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Brexit: Digital Single Market

Volume 791: debated on Tuesday 8 May 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the United Kingdom’s ability to take advantage of the Digital Single Market and of country of origin principles for e-commerce once the United Kingdom leaves the European Union.

My Lords, I am delighted to see that, by including the phrase,

“once the United Kingdom leaves the European Union”,

in his carefully prepared Question, the noble Lord has confirmed from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench that we will be leaving the EU. The UK will not be part of the digital single market once we leave the EU. We are undertaking a comprehensive programme of analytical work looking at the implications of the UK’s exit from the EU. We are seeking input from a wide range of businesses, civil society groups and consumer bodies to inform our future trading agreement negotiations with the EU. This includes e-commerce.

My Lords, recent CEBR estimates put the value of our digital exports in the creative industries alone at £21 billion, yet as the Minister has confirmed and the Prime Minister stated at the Mansion House on 2 March—indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, repeated it last week—

“the UK will not be part of the EU’s Digital Single Market”.

The Prime Minister went on to say:

“This is a fast evolving, innovative sector, in which the UK is a world leader. So it will be particularly important to have domestic flexibility, to ensure the regulatory environment can always respond nimbly and ambitiously to new developments”.

How on earth will that protect those digital exports? Or is this just another example of the Government whistling in the dark?

My Lords, I completely agree with the noble Lord that the creative industries and digital are a very important part of our economy. We are the leaders in Europe—7.9% of our GDP is digital, with the next biggest, I think, being France, at 3.9%. We acknowledge that this has to be part of the wider negotiations on the single market. We are undertaking a great deal of analysis to make sure that we understand the implications of those negotiations.

My Lords, analysis, study, the eventual bringing to our attention of possible ways forward—is the Minister able to help us in a shorter term than that, given that nearly two years have passed since all this began? I know that he will use the word “shortly” or “soon”, but can he give us an idea of when we will have a fix on this? The greatest part of our trade is led by our activities in this sphere. All the talk is about trade, yet this issue has the potential to damage a significant part of our trading arrangements. Has not enough advice been given by the House of Commons DCMS Committee in its recent report? Urgency is what we seem to be lacking.

I have to disagree with the noble Lord: urgency is not lacking, and considerable work is going on. Clearly, when we are about to undertake some of the most important negotiations that we have had for decades, we would not want to outline exactly what our negotiating position was before we did it. We absolutely take on board what the noble Lord and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, have said and understand the importance of the digital area. That will take place within the broader single market negotiations.

My Lords, the digital industry is very important to the British economy. What options are the Government considering to deal with this problem? Can they spell them out?

My Lords, to go from the macro to the micro, if we leave the EU, might we not be susceptible, as individuals, to roaming charges when we go to Europe? Is not the addition of, say, up to several hundred pounds on the phone bill of everyone who visits Europe something that might lead us to put on the line some compromise of our position regarding our new independence?

The noble Lord is right that roaming charges are one of the main areas that we have to look at as part of the negotiations that particularly affect DCMS. That is absolutely on our radar and we understand the implications both ways. We understand that it is a fairly recent innovation not to have roaming charges within the EU: we completely understand that and it will form part of the negotiations.

My Lords, I agree about the importance of the creative industries and I am sure they will continue to be creative as we go forward beyond Brexit, but I want to ask my noble friend a question about portability. This is the ability to take your television programmes abroad digitally when, for example, you go on holiday in the Mediterranean, so that you are able to watch “Coronation Street”, “EastEnders” or whatever is your particular delight. Can my noble friend give me an update on whether that will still be possible?

I am not absolutely clear whether that will still be possible. I do not think it is the highest on our list of priorities. However, I will certainly take it back to my department and get my noble friend a clear and concise answer.

My Lords, by chance I called on a UK tech association last week and the message I received was that the industry is in the doldrums—that is my word. I think the inference was that it is depressed—that since whenever this exercise started, there has been a depression in the industry generally. Does the Minister wish to say how we can reinject a sense of optimism into the sector, to give the heads of these trade associations the view that we are, indeed, heading in the right direction?

I can absolutely dispel the noble Viscount’s gloom: the tech industry is not in the doldrums; in fact, quite the reverse. The creative industries, including tech industries, are growing at twice the rate of the economy. I hope the noble Viscount is reassured by that.

My Lords, digital is an important part of the Government’s industrial strategy. So when will they initiate their industrial strategy council, whose job it is to chivvy the Government and get them to take action on this sort of thing?

I am not quite sure which council the noble Lord is talking about, but as part of the industrial strategy, as he knows, we are launching sector deals, and I am pleased to say that the artificial intelligence sector deal was launched a week or two ago to great acclaim.