and I look forward to the opportunity to do so in Committee. I hope that the Secretary of State will consider what I have said about the need for proper remuneration for musicians and those involved in other art forms online.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire).
This Bill deals with an important issue for very many of my constituents, thousands of whom will be affected by it. It will be welcome news to all those who have written to us about rural broadband. As a large and rural area, North Cornwall faces the typical challenges that other rural parts of Britain face when trying to modernise and to embrace new technologies and infrastructures. North Cornwall fortunately benefits from a county-wide roll out of superfast broadband, which has reached about 95% of households. That has definitely helped many people across Cornwall to be better connected with friends and family, and services and businesses. It is no secret that Cornwall has lagged behind in terms of economic growth and development. The provision of superfast broadband will undoubtedly address that important issue and improve the situation, particularly in supporting growth for small and medium-sized businesses and local enterprises.
Many people, however, are not so lucky. Scores of people across North Cornwall’s countryside, moorland and remote coastal areas not only lack access to superfast broadband, but lack access to a basic and reliable broadband service. For example, numerous farmers have written to my constituency office to complain about having to submit their basic payments and not being able to access broadband in order to do so. Numerous small rural businesses that need to submit VAT returns and advertise their services through attractive internet websites have also reported poor internet speeds. Families in small villages who want to shop or speak to loved ones all over the world all too often cannot get access to these services.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. My constituency is not like his in many ways, but rural it certainly is. As we, as a Government, are trying to get more people to do more things online, it is completely counterproductive not to give those in rural areas the broadband they need for that.
I completely agree. We need to get the same access that all urban areas have, because otherwise we cannot compete on a level playing field.
Every week, my constituency office is contacted by people who have consistency issues with their broadband reliability and are not receiving the speeds they paid for, or look on in frustration as they are told by the superfast broadband companies that they cannot have broadband and yet their neighbours on the other side of the road can. In fact, my office has created a broadband not-spot map to highlight which constituents have poor broadband speeds, because we have not been able to access that information through our superfast broadband provider. That is shocking and the map is becoming substantial.
This digital age fundamentally changes how we operate in our daily lives. Like water, gas and electricity, broadband is now a necessity and has become part of the progressive society. That is why I am delighted with the Government’s introduction of the universal service obligation, which gives my constituents the protection they need for a decent broadband service, and of the electronic communications code, which emphasises the provision of broadband and mobile internet.
I understand that the USO aims to provide 10 megabits per second, which is enough to do tasks such as sending emails and browsing websites. That will help many farmers, businesses and households in my constituency to access a level of broadband that they should expect to receive, and it will also allow them to provide their services and to hold the service providers’ feet to the fire. However, paying for a 10-megabit connection and receiving only 0.1 megabit is completely unacceptable, so it is right that we place a statutory obligation on service providers. Farmers are increasingly reliant on broadband. A recent survey by the National Farmers Union found that 58% have speeds of less than 2 megabits per second.
Given the access to streaming video capability that we now demand from our internet, whether we access vital services to engage in e-learning, to catch up on our favourite programmes on Netflix or other providers, or to play fast-moving computer games, the USO is more important than ever. Therefore, I urge the Government and Ofcom to be bold and ambitious with the universal service as it starts to take shape.
If we could get a guaranteed household speed for farms and businesses in North Cornwall of at least 15 instead of 10 megabits per second, that would ensure that all of the satisfactory internet speeds could be considered to be faster and that they would not be lagging behind some of the speeds offered by some superfast broadband providers.
I appreciate that 10 megabits per second is good, but in reality it may well be outdated by the time this Bill comes to fruition and we may need to address the more modern demands of internet service users. I hope that the Secretary of State will give an assurance that the Government will consider higher broadband speeds as this Bill progresses and as they and Ofcom develop the USO.
Furthermore, will the Secretary of State explore the possibility of making superfast broadband a statutory function for all new build properties? The utility should be a lawful requirement so that families and businesses can use it immediately. That would also lower the cost for some service providers. I raised that point recently during questions to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and I am keen to hear whether the Secretary of State will consider working with the Department for Communities and Local Government to amend the Bill and make superfast broadband a statutory requirement for all new build properties.
I also welcome the Government’s plan for a new electronic communications code to enhance the provision of broadband both on the ground and in the air. Mobile signal and mobile broadband coverage in North Cornwall is an ongoing issue that needs to be addressed. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who, sadly, has left the Chamber, mentioned Polzeath. When the former Prime Minister was there on holiday, he was unable to access mobile phone coverage. That is an issue that affects everybody right across Cornwall. The Bill will help coastal communities in particular and those areas of outstanding natural beauty that have to have mobile phone masts, which present a huge problem in terms of planning applications.
It is critical that we continue to improve all forms of communication, as there are many areas in North Cornwall that lack both broadband speed and mobile phone reception. It is imperative that our mobile operators can erect masts in new areas, to deliver better broadband speed in a number of different ways. As with broadband, farmers are becoming more reliant on a decent mobile phone signal. A recent NFU survey suggested that only 32% of farmers across the country had access to a good signal. Given that farmers are often out working on their own, we should try to take that important step. With superfast broadband being rolled out across North Cornwall, it is becoming easier for mobile phone operators to site masts in rural areas and to cover 3G and 4G internet.
The Government have embarked on a £5 billion investment programme to improve mobile infrastructure. The new code will go further by reforming the old and complex code, which the Law Commission said was
“complex and extremely difficult to understand”.
The new code enables operators to upgrade their equipment without having to consult landowners, which can result in disputes and higher rents, as other Members have said, and can cause higher bills for customers and a less reliable service. Concerns have been expressed by the Country Land and Business Association. It is important that operators continue to have a healthy dialogue with landowners, even if statute does not necessarily demand it. By continuing to roll out better mobile coverage, especially in areas such as North Cornwall, we should seek to benefit not just residents, but tourists who come to those areas. By improving the signal in many areas on North Cornwall’s coastline, we will improve Cornwall’s tourism offer.
Phone signal is also very important for communications by the emergency services, and enabling further coverage across North Cornwall should help to keep Cornwall safe. Coastguards have no mobile phone access in many of the areas of outstanding natural beauty on our coastlines, which presents a huge problem.
On our railway services, we rely on phone signal and fast broadband speeds, whether directly to our phones or via the train’s onboard wi-fi service. As a regular user of the railways, I know the frustration that many passengers feel when they constantly lose mobile phone signal or wi-fi internet service. Having communications on our trains is imperative to remain productive on long journeys, especially in the south-west, where rail journeys are often longer due to lower track speeds. I hope that the Government will work with the phone and train operators to improve the provision of mobile coverage across the whole of the south-west.
Ultimately, I am keen to see North Cornwall embrace the digital economy for day-to-day communications and to attract more information technology, coding and gaming companies to the area. North Cornwall is strategically located near the A38 and A30 trunk roads, and it is well situated between two regional airports. It is a good home for IT companies that want to benefit not only from good internet connections and transport links, but from living in a fantastic place.
The south-west already hosts many people in the digital sector. In 2014, the number stood at 80,000 employees. With its expanding superfast broadband network, North Cornwall and the wider community has huge untapped potential.
I support the Bill and thank everybody for listening.
I am sad that the Secretary of State has just left the Chamber. I have spent the last year causing her problems on the issue of modern slavery, but I have to say that she was really dedicated to trying to eradicate modern slavery in Britain. She did her best to make a difference. She has left behind the Minister for Digital and Culture, with whom I worked on the Public Accounts Committee and who is distinguished by his brains, so I hope that, having heard the debate, to which there have been many significant contributions, he will agree to make shifts in the Bill.
On digital access, I represent a town in the Thames valley and it is one of the most productive towns in Britain. Slough makes more profits per resident than all bar two other places in the whole of the United Kingdom. Yet new developments in my constituency do not have access to superfast broadband, and the residents in those developments just do not understand why that is the case. It would have been simple for this Bill to include a requirement that any new build development should have superfast broadband connectivity.
That is one big gap, but I want to spend my time reflecting on the provisions in part 3 of the Bill, which I welcome. I was pleased to work with the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), who, when she was first elected, took up with a passion the protection of children from online pornography. We had a series of hearings, and we came up with some really useful proposals, some of which have clearly fed into the Bill.
I also welcome the report by the Women and Equalities Committee which came out today, on children’s access to pornography. I helped to persuade the House authorities to establish that Committee, and it is proving its usefulness well. The report provides clear evidence that watching online pornography is significantly associated with higher rates of self-reported sexual violence perpetration. Young boys get a completely distorted view of sexual relationships because of online pornography. It is a shocking thought that a young man or woman’s first introduction to sexual relations is via pornography, which makes young men think, for example, that women’s body hair is unusual. As Laura Bates said in evidence to the Select Committee, it gives them very strange ideas. She told the Committee:
“I was in a school where a teacher told me they had recently had a rape case involving a 14-year old male perpetrator. One of the teachers had asked him ‘why didn’t you stop when she was crying?’ and he had replied: ‘because it’s normal for girls to cry during sex’.”
That is why getting this right is so important, and I am very glad that the Government have taken these initiatives.
I was impressed by the Tory manifesto, which contained a commitment to
“stop children’s exposure to harmful sexualised content online,”
and this measure is clearly the way in which the Government seek to do so. The Government’s impact assessment of the Bill states that the purpose is merely to nudge online pornography providers to comply and introduce age verification, however, which is far more limited than what was offered in the manifesto. One of the things we know about nudging is that well set up and properly structured companies based here in the UK will be nudged, but the problem is that online pornography providers are very often not like that. They are often based overseas, they are often not well set up and they are often used to trying to evade the kinds of controls that we are discussing.
I am concerned that the age verification provisions, which I warmly welcome, do not include a requirement that ISPs should block access to non-compliant or illegal sites. I had a useful meeting with the Minister and his officials, for which I am grateful, where I was told that when the regulator published a list of non-compliant sites, payment companies would withdraw payment facilities and advertisers would withdraw advertising, and that that would do the trick and convince the sites to introduce age verification. I agree that it will, in some cases, but in some cases it might not.
What happens then? The Bill is silent on what happens then. Clause 22 provides only that the regulator can notify that a site is not compliant, and not that he can require companies to refuse payment or ensure that those sites are blocked. I am sure that the credit card companies and others will do the right thing, and in most cases that will be enough. But what about the sites that do not depend on any UK-based credit card companies, or that use Bitcoin or other non-UK-based financing systems? That is where it can all break down.
The Government are just wrong to believe that the ISPs will block access to such sites on a voluntary basis. They do so in relation to child pornography, but the point is that child pornography is, on the face of it, illegal and an abuse of a child, whereas we are talking about content that is not illegal for adults to view, but that children should be protected from. That is why the power to require blocking is needed. Leaving such matters on a voluntary basis is dangerous, and is contrary to good government. We know that, although some companies will comply, those based overseas that do not want to—they are the least likely ones to comply—will be able to avoid doing so. There should be a mechanism that is justiciable, in which people can appeal and cases can be sorted out properly, not on the basis of informal agreements.
I hope that the Minister—as I have said, he is a clever and thoughtful man—will make sure, as the Bill goes through the House, that the regulator is given a residual power, if companies are not compliant, to force payment bodies to refuse payments. That could deliver what we are talking about, and there could also be an appeal mechanism. The Government could actually do their job, rather than hope that people not working in a pro-social way can be encouraged to do the job for us.
It is an honour and a pleasure to speak in this debate. Broadband connectivity is possibly the most important issue at every level for my constituents in north Northumberland. I thank the former Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey)—he is not now in the Chamber—who listened endlessly to requests from me and my constituents for a universal service obligation to ensure that those who live in our most rural communities have access to decent broadband.
The concern brought to me, which I have raised, is how robust the right to request, under a universal service obligation, broadband with a speed of 10 megabits per second will be, given the reality of access to the system. The first point I ask the Minister to consider—it has been raised by colleagues—is that, by the time the Bill is enacted and we can move forward, 10 megabits per second will be well below a realistic level. How might we benchmark that number today, so that we will have a number to which we can relate in two or five years’ time?
May I say, because this issue has come up several times, that the Bill proposes to put the speed into secondary legislation precisely so that it can be updated appropriately? The figure of 10 megabits per second, which I have described as the absolute minimum, is the Ofcom definition of what a family currently needs. I think my hon. Friend will see from what I have said the direction in which things are heading.
I thank the Minister for his intervention, which will very much reassure those for whom that matter has not perhaps been made as clear as they wish it to be. The key will be to support Ofcom’s proposals, which I understand we can expect at the end of the year, so there is clarity and we can control the situation.
In Northumberland, BT has done an enormously good job in very difficult technical circumstances. When the telephony system was installed back in the 1950s, a cabinet was put at the end of almost every street in Durham, but one was put in only every 10 to 20 miles in Northumberland, with very few copper cables going on for miles and miles. This is proving a very serious challenge for BT in meeting the needs of farmsteads that might now have nine or 10 homes, where in the 1950s there was one farmer who perhaps did not even want mains electricity at that time. We have some real engineering challenges in Northumberland, but I want to put it on the record that BT and Openreach are doing an incredible job in trying to find ways to meet them.
One issue that has not been raised in any detail is the gainshare programme. The BDUK money, which has been rolled out through BT to reach some of my constituents, will not come back in at the speed we would like unless the offer of broadband, where it exists, is taken up by my constituents. The Government need to think carefully about how they get across the point that if broadband is available in a community—it is available in many places, although not nearly enough across Northumberland—people must change their contracts to one involving broadband to ensure that the gainshare will come back in for the rest of the community. The iNorthumberland team at Northumberland County Council have worked tirelessly alongside me for four years in my broadband campaign to drive it out, in spider’s web fashion, to our smaller and smaller communities, but we are definitely not there yet.
The target of reaching 95% by 2017 is very unrealistic in my patch, and we need to review it. The reality is that superfast broadband will continue to expand. Where broadband already exists, superfast broadband will continue to expand, which is fantastic for such constituents. However, it is not good, while superfast broadband keeps expanding, if we cut off more and more small communities as a result because they have not been able to put in place the infrastructure for it.
The challenges of using technologies other than fibre to do that are real. In Northumberland, bizarrely enough—we tested it in my own home—the satellites leave us caught between two different beams, so satellite broadband does not work very well. The idea is good, but in practice we are stuck between the two beams. To be fair to BT, it looked at the three villages where we had done some work and has supported trying to drive forward work to get fibre a little closer—the distance is down from 9 miles to 6 miles—to improve things.
There are also some real challenges with point-to-point wi-fi. The Northumbrian hills are quite a long way from one another. In some landscapes in the UK, the hills are closer together and point-to-point may well work much more effectively. In my constituency, the hills are large and at great distances, and the signal fades, so we will not get the impact that we need for those living in rural communities. Up the Coquet valley, farmers and their families are several miles—an hour and a half in the snow—from the next community, village or farm, but they need that comms technology available to them.
We have to find ways to ensure we have one-off investments. In the ’50s, some farmers said that they did not want mains electricity, but people will invest in and support the costs to get fibre to far-off communities, to ensure that we do not cut them off. Northumberland gets 7 million tourists every year. They all expect that there will be broadband and wi-fi in the houses they rent and the hotels and bed and breakfasts that they stay in, but it simply is not there, in the most beautiful parts of the county. We need to make sure that the investment is driven right through.
My constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr), mentioned that we always talk about download speeds, but for business development, upload speed is a vital part of the data process. We must make sure that that is understood. I would like to see it specifically in the Bill. Download is only one part of the process. It is great for streaming films if someone has 10 megabits—or so I am told; I can only get about 4 megabits in my house—but without a very good upload speed, we will not be able to get any kind of business development into rural communities. We want to broaden the engagement of those businesses in our rural communities.
As was said earlier, people who work a four-day week in their office in Newcastle, let us say, but for the sake of their quality of life want to spend three days a week working from home cannot possibly do that work or upload the documents that they need to upload without that clear upload speed of 10 megabits per second. In some of the larger villages in my constituency, the upload speed is often less than 1 megabit per second. It is impossible to work with that from a business perspective. Will the Minister therefore consider how we can make sure that operators meet a commitment on that as well?
Provision of sites for infrastructure is covered in the Bill. I have had concerns for some time—more have been brought up with me over the past few days—about the balance of the relationship between site providers and operators. How the rent for the use of private land by operators is determined will be important in ensuring that land can be rented easily for infrastructure, particularly for telephony systems. I have heard of anxiety from potential site owners that voluntary agreements may be harder to reach—something that will simply slow down investment in telephony systems for my constituents—if there is no provision in the Bill for a reasonable consideration to be paid, albeit perhaps one below current levels.
Potential site owners are concerned that the Bill implies that there could be retrospective change to existing arrangements, which is slowing down tenancy agreements. It would be helpful if the Minister confirmed that the new code will not be retrospective, to ensure that an operator will not have the option to break an existing lease purely to enter the new code. My main concern for north Northumberland is that that risks slowing down the roll-out of the emergency services network, on whose masts my constituents hope to rely to extend our telephone system to some of the most rural communities. I hope the Minister will be able to answer those questions.
I recall that I once had a visit from a former Member of this House who said that he loved visiting my constituency because he could always see the two most beautiful words in politics—no signal.
My hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr) gave a forensic and helpful speech on the opportunities in this area. He has been a critical friend, pointing out where the Bill could be improved and what needs to be considered. I want to touch on a few of those points.
As chair of the all-party group for digital economy, I have had the opportunity to speak with a number of people in the industry and to take some thoughts and comments from people across the length and breadth of this subject. It is clear that we are facing a radical change in how we deal with things. We have heard today about the internet of things and the opportunities for blockchain. My hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) talked about the opportunities for currency, data provision and a new way of holding information. There will be opportunities for new types of jobs, but challenges about how technology replaces jobs.
We will have to look very carefully at the Bill and how we move forward, because it will affect people’s lives and health. If we look at the use of technology in remote and rural areas, telehealth will become very important. It is therefore vital that we have the connectivity to allow that to take place.
The universal service obligation has to be a truly universal service. The obligation should be to make it the same. People say it should be like water and electricity—yes, absolutely it should—but the obligation just does not reach to broadband. It should be about connectivity, so we have to look at digital very carefully. What will the cost be for people who want to access technology in the future? What levels of service can they, should they and must they expect as things move along? How do we tackle digital exclusion for those who simply cannot afford the kind of technology many of us take for granted, particularly as new devices become available for people to use? All those things will have to be considered in the context of how we create a fair digital society and a fair digital economy.
If we look at suppliers, what will the service be like? What should we make sure to look for? The Bill needs to contain ways to measure that properly, something that has been asked for before today. We need to know how the Bill will keep pace with developing technology. Earlier, the Minister talked about 10 megabits per second being a minimum standard. Thank goodness for that, because that will be an absolute minimum in a matter of months, such is the pace of technology.
We also have to consider issues of latency. Upload speed has been mentioned. Voices in the industry are calling for a minimum of 2 megabits, and we have heard about upload speeds from other hon. Members today. Upload speed is a critical factor in ensuring that business can truly compete and that we can take advantage of all the advances coming forward.
The Bill must contain measures to create backhaul and ensure that the distribution of equipment to supply will be sufficient to get into all areas, particularly rural areas. I have been an advocate on this subject for a number of years. Before 5G, I was talking about the availability of 4G and the Government taking the opportunity to use the licensing regime to make sure there is an obligation on suppliers to ensure that rural and remote areas are supplied first. In years to come, they will need it more. They will need to access all those services in the way that others, because they live in commercial areas, take for granted. I hope that that will be taken forward.
As Members have said, 5G needs high-frequency broadcast, so we need to look at lots of infrastructure over a fairly short distance that is able to transmit the signals that will be required to supply that very high-frequency service. When we are looking at filling the gaps in provision, we have to get away from the idea of satellite being an absolute solution. As it stands, it does not fill the gap required to fill 5G. We have to encourage communities, in the way we do in Scotland with the community broadband Scotland programme, to be able to set up their own systems to broadcast a signal, so that it can be developed in future to ensure that 5G is applicable to them. That must be an absolute priority, so that we do not take our eye off the ball on what will happen in the future.
It is important for the Bill to make progress on ensuring people’s rights when it comes to mobile phone contracts. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk for mentioning the discussion I had with Ofcom last year and what was agreed by the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey). The Bill should include provision so that people who have mobile phone contracts that are not usable or who get a poor service can have the same rights as those with broadband connections to change or cancel their services and move on to another provider. I hope that progress will be made on that. I see the Minister nodding, so I am pleased that that will be coming forward. We do not want people such as Sally who lives in Tomatin in my constituency to be told by a mobile company that she could get a signal, only to find on powering it up, having travelled miles to get the phone she wanted, that there was no opportunity for it to happen. That happens too much. People have been putting up with too poor a service for too long.
Let me make a final point before I conclude. Tariffs for broadband should be limited to what is actually possible. It should not be possible for a telecoms company to charge someone for 76 megabits per second when they are being supplied with much less and there is no way to get that 76 megabits service. That should be made a condition. In Scotland, we have set out the ambition for 100% superfast broadband by the year 2021. We will take on board all that we need to do to make sure that happens. It is time for ambition across all the nations of the UK to make sure that we deliver something that is truly fit for the 21st century.
I rise with great satisfaction to welcome both new Ministers to their places and to welcome the Bill. There is much in it to be applauded. Let me focus on two quick points before moving on to the provisions for reducing the amount of adult material that children can see online, which other Members have spoken about.
Digital access is vital for those who represent rural constituencies. I know how much the previous Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), had worked on this issue, and I agree with him that enormous progress has been made in providing high-speed access across many parts of the country that were ignored in commercial contracts. It is now a question of how we provide services for the last 5%. I welcome the definition in the Bill of what “fast” actually looks like, which I know the current Minister has been keen to establish.
I also welcome the universal service obligation. It seems bizarre, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage mentioned, that we do not have broadband provision built into the building code along with the provision of electricity and water services as a fundamental utility that every householder should have.
I welcome, too, the direct marketing code that is covered in clause 77. I suspect that many Members have been shown the difficulties, the traumas, the feeling of invasion that people suffer when there is a direct marketing call or letter going to their homes again and again. I really welcome the provision that will put the direct marketing code on a statutory footing, which should make it easier for prosecutions to be brought and for penalties to be applied. Ministers are to be commended for this.
I shall spend the majority of my speech talking about part 3, which is designed to improve internet safety for young people by introducing an age verification mechanism. It seems odd how life goes full circle. It was the Minister of State who sat on the Benches with me all those years ago when I brought this topic up in an Adjournment debate. It was, I think, the first thing I did in the House, and it was the then Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage, who responded. We set out a series of requests that seemed to be very sensible, but to which the response was in some ways hysterical. I remember people telling us that we wanted censorship. The right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), who did so much with me on this topic, will remember that we were somehow supposed to be about burning books because we wanted ISPs to do some simple things, such as provide filtering that was already on, so that it would not be incumbent on parents alone to protect their children; the internet service providers would help them to do that. My goodness, how far we have come since then. We now have ISPs that behave incredibly responsibly in this country, and we have filters whose default setting is “on”.
In this context, I must pay tribute to the former Prime Minister. I believe that without his leadership, we might still be arguing with the industry about these matters. It was his seeing the rationale behind this, and seizing on it, that really got officials and industry to move. I remember that when I was his special adviser on online safety, I was asked to meet the parents of April Jones, who was murdered so cruelly by someone in her area. They could not understand how the man who had killed their daughter had been able to put into the internet search terms such as “naked little girls in glasses” and receive returns from Google, served up for his pleasure and, potentially, for his stimulation. That was a very hard question to answer. It was absolutely right that we persuaded search engines, including Google, not to return results against a whole series of search terms, but it took intervention from the highest level of Government to make that happen.
It was absolutely brilliant that the Government moved even further, and produced a series of definitions of illegal material. Posting revenge porn is now a criminal offence, as is stalking in the online world, and the Government have also outlawed the depiction of violent rape in either absolute or cartoon form. I am delighted that they have made so much progress, and I know that there is strong cross-party support for what they have done.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. During that long process of conversation, legislation and lobbying, we all discovered that it was very hard to get internet service providers, content providers and search engines to think in this way, because they took a different view. Their view was that they would serve up whatever people wanted, everywhere. If things are made illegal, it is a different matter, so it all came down to a question of legality rather than morality. However, I think we have made enormous progress, and I am proud that we can call Britain one of the most family-friendly places in the world to access the internet. All this has been done, by the way, without any materialisation of the doom-and-gloom scenarios of internet shutdown. My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), who chairs the Select Committee—he is no longer in the Chamber—spoke of our dynamic digital economy, which is perceived to be a high-growth, high-innovation area; and while all that has been achieved, we have also established some family-friendly guidelines.
Let me now urge the Minister and his officials to pay particular attention to two aspects of the Bill which concern me, and which others have also raised. The first is the definition of content that is captured by the age verification mechanism. I know that the Bill is quite loosely drafted, and I know that the intention is to capture both commercial material and material that is provided free on commercial sites, but there is a real question about peer-to-peer sites and live streaming. As we all know, the internet is not accessed through the mainstream hub sites, and there is now far more peer-to-peer and free content exchange. I should be interested to know how further drafting would address that problem.
It is encouraging that commercial providers of pornography support these proposals. They think it absolutely right for there to be some degree of age verification, because they are not interested in children viewing their material, and they recognise the commercial benefits of the Bill. That is very notable.
The second aspect that I want to raise is the role of the regulator, and what teeth the regulator can have. Concerns have been expressed today about enforcement. In the light of my association with the British Board of Film Classification, it occurs to me that there may be a role for that organisation in a regulatory structure. It is a trusted brand when it comes to regulating content; its definitions are widely accepted, and it is considered to be highly robust. I have met BBFC representatives and talked to them about the possibility, and they have agreed that there could be a role for them. However, the BBFC’s current enforcement is carried out not through its own powers, but through trading standards or the police, so the question of enforcement still needs to be addressed. However, it does concern me that, as we have heard, while the intention is there to have a level of enforcement—a civil enforcement, perhaps, relating to fines—it is difficult to establish a qualifying turnover and indeed bank account details for many of these overseas sites that are generating and posting content. I would be interested to have further details, perhaps in Committee, as to how those sites could be captured and, of course, what happens if nothing happens. What happens if a site flagrantly disregards this, and refuses to put in place a robust verification mechanism? We should explore the possibility of ISPs being asked to block sites that are effectively contravening UK law.
I urge the Minister to look at what happened with the gambling industry. The right hon. Member for Slough—I like to call her my right hon. Friend—and I could not understand why there was such a disparity. Of course, the gambling industry set up very early on robust age verification mechanisms that blocked under-18s from accessing their sites. There is a mechanism in place, and it has been achieved without any howls of privacy invasion.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point and I fully agree with it, but does she agree that the difference between the gambling and pornography industries is that all gambling sites require the ability to take money from their customers, whereas not all pornography sites do? That is the critical difference, and the reason why this measure may not go quite as far as she and I would like.
I have expressed serious concerns about compulsive-addictive gambling, which is exacerbated by online gambling, as well as fixed odds betting terminals. Are the Government seriously going to address the problem of online gambling and its contribution to gambling addiction?
That is a separate debate for a separate Department, I believe, but I do take that point, and of course anything that is served up on the internet into our homes becomes ever more accessible, whether it is gambling or legal adult material, or indeed illegal adult material, where the Government have taken such great steps to intervene.
In conclusion, I urge the Minister to be bold. It was telling when we started these conversations so many years ago that there were howls of outrage from many of the same people who have responded to the consultation, and the idea that somehow we were debating a masturbator’s charter by asking for ISPs automatically to have parental filters turned on. The rhetoric does not marry with the reality.
I know the Minister to be highly logical and sensible and bright—[Interruption]—and all the other things that mean that I clearly would like him to listen very hard. He must be bold and resist attempts to wrap up what is very sensible policy in rhetoric. It is not about nudge; it is about leadership and direction. I am proud we have come so far in this country, and I welcome the progress that will be made in this Bill.
Order. Colleagues have behaved very honourably this afternoon in sticking to the informal 10-minute time limit, but, unfortunately, many Members still wish to speak, so I must reduce that informal limit to eight minutes. It has worked so well that I am reluctant to impose a formal time limit. Let us see if approximately eight minutes will work from now on.
I am pleased that this Bill is focusing on the digital economy. However, I feel that some areas need strengthening in order to avoid unintended consequences and that there are missed opportunities.
I want first to talk about the data-sharing powers, and specifically the section of the Bill that enables public authorities to share data to make it easier for Government and public authorities to collect outstanding debts from individuals, particularly where the debt is owed to more than one public authority. Commercial creditors, and even the dreaded payday lenders, adhere to the Financial Conduct Authority standards, but there is no equivalent for public authorities. In a recent survey, StepChange found that bailiffs, local authorities and the Department for Work and Pensions are the top three organisations that people felt treated them unfairly—worse than payday lenders—and that is because of a lack of binding standards and the complete variability of policies. The impact has been 60% of those people taking on more debt, including 21% taking on payday loans. People falling behind with their bills causes great stress, which we know leads to mental health issues and family problems. We need to look at the concept of a breathing space, which I shall say more about later. Problem debt weighs down individuals, families and the economy. It costs us all £8.3 billion. Surely that is a good reason to strengthen the Bill to improve the debt collection practices of public authority creditors, using the best practice available and aiming for consistency across the country.
The Bill mentions that fairness should be paramount in this regard, but there is no mention of the scope of the outline principles for debt collection. Surely there should be guidance as to what good practice looks like, and at least a reference to the standard financial statement and to public authorities auditing their collection and enforcement policies to ensure that they do not make things worse for financially vulnerable households. Also, public authorities will be required only to have “regard” to the code of practice, which is frankly not strong enough. There should be a requirement to comply and to embed decent principles of debt collection in policies and practices throughout public bodies. I appreciate that the Bill deals with only a limited range of circumstances in which data are shared, but there is a wider need for measures to include the provision of a breathing space. The Government are looking into this at the moment. We need to ensure that people’s debt problems are not made worse when they are doing the right thing and seeking advice.
Like the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), I welcome clause 77, which deals with nuisance calls. We have all had them, but people in debt are particularly vulnerable to the temptation of a quick fix. I would really like to see a ban on the unsolicited marketing of high-cost credit and on fee-charging debt management companies. There is a bit of Mr Micawber in all of us, and it is all too easy to believe that that phone call or text is the answer to our worries when too often it simply compounds them. Currently, one in eight people are called every day by a company offering high-risk financial products. A third of people already in debt receive more than five calls a week from people trying to sell them unsuitable products. This represents the ruthless targeting of the most vulnerable and it needs to be stopped.
We need to ensure that credit is taken out only after careful consideration. People need the time to carry out research to ensure that they are getting the best deal, rather than buying credit after a pressurised sales call that often promises far more than it can deliver. Direct marketing should be opt-in, not opt-out. The tick-boxes are often far too small for people to see. My mother would never be able to see them. They are easily missed and firms should be obliged to say which third parties they are passing our information to. It is our information, and we should know who it is being given to. I am pleased that the size of the fines is to be increased, but they have to be relevant to the size and turnover of the company and proportionate to the number of calls involved. The impact on consumers has not been considered enough. I would like to see a system of fines per calls made, and the possibility of making directors personally liable for these calls, because they are responsible for the conduct of their companies.
The Bill has missed the opportunity to protect consumers and UK businesses from the online sales of counterfeit goods, particularly dangerous electrical goods, 64% of which are bought online. Many measures could be taken, but the full extent of the online problem needs to be assessed, as does the cost to the economy. It is a growing problem—I think it has increased by 12% this year alone—and more than 1 million people in the UK have knowingly or unknowingly bought a counterfeit item. That is bad for business and for the consumer, and in the worst cases, it is a safety hazard. The Bill could provide an opportunity to reduce the opportunity for counterfeiters to sell through online portals, and I hope that this will be considered as it makes progress. We are all consumers; we are all vulnerable to sales calls; we have all had, or will have, income shocks; and we all buy goods online. We deserve the best protection possible. The Bill provides many opportunities to enhance that protection and I hope that they will be seized. I hope that the protection of the most vulnerable will not be overlooked.
As we have heard today, the Bill casts its net wide and sets out to address an enormous range of issues, doing so extremely well for most. I want to add my voice to further issues, to echo the words of others and to make a special plea for rural areas and the particular problems that they face.
By the end of next year, 95% of premises are likely to have access to broadband speeds of considerably more than 10 megabits. It is important to note, however, that the remaining 5% is composed of rural areas, which make up much of Somerset and my constituency. For example, just 4% of our farmers can currently access superfast broadband and more than half receive nothing more than 2 megabits—like many of my constituents. Providing hard to reach areas with the framework that they need to get connected is a huge step forward.
However, those affected include not only farmers and other people, but businesses. One of the great opportunities of the digital revolution is that it does not have to be led by urban spaces. Given sufficient infrastructure, rural areas can be just as fertile. If the Bill’s universal service obligation—by whatever means—and its reasonable cost threshold make sense for isolated rural areas, we will have to look at a variety of means and methods, because fibre may not be appropriate. If the reasonable cost threshold makes sense, new technologies and the opportunity provided by reform of the electronic communications code to make infrastructure installations easier can make rural investment pay.
I welcome the electronic communications code changes. Digital connectivity is an essential utility that must be put on the same footing as other public utilities, as we have heard today from many hon. and right hon. Members. Without the improved framework, communities in areas such as Somerset will continue to be connected based on the ease of connecting them rather than their need for connection—two distinctly different things. For example, villages with many businesses and therefore, in purely economic terms, a greater return on investment can currently be abandoned by the fibre programme in favour of less active but easier to reach areas, which makes no sense. If all small and medium-sized enterprises traded online, some £18 billion would be added to the country’s top line, so I think looking at the bottom line and the outcome of infrastructure investment is a pretty good idea.
Many of the harder to reach areas in Somerset will be leaping with unaccustomed joy at the move towards compensating those with a substandard broadband service. We all have constituents who suffer from slow broadband—I have a slow connection, too—and Somerset has had some appalling long-term outages recently. One village, West Pennard, had an outage lasting for many days, so a bit of recompense certainly would not go amiss. Facilitating full connectivity and properly connecting rural Britain is the beginning of the path towards creating a much more equitable national picture.
Uniquely, the digital world has the capability to start to rebalance the economy away from London and other cities. If talent is the new capital and if talent is flexible, with the right tools the uneven spread of power can be changed. That represents real equality of opportunity and I might even go so far as to say digital democratisation.
I wish to speak specifically about part 3 of the Bill, which deals with age verification for online pornography. I also wish to draw the Minister’s attention to the Women and Equalities Committee report on sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools, which was published this morning. I am a member of the Committee, which took evidence on the impact that pornography has on young people’s attitudes and expectations. I hope that he will take the time to look it over and take on board our recommendations.
As I have said before in this Chamber, for people of my generation the internet may be a technical marvel, but for children and young people growing up today it is simply a fact of life. Although that brings many advantages, there are downsides, one of which is the easy access to pornography. Some of the statistics on the underage viewing of pornography online are frightening, and we should not underestimate the enormity of the challenge we are facing. In 2014, the BBC’s “Porn: what’s the harm?” survey found that 60% of young people first encountered online pornography when they were aged 14 or younger, with almost a quarter encountering it at the age of 12 or younger. Government research last year showed that 1.4 million people below the age of 18 accessed pornographic material from a desktop computer—that is the equivalent of one in five of all children with internet access. That research was limited to desktop access. When we consider that nearly two thirds of all visits to pornographic websites are made through smartphones or tablets, the scale of underage access to this material starts to come into sharp focus.
The Children’s Commissioner for England has produced research showing a link between children viewing pornography and their engaging in harmful behaviours. The Select Committee heard a wide range of oral evidence, not only on the distorting effect that pornography has on young people’s perceptions of sex, relationships and consent, but that the type of pornography that young people are accessing is often more extreme than many adults realise. Dealing with this issue requires action both to limit children’s access to pornography, and to provide better sex and relationship education to counteract its influence. I congratulate the Government on seeking to put the first of those two steps in place in this Bill.
We should be in no doubt that, for all sorts of reasons, preventing children from viewing pornography online is an exceptionally difficult task. There are no silver bullets or magic wands that the Government can wave. Whatever age-verification gateways are put in place, there will always be ways around them for those determined enough. The international dimension of the problem raises questions about enforcement difficulties, and we should bear it in mind that the vast majority of pornographic websites are not UK-based. Nevertheless, we should not be put off a task simply because it is very difficult; after all, if children were able to get their hands on alcohol and tobacco in the real world as easily as they can access pornography online, there would be an entirely justified outcry. The standards we set for ourselves as a society must hold true in the digital sphere, just as they do outside it.
As grateful as I am to the Minister for taking this issue seriously, I am afraid that I am going to hold feet to the fire when it comes to the detail of the Bill. The creation of an age-verification regulator with the power to impose financial penalties and enforcement notices on websites sends a strong message about how seriously we are taking this issue. The problems come with the enforcement of these powers. The key weakness of the Bill is that these powers are not enforceable outside the UK’s jurisdiction, where the majority of pornography websites are based. The regulator may well be able to impose a hefty fine on a website for a refusal to put age-verification measures in place, but if the site is based abroad there is nothing the regulator can do to compel payment. The most the regulator can do is inform providers of payment and other ancillary services to the website that it is not complying with the legislation. There is no requirement on those providers to withdraw their services. The Government’s justification for that flimsy approach is that service providers can be relied on to block payments to non-compliant websites, because their terms and conditions specify that their clients must be operating legally. However, that sends a pretty weak signal, and we need to be clear to pornography websites that non-compliance will affect their bottom line.
In the final analysis the regulator must be able to block websites that persist in non-compliance, but again the Bill as it stands is lacking. The Government claim that such powers would be inconsistent with existing processes for online enforcement of terrorist or child sexual abuse material, which are not on a statutory footing. Although that may be true, the difference here is that that sort of material is illegal in almost every legal jurisdiction around the world, whereas the material covered by the Bill can be accessed legally in the UK by anyone over 18. Comparing this with illegal material, and basing an enforcement regime on that comparison, is simply not credible. Without the ultimate ability to block access to websites, their owners based abroad will not be under any compulsion to comply with these regulations.
In their impact assessment for this Bill the Government stated that their aim is
“nudging the online pornography providers to comply and introduce age-verification.”
I urge the Minister to take another look at part 3, and turn that nudge into something far more robust. We must send a signal to parents and young people out there that this Government and this House find the protection of our children paramount.
The average smartphone user in the UK uses their device for more than two hours daily, so when we talk about rural communities without access to a mobile signal, let us be absolutely clear about what we mean. We are talking about the fact that people in swathes of our country are unable to participate in an activity that the rest of us consider so indispensable and so vital that we engage in it for 10 minutes of every waking hour.
The Bill before us today contains two important steps towards closing that gap. The first is action to reform the electronic communications code to reduce land rents and to free up capital to invest in infrastructure, and the second is Ofcom’s new powers to capitalise on the opportunities for dynamic spectrum access.
Let me turn first to the provisions for reducing the cost of land used by mobile operators. In going beyond the Law Commission’s recommendations and moving wayleave valuation to a compulsory purchase basis, the Government have acted boldly in the public interest. This one change will do the following: reduce rental costs; tackle the vexatious issue of ransom rents; and begin to close the gap between the rent for an electric pylon—in the hundreds of pounds—and that of a mobile telecoms mast—up to the tens of thousands of pounds.
Let me be clear: some of my constituents will lose out from this Bill. It is no secret that small rural businesses, farmers and landowners have benefited from the extra income that renting land to mobile infrastructures can provide. It is an important source of income, and I take very seriously the concerns of the National Farmers Union and the Country Land and Business Association. What is equally plain, however, is that, in boosting investment in rural coverage, the potential benefits to rural communities can outweigh those costs. We must not expect the rural people whose income will be reduced by this Bill to receive nothing in return. The analogy is made with the compulsory purchase powers in the utility and energy infrastructure side of our country. However, the National Grid is a regulated asset, which means that any cost savings it enjoys as a result of compulsory purchase powers are automatically, by regulation, passed on to customers. In the case of the mobile operators, that is not necessarily so. Interfering with property rights, as the code does, is a major step for this House to endorse. I therefore urge the Government to ensure that the Bill benefits not just the network operators’ balance sheets, but the public interest. Operators will save hundreds of millions of pounds as a result of these changes, and in return there are a few things the Government can do to keep their feet to the fire. First, the Government can ensure that they live up to the obligations of mobile coverage that, by 2017, 98% of UK households have access to 4G and 90% of our land mass is covered by voice and text.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a great source of frustration that mobile phone companies, when they sell 3G or 4G contracts knowing there is only 2G or no provision, say that it is just an opportunity to access 3G or 4G where there may be such provision? Does he not think that is mis-selling?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point and I share that frustration, which my constituents have also brought to me.
There are further steps that the Government can take. I endorse here the comments of the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr). The Government could suggest progress towards a model of independently owned infrastructure, such as is found in the United States. Independently owned masts are, on average, 10 metres taller. They can host multiple clients, unlike network-operated masts, so they reduce costs in the system, expand coverage and broaden access, and are a welcome development.
I urge the Government to look at the example in Australia where Vodafone and Telstra have combined to form a national roaming agreement, allowing network sharing in the country’s most remote regions. When the next spectrum licence auctions come along, we must ensure that coverage is paramount in the conditions. I concur with the comments by the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk: we should look at the example in Germany, where they use outside-in provisions to cover rural areas before moving to the dense, profitable urban areas.
The second part of the Bill that I want to mention is the slightly technical area of white space. It gives me great personal pleasure to talk about these clauses, for my brother-in-law, as a young PhD student in the United States, was one of the first people in the world to develop a working white space system, which allowed the transfer of data on this innovative new use of spectrum. White space refers to radio spectrum frequencies that have already been allocated to users but which are not always used. For example, digital terrestrial television signals use different frequencies in different parts of the country, so as not to interfere with one another, and that leaves an opportunity for a new generation of mobile devices to use that white space spectrum in particular parts of the country. That process is known as dynamic spectrum access.
Much as I criticise Ofcom in other areas, I would commend it for being incredibly farsighted and enabling the UK to be a leader in capitalising on this innovative new technology. It has set up several trials in the past few years.
The Bill will specifically allow Ofcom to register and regulate geolocation databases. Databases allow the new devices to query exactly what spectrum is being used in what area, and it is a practical and necessary step required to make white space devices much more widespread. White space spectrum is very powerful. It can travel hundreds of miles and through walls. For that reason, it is a technology that we must capitalise on, and I commend Ofcom and the Government for taking steps in that area. It will be of enormous benefit to my rural constituents.
In conclusion, as technology and innovation open up new frontiers and possibilities, it is the role of this House to ensure that every member of our society, rural or urban, can reap the rewards. The foundations laid by the Bill make that outcome a more realistic probability and I am delighted to support the Bill this evening.
I wish to raise two points. First, I echo the plea that hon. Members have made from both sides of the House that the Bill be improved to make it mandatory for developers to connect new builds to fibre broadband. We make such requirements for water, electricity and gas. Clearly, those are extremely important services, but I would argue that most people who are buying a new house would expect the broadband to be at the very highest level. In my constituency, significant large-scale communities have been waiting up to two years for fibre broadband. Anyone who is paying the significant sum necessary to buy a house would expect to have decent broadband in that property.
Secondly, although I welcome the attempts in the Bill to target online copyright infringement, I am disappointed not to see efforts to tackle the sale of counterfeit electrical goods. Research undertaken by the charity Electrical Safety First found that in that past year more than 1 million people in the UK bought counterfeit items, with 64% of those products being bought online. This is an issue that needs addressing, and it is a missed opportunity that the Bill does not take steps to tackle the problem.
Electrical items were among the top five subjects of complaints to Welsh trading standards offices in 2015. Last Christmas Trading Standards Wales did great work and acted swiftly in response to the national scare over dangerous hoverboards, leading to 228 potentially dangerous hoverboards being prevented from getting on to the market in Wales. Sadly, we know that many of these unsafe products did make it into people’s homes, with catastrophic consequences.
Authorities such as the police and trading standards need to be equipped with the necessary legislation to tackle the growing sales of counterfeit electrical goods, along with a statutory obligation to report the quantity seized so that the scale of the problem can be continually monitored. We also need a statutory obligation on online retailers to report to the relevant authorities those who consistently sell counterfeit electrical products. Such reporting would provide an opportunity to examine the effectiveness of legislation such as the 1994 plugs and sockets regulations to prevent counterfeit electrical goods being sold and imported by online retail platforms.
The sale of counterfeit electrical goods is dangerous and amounts to a huge problem. It is estimated that faulty electrical products are responsible for over 7,000 domestic fires a year. The efforts made by this Bill to target online copyright infringement are important, but do not give the necessary attention to the problem of counterfeit electrical goods. The digital economy created the problem, and I urge the Government to ensure that this Bill addresses it.
It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate. I shall focus on the universal service obligation for broadband, an area in which we, as a Government, have made huge progress. I want to gently encourage some important tweaks which will help those who are missing out. There have been some incredibly powerful speeches from colleagues on both sides of the House, highlighting just how important access to superfast broadband is. It is a utility, like gas, electricity and water, and it should be a given wherever practically possible.
These tweaks come about from my experiences in my constituency, where we have two challenges that are recognised by most—urban and rural—and the role that BDUK should take in solving these problems. In urban areas, there can be no excuse. We should have, as a given, access to superfast broadband. Clearly, BDUK needs to be given greater powers to bang heads together, get access to the land, and put in the infrastructure so that residents will have the access that we are all so keen to see. Rural areas, more often than not, are not commercially viable. That is where BDUK has to take the lead in making sure that the various pots of money provided by the Government and local authorities to subsidise access are spent quickly and sensibly so that those in rural communities also have broadband access.
In my area about 20,000 houses were not getting access to superfast broadband. The Government provided £2 million, for which we were very grateful. Despite having to make some difficult decisions, the local authority identified a further £1 million, so we had a £3 million pot. Swindon borough council chose to carry out its own procurement exercise which, as a result of reliance on the advice of BDUK, was littered with errors. First, the council mixed rural and urban areas—two different challenges—and put that out for procurement. There should have been two solutions and two procurement exercises. The council ignored areas already covered by other operators, including EE 4G. Then there was no formal check with BDUK to find out what future work was going to be offered by the traditional providers, such as BT and Virgin, allowing commercially viable areas to access the subsidies—that valuable taxpayers’ money that should have been focused on rural areas, where every penny can make a difference.
Unsurprisingly, the only bid we received in this flawed procurement exercise was from UK Broadband, a 4G provider. That was unwanted by residents, who had campaigned for years for fibre access. It was unscalable, with poor maximum speeds and capped data usage, and it would fail any form of future-proofing. It was an outdated technology, and it did not even come with the bundles customers traditionally expect, where they buy the TV providers and the telephone line all together. In an urban area, people would have to pay £195 to add another satellite dish to their house and then pay high fees for something that people currently get free with all the traditional providers. Unsurprisingly, residents were appalled.
The local authority is typical of all local authorities: it does not have specific skill sets that can identify what the future technologies will be, so it relies on BDUK’s expertise, and it was BDUK that signed this off and said it was a good idea—in fact, BDUK’s website champions this technology.
As part of an earlier deal in Swindon, in 2012, UK Broadband was going to provide superfast broadband to 60,000 properties. There was a rather heated and frank exchange about that between me and the chief executive on BBC Wiltshire, which I am sure all hon. Members enjoyed listening to. Some 60,000 homes were meant to be provided with superfast broadband, but we are aware only of single-figure subscriber numbers. I am going to be generous and say that there were nine—I am going to give UK Broadband the maximum it could have been in single figures. UK Broadband has now secured £3 million of funding to provide for 20,000 houses, so simple mathematics means that it will have three subscribers and £3 million of subsidy, or £1 million a subscriber. That is a total disgrace; it is a total and utter waste of taxpayers’ money, which should be used to help rural communities that do not have access.
BDUK has made this momentous error because it is being rated on the number of properties that have access. Those 60,000 houses had access, and the 20,000 houses will have access, but nobody is going to sign up, so access is irrelevant. BDUK ticks all its boxes—what a great job it has done. That is how it will put it in its press releases on its website, which horrify me when I read them. However, the reality is that residents will not have access. We should be setting parameters based on the people who are genuinely going to be able to sign up for a usable, scalable, future-proof service. One thing we do know is that money is precious, and these generous funds are a one-off. If there is a mistake, that money is wasted and there will not be a change.
Finally, I pay tribute to BT and Virgin, which despite this waste of taxpayers’ money, have stepped up to provide a real solution for the urban areas. Bill Murphy from BT Openreach, in particular, has been incredibly proactive. However, I am distraught that the rural areas in my constituency could have had full use of that £3 million when it was needed and that they, too, could have had a fibre solution.
While there is much to welcome in the Bill, and I am glad to read many of the details, I would like to take this opportunity to raise a number of issues—some more briefly than others, given the contributions already made so fluently by many Members.
As regards the broadband universal service obligation, there is an opportunity here to discuss how we now reach the final 5%—the hardest-to-reach families, homes, farms and businesses. As an aside, I should say that I speak on behalf of a community of almost 5,000 people—Blaenau Ffestiniog—whose last bank is deserting the high street this month. HSBC blithely assured me that internet banking would seamlessly replace an over-the-counter service. In all honesty, that is a cynical cover for cost-cutting, and ostensibly assumes that the relative norm of urban connectivity is available to all, when the reality for Blaenau is unreliability and low speeds.
We have already heard that public money for broadband roll-out was intended to reach those areas that commercial providers would ignore if left to their own devices. We need to ensure that lessons are learned, that that aim is finally realised and that the issue is resolved.
As I said, I deeply welcome the concept of the universal service obligation, but I am concerned that the final 5%, which of course includes the counties of rural Wales, such as Ceredigion, Sir Gâr, Powys, Pembrokeshire and Gwynedd, have actually been relatively ill served by Superfast Cymru. I seek an assurance that the Secretary of State will map out those properties affected by the £3,400 barrier in the guidelines—when that price is reached they would not necessarily be included in the universal service obligation—and that a minimum speed of at least 10 megabits per second specifically for those homes and businesses is included later in the Bill so that the universal service obligation really is just that.
I now turn to the issue of wider connectivity. I am sure that the Government must recognise that mobile devices are a vital part of modern life wherever one lives and works. The 2014 deal with mobile companies, trading national roaming for a commitment to 90% coverage by 2017, served rural businesses and communities particularly badly. Plaid Cymru would wish to examine the demand for a multi-operator mobile virtual network similar to that of Manx Telecom—Chellinsh Vannin—which would offer access to all mobile networks in Wales on a roaming basis as a means of overcoming chronic not-spot localities. Surely the Minister and the Secretary of State must agree that now is the time for legislation on a universal coverage target for mobile, with a minimum level of 3G provision to be achieved within an identified timetable.
I would have liked to say something about online pornography, but many Members have spoken eloquently about that already. I merely add my support to the points made about the powers of the age verifier and the need to ensure that it has the necessary teeth to put the powers into effect.
Another issue that a number of Members have touched on is the need for social network providers to show a greater sense of corporate responsibility. I feel quite strongly about this. Today we have heard about some of the victims of online abuse. Back in March, I raised this matter in collaboration with the Digital Trust with regard to the Criminal Offences (Misuse of Digital Technologies and Services) (Consolidation) Bill. That Bill identified a series of responsibilities to ensure that all providers of online services adhere to a code of professional standards, including advice on what victims could expect from such providers in future in relation to quality service standards and levels of care. The Digital Economy Bill could look at the expectations placed on providers in terms of regulation, a code of practice, and their obligation to undertake safety impact assessments. It is a pity that we have yet to see that, and I would like to see it later on.
My final point—I suspect that I will be unique in bringing this up—concerns the concept “digital by default”. I would like to take this opportunity to put on record the significance of ensuring respect for Welsh-users’ statutory right to equality of service. This should be explicitly enshrined as a matter of principle in digital government. “Digital by default” must mean “digidol yn ddiofyn”: not something to request, but clearly available and welcoming to use. The linguist András Kornai has estimated that of the 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, some 2,500 are considered to be endangered. Digital language use increasingly touches every area of communications, from social media to digital government. If a language is not on the web, it can be said to no longer exist. Kornai estimates that the digital divide will whittle down the number of languages to 5% of those currently in use. The move to digital communications is likely to cause an immense die-off of 6,000 and more languages the world over.
Written Welsh language use is expanding on social media, but I beg the Government to ensure that high status and essential communications in Welsh are made as accessible as possible in their own services as they move online. Targeting facilities, as mentioned by the Secretary of State, might play a leading part in this. Given the issues arising from legacy IT systems and designing bilingual digital platforms, I urgently request that the Minister commit to ensuring interactive and user-friendly Government digital services for Welsh speakers. I would welcome the opportunity to speak further on this.
I welcome this Bill and much of the important detail it provides on broadband and mobile connectivity issues, which are of particular interest in a rural constituency such as mine in North Yorkshire. I mention my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests with regard to shareholdings in and directorships of two telecoms businesses.
One area in which the Bill has great intentions but very little detail is its intellectual property provisions. The Bill has great potential to make immense improvements in that area, and I would like to talk about the issues in my particular capacity as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on music. Those Members who are keen music fans are very welcome to join me at the British Library this evening, to attend its exhibition on the 40th anniversary of punk rock music.
This year’s “Global Music Report” by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry showed that digital music currently contributes 45% of recorded industry revenues and that it has overtaken physical market revenues this year for the first time. Given the increasing prevalence of digital consumption in the music sphere, the music industry strongly supports the growth of a legal and functioning digital market, but that is not what we have at the moment.
Indeed, as I have said in the House before, I was stunned to meet a songwriter who, for more than 2 million plays of his song on YouTube, received the princely sum of less than £6 in payment. His experience is not unique. The music industry would like its creative content to be a driver of the digital economy, but if creative personnel cannot make a living because of how that market works, we could lose what is a world-beating industry for Britain, given that one in six albums sold worldwide come from British artists.
UK Music’s “Measuring Music” report, which was released yesterday, reveals that, while sales of digital downloads have slowed, the use of streaming services has increased strongly. It is critical that the sector delivers both for creators and for consumers.
Clause 26 sensibly suggests equalising online penalties for copyright infringement so that they correspond to physical offences. Many Members have indicated their support for that. Increasing the terms of imprisonment from two to 10 years will act as a suitable deterrent to those who profiteer from activities that harm our creative industries, which, let us remember, contribute £84 billion to the economy. Given the high proportion of digital revenue entailed, we should not damage further growth by treating digital offences as somehow less important than physical infringements.
Other measures, such as the universal service broadband obligations in clause 1, will increase the opportunities for people to enjoy creative content online through faster broadband speeds.
There has not been a Digital Economy Bill since 2010. Technology and consumer choice have already advanced considerably, so it is important that we do not miss this opportunity to move with the times. We do not know when we will get another opportunity to discuss these issues in the form of a Bill. It is highly possible that we will have left the European Union before then. We must ensure that the Bill is future-proofed, which to my mind means expanding it in some respects.
Two particular issues occur to me. First, at last week’s annual general meeting of the British pornographic industry—[Interruption.] I have no idea whether the British pornographic industry has an AGM, or whether there is such a group. I am certainly not its chair, although, looking across the House, I see that there are one or two candidates. I must get back on track. At last week’s AGM of the British Phonographic Industry, its chief executive officer, Geoff Taylor, called on the Secretary of State to seriously consider measures to provide a mandatory code of practice between search engines and rights holders, if a voluntary code between the two fails. Given the ease of access to infringing music and film content on search engines, that seems sensible. What is the Secretary of State’s response to that? Does she agree that creating a backstop power would be consistent with other approaches to IP legislation? For instance, the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 made a similar provision for a code of conduct for collecting societies and other organisations that administer royalties.
Secondly, we expect the European Commission to make a statement this month as part of its digital single market strategy, which is likely to attempt to address the so-called value gap, whereby rights holders are denied fair value owing to out-dated safe harbour laws. For example, “Measuring Music” reports that YouTube increased its music rights payments by 11% last year, but total streams grew by 132%. The Government previously viewed that as a European Union issue, but given impending Brexit, will they use the Bill to ensure that we get it right now? Will the Minister consider measures that would give UK creators and businesses certainty about how their rights will be respected when we leave the EU?
My remarks thus far have centred on the music industry, but I conclude by saying that this part of the Bill is equally critical for our other industries, including film and television, which are closely intertwined. Considered through that lens, the Bill contains a welcome provision to repeal section 33 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, which was originally introduced to encourage the roll-out of the then nascent cable platform, and that objective has clearly been achieved.
Although this was not envisaged when it was introduced in the ’80s, section 73 of the 1988 Act is now relied on by a series of online service providers, such as TVCatchup, to make money from the public service broadcaster channels by retransmitting them while selling their own advertising around the PSB’s content. Such so-called services undermine the online streaming services and on-demand catch-up services provided by the PSBs. That leads to a loss of audience from PSBs’ services and a loss of advertising and sponsorship revenue for the commercial PSBs, which makes it harder for them to achieve a return on their investment in content.
None of the substantial sum of money made by those parasitic services is paid to the PSBs, or to the underlying talent and rights holders in the content, and none of it flows back into original UK content production. I therefore urge the Government to ensure that repeal is delivered at the earliest opportunity, which is Royal Assent, so that those who wish to retransmit or otherwise use PSB services have to negotiate a price for to do so within the must-offer regime in the Communications Act 2003. That will enable those who create content to make a return on their investment and continue to make the programmes that viewers love, which are the envy of the world.
This is, in many ways, a very good Bill. I hope that, as it progresses, the Government will consider how we can make it even better and more supportive of our creative industries, which are true drivers of our digital economy and some of our best exports.
I am pleased to speak briefly to the Bill. I am glad that it has come before the House and that we will have the opportunity in Committee to debate it, refine it and take forward some of its welcome elements.
First, I want to talk about the universal service obligation. I welcome the commitment to improve access. Internet speed is enormously important in the digital age, and the USO will give those who have a poor connection the legal right to request a faster one. Some of the 5 million people who have suffered from the Government’s failure to deliver fast access to the digital economy will finally be able to access faster internet, albeit at an unambitious 10 megabits per second rather than the genuinely superfast speed of 24 megabits per second.
I want to touch on intellectual property, which the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) mentioned. At the other end of the spectrum, an issue has been raised with me on which I would like some clarification from the Minister. By and large, live music performance licences are paid via intellectual property and redistributed among the music industry. A performer at a small festival has to pay an intellectual property licence fee, even though they have no intellectual property because they only do small live performances and they do not release records. That fee is taken from the poorest and given to mega-bands such as U2 and well-known music artists. The Bill offers the Government an opportunity to look at music licences for those at the very bottom end, who do not have any intellectual property but who are paying intellectual property rights to some of these famous musicians. That is a transfer of money in the wrong direction.
I move on to the issue of online pornography and abuse. Although I welcome the increased protections for children against adult content online, I am concerned that the proposals do not have a lot of teeth. There needs to be a firming up of what is in the Bill, and I hope that that is done in Committee. There have been no concrete plans for the enforcement of those protections, particularly when non-UK companies are involved. My hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) has raised many of the concerns with the Bill.
The Information Commissioner has quite rightly pointed to the consequences of failing to think through these plans, highlighting the possibility that information on passports or driving licences may be misused when collected as part of an age-verification system.
The Bill lacks much needed provisions against online abuse, which is often ignored by companies that are not responsible for the content they host. As we have all seen in recent times, there is a growing tendency for people to say things that are simply abusive and to get away with it. The UK is shamed by the level of abuse that we seem to find acceptable, and something ought to be done in the Bill to tackle that.
On the Government’s plan for increased data sharing, I have a particular issue I want to raise. More generally, however, the Bill makes it easier for public sector organisations to share data without individuals’ explicit permission, which I welcome. My one concern in this area relates to where there are two-tier authorities. I hope the civil servants are taking note and that Ministers are listening. Lancashire County Council wanted to increase the uptake of free school meals, but information on benefits, such as council tax benefit and housing benefit, is held by the district councils. The county council does not have access to such information and cannot reach out to vulnerable people in society who may be entitled to such support. In the past, I have been asked by the county council to intervene. It is wrong that unitary authorities can share such data, whereas Lancashire County Council and Hyndburn Borough Council cannot do so. This issue ought to be resolved, because it affects constituents, such as mine, in two-tier authority areas, where there are very serious concerns and where progress could be made in reaching people who are not receiving the benefits to which they are entitled.
On the lack of protections for workers in new digital markets, which have been mentioned, employment opportunities in companies such as Uber or Deliveroo are proliferating. Such companies provide many workers with benefits, such as flexible working hours, but without protections, such opportunities will turn sour, leading to distrust between employers and employees, as shown by the recent Uber protests. Workers on casual contracts in the gig economy—my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) said a lot about this—are less likely to be awarded credit or a mortgage, have fewer protections against redundancy and often have no guaranteed hours. The Bill does absolutely nothing to provide safeguards for this rapidly expanding group of people.
I have been a critic of the Government for how they have gone about renewing the BBC charter. Although the BBC accepted the funding deal in 2015 and assumed the annual cost of free TV licences for the over-75s, the extra cost of £608 million is unduly burdensome on an organisation that is already strapped for cash, with the quality of its content beginning to fray. There is the issue of budgetary pressures, with the merger between BBC News 24 and World News—or the proposal for their amalgamation—leading to a reduction of news services and the danger that we will be left with a monopoly for Sky News if we keep going down this road. I am deeply concerned that the BBC should provide choice and competition with other providers, by which I do not necessarily mean Sky, but primarily Sky in this case.
The Government’s handling of charter renewal has been far from satisfactory, particularly in relation to the BBC Trust and the Government’s involvement in the appointment of some of the trustees. Carried out behind closed doors, without any public consultation, that process lacked transparency and called into question the BBC’s independence. These issues were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), and I share many of his concerns.
The hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty touched on retransmission fees. Public sector broadcasters have given their content, for free, exclusively to Sky and Virgin to deliver on other platforms. It is welcome that the Government are addressing that issue. Such public sector broadcasters ought to be protected if they are forced to provide their content on such platforms. They ought to be financially recompensed for the ability of Sky and Virgin to carry complementary and additional programming services on their platforms. The alternative is to allow the public sector broadcasters to withdraw that provision, which would probably not be welcome. It would be better if Sky and Virgin were forced to pay to transmit the five channels.
One issue not covered in the Bill—I ask the civil servants and the Minister to take note of this—is the value of the electronic programme guide. We should deal with that. Increasingly, it is valuable real estate on television. It ought to be for Ofcom to determine the permissible parameters and scope of the electronic programme guide for various broadcasters. As anyone who watches Sky knows, it has put the guide one tier down. Viewers are presented with Sky content on the splash screen. The EPG is valuable real estate for promoting products. We have to click the programming guide. There is nothing in legislation or regulation that says that the guide has to include public sector broadcasters at the top. Sky and Virgin do that voluntarily.
I believe that Ministers should look at the issue of the electronic programming guide. It should be under Ofcom, and there should be a regulatory framework for its delivery. We may start to see advertising on the guide. Furthermore—this does not relate to Sky or Virgin—smart TV manufacturers are putting their own EPG on. Companies such as Netflix want to link up with those manufacturers to put themselves ahead of the BBC. There is a real issue here. We are starting to see a fragmentation of exceedingly valuable commercial space. There ought to be a new clause in the Bill dealing with that issue.
I move on now to an issue that really pains me, and one on which I want to see the Government come down hard. It is all very well talking about 10-year sentences for intellectual property crimes, but when will we see 10-year sentences for some of the people who, through direct marketing, scam some of the most vulnerable people in society? We keep seeing programmes and exposés of companies that seem to keep most of the receipts from telephone marketing and pass on very little to the charity on whose behalf they are calling and seem to frequently call the same vulnerable, elderly people to take huge sums off them. That is a scam. It should not happen in today’s Britain. We should not condone such behaviour. We should look after the vulnerable.
There should be thresholds on how much those companies can skim off. The national lottery can take 0.5%; I do not see why those marketing companies cannot be told that they will get 0.5% and the rest will go to the charity. It should at least be explicitly clear how much is being raised for the charity. Vulnerable people are being repeatedly targeted, and that needs to be dealt with, so does unsolicited junk email, which costs British business considerably.
We talk about a digital economy, but when I speak to businesses they say that they are sick of and fed up with the amount of junk email they receive. It hinders their businesses, and is costly and burdensome. It needs to be dealt with. We need a more robust Government approach, as we do for the all junk mail that comes through our letterboxes. My suggestion to the Minister is that those sending it out should be obliged to put a return to sender postal address on it, so I can march down to my local post box with all that junk mail I do not want to send it straight back to the company that sent it to me; then, I hope, they would get the message and not send any more. The amount that is sent out is outrageous.
Finally, there is the issue of selling on of mailing lists. There is a lack of transparency on internet sites about when people have to opt in or out, and whether personal information can be used. Ultimately, it is a scam in which information is sold on. Then we get that abundance of unwanted emails because someone has commercialised our data. That bulk commercialisation is unacceptable, and the Government have to step in, for no other reason than that if we ask business people in this country they want to see something done about mass marketing that is affecting and costing their businesses.
I welcome the Bill and the Government’s commitment to the universal service obligation and a quality high-speed broadband connection to every home and business. I do so in the hope that it will facilitate an end to the difficulties endured by very many of my constituents, of whom Ministers are aware, as a result of poor internet speeds that are in some cases wholly inadequate, such as the business owners who have a broadband connection so slow that it can take hours to send one email. I hope, too, that it will end the deep frustration of buyers of new build homes, such as those in Somerford in my constituency who found themselves totally unwittingly moving into their new homes with no broadband service in place, and which then took months and repeated endeavours to get connected.
I welcome the Government’s aims in part 3 to protect children from access to online pornography, although I have some reservations that I would like to go into regarding enforcement capacity. I await, too, the details of the age verification procedures. As many as one in 10 visitors to adult sites are children. Some 80% of children now live in households with internet access, so they increasingly have the opportunity to access pornography. I welcome the ambitions of the Bill to make online access to pornography harder for young people, but, as several hon. Members have said, there are reservations.
A number of colleagues have been concerned about this matter for some years. Since entering the House in 2010, I have been part of a group of MPs who produced a report on protecting children from online pornography. I welcome the fact that the report’s considerations were fed into the Bill.
On my specific concerns, I would first like to draw the attention of Ministers to a possible anomaly in the Bill as currently drafted relating to the supply of videos on demand. UK-based video-on-demand services are already regulated by Ofcom under the Communications Act 2003, as amended by the Audiovisual Media Services Regulations 2009 and 2014, the latter expressly requiring that UK-based video-on-demand R18 material, which as I understand it is particularly strong pornographic material, must only be made available in a way that cannot be accessed by children. This brought online child protection standards regarding the R18 rating for videos on demand in line with offline child protection provisions, which have long prohibited the sale of R18 videos to children, for example in licensed sex shops.
The Bill further closes the gap between offline and online protections in the sense that it requires provision of age verification checks on pornographic websites showing both 18 and R18-rated material online. My concern relates to videos on demand, because as I read it—I would be grateful for the Minister’s confirmation or clarification—clause 15(5)(a) states that the Bill does not cover online UK-based video-on-demand pornography, as it states that
“making material available on the internet does not include making the content of an on-demand programme service available”.
On that basis, it would seem that the law covering pornographic content online, presented in the form of a video on demand, is still dealt with by the Audiovisual Media Services Regulations 2014, which only mandate age verification protections in relation to R18 material, but not 18-rated material. If this interpretation is correct, it is an omission. The failure of part 3 to cover video on demand means that children will remain unprotected from 18-rated videos on demand. I am sure that that is not what the Conservative party manifesto meant when it committed to stop children’s exposure to harmful sexualised content online.
I hope that that can be corrected by an amendment. In that regard, I commend to the Government Lady Howe’s Online Safety Bill, which had its First Reading in another place in early June. The Howe Bill specifically includes video-on-demand pornography and applies consistent standards on age verification across all 18 and R18 online video-on-demand pornography. I pay tribute to Lady Howe, and to the organisation Care for the work it has undertaken on this issue over many years. Will the Minister explain either how, despite clause 15(5)(a), part 3 somehow fully engages UK-rated video-on-demand material, or alternatively how this anomaly could be considered and corrected in Committee?
Let me turn to other concerns about enforcement, echoing many of those raised by other Members. First, the Bill contains powers for the regulator to impose large fines on providers for persistent non-compliance. The figures are substantial: either 5% of turnover or £250,000. Although I welcome what looks like a helpful provision, a study by the Authority for Television On Demand found that 23 of the top 25 adult entertainment sites were based outside the UK. Admittedly, that was in 2014, but the question arises of how the regulator proposes to fine a pornographic website targeting the UK if it is owned by a company located in Russia, for example.
Secondly, I support mandatory financial transaction blocking for non-compliance. However, although clause 22 allows the regulator to inform credit card companies and other payment providers of non-compliance, I share concerns that there is no requirement for them then to block payments or withdraw services. I understand that the Government’s answer to this issue is that they do not think it appropriate or necessary to place a specific legal requirement on those payment providers to remove services, based on the belief that payment companies can be relied on to do so because their terms and conditions require merchants to operate legally in the country they serve. I remain concerned that such a view is optimistic. One reason is that some of these payment providers generate significant percentages of their revenue from adult websites. They are not incentivised to adhere to mere requests to block transactions—a point well known by pornography providers, which further decreases their fear of non-compliance.
Thirdly, no provision is made to allow the regulator to block sites that are non-compliant. I understand that the reason for this omission is that it is disproportionate and considered not to be in line with other policy areas. It seems curious that we are willing to grant powers to courts to take down content that infringes intellectual property, but not to extend the same power to an organisation tasked with preventing children from accessing all manner of sometimes violent and explicit material, which can have a devastatingly negative effect on their lives.
When granting powers to the state, a high threshold has to be met. The stakes on this issue are high. There has been a disturbing rise in sexual violence committed by young people against young people. Over 800 cases of sexual assaults committed by children under 10 were reported to have occurred between 2009 and 2015. Although growing access to online pornography is not the only explanation for these figures, it is believed to be contributory, with individual cases pointing to it as a primary inspirer of such activity.
While engaging in consensual activity, young people are under increasing pressure to live up to a standard of behaviour portrayed in online sources. They are encouraged to engage in riskier behaviour and to meet an unrealistic standard of physique. This, in turn, can cause problems of low esteem or remove expectations of any emotional connection with sex.
The Government’s impact assessment states that the purpose of the Bill is
“nudging the online pornography providers to comply and introduce age verification”.
The Government’s manifesto promised to
“stop children’s exposure to harmful sexualized content online”,
not merely to nudge it along. I restate my welcome for the ambition in part 3, but I hope that real teeth will be provided as the Bill progresses.
Finally, having said all that, whatever protections the Government devise, they cannot be comprehensive. Parents need to be given as much information and support as possible to enable them to engage with and protect their children from harmful behaviour online in what is a very challenging environment for many parents. That responsibility might not be the responsibility of the Ministers in their places today, but it should be grasped by someone in government.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who made some important points. In the short time that is available to me, I shall make similar points, but I think that they should be put on the record. They relate to access to pornography, protection for children and protection from websites in other countries. We have an opportunity to get the legislation right, and I know that Ministers will take that on board in Committee.
In 2014, the Authority for Television On Demand reported that
“23 of the top 25 adult websites visited by UK internet users... provide instant, free and unrestricted access to hardcore pornographic videos and still images featuring explicit images of real sex.”
It also reported:
“Only one of the 1,266 adult websites identified…as having been visited from the UK in December 2013 was a service regulated in the UK.”
There is clearly a problem and a need for legislative change, and I hope that that can happen. The key question is, how do we enforce part 3 in relation to foreign sites? There are two basic tools enabling us to rise to the challenge, financial transaction blocking and IP blocking—that is, the blocking of individual websites.
First, the Bill does not provide for any statutory obligation to require financial transaction providers to block transactions with sites operating in violation of UK law, with the imposition of penalties if they do not do so. When pressed on the point, Ministers have suggested that that is not necessary because financial transaction providers are already subject to a general requirement not to process transactions that are in violation of domestic legislation. I am not persuaded by that logic, and I do not think that many other Members are persuaded by it either. On that basis, it could be said that there was no need for a Bill to give the regulator any responsibilities regarding financial transaction providers.
Clause 22 does give the regulator the power to tell a financial transaction provider if a website is operating illegally by not providing age verification checks for the UK market. However, having given the financial transaction providers the information about non-compliance, the Government then fail to address enforcement properly by leaving the financial transaction providers and the existing terms and conditions to get on with it by themselves. We need to sharpen the Bill and make it more effective. At present, there is a curious, half-baked approach that is neither one thing nor the other. The Government are giving the regulator a statutory role in telling financial transaction providers when a company is operating illegally, but then leaving the matter hanging in the air without the provision of a statutory power to follow through and ensure that providers act accordingly to block transactions.
I am convinced that if this policy is to be a success, robust enforcement is key, and I think that many other Members share my view. In that context, it is vital to note important research conducted by Victoria Nash, of Oxford University, on the enforcement of age verification checks in relation to gambling sites in different European states. It concludes that where there are
“strict audit and enforcement requirements”,
there is an incentive to invest in
“high-assurance identity and age-verification processes”,
“where enforcement is patchy and uncertain, the incentives to invest in expensive authentication systems are less clear”.
According to Nash, that is
“especially true for smaller or less well-known companies who are also less likely to receive reputational damage if any illegal selling is revealed.”
Let me put that in context. When we are dealing with something as important as child safety, when the evidence suggests that certainty about enforcement is critical, and when the decision to give the regulator power to inform financial transaction providers of sites that are in contravention clearly suggests that the Government have already conceded that simply leaving things to the financial transaction providers is not enough, it is clear that the Bill needs to give the regulator a stronger role in relation to enforcement by requiring the financial transaction providers to act.
Secondly, the Bill makes no provision for statutory IP blocking, which is a critical second line of defence, and which is vital if we are to get this right. In the context of an increasing amount of free pornography, it is important that the UK regulator is seen to be a powerful body, with teeth, whose warnings are heeded because the operators of the sites in question know that it has the power to cut them off from the UK market entirely if they try to ignore the need for age verification processes. That power can be there. There may be a need for this sort of power if websites start trading in so-called cryptocurrencies which cannot be blocked by Visa or Mastercard, or in situations where a free website is funded by advertising but, in the language of the Bill, the ancillary service providing the advertising is not based in the UK and does not withdraw its services from a site.
In these contexts, if the regulator is denied the power to block IPs, it will have no leverage on the pornography site whatsoever, which is unacceptable. Of course the Government have sought to justify their decision on the basis that they believe it would be disproportionate and there are no statutory provisions in this regard for child sex abuse images. This, however, completely misses the point. The reason why there is no need for statutory IP blocking is because child sex abuse images are illegal in most jurisdictions. There is a very strong international consensus that they are wrong—I am not aware of any countries that will say otherwise. The pornography that we are talking about protecting children from is, by contrast, perfectly legal for adults. Despite the evidence that much of it is seriously damaging to children, there is a much greater need for legal compulsion if we are to take significant strides in persuading sites that they need to protect them from accessing material that it is legal for adults to see.
Moreover, current statute does allow for the courts to order ISPs to block websites that are breaching copyright, and that is good news. I understand that in July the Court of Appeal ordered ISPs to block websites that offer counterfeit goods for sale. How can it be right that ISPs can be required by law to block websites harming businesses but not those that harm children? That is incredible—perhaps the Minister will tell us whether that is the case. Let us take the action, get the legislation in place, and make sure we get it right and protect children.
I am not suggesting that if this Bill makes provision for statutory IP blocking that the regulator would use it regularly. The fact, however, that it could use it will cause sites based outside the UK to take it seriously. Mr Speaker, given that we are talking about pornography, I very much hope that you will forgive the pun, but it seems to me that the Government’s regulator, without the power to require mandatory financial transaction blocking and IP blocking powers, is a king with no clothes. I request, and hope, that as this Bill passes through its Committee and Report stages, the Government will make good these deficiencies.
My right hon. Friend the Minister for Digital and Culture visited my constituency last year. We met M-Tech, a local enterprise that provides IT solutions to small businesses and education, and we spoke about many of the provisions in the Bill. I welcome the Bill and I am sure the Minister in turn will welcome the news that Eastbourne was recently identified as a hotspot for creative industries. That is very good news and we are looking to build on it, in part through some of the Bill’s provisions. But today I want to confine my remarks to concerns on child protection and age verification, while noting that in keeping children safe online nothing compares to the role of parents and schools. Industry, however, does have its part to play.
I am pleased that the Government are using this Bill to press ahead with our manifesto commitment to stop exposure to harmful sexualised content online by requiring age verification. The central question now, however, is how we rise to that implementation challenge, being especially mindful of the fact that the vast majority of online pornography accessed in the UK is from sites based in other jurisdictions. According to the Authority for Television On Demand, 23 of the 25 most popular porn sites among British users are located in other countries.
The Bill proposes to give the regulator the power to impose fines on non-compliant sites, but what happens if a site in another jurisdiction refuses to pay? The Bill’s enforcement proposals on financial transaction blocking rely heavily on ancillary services and payment providers removing their services from sites illegally accessing the UK market from other countries.
As research from Oxford University has demonstrated in relation to age verification checks for online gambling, the best guarantee that age verification checks will be implemented is the certain knowledge that, if they are not, financial transactions will be blocked. Having alerted a financial transaction provider about a non-compliant site, under the provisions in clause 22, regulators should then be required to follow through and ensure that the transactions are blocked, and have the power to act if they are not.
The Minister, Baroness Shields, explained last December that the Government were obliged to introduce new legislation before December this year to make provision for the adult content filtering regime that the Government had negotiated with the big four ISPs back in 2013. She explained that this was necessary because, without legislation, the voluntary approach negotiated by the then Prime Minister would be deemed illegal under European Union law. Although this country has voted to leave the EU, we remain a member at present and we will certainly still be a member in December. Mindful of the fact that this hugely important arrangement helps to protect 88% of British households with children from a wide range of adult content—not just pornography —it is vital that it should continue. How does the Minister see this important protection continuing, if not through the vehicle of the Bill? I look forward to hearing his comments.
I very much welcome this opportunity to take part in the debate. Like many of my parliamentary colleagues, I agree with the majority of the principles outlined in the Bill. However, I must caution that it is the way in which they are applied that will ultimately make the difference. In my rural Cheshire constituency, many people feel left behind. There has been huge progress with Connecting Cheshire, but 18,000 households in my constituency remain without access to superfast broadband. At present, they feel that providers can bat around excuses and let themselves off the hook without explaining why my constituents are living in digital blackspots. Those households also seem to be the ones without a mobile signal. That digital exclusion represents a double whammy for them.
We have seen banks being hauled up for mis-selling PPI insurance. I would quite like to see mobile companies being hauled up for mis-selling contracts to customers such as those in my constituency who, more often than not, cannot get a signal. They are being sold 3G and 4G contracts even when the providers know that no such service exists in their area. The chief executives of many of the phone companies have openly written to me to say that they provide only a 2G service there. I urge the Secretary of State to close that loophole and to ensure that the Bill makes provision for those people either to get out of their contracts quickly or to access the 3G or 4G service that they have paid for.
In relation to broadband blackspots, Connecting Cheshire offers a voucher that allows access to satellite broadband. I would like the Bill to offer the opportunity for technology-neutral vouchers, so that customers can decide whether to use them to obtain a wireless connections through radio broadband. That is a very effective provider of broadband that can, in many areas, provide a solution to the last 5% of customers. I have heard many other Members call for those who are at present excluded to be the first to be brought in under any new contracts, and I would like to add my voice to those calls.
Like many others who have spoken today, I have farmers in my constituency who cannot upload the information that they need on, for example, cattle passports or on claiming their single farm payments. More and more VAT returns can now be completed online, and digital exclusion really affects those peoples’ businesses, given the amount of time they have to spend working with a really rubbish connection. This is hugely costly to us as a nation.
I also want more sense from BT. Old connections to exchanges can often run over many miles through copper wire. However, modern developments mean that there are often much closer exchanges that may already be fibre-enabled, but there is no power to require BT to move exchanges. I want that loophole closed so that constituents who are closer to a modern exchange can get connected.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady on vouchers. My worry is that a USO through BT will have a minimum standard or that a satellite USO will just hit the minimum. With a voucher system, communities would be empowered to come together and could use it as a foundation to aim higher than 10 megabits and get fibre to premises. We must not lock the scheme down and restrict the creativity of people in our communities.
I hope that Connecting Cheshire will allow communities to band together and use vouchers in areas where superfast broadband has not yet been delivered. I urge the Secretary of State to allow that flexibility and to require BT to provide the money that would otherwise have been available for connection. I welcome the USO—it is a great step forward—but it must be set at 15 megabits and must also include minimum upload speeds.
Finally, on protecting children, we have heard much about age verification, but an NSPCC report indicated that eight children a day are being groomed online—not through access to child pornography, but through social media. Ofcom needs much better powers to deal with online child grooming and social media sites, such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. When someone is below the age of consent—under 16—there should be parental access or some form of parental portal, but that is completely absent from the Bill. I appreciate that that is difficult when ISPs are located abroad, but with the problem of eight children a day being groomed online not being substantively addressed, other than through the valuable work of organisations such as Childline, we need to be able to close the door that allows abusers into children’s bedrooms.
I am sure that the hon. Lady will agree that it is a real source of concern that the only way of addressing issues with Facebook for people who have suffered through the misuse of profiles is to go to Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner. We do not have the means to deal with such matters in this country.
The Secretary of State’s previous role was at the Home Office, which has an interest in online criminality and the vulnerability of children, so I hope that she will take note of the comments made today. There is much to welcome in the Bill. New regulations on data protection, which will largely replace the Data Protection Act 1998, may provide an opportunity to close some of the windows. I urge Ministers to consider such provisions given the large number of online grooming cases and the potentially devastating consequences.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) and an even greater pleasure to see the Secretary of State in her place. We have heard about the work of previous Secretaries of State in getting the Bill to where it is today, but I want to put on the record my appreciation for what the current Secretary of State will do to ensure that the Bill is implemented in full. I support this Bill. It is necessary and its time has come, but that does not mean that it could not be improved. With that in mind, I will refer to clauses 75, 76 and 77.
Clause 75 deals with regulatory aspects of Ofcom and the BBC, and in my capacity as vice-chair of the all-party group on the BBC I have received representations from members of the National Union of Journalists. They approach the issue not out of a desire to see no change but out of wanting to ensure that the editorial integrity of the BBC is protected. As someone who appreciates the value the BBC has to offer and the Government’s intention, which is not to try to impinge on that editorial independence, I urge the Government to give dutiful consideration to these clauses, to ensure that at no future point could the BBC’s editorial independence be infringed.
Clause 75 aims to amend the Communications Act 2003, allowing for provision to be made in the new BBC charter and framework agreement so that Ofcom can regulate all the BBC’s activity, in its new role as an external regulator. I ask the Government and the Minister: are explicit safeguards in place to bar Ofcom from interfering with the BBC’s editorial independence? Are explicit safeguards in place against a watering down of BBC public service commitments, for example, to children’s programming? In the past, Ofcom has allowed other UK broadcasters to water down their public service remits, so will the Minister assure me that the clause will guard against the BBC doing this in future? I would appreciate it if he responded to that in his wind-up.
Clause 76 would insert a new section into the 2003 Act, transferring powers in respect of over-75 licence fee payers to the BBC. Following consultation, the BBC will independently determine the concession, with the power to make changes to it, including by changing the eligibility criteria, the level of the concession and the qualifying age. I invite the Government to reconsider the impact that transferring the cost of the over-75 licence fees will have on BBC funding, and, therefore, the threats to future programme content. Representations have been made to me by the NUJ, which fears that this measure will result in a net 20% cut in licence fee funding. It has suggested that over five years the cut could be up to £1.3 billion.
Such a cut could not only have an impact on the original content of drama productions and documentaries, but could threaten local radio and unique radio stations such as the BBC Asian Network, BBC Radio 1Xtra and BBC Radio 6 Music. Those of us in this House in the last Parliament when the BBC proposed cuts to local radio stations will know that our mailbags were bursting like never before. The BBC was forced to back down on that, so I say to Ministers: let us not put the BBC in a situation where as a result of our not thinking through the long-term consequences of transferring the licence fee for over-75s the BBC in future years has to cut services such as local radio or original drama, because there will be a political price to pay. By transferring the cost of the licence fee, we will not have done a really clever thing by taking the political consequences away from government; there will be political consequences, but they will come further down the line. I would like assurances from Ministers that this £1.3 billion cost suggested by the NUJ is indeed not a real number, and that the arithmetic and the work on this has indeed been done.
I note that the BBC management have accepted these changes, but that does not allay my concerns. I hope that the Minister does not fall back on the default position of saying, “It has been agreed by the BBC management.” It may have been agreed by them, but my constituents pay the licence fee, I represent them and I want to hear reassurances that an agreement between government and the BBC management does not compromise the quality of broadcasting in years to come. If I can get those assurances from the Minister, he will be back at the top of my Christmas card list.
Let me move on to discuss clause 77. The timing in this Chamber is not something that always works well, but today the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) introduced a ten-minute rule Bill. My goodness what an excellent Bill that was, because it sought to address the issue of nuisance calls. The proposals in clause 77 are welcome, as they improve the current legislation, but they do not go far enough. A Library briefing document says:
“A new section would be inserted into the Act, placing the Information Commissioner under a duty to publish and keep under review a direct marketing code of practice. In the Government’s view, this would make it easier for the Information Commissioner to take enforcement action against those organisations in breach.”
That was written in the assumption that we are dealing with honourable people, but we are not. The companies that overwhelmingly engage in direct marketing are rogues and shysters. For example, I have a constituent who is in the early stages of dementia. She receives calls almost daily. When she picks up the phone, she hears a message that goes something like this: “Something wrong with your boiler?” When my constituent tries to gather information so that she can deal with the matter, she discovers that the person making the phone call is withholding their number in breach of current guidelines. The caller will not give out the name of the company and will not identify who they are calling on behalf of, and, guess what, they do not have a website. When a person tries to go online to lodge an official complaint, they are asked about the company’s website, the name of the company and its telephone number.
I say to Ministers and officials that we are basing a law on the hope that we are dealing with honourable people. We are dealing not with honourable people, but with the lowest of the low. They are people who are prepared to break the law as it currently stands and to prey on the vulnerable in their tens and hundreds of thousands. They are people who are making an absolute mockery of this place. I say to the Government that if they seriously want to do something about tightening up nuisance calls to the most vulnerable people in our constituencies, now is their chance. They should listen to what the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran put before this House today, because she was talking about fining the directors and holding them to account. It is about questioning the integrity and ability of those directors to be performing such responsible duties as the law currently now permits them.
The law as it currently stands permits fines on companies —but only if we can track down those companies. As the hon. Lady pointed out, these companies—these shysters—will collapse the company, so the fine is never paid. The next day, they will pop up again with a new identity, preying once again on the vulnerable people we were sent here to represent.
I am proud to represent Fylde in this Parliament, but Fylde, like many other constituencies, is made up of very many vulnerable people. I am also proud to support this Government. I will be proud to support this Bill, but I will be even prouder if my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State ensures that, in Committee, we do something to tighten regulations so that we can take on the rogues and shysters and make this her first truly remarkable piece of legislation that transforms the lives of many vulnerable people throughout this country.
It is a great pleasure to follow the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies), and a joy to rise and welcome this Bill. I wish to raise four points. The first is to welcome the universal service obligation. My constituents speak of little else in the bosky lanes of North West Hampshire these days. They have doused the flames burning on the effigies of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) and started to hoist portraits of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock) alongside those of the Queen in the village hall in the hope that they may finally be connected to the real world.
All of this is remarkably good news, until it is not, which is a little bit like my own internet service where I am offered a particular rate until it is not that rate. That happens to me most of the time, particularly when the kids all get home from school. Will the Minister clarify what 10 megabits per second actually means? Is it a minimum? Is it permanently 10? Will 10 drop to two when everybody gets home and starts playing their games or downloading pornography? It will be interesting for people to know those things. The critical figure for areas such as mine will be the capped cost to BT or to the other providers of putting a service into our homes. If that is too low, there might as well be no universal service obligation; the farm drives and tracks of North West Hampshire will not be troubled by fibre or copper and so on, because the cost cap is too low. I gather that we will not get that figure until the end of the year, and my constituency will have to wait with bated breath. Until then, the promise is nothing more than that. Clarification from the Minister of what is intended would be fantastic.
Secondly, the Minister may have to enter into a tussle with the Housing Minister on the Neighbourhood Planning Bill as to which Bill will contain a provision making it compulsory for broadband to be fitted to all new housing. It is fairly obvious from the contributions of my hon. Friends and other Members this afternoon that there is a strong swell of opinion in the House that that should happen, and that developers will have to swallow it up. Given the assistance that they will be getting from the Government in expanding their businesses across the United Kingdom in the next few years, the least developers can do is fit this now essential utility to the houses that they build. I would recommend that the Minister speak to the Housing Minister, because someone somewhere will table an amendment, and it will get huge support in the House.
Thirdly, I alert the Minister to an amendment that I intend to table on Report. The Whips will not put me on Bill Committees, but I will table an amendment on Report, if it does not emerge beforehand, on the subject of business rates. It is a technical point, but it impacts heavily on competition in the sector. I know the Government are keen to promote competition. At the moment, BT has a fairly good deal from the valuation office on business rates on its network. Business rates are chargeable on a fibre broadband network. BT pays a lump sum, which reduces as it loses market share. If it expands its network, it pays no more—just that lump sum.
However, a new entrant to the market, putting in fibre broadband, will be required to pay business rates on that network. Paradoxically, that rate bill will be higher than the charges that BT would levy on it for renting the line from BT, thereby entrenching the BT monopoly. This differential treatment under the non-domestic rating system cannot be right. I will be tabling an amendment requiring the valuation office to produce a report annually on the impact of the rating system on competition in the sector, because we are asking people to compete to put fibre into the home, particularly across rural networks, and they are doing so with this huge hidden bill, which does not accrue to the major competitor—BT.
Finally, I want to address the issue of pornography and filters on the internet. That is, as many Members have said this afternoon, an enormous issue not only for parents but for society. It is having a massive impact on the way in which boys and girls see one another and the way in which they deal with relationships, and sex. The Government have tried, over the past few years, in coalition and now, to take steps towards dealing with that, but sadly, I am afraid, to little effect. Although the Bill makes a brave attempt, I must tell the Minister that I do not see it having a significant impact on the availability of pornography on the internet, for some of the reasons that other Members have elucidated.
Most of this stuff comes from overseas. Much of it comes from the United States, where it is protected under constitutional rights, apparently. Much of it is free—it requires no online transaction via credit card or otherwise. It will be easily available to anybody who wants to get it who does not have a parent who puts a filter on.
I would very much like to see the Government shift their target away from the providers of websites to the people who could do something to filter the content—the internet service providers. We know the ISPs can identify these sites because they do so already for parental filters. If someone puts a parental filter on, they will identify the site and block it. There is no technical reason why the ISPs could not also identify it and put an age filter on, that would appear every time someone tried to access it, that required a credit card number or required the usual age verification applied by gambling sites. The ISPs could easily put such measures in place.
If the Minister will forgive me, I would point out that the Government are missing the target by going for the sites, which move around the world, between jurisdictions and between countries, whereas the ISPs, who are here and who we could get hold of, could technically achieve what we want for us. This is a very pressing issue indeed and we have talked about it for the 18 months that I have been in the House, and for the previous 10 years when I was watching from outside. The time has come for the Government to do something really bold about this—to move forward in a way that no other country has, by requiring age verification for pornography, at the level of the ISP. Those organisations are the newsagents who stop the magazine. They are the television company that is broadcasting the programme. They are not free of obligation in this menace to our young people and they should start to play their part. I call upon the Government to oblige them to do so.
It is an honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) who, as always, brings passion and insight to the debate—a difficult act to follow, but I will try.
Technological advances, including the internet, have transformed the way we communicate and the way we are informed, educated and entertained. This Bill will help bring legislation, regulation, consumer rights and protections up to date, but this is an evolution. We are only at the very beginning of the digital journey and I suspect that during my time in this place, we will see many further such Bills. I strongly support the Bill, particularly as it is a very consumer-friendly Bill, with many measures to protect and strengthen the rights of our constituents.
Like many colleagues, I have been approached by constituents and other stakeholders who have expressed concerns about elements of the Bill and have suggested some potential changes. I am sure the Minister and the Department have likewise been approached, and I am confident that plenty of time will be set aside during the Committee stage to scrutinise the details and for certain amendments to be made to avoid some of the unintended consequences that various players have highlighted and that we have heard about today.
The previous Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), has commented that this Bill
“will put in place the foundations for the digital future”
“make the UK a world leader in digital”.
I respectfully suggest that we are already a world leader in the digital space, and the focus should therefore be on sustaining our leadership position, which we cannot and should not take for granted. So far digital is clearly a UK success story. The UK is one of the most sophisticated and advanced digital economies on the planet. At 12.4% of GDP the UK has by far the largest digital economy in the G20—not just slightly larger than that of any other nation in the G20, but miles ahead. The next largest is South Korea at 8%. Our digital economy as a percentage of GDP is three times that of Germany and four times that of France.
Average spending online in the UK per head is double the European average, and more than 1 million jobs are sustained by the digital sector in the UK. The sector is growing at about twice the rate of average GDP growth. The strength of our digital sector is something we should be shouting from the rooftops, and as a nation we should be very proud about it indeed. Yes, we have adopted and leveraged the applications and service offerings of the global giants such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook, but we have many home-grown success stories, too—ARM Holdings and Micro Focus being particularly newsworthy recently.
The speed and enthusiasm with which the British public adopt new technologies and are willing to experiment with new ways of doing things is key to our digital success as a nation. The sophistication of our much maligned financial services sector has also played a key role in our digital success. We are willing to transact online only because we are confident that our transactions are safe and secure and the risk of fraud is low. Other nations with far less sophisticated and secure financial services sectors have seen much lower consumer willingness to transact over the internet and share financial information online. That has held back their digital development. This Bill will help provide the solid foundations for future digital growth, with its emphasis on enabling digital infrastructure, consumer rights, protecting intellectual property and ambitious goals for Government digital services. Although much has been achieved, there is still much more to do.
We have made huge progress in broadband, but if my mailbag is similar to that of other hon. Members—and I suspect it is—residents and businesses contact us all the time to express dissatisfaction with their current level of service. Problems often relate, though not exclusively, to BT and Openreach, which has a lot to do to improve service. Improvements also need to be made in mobile coverage, in rural areas in particular. The Bill identifies improvements both in the regulatory framework and in making switching service providers much easier, which I applaud. It will encourage price competition and enhance customer service levels.
I know that my constituents will welcome the improved level of information that will come as part of the new power for Ofcom to order communications providers to release data to help them make more informed choices. Of particular help will be the ability to obtain address-level data on broadband speeds, addressing the issue of advertised estimated broadband speeds only at postcode level, where actual speed can vary significantly from property to property, depending on how far the property is from a cabinet.
Overall, the Bill places significantly more power in the hands of Ofcom—a highly respected regulator. It is worth noting that Ofcom already has oversight of many aspects of the UK’s fast-changing broadcasting landscape. If the new governance and regulatory structure proposed for the BBC is adopted, as we suspect, Ofcom will take on additional responsibilities relating to the BBC. I would appreciate the Minister’s comments on how he envisions Ofcom’s new powers over the BBC being exercised in practical terms, and particularly as they relate to online offerings, the regions, BBC production and transparency.
The UK broadcasting industry, and particularly the public sector broadcasting industry, has been extremely innovative in developing online TV propositions, with Channel 4’s Catch Up service and the BBC’s iPlayer leading the way. The future of Channel 4 has been the subject of much debate recently, and the Minister may wish to comment in the context of the digital evolution of the UK economy on possible future changes in the ownership and governance of Channel 4.
Let me move on briefly to the issue of protecting children from online pornography. I welcome the Government’s desire to restrict access to harmful sexualised content that could change children’s attitudes towards sex and relationships, as has been mentioned many times today. There have already been welcome steps in this regard, not least from internet providers themselves in providing family-friendly filters free to customers to filter out unsuitable content. Most of us would agree that providers of pornography should have age verification controls in place to prevent children from being exposed to it. I therefore welcome the proposals in the Bill for age verification and particularly for the regulator.
However, the regulation must have teeth to deal with those content providers that do not have controls in place, even if they are based overseas. The civil sanctions the Bill introduces are an important step, but I understand that the Bill does not provide for the actual blocking of non-compliant websites, and I would ask the Minister to continue working with all stakeholders in the sector to find a way to block sites and therefore clearly meet our manifesto commitment to stop children’s exposure to sexualised content online.
In conclusion, I have touched on only a few aspects of a very wide-ranging Bill with some very welcome components. As I said, the UK already has a digital lead, and it is a leading digital economy in the world. The changes the Bill will introduce will help the UK to retain a commanding digital position for many, many years to come.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), because he made the fundamental point about the size of the digital economy in the United Kingdom and its importance to so many of our constituencies, including my own.
One of the things I want to highlight first is that we in Stroud have a strong and growing e-learning centre, effectively, with a large number of small and medium-sized firms contributing to its success. Of course, e-learning depends to a large extent on effective internet coverage and good access. My constituency has five valleys and a substantial vale, and not all of those places are easily connected. That has certainly proved to be the case in the final move towards universal coverage. I therefore make a plea to the Minister to recognise not only the strength of e-learning in my constituency but the power of the digital economy in general, and I urge him to think of ways, in addition to those he has already come up with, to make sure that clusters of small businesses in areas that need additional contact are indeed supported.
The Minister’s predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), talked about the importance of infrastructure and about the similarity of the infrastructure for the internet to other infrastructures, and I would pick up on the issue of road infrastructure to illustrate that point. An impressive motorway or a road leading almost to somewhere, but not quite getting there, is useless. That is part of the problem with the internet coverage in areas that are, I admit, difficult to deal with, but that do need special attention because they are also often the areas where growth will come if we get the right kind of connectivity. There is a cluster of businesses in rural areas that really do need attention. [Interruption.] I can see that my point is getting a lot of approval from Members on both sides of the House. Obviously Scotland is—
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He raises an important point. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) raised the issue of what people get, in that sometimes they do not get what they expect to get and sometimes they do get it and then it becomes less later. That is the sort of problem that we have. Consumers are concerned about it, and rightly so. It is also clearly a problem for small businesses, as I said. These matters need to be dealt with.
I want to endorse something that my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) talked about: copyright and protection of intellectual property. He made a strong point. The Culture, Media and Sport Committee will benefit from his expertise in this matter. He rightly pointed out that copyright on the internet is sometimes vulnerable and we need to make sure that measures are strengthened in that respect.
I now turn to something completely different, which is not in the Bill although I think it should be: subtitles. This connects with the interests of, for example, Action On Hearing Loss. The Bill offers a great opportunity to improve access to information for people with hearing difficulties by changing the structure of services. Would the Government consider using the Bill to improve the provision of subtitles on on-demand services, given the drastic improvement of their provision on linear television following legislation that has since become outdated? We need to look at this area. I am half deaf myself. My left ear does not work at all, but I can still hear. Nevertheless, that gives me a huge amount of sympathy and understanding for those who cannot hear at all. There could be an opportunity to help them, and the Government should be looking at it.
It is certainly right that young children should be prevented from looking at pornography. It is also absolutely right that we should be thinking in terms of the measures that the Government have introduced. However, some of the operators in this field, and some of the social media operators, operate almost like fiefdoms, and we have to really get some control over them. If an outfit is told to switch something off but does not do so, I am not entirely sure what the Government are going to do about it. Will they say, “We are going to fine you now,” and then hope for the best? The problem is that so many of the types of structures that we want to restrict, or even prevent from operating altogether, are international, based in countries where we do not have any jurisdiction, and sometimes—certainly in the case of Russia—with which we have a very difficult relationship. The Government need to think carefully about how they are going to put some real strength behind these measures, which are quite sensible in terms of aspiration but have to be delivered in a way that works.
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 reccur. 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.
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 the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (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 the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr), who made an excellent and well-informed speech on behalf of the Scottish National party. The former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Maldon (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 the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst), my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), my right hon. Friend the Member for Slough (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 seek to 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 of 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.
They say that success has many fathers, and I hope that is true of the Bill because this debate has been a veritable custody battle. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), whose name appears first on the back of the Bill, gave a second opening speech to explain where much of it has come from. My right hon. Friend the Member for Didcot—[Hon. Members: “Wantage.”]—made a brilliant speech. I think of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) as the Member for Didcot because of that great big power station, which he so resembles; sadly, it has now fallen down. He developed much of the detail of the Bill and deserves enormous credit for his work.
Between us, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, who, with me, will take the data measures through the Committee, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who we could say is the mother of the Bill, and I—I am honoured and privileged to be the Bill Minister—all claim credit for parts of the Bill. It has been a team effort, and a huge amount of work over several years has gone into bringing the Bill to this point. I want to thank all the Ministers and the many officials and stakeholders who have been involved in its development.
This has been an excellent debate, with insightful and thought-provoking contributions from all sides of the House. We have heard about the increasing importance of digital technology and infrastructure to our constituents and the economy. I am glad that there seems to be a consensus about the importance of the subject. We have heard some impassioned pleas to ensure that we protect the vulnerable, and the Bill takes steps to do so.
Technology is transforming the world in which we live—our homes, work and daily lives—and the Bill seeks to make the benefits of those transformations as big as possible while mitigating some of the inevitable costs. We need to ensure that our laws and infrastructure keep pace with this great change. We must tackle the problems the change brings and seize on the opportunities.
We have the best superfast broadband coverage and highest take-up of all major European nations, but we want us to have more. Although nine out of every 10 homes and businesses can now access superfast speeds, and we are on track to hit the target of 95% coverage by 2017, we want high-speed broadband for all. The Bill takes the next step, with the universal service obligation. In the same way, as we deliver through infrastructure the internet that enriches our lives, we will also take steps to protect children from online pornography, addressing harms highlighted by many in the Chamber.
Likewise, the Government Digital Service has made the UK Government one of the first digital-by-default states, in a model replicated the world over, but we can do more. The Bill will strengthen how we use Government data to deliver better public services.
I read press reports about the Government Digital Service being broken up and distributed around Departments. I always thought that the service was a fantastic innovation. It behaved like a start-up, challenging and pushing the envelope. During his remarks will the Minister give a helpful update to the House on the position of the Government Digital Service?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s supportive comment about how the Government have done on digitisation. We have made a huge amount of progress and are one of the world leaders. Some states find this process easier, partly because of national culture. Estonia bases its Government digital services on a universal identity system that we disagree with here; it has a much more willing approach to having an ID card system than the UK does. Also, by its nature our country is more complicated and much bigger, so things are more complicated here, but we can learn a lot from the brilliant work Estonia is doing. I have personally worked with the Estonian Government to take the lessons and apply them in our own context.
There were three areas in the debate that really got the House going. The first was age verification. Incredibly strong speeches were made on that by the right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), the hon. Members for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), my hon. Friends the Members for Devizes (Claire Perry), for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell), and others. Age verification is an incredibly important step forward. Legislation is in place to deal with the online abuse that many Members also raised—the cyber-stalking and harassment—and, as Members of Parliament, we all understand the challenges that we face on that. We remain committed to improving online safety; it is a challenging area, but we will continue to work to push that forward. The views of the House will be key to that process.
Does the Minister accept that the impact of the measures will be limited given that, as a number of Members have pointed out, the vast bulk of the material we are trying to protect children from comes from overseas? The Government’s jurisdiction will therefore be limited and the impact will therefore be limited.
No, I do not. We have tried to devise them in such a way that they have an impact on both overseas-hosted sites—they must, because of the international nature of the internet—and free sites.
Many Members asked questions about blocking and user-generated content. I will take those away and no doubt return to them in Committee. I am very clear that the Bill takes us forward. We need to listen to the views of the House to ensure that we get the details right.
The second area in which there was a huge amount of interest was broadband. I am incredibly excited that 91% of premises now have access to superfast broadband. The universal service obligation in the Bill is a huge step forward, bringing high-speed broadband to all.
A few questions were raised on the detail, not least the 10 megabits assessment. As I said in an intervention, the Bill puts in place the power to have secondary regulations to ensure that if we need to increase the minimum speed we can do that. That is a very important step forward. Many Members asked about the exact design of the USO, in particular how we will make sure the speed is appropriate. Ofcom will consult on the precise design of the USO in the autumn, so that we can make sure we get the details right.
I appreciate the more-than-90% high-speed broadband availability that the Minister talks about, but what comfort is there for people in my constituency, where less than 70% of the public are able to access high-speed broadband?
The Department and the UK Government have allocated specific funds to the Northern Ireland Assembly to enable greater availability of broadband. Do the Government intend to do that again to enable the remaining small percentage—I think it is about 13% across Northern Ireland—to access broadband?
There is a fund to ensure that we get fast broadband out to as many people as possible. There is something that every single Member can do to make sure that that fund goes as far as possible. The contracts are structured so that the more people take up broadband, the more the local authority or delivery partner gets back in a clawback. They then spend that money on reaching more premises and more households. I urge everybody to run a broadband take-up campaign in their constituencies, because the more people who sign up for broadband in a Government-supported Broadband Delivery UK area—about 20% of households —the more money comes back to the programme and the more houses can be reached. The clawback means that all of us can have a direct impact on how much broadband is delivered in our local areas.
I just want to be clear, because many of my constituents will be listening carefully, on what 10 megabits per second actually means. The Minister, in an intervention, used the word “minimum” when he said that the universal service obligation would be 10 megabits per second. Is he saying that it is the Government’s intention that some broadband speeds should never fall below 10 megabits per second, no matter what their neighbours, or anybody else who is sharing capacity, are doing?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. I see 10 megabits as the absolute minimum, but the definition of what has been advertised in the past for high-speed broadband is a really important issue. This is not an area of statutory regulation, because we do not have statutory regulation for advertising. The Advertising Standards Authority makes the rules. It is consulting on changing the so-called “up to” definitions in advertising to make sure that there is a tighter definition so that people get what is advertised. I think it is fair to say that, should that change go through—it is a non-statutory area—it would be widely supported across the House.
Fibre to new homes was raised by many Members, so let me give this answer. In January, it will become law that superfast broadband needs to be supplied to new homes. There is a commitment to provide fibre to sites with more than 100 new premises. This is a big step forward. Lots of people asked questions about it; secondary regulations went through; the reason it is not in the Bill is that we think we have made the progress needed to ensure that we deliver in this space.
Likewise, many people asked about agreements on landowners’ rights under the electronic communications code, which I agree is an incredibly important step forward. I pay particular tribute to my right hon. Friends the Members for Maldon and for Wantage for driving this through. The new code will be a baseline that removes a lot of the room for dispute. It will apply only to new contracts, but many if not most contracts and agreements for siting masts will remain on commercial terms. It will not be required to use the new code; the new code will be the baseline from which the negotiations can take place.
Let me touch on the Opposition Front-Bench contributions. I felt that the two Labour contributions were well informed and the agreement on the vision was very positive. I would like to react to a few points. Sadly, I thought there was a rather shrill position on data sharing, and I was slightly disappointed with it. Given that we have had two years of open policy making and a full public consultation, it was a bit of surprise to hear that the Labour Front-Bench team was not involved.
The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) was wrong about the Communications Act 2003 when she said that measures build on Labour’s Act and that it was a pity that no progress has been made since 2003. Actually, this Bill builds on the Telecommunications Act 1984. The hon. Lady was also a bit muddled over the BBC. When she argued for more BBC spending power, I was not sure whether she wanted the licence fee to be put up. I think that making costs for phone masts lower is an important part of rolling out the infrastructure to make sure that we get as much coverage for 5G and 4G as possible. We can take up all these points in Committee.
I shall try not to match the number of interruptions that the Minister made during my opening speech. Given that he referenced me directly, however, let me say that the Communications Act 2003 revised the electronic communications code. I know because I used to work with it beside me at Ofcom. I shall try not to be shrill in pointing out to him that if he is seriously asserting that he has fully consulted the public on data sharing, I shall hold him to that in the responses that he will see coming to the policies that he is putting forward to extend data sharing in ways that the public do not yet understand and will not like when they do fully understand the way in which their personal data will be shared.
The data-sharing elements of the Bill are designed to improve public services, to make sure that we can tackle fraud and to have better statistics in this country. I think the public will broadly support the aim, for instance, to better target support for those who have difficulty paying for their energy costs. I look forward to taking this debate on further.
Finally, let me touch a little more on the support for victims of online abuse and the question of the link to it.
Several Members referred to when the draft charter for the BBC will be published. I hope that this Minister will be able to say, as former Ministers were suggesting from sedentary positions—and are now with prim faces—when this might be. Will it be tomorrow or the day after? Will the Minister also guarantee that there will be a debate here and in the House of Lords before the charter is implemented?