That this House do not insist on its Amendment 1 and do agree with the Commons in their Amendments 1A, 1B and 1C in lieu.
Commons Amendments in lieu
My Lords, this Motion covers two areas where the other place has offered amendments in lieu of your Lordships’ amendments. Lords Amendment 1 on the universal service obligation challenged the Government to be more ambitious on universal digital connectivity. A broadband USO, set initially at 10 megabits per second, forms part of our plans to make sure nobody is digitally excluded. Lords Amendment 1 would have disrupted those plans. In our view, it would make the USO unworkable and, because of the risk of legal challenge, would lead to delays in implementation.
The USO can work only if it is legally robust and enforceable. EU law requires it to take into account technologies used by the majority of subscribers. Today, 30 megabits per second is enjoyed by less than 30%. Two gigabits per second is enjoyed by less than 1%. While we may have a majority taking up 30 megabits per second in a few years’ time, the Government want to implement the USO now and the Lords amendment would make this difficult to achieve.
I know that a key concern for many is that the whole country should be able to access superfast speeds of 30 megabits per second. We share that ambition. We have therefore proposed an amendment in lieu that a superfast USO will be reconsidered by Ofcom once 75% of premises across the UK subscribe to superfast broadband.
On Lords Amendment 2, the other place agreed with your Lordships’ concerns in relation to bill capping and proposed Amendment 2A in lieu. As with the Lords amendment, we provide that mobile phone service customers must have the opportunity to place a limit on their bill. Any limit set cannot be exceeded unless the customer agrees to this. Ofcom is given enforcement powers. The requirement placed on providers to ensure that customers can contact the emergency services will be unaffected.
The Government also reflected on the switching and roaming elements of Lords Amendment 2, but were not convinced of their merits. While appearing to be attractive, we do not believe that roaming is the right solution. I set out our reasons at Third Reading. With regards to switching, the Bill already goes further than the proposed amendment. The provision in the Bill, confirming Ofcom’s power to set a condition about switching, relates to operators of all telecom services, including fixed line, broadband and pay TV, not just mobile phones. I beg to move.
My Lords, as someone who has renovated a Victorian house, I know one thing to be true. It is all very well stripping off the anaglypta and the woodchip, slapping on some Farrow & Ball, improving the coving and putting up a dado rail, but if you do not tackle the fundamentals you are pretty soon raising the floorboards again. It is the roof, the electricals and the plumbing that call you out. I had hoped that the Bill would tackle the fundamentals of the nation’s digital plumbing. I hoped that it would put in train a really revolutionary revolution for our digital network and enable the whole country to participate in the digital economy I believe the Bill sets out to achieve. I still hope that is true, but I have my doubts.
Without a requirement for a fast digital delivery and a date for the arrival of that fast digital network, we will struggle. The notion of having a 75% threshold of subscription is a tricky way of going about this. We will have to use the reporting requirements that Ofcom is now obliged to follow—that is a move forward—to get it to report on how it is driving broadband usage. We are using the commercial arms of the same companies being asked to deliver broadband to promote the use of broadband itself. We have a closed loop that does not necessarily have an incentive to drive up to the 75% threshold. I would be more confident in the progress of this country in delivering this network if there was not a dominant player that sits on a Victorian asset of copper wire which it wants to sweat, and quite understandably. It has to be up to the Government and Ofcom to drive their desire to really move forward. We are closing the door on a fresh, shiny new Bill which still smells of new paint, but, just as with my house, I cannot help thinking that we will be raising the floorboards on this issue time and again in Parliaments to come.
My Lords, we welcome the two amendments in lieu in the Motion moved by the Minister. Having said that, I think we are at liberty also to regret that they do not go further.
The issue that we are dealing with here, which I think has been well picked up by the noble Lord who has just spoken, is that 59% of rural Britain has no proper access to the internet and large parts of the country have not-spots. It is a cause for major concern. The root of the problem is that, while a USO sounds good and is an effective way of getting across the argument that the service should be for everyone, the reality is that, unless there are sanctions to make sure that it happens and an incentive in terms of investment to make sure that the funding is available for it to take place at an appropriate time, it will never happen. It is therefore only part of the story.
The narrative that we are unfortunately locked into appears to be one where the Government were initially unwilling even to have anything in statute which provided a floor for the activity here—we now have that with this amendment, although it is a very low floor—but they do not yet have the aspiration, embodied in amendments that this House agreed, to get the speeds up and widen the coverage as quickly as they can. We are stuck in a situation where the spirit may be willing but the flesh is certainly very weak. We are not in a position where we can say that we will be able to look forward to this in an immediate future.
The root of the problem has another source, which is the reliance on the European Commission’s requirements in this area. The Government have made great play of this, but the only legislative framework under which Europe is operating here, which will fall away in 2019 if the new Government get their way, is that there should be non-binding guidance on what constitutes a universal service, yet the Government have chosen to interpret that as a limit on what they do rather than an opportunity to go further. While we welcome what is here, we do not think that the mechanics chosen will do the trick, particularly when Ofcom has recommended a faster basic speed and a cheaper way of doing it would be at 30 megabits per second. As we have just heard, we may be back looking at this in very short order.
On mobile bill capping, which will help consumers who get themselves in trouble with their bills, we are delighted that the Government have accepted the amendment made by the Lords at an earlier stage.
My Lords, I am grateful for those remarks by noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Fox, talked about the fundamentals. They are what we have tried to address in this Bill to increase digital connectivity in the country. Measures in the Bill which have been accepted, on the Electronic Communications Code and those relating to spectrum, are part of that. The USO is slightly different. It was never intended to drive increased speeds. We have said separately that we share the ambition of the noble Lord to increase those and stated that we see fibre to the premises as the way forward, but the USO is there to tackle to social exclusion. I can reassure noble Lords that the response to Lords Amendment 1 is not about delaying superfast connectivity or pandering to the communications providers. To the contrary, it is because we do not want to be involved in protracted legal disputes. The fact is that the House can legislate for whatever speed it likes, but it will make a difference to people up and down the county only if it is implemented properly. That means that the Bill must be legally watertight and realistic.
Government Amendment 1A will put our money where our mouth is. As the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, mentioned, we have now put in legislation that the broadband USO will be set at a minimum of 10 megabits per second and we will ensure that if the minimum has not already been raised to 30 megabits per second by the time take-up of superfast broadband has reached 75% of premises a review must be triggered. That is practical and, interestingly, will give this country the fastest USO in Europe. I hope we concentrate on the benefits we receive from this.
That this House do not insist on its Amendment 2 and do agree with the Commons in their Amendment 2A in lieu.
Commons Amendment in lieu
That this House do not insist on its Amendment 40 and do agree with the Commons in their Amendments 40A and 40B in lieu.
Commons Amendments in lieu
My Lords, I want again to start by saying that the Government accept and agree with the spirit of Lords Amendment 40, but, as drafted, it poses difficulties and risks unintended consequences. For example, it is not clear who would notify social media providers that content contravened existing legislation. The requirement to inform the police if notified that content contravenes any existing legislation could lead to unmanageable volumes of referrals to law enforcement. This would do little to increase public protection, making the code of practice unworkable.
The other place has offered Amendment 40A, which we believe will achieve a similar outcome by setting out the behaviour expected of social media companies while protecting users. As explained in the other place by my right honourable friend the Minister of State for Digital and Culture, good work is being done by some companies to prevent the use of platforms for illegal purposes, but we agree that more can be done by social media to tackle harmful conduct online, particularly bullying behaviour, which can have serious consequences.
Our intention is that the code will set out guidance on what social media providers should do in relation to conduct that is lawful but that is none the less distressing or upsetting. The intention is that the guidance in the legislation addresses companies proportionately. We believe that this code, together with the internet safety strategy, will result in a properly considered, comprehensive approach to online safety and deliver the long-lasting protections that this amendment seeks to secure. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have no doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, will want to give a more substantive response since this was fundamentally an opposition amendment, but it was supported strongly on these Benches. I accept that the Minister has tried to incorporate the spirit of the original amendment in this amendment coming from the Commons. He made a number of detailed points about objections to the drafting of the original amendment, but there is one thundering great hole in the amendment as brought forward by him, which is that there is no obligation on providers to comply with the code of practice once it comes into force. It is nakedly a voluntary code rather than any code that is able to be enforced by the Secretary of State. That is the major difference between the amendment that this House passed and that which has now come forward.
The Minister mentioned the internet safety strategy and the work being done on it. Many of us are convinced that when the work on that is done the need for an enforcement power in such a code of conduct will become clear. Will the Minister assure us that enforcement will be considered as part of the internet safety strategy and that, if the overwhelming body of evidence is that such a form of compliance is needed, the Government will come forward with amendments?
My Lords, I will not delay the House but I want to repeat what the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, has just said because the point about no enforcement and no sanctions is important. I recognise the words of the Minister in terms of reflecting the spirit and intent of our original amendment, and I think that that is what the government Motion now seeks to do. It will give notice to the social networks that failure to comply will result in further government action. Like the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, I hope that the Minister will be able to respond positively, in particular on the internet strategy review.
In conclusion, our examination of these issues has been extremely good in the Lords both in Committee and on Report. We now have a clear policy which gives notice to the social networks that we want to ensure that proper standards are maintained and that action will be taken when evidence of abuse is found. It should not be a matter of days or weeks, which has been the case, before offensive material is taken down. We have seen evidence of the horrendous things that have been put up on social networks in the US and Thailand, so we want to ensure that the networks understand fully the gravity of the situation.
My Lords, I am grateful for the remarks of noble Lords and I shall start by responding to the last comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins. I think that the social media companies are in absolutely no doubt about the Government’s determination to review what they do and make sure that they live up to their responsibilities. We are all agreed on that and we realise that even when something is technically lawful, it can be very damaging and unpleasant. Anything that sets out to humiliate people has no place in our society. I of course understand why some noble Lords are disappointed that the code of practice is not mandatory, but we should have confidence that it will make a difference if, as I have suggested, both we and the social media companies take it seriously. The code of practice will clearly set out our expectations of social media providers and it is in the interests of a site to be responsible with regard to online safety. It is critical for the future of sites that their users should trust them and that they protect the health of their brand.
I accept that there has been a lot of talk about the internet safety strategy. We have not ruled anything out of the strategy and we have heard the clear views of the House. I can say that we will consider carefully the points which have been raised in the development of the strategy and we will welcome contributions from noble Lords and other interested parties. I shall repeat: my department has absolutely taken on board the views of the House along with those of many other stakeholders in relation to social media companies and we will see what comes of that. The fact is that if this amendment is accepted, the code must and will be produced, and I am convinced that it will have a beneficial effect.
That this House do not insist on its Amendments 237, 238 and 239, to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason 237A.
My Lords, we return yet again to the issue of BBC funding, having debated it at length in Committee and on Report. Honourable Members in the other place have disagreed with the amendments that noble Lords inserted into the Bill at Report stage which sought to establish a BBC licence fee commission. The Government remain clear that they must have a free hand in determining the BBC’s overall funding deals and the level of the licence fee following negotiation with the BBC itself.
Noble Lords will appreciate that decisions on the level of the licence fee are a matter for the elected Government. Similarly, we are not convinced that consulting the public on the level of BBC funding is the right approach to determining its funding settlements. The BBC’s funding needs are a complicated and technical issue, and not one that lends itself easily to public consultation. Although the Government have persuaded honourable Members in the other place, we have listened to the concerns expressed by noble Lords about the process for setting the BBC’s funding settlement and about ensuring that the BBC has an appropriate level of funding. The new charter endorses the BBC’s mission and reaffirms the role and independence of the BBC in a much-changed and fast-changing media landscape.
The specific provisions in the BBC charter for setting the next funding settlement should also give come comfort to noble Lords who have concerns. We know exactly when the next funding period will commence. The Government will allow the BBC to make its case and will consider taking independent advice before reaching a final decision. Therefore in moving this Motion, I hope that those noble Lords who supported the noble Lord, Lord Best, at earlier stages will recognise that their efforts and their arguments on this matter have not been wasted. The Government are under no illusion that the next BBC funding settlement must be one that is carefully considered. There is no question of any so-called midnight raids when a five-year settlement which is inflation-protected has been agreed and everyone knows when the next settlement will begin.
I turn now to Motion E, relating to public service broadcasting prominence on the electronic programme guide, an issue which was much debated both in this House and in the other place. The Government have heard the strength of feeling on this issue. Although we have concluded that we can see no compelling evidence of harm to the PSBs, we recognise that this is a fast-moving technological landscape which needs to be kept under review, a point made clearly by the noble Lord, Lord Wood of Anfield, at Report stage. Amendment 242A will therefore place a new requirement on Ofcom to publish a report which looks at the ease of finding and accessing PSB content across all television platforms on both the linear and on-demand basis. The report will focus consumer pressure on the platform providers and TV manufacturers to improve the prominence of PSB on-demand services where this has been identified as an issue. We know that platform providers and TV manufacturers respond most strongly to consumer needs in developing their products and therefore developments in the EPG should be customer-driven.
The new duty will also impose an ongoing obligation on Ofcom to report and require it to review its EPG code by 1 December 2020, and to publish its first report on the ease of accessing and finding PSB content before then. As my right honourable friend the Minister of State for Digital and Culture made clear yesterday, if Ofcom’s report makes it clear that there is a problem in this area, one that can be fixed only by legislation, and assuming that the Government are returned in June, we will bring forward that legislation as soon as possible. That, I think, is why the Labour Front-Bench spokesman said that she was happy to support the government amendment. I beg to move.
My Lords, the three amendments which are the subject of Motion D came before your Lordships in the names of myself, the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, and the noble Lords, Lord Inglewood and Lord Stevenson. They were passed by noble Lords with a thumping majority but they are now to be rejected with no alternative amendments in lieu.
The issue here concerns the process by which the BBC licence fee is determined. There has been extensive condemnation of the current process from the right honourable John Whittingdale when chairing the CMS Select Committee in the other place and Rona Fairhead, the chair of the BBC Trust, as well as from a range of organisations including the Voice of the Listener and Viewer, the NUJ, and of course our own Select Committee on Communications, which I have the honour of chairing, at least until the Dissolution of Parliament.
What everyone agrees is that the current process has meant the Secretary of State deciding on this vital matter in a most unsatisfactory way, behind locked doors and in secret, on a basis that has on the last two occasions involved freezing the fee for many years and the allocation of portions of it to a range of other purposes—so-called midnight raids—from broadband rollout to free licences for the over-75s. The amendments now to be rejected would not tie the hands of the Secretary of State, who would still make the determination, but the revised process would involve public and parliamentary consultation and expert advice from a specialist BBC licence fee commission.
My Lords, about a year ago I introduced a Private Member’s Bill that was too low in the ballot to have any chance of being debated or passed. When that became evident, I decided instead to use this Bill as a vehicle to protect the independence and funding of the BBC. As the Minister will, I am afraid, recall painfully, we debated these issues as a result throughout most of the last year.
The first problem that we debated was whether it was proper to have legislation and a charter. The Government originally took the position that they were inconsistent. I am grateful that eventually, having listened to the authority of the noble Lords, Lord Inglewood, Lord Fowler—while he was a free man—and Lord Best, about how a charter is nothing more than what Ministers desire and is not like legislation, the Government eventually concluded that there was nothing incompatible between having a charter and statutory underpinning, too.
The next question was why any statutory underpinning is needed. The answer, if you read the current charter, is that there is no obligation in it upon the Government to provide sufficient funding or even to respect the independence of the BBC. I made it clear before the Bill left the House for the other place that I was not wedded to any particular solution to the problem of ensuring that the Government would provide sufficient funding and respect the independence of the BBC, and would do anything in their power to secure that. As the noble Lord, Lord Best, indicated, one way this House expressed our view was by adopting his rather more moderate approach than mine. His commission would not bind the Government to anything in particular other than to consider the outcome of the review commission. My approach would create an obligation upon the Government as regards funding and a prohibition against top-slicing, the transfer to the BBC of matters that were the obligation of the Department for Work and Pensions, to ensure that that never happened again.
As I understand it, we are now in a position, before we finally approve this Motion, where the Government do not accept any obligations on them with regard to the sufficiency of funding or respecting the independence of the BBC. I asked this of the Minister the last time and he could not answer. I ask him this time please to assure the House that the Government accept that there is an obligation to provide sufficient funds to the BBC, whether through the licence fee or otherwise, to ensure that it can fulfil the public purposes as an independent public service broadcaster that are enunciated in the charter. Do they also accept the obligation to ensure that the independence of the BBC is guaranteed and that there will be no further raids upon it through top-slicing? If the Minister can give those assurances today, I will not feel that I have wasted the best part of the last year in these debates. If he cannot do so—I very much hope that he will—I am afraid that I will have to bring in another Private Member’s Bill at the ballot.
I regret that the Government decided not to accept Lords Amendment 242. The Minister in the other place said in his speech yesterday that the technology of broadcasting and internet-based on-demand viewing are completely different. I am afraid that that is not right. The two technologies are merging as television sets become multipurpose computers. We are seeing convergence between television and the internet increasing at a massively rapid pace. It is crucial that the prominence regime should keep pace with changing viewing habits.
However, the response from the other place gives me some heart. At least there is to be an Ofcom review of the PSB prominence guidelines in the internet age. I urge the Minister to ensure that Ofcom starts that review as soon as possible and not allow it to put that off until 2020. Every month, we see PSB on demand and digital services become more important for broadcasters. I am sure that your Lordships would like viewers to have easy access to programmes that in the BBC’s case are funded by public money and in Channel Four’s case are publicly owned.
My Lords, I very much hope that the Minister will take the threat from my noble friend Lord Lester extremely seriously and will rise to the challenges that he put to the Minister on the questions of funding, independence and carrying out the activities of the BBC.
I agree in particular with the noble Lord, Lord Best, in his disappointment with the Minister’s Motion today. As the noble Lord mentioned, my noble friend Lady Bonham-Carter added her name to what we saw as a very important amendment in this House. That was the product of the report of the Communications Select Committee, Reith Not Revolution, which urged a much greater level of transparency and independent oversight in the setting of the licence fee. Of course, the Minister pushed back in Committee, on Report and at Third Reading by talking about the licence fee being a tax. However, it is a rather exceptional one: a hypothecated tax paid by the public to fund the BBC. So it is entirely correct that there should be a different mechanism for the setting of that licence fee. This arises because of the midnight raids—the hijacking—by the Treasury of the licence fee process on at least two occasions recently. One of the worrying phrases that the Minister used was that the Government want a free hand following negotiations with the BBC. That is exactly what the original amendment was designed to prevent.
The nub of the concern is about assurances. The Minister gave assurances and used new language on this. However, we have seen what assurances given by the Government are worth when it comes to snap elections. Assurances can be given by government one minute and broken the next. However carefully we scrutinise the Minister’s wording today, if his Government are in a position in future to negotiate the licence fee, we have no absolute assurance that those words will be followed. I share the deep disappointment that I am sure is felt all around the House.
In many ways, Motion E is even more disappointing. It was perfectly valid for the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, to express some support for the Ofcom review, but given that the Government could say that whether or not to have a BBC licence fee commission is a political decision, this is much more a question of the facts and perception. On at least two occasions we have had Secretaries of State for Culture, Media and Sport—Jeremy Hunt and Maria Miller—saying that the position of the public service broadcasters is very important and EPG position is a very important way of safeguarding it. The Minister has said that a review will be undertaken by Ofcom, but Ofcom already knows that there is a problem. It recommended in its 2015 PSB review that policymakers should reform the rules for on-demand. Why are we asking Ofcom to do the work all over again? That does not seem a particularly constructive way forward, despite appearances.
A number of questions arise from Motion E. Can the Minister confirm that statutory change will be necessary to bring on-demand PSB content and the connected EPGs, where they are found, into the scope of Ofcom’s EPG code? In conversations, the Minister has claimed that it is not possible to have a Henry VIII power that would implement Ofcom’s recommendations for on-demand, so I assume that there is no current statutory power and that therefore we would be talking about primary legislation in that respect, but it would be helpful to have that confirmation.
Will the Minister give us an assurance that the Government will act on those Ofcom recommendations? We would not have tabled amendments on EPGs unless we thought that this was a real and present issue that needed to be tackled. This was not a frivolous amendment, but the Government seem to have a completely different view. The earnest of their intentions on this provision is rather important. The amendment sets a 1 December 2020 statutory deadline for the review and the revision of the EPG code, but does the Minister not agree that actually it would be desirable to commence work rather earlier, given the need for statutory changes beforehand, probably, to bring on-demand content into scope?
Finally, it appears that there is a statutory power to ensure the prominence of PSB children’s channels on EPGs. Does the Minister agree with that? Does he agree that if Ofcom so recommends, that could be brought in at a much earlier date than the on-demand provision? I very much hope that the Minister can answer those questions.
My Lords, taken together, these two amendments were traps for the Government and, with predictable certainty, they have fallen into both of them.
The amendment that has just been spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, on the need for Ofcom to have powers to make sure there is a proper rule about prominence that applies not only to the linear but to the offline world of iPlayer and others, was a test of whether or not the Government believed in public sector broadcasting, and that if they believed in public sector broadcasting they needed to come forward with proposals that allowed the channels that were funded by the public or in a not-for-profit way to have access on a fair and equal basis to commercial channels. By tabling an amendment that is for just a report, without the requirement that there should be legislation in three primary legislative areas, which I think we agree needs to happen, I think they have failed this test.
However, we welcome where they have got to. I support the idea of a further review. I hope it will bring out the complexity of this issue—the changing technology and the difficulties of assessing this—in a way that will make it easier for the Government to honour their commitment given in the other place and repeated here today that if the report does make it clear that there is a problem in this area and it can be fixed only by legislation, the Government will bring that legislation forward as soon as possible. I give the commitment from this side of the House that, if elected, we will do the same.
My Lords, I am grateful for all noble Lords’ contributions. I will start with the noble Lord, Lord Best. I am grateful for the limited thanks he gave me. I give him unqualified thanks in return. We have talked about this for a long time, both in and out of the Chamber. The one thing I can say about the Government’s view on the BBC licence fee is that we have been entirely consistent.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, that in conversations over a period of time, both in and out of the Chamber, I have never given him any reason to expect that we would change our view on this. He said he was pathetically optimistic. I hope he remains optimistic in other things but we have been entirely consistent on this matter. As I explained at length, we do not believe that it is right for a tax to be consulted on.
I understand the issues and the strength of feeling in this House. That is why we have made some changes during the charter renewal process. We have outlined, as I said, that we have protected the funding for five years so that we will not have any so-called midnight raids. It is also protected from inflation, which it was not before. We have agreed that we will take in information and expert advice before the process goes ahead in five years’ time. I of course take the threat from the noble Lord, Lord Lester, about a Private Member’s Bill extremely seriously. I must assume that there is a possibility it will be forthcoming and I look forward to debating it with him. At the moment, I do not believe that our situation is likely to change but of course in 11 years’ time, it might. I do not think I will be involved in it at that time.
The noble Lord asked a number of questions about whether the Government will guarantee the independence of the BBC, agree not to top-slice the licence fee and adequately fund the BBC. The new charter endorses the role and independence of the BBC—and increases that independence—in a number of ways and this Government will of course live by the provisions of the royal charter, as far as the independence of the BBC is concerned. On funding, we have agreed to give it a five-year period and will ensure that it is properly funded for the future but a negotiation will take place at that time.
As for the point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, about timing, Ofcom will get going when it feels it necessary. What we have done is to put an end date on that in our amendment, so that it will have to produce its report in about two and a half years’ time. That is a great advantage.
Did I understand the Minister to have given an assurance to the House just now that the Government regard themselves as under a duty to respect the independence of the BBC, and to provide sufficient funding to pursue its purposes as an independent public service broadcaster? If the answer to those questions is yes, I am extremely grateful and if the answer is no then I say to the Minister: power is delightful and absolute power is absolutely delightful but that should not be his motto.
What I said was that we of course abide by what we have put in the royal charter, which mentions the independence of the BBC and enhances that independence from what came before. As far as funding is concerned, we have a five-year deal and the funding negotiation will go on but it is clearly not the Government’s desire to prevent the BBC carrying out its purposes. There will be a negotiation—this is a tax to provide for the BBC—and each five-year period will be taken on a separate basis.
The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, referred to the next funding period and the election cycle. An 11-year cycle was carefully chosen to remove funding from the electoral cycle, I think at the suggestion of this House among others, and it is of course unfortunate that it has been changed by the absence of the fixed term. But the Fixed-term Parliaments Act is not a guarantee for a five-year Parliament—the provisions were written into the Act to make sure that that was the case. The new five-year settlement will be reached before the next election while the funding settlement is based on an 18-month to 24-month negotiation so, assuming the Parliament goes to the full five-year term, it would be in place before the election.
Fundamentally, a long charter allows the BBC to operate with greater certainty and with the freedom and confidence to deliver its objectives. It is also worth remembering that in the course of the BBC’s 100-year history, the charter renewal process has coincided with the electoral cycle on a number of occasions. Yet the process has always managed to conclude successfully, to ensure that the BBC can continue to thrive.
Moving on to the EPG, there was a suggestion that we should take a broad Henry VIII power. I think that the noble Lords, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Stevenson, both mentioned this. It is an unusual situation where both Opposition Front Benches are asking—almost demanding—the Government to take a broad Henry VIII power. I would normally say that I probably agreed but in this case, the problem is that the power would have to be very broad and wide-ranging. Amendments could be necessary to the Communications Act 2003 and the Broadcasting Acts of 1990 and 1996. Depending on what Ofcom recommended, a wider amendment might be needed beyond traditional broadcasting legislation to other areas which we would not necessarily wish to capture, such as other online services. We think this is the best way forward.
The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, also asked about our belief in public sector broadcasting. We have accepted the arguments from your Lordships’ House on listed events, to maintain them on our free-to-air channels, and from the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, on children’s TV to ensure the adequacy of provision. These are evidence of our support for PSBs.
I know that noble Lords were disappointed about the BBC licence fee. As I said, we were entirely consistent on this. The commitment that we and the Minister in the other place have made on EPG should be some comfort to those who were disappointed with our answers on this. As a result, I hope that they will be able to accept this amendment.
That this House do not insist on its Amendment 242 and do agree with the Commons in their Amendment 242A in lieu.
Commons Amendment in lieu
That this House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment 246A.
Lords Amendment 246
My Lords, we recognise the good intentions behind the original amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, and have accepted it, but we need to make some technical amendments. That is the purpose of Amendment 246A. The Government’s amendment clarifies that the reference number provided should refer to the unique ticket put up for resale and enable the buyer to identify the location of the ticket within the venue.
Our amendment also removes the provision requiring ticket sellers to provide,
“any specific condition attached to the resale of the ticket”.
Many noble Lords have asked me about this, so I want to put on record why. The Government are firmly of the view that, when a secondary ticket seller offers a ticket for sale, they must already give the buyer clear information about certain conditions attached to the ticket concerning resale. This provision is in Section 90(3)(b) of the Consumer Rights Act 2015. Duplication can add only confusion, whereas we want secondary ticket sellers to be absolutely clear on this point. This amendment is of course in addition to the government amendment which made buying tickets in excess of the maximum amount, using an automated bot, illegal. I beg to move.
My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Ticket Abuse and paying tribute to my co-chair Sharon Hodgson in another place for the outstanding work she has done on this subject.
In brief, I welcome the Government’s amendment in lieu and the response by the Government to the Waterson review and their acceptance of the recommendations in full, including introducing a criminal offence to stop the use of bots to purchase tickets and the provision of funding to the National Trading Standards Board for enforcement action. Enforcement is weak, and I hope a future Government will work diligently to strengthen enforcement. I also look forward to the outcome of the Competition and Markets Authority’s enforcement investigation into suspected breaches of consumer protection law in the online secondary ticketing market. That is very important because the evidence of the secondary ticketing market consistently flouting the law on a daily basis is clear for all to see on many of the online sites.
I welcome the Minister’s comment that a ticket should have a unique reference number that people can see on the ticket when they purchase it. That will make it easier to identify the reseller. That has all-party support in this House and is an important step forward.
However, I would like further assurance from the Minister. He said that the original amendment I put forward was not necessary in whole because it included the addition of a requirement for the seller to list any terms and condition associated with the resale of a ticket. The Government have deleted that provision, contending that it is already covered under Section 90(3)(b) of the Consumer Rights Act. It is important to have absolute clarity on this issue. The Government have argued that Section 90(3)(b) of the Consumer Rights Act 2015, which requires online secondary ticketing websites to provide,
“information about any restriction which limits use of the ticket to persons of a particular description”,
effectively means that my amendment was unnecessary and duplicative. Many people understand that Section 90(3)(b) was designed to ensure transparency about any ticket which was for a child or a disabled person or had a restricted view or other similar restrictions and was not about resale terms and conditions, which were not subject to debate in this context when the Consumer Rights Bill was before Parliament.
It may assist the House if I briefly give an example to demonstrate this important point. Metallica has an upcoming UK tour which offers a very strong example of why the scope of the Consumer Rights Act to require secondary ticketing websites to be obligated beyond doubt to provide information about any specific conditions attached to the resale of a ticket is necessary. Metallica is obviously well-known to many Members of your Lordships’ House. There are strict conditions in place to mitigate ticket touting. Names are printed on tickets to prevent their resale, the photo ID of the lead booker must be presented to gain entry to the venue, accompanying guests must enter at the same time and tickets are limited to four per credit card. This is all made clear when you buy a ticket, and authorised primary ticket sellers have made that clear on their websites.
Do I understand absolutely categorically and without doubt that the Minister is saying that making those terms and conditions clear is mandatory on secondary ticketing market sites and is fully covered by the existing law? I think that is exactly what he said, but it would be very useful if he could confirm that, not least because it would be of assistance to the CMA in its inquiry and to trading standards because it would support and protect the interests of fans of Metallica and of “Hamilton”, which will face the same challenges when that show comes on this autumn. With that requirement for a final assurance from the Minister, I conclude by thanking noble Lords on all sides of the House for their support on this and thanking the Minister for the hard work he has undertaken to ensure that we have made progress.
My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, in welcoming the government amendment. I want to make only a very brief intervention to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, and Sharon Hodgson on their persistence in achieving what we have achieved so far, which is considerable. A great deal of progress has been made in restricting the activities of secondary ticketing sites. We all look forward to the Competition and Market Authority’s report, which may well suggest further changes to legislation and will certainly give us a very good idea of whether the provisions of the Consumer Rights Act are being properly enforced. That will be extremely illuminating. I hope the Minister will be able to answer the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, about whether it is really duplication or whether we have thrown something out with the Commons amendment.
Let me end by saying that in the Digital Economy Bill we have not, in the words of my noble friend, taken up the floorboards today, but we have certainly given it a decent lick of paint in the process. It is not a very ambitious Bill, and many of us could argue at length about what other aspects it should have covered, but I thank the Minister for his unfailing helpfulness throughout the course of the Bill and I thank the Bill team. I very much welcome not only the movement today, which is perceptible—that is not always the case with wash-up or ping-pong—but some of the movement that was made in the course of the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, talked about the outlawing of mass online purchasing with bots, which is a very significant change, as are the site blocking appeals, the new Ofcom powers in respect of children’s programmes, which are particularly welcome to my noble friend Lady Benjamin, remote e-book lending and the amendment on listed events. There has been movement in this House as a result of amendments in this House and the discussions we have had. I am grateful, and I look forward to a new digital economy Bill before too long.
My Lords, this marks another stage in the campaign led by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan. It was led until her death by Lady Heyhoe Flint whom we all want to recognise because she played a huge part in this and her memory is still fresh today. Wherever she is playing cricket, I am sure she is scoring a hundred as we speak.
The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and the Minister mentioned bots. We should not ignore the fact that that will make a huge change to the secondary ticketing market. The solution the Bill team came up with is very creative, and I hope it works as well as they intend it to. A first step has been taken, and this will crack down on the worst excesses of secondary ticketing.
I hope the Minister will answer directly the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, about whether the conditions apply because they are not drafted quite like that in the original legislation.
In its original formulation, Amendment 246 simply inserted the words,
“and any unique ticket number”.
The final version before us states,
“any unique ticket number that may help the buyer to identify the seat or standing area or its location”.
That raises the question of what “may” means. Does it in some sense imply a voluntary obligation? If it does, it would be very unfortunate. Could somebody argue that they did not include the unique ticket number specified because in their view it did not help the buyer identify a seat or a standing area or its location? Or is it a variation on the word “must” so that it is a requirement that a ticket number that could help a buyer identify seats or standing areas or their location must be included? I will be grateful if when the Minister responds he will mention that.
My Lords, I am very grateful to, especially, my noble friend Lord Moynihan and other noble Lords. We have to some extent overcome the great disappointment of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, on the previous group.
Noble Lords have been very clear in this debate that they want to see tougher action to deal with the serious problems in the secondary ticketing market, and the Government are taking action. That is why we have provided funding for National Trading Standards to take further enforcement action, as the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, mentioned. We have facilitated the ticketing industry’s participation in joint industry-government cybersecurity networks, and the CMA has launched an enforcement investigation into suspected breaches of consumer protection law in the online secondary ticketing market. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, and other noble Lords will continue to keep this issue under the spotlight, and we will make progress together on protecting consumers and supporting our national sporting and cultural assets.
The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, asked a specific question about that. As my right honourable friend the Minister in the other place made clear, the Government are firmly of the view that, under the Consumer Rights Act, when a secondary ticket seller offers a ticket for sale they must give the buyer clear information about certain conditions attached to the ticket. We said the proposal was duplicative because that is what our advice told us. I would say in particular to my noble friend Lord Moynihan that the Explanatory Notes to the Consumer Rights Act 2015, referring to Section 90(3)(b), make clear that,
“the buyer must be given information about any restrictions that apply to the ticket”.
In respect of the following wording in the amendment,
“any unique ticket number that may help the buyer to identify the seat or standing area or its location”,
the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, asked whether the “may” makes this voluntary. The answer is no, it is mandatory. This is technical language to link this to the previous subsection in Section 90 of the Consumer Rights Act. We have merely used the same language that was in there before. I hope that answers the question.
I reiterate what the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said about some of the advantages and gains that the Bill has had from your Lordships’ House and indeed from the opposition amendments and suggestions in the other place as well. I say this to acknowledge their input into it but also to show that we have been flexible in many things. We have made progress in areas suggested by the Opposition in both Houses: on the extension of public lending rights to e-books; on children’s television, as the noble Lord mentioned and as was proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin; on the accessibility of on-demand services, including subtitles; on maintaining the capability to retain listed events, which was first tabled in the Commons; on bill limits for mobile phones, as we talked about earlier; on the code of practice for social media; on supporting the separation of BT from Openreach with the Crown guarantee amendment; on internet filters, which protect children; and on the review of the electronic programme guide, although not quite to the extent that some noble Lords wanted.
The Opposition have also supported things that will allow great advances in the digital economy, such as: the Electronic Communications Code, which is very technical but a crucial change; age verification for online pornography, where we listened and adjusted the regime to address the concerns of the Opposition; the extension of age verification for pornography on on-demand television, so that 18-certificate material is kept away from children; government data sharing, which will enable us to deliver better services to the vulnerable; and the repeal of Section 73 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, which I think was accepted all round the House as a very good thing.
I mentioned my thanks to many noble Lords at Third Reading, and I repeat those, especially to the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson and Lord Clement-Jones, who headed their various and quite large teams in the House. I am very grateful to all those noble Lords.
Commons Reason and Amendments
1A: Page 1, line 12, at end insert “, but may not do so unless—
(a) it specifies the minimum download speed that must be provided by those connections and services, and
(b) the speed so specified is at least 10 megabits per second.”
1B: Page 2, line 3, after “as or” insert “, except in the case of the minimum download speed,”
1C: Page 2, line 23, at end insert—
“72B Broadband download speeds: duty to give direction under section 72A
(1) The Secretary of State must give OFCOM a direction under section 72A if—
(a) the universal service order specifies a minimum download speed for broadband connections and services and the speed so specified is less than 30 megabits per second, and
(b) it appears to the Secretary of State, on the basis of information published by OFCOM, that broadband connections or services that provide a minimum download speed of at least 30 megabits per second are subscribed to for use in at least 75% of premises in the United Kingdom.
(2) The direction—
(a) must require OFCOM to review and report to the Secretary of State on whether it would be appropriate for the universal service order to specify a higher minimum download speed, and
(b) may also require OFCOM to review and report to the Secretary of State on any other matter falling within section 72A(1).”
Motion A agreed.
2A: Page 88, line 10, at end insert the following new Clause—
“Billing limits for mobile phones
Billing limits for mobile phones
In Chapter 1 of Part 2 of the Communications Act 2003 (electronic communications networks and services) after section 124R insert—
“Billing limits for mobile phones
124S Mobile phone providers’ duty to enable billing limits to be applied
(1) The provider of a mobile phone service must not enter into a contract to provide the service unless the customer has been given an opportunity to specify a billing limit in the contract.
(2) In relation to a contract to provide a mobile phone service—
(a) a billing limit is a limit on the amount the customer may be charged for provision of the service in respect of each billing period, and
(b) a billing period is one of successive periods specified in the contract and together making up the period for which the contract remains in force.
(3) A contract to provide a mobile phone service must provide for the customer on reasonable notice at any time—
(a) to specify a billing limit if none is specified for the time being,
(b) to amend or remove a limit in respect of all billing periods or a specified billing period.
(4) In any billing period the provider must—
(a) so far as practicable, notify the customer in reasonable time if a limit is likely to be reached before the end of the period, and
(b) notify the customer as soon as practicable if a limit is reached before the end of the period.
(5) A limit may be exceeded in relation to a billing period only if the customer agrees after a notification under subsection (4)(a) or (b).
(6) If the provider continues to provide the service after a limit is reached, the customer’s use of the service does not constitute agreement to the limit being exceeded.
(7) The provider must give the customer confirmation in writing of—
(a) the decision made by the customer in accordance with subsection (1),
(b) any decision of the customer under provision made in accordance with subsection (3), and
(c) any agreement by the customer in accordance with subsection (5).
(8) This section applies to agreeing to extend a contract as it applies to entering into a contract, and in that case the reference in subsection (2)(b) to the period for which the contract remains in force is a reference to the period of the extension.
(9) Nothing in this section affects a provider’s duty to comply with requirements to enable calls to emergency services.
(10) In this section—
“customer” does not include a person who is a customer as a communications provider;
“mobile phone service” means an electronic communications service which is provided in the course of a business wholly or mainly so as to be available to members of the public for the purpose of communicating with others, or accessing data, by mobile phone.
124T Enforcement of duty to enable billing limits to be applied
(1) Sections 96A to 96C apply in relation to a contravention of a requirement under section 124S as they apply in relation to a contravention of a condition set under section 45, with the following modifications.
(2) Section 96A(2)(f) and (g) (OFCOM directions) do not apply.
(3) Section 96A(5) to (7) (action under the Competition Act 1998) do not apply.
(4) The amount of a penalty imposed under sections 96A to 96C, as applied by this section, other than a penalty falling within section 96B(4), is to be such amount not exceeding £2 million as OFCOM determine to be—
(a) appropriate; and
(b) proportionate to the contravention in respect of which it is imposed.””
Motion B agreed.
40A: Page 88, line 10, at end insert the following new Clause—
“Code of practice for providers of online social media platforms
Code of practice for providers of online social media platforms
(1) The Secretary of State must issue a code of practice giving guidance to persons who provide online social media platforms for use by persons in the United Kingdom (“social media providers”).
(2) The guidance to be given is guidance about action it may be appropriate for providers to take against the use of the platforms they provide for conduct to which subsection (3) applies.
(3) This subsection applies to conduct which—
(a) is engaged in by a person online,
(b) is directed at an individual, and
(c) involves bullying or insulting the individual, or other behaviour likely to intimidate or humiliate the individual.
(4) But guidance under this section is not to affect how unlawful conduct is dealt with.
(5) A code of practice under this section must (subject to subsection (4)) include guidance to social media providers about the following action—
(a) maintaining arrangements to enable individuals to notify providers of the use of their platforms for conduct to which subsection (3) applies;
(b) maintaining processes for dealing with notifications;
(c) including provision on matters within paragraphs (a) and (b) in terms and conditions for using platforms;
(d) giving information to the public about action providers take against the use of their platforms for conduct to which subsection (3) applies.
(6) Before issuing a code of practice under this section, the Secretary of State must consult—
(a) those social media providers to whom the code is intended to give guidance, and
(b) such other persons as the Secretary of State considers it appropriate to consult.
(7) The Secretary of State must publish any code of practice issued under this section.
(8) A code of practice issued under this section may be revised from time to time by the Secretary of State, and references in this section to a code of practice include such a revised code.”
40B: Page 90, line 12, at end insert—
“( ) section (code of practice for providers of online social media platforms);”
Motion C agreed.
237A: Because the processes in place for determining the appropriate funding for the BBC are sufficient.
On the decision over the licence fee hangs the future of the BBC. It is vital to ensure that that decision is based on both an understanding of what the public want and hard evidence of what expenditure the BBC needs to fulfil its public purposes. I conclude this expression of disappointment with rather limited thanks to the Minister for acknowledging that this is a technical and complicated matter, one on which the Government will consider taking advice. They would be well advised to do so. We have five years until the licence fee is reset. During that time, it may be worth your Lordships returning to this matter.
On the BBC licence fee, the issue, again, is one of trust. The operations of a royal charter have been gradually devalued over the years. There is a real danger that institutions that seek protection in royal charters from what might be overweening behaviour by a Government of the day will not be able to rely on that as we go forward. The smoke-and-mirrors effect that was always there with royal charters has now gone. Therefore, there is a real problem about the BBC, and the Government—any Government—will be convincing only to the extent to which they can show by their actions that they genuinely believe in the independence of the organisations for which royal charter protection was so important. We have already seen attacks in higher education, where it is no longer possible for those who have guardianship of the funds that we put into research to have royal charters; they are being removed. There is a threat to universities, which will no longer be able to have or to change their existing royal charters. We have to be careful about where we are going on this. The Government have not been very successful in convincing us how they will do both the charter and the fee renewal for the BBC.
I had some hope during discussions on the charter renewal this time round, with the care and consideration the Government gave to the question of how the renewal of the BBC’s charter and the settlement of the licence fee would be protected from the electoral cycle, that we would get somewhere with this and that we could continue to trust them. But they have just changed the electoral cycle. We have an election in 2017, which means that the next election will be in 2022, the year the BBC’s licence fee is settled. The election after that will be in 2027, the year the charter renewal will take place. Do your Lordships really believe that we have the best system of protection in place if we do not seek more information on transparency about how the Government deal with such an important institution as the BBC?
The noble Lord, Lord Lester, is right that the time has come to think again about how we might want to protect in statute the organisations for which we have a great care. The first step on that might have protected us against the need to move in the direction of a BBC licence fee commission, which after all is not a new idea; it operated in 2005-06. It was successful, so successful in fact that it annoyed the Government of the day because it recommended too high a licence fee, but it did exactly what we wanted: it offered advice on a detailed examination of the case for what the BBC needed to fulfil its charter obligations. That is exactly what we were trying to do with that amendment, and I supported the one that came out of the Communications Committee. It was right at the time it was proposed. It was supported here—in the absence of the trump card, which is the change in the electoral cycle. If we do not get a commitment from the Government today that the whole question of timing will need to be looked at again, we are in a very bad place.
Motion D agreed.
242A: Page 83, line 38, at end insert the following new Clause—
“Electronic programme guides and public service channels
(1) After section 311 of the Communications Act 2003 insert—
“311A Report on electronic programme guides and public service channels
(1) It is the duty of OFCOM from time to time to prepare and publish a report dealing with—
(a) the provision by electronic programme guides of information about programmes—
(i) included in public service channels, or
(ii) provided by means of on-demand programme services by persons who also provide public service channels, and
(b) the facilities provided by such guides for the selection of, and access to, such programmes.
(2) When preparing the report OFCOM must consult such persons as appear to them appropriate.
(3) In this section “electronic programme guide” and “public service channel” have the same meanings as in section 310.”
(2) After publishing the first report under section 311A of the Communications Act 2003 OFCOM must review and revise the code drawn up by them under section 310 of that Act (code of practice for electronic programme guides).
(3) The revision of the code must be completed before 1 December 2020.
(4) Subsections (2) and (3) do not affect OFCOM’s duty under section 310 of that Act to review and revise the code from time to time.
(5) In this section “OFCOM” means the Office of Communications.””
Motion E agreed.
246: After Clause 84, insert the following new Clause—
“Duty to provide information about tickets
Duty to provide information about tickets
In section 90 of the Consumer Rights Act 2015 (duty to provide information about tickets), after subsection (4)(d) insert—
“(e) the ticket reference or booking number;
(f) any specific condition attached to the resale of the ticket.””
Commons Amendment to the Lords Amendment
246A: Line 5, leave out from “tickets),” to end of line 7 and insert “in subsection (4) omit “and” at the end of paragraph (c), and at the end of paragraph (d) insert “, and
(e) any unique ticket number that may help the buyer to identify the seat or standing area or its location.””
Motion F agreed.