John Redwood’s contribution to the Digital Economy Bill

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): It is a disgrace that the House is not treated with courtesy by the Government. It is quite wrong that a Bill of such importance and magnitude was not tabled earlier. It is quite wrong that there is an attempt to rush through all parts of the Bill without proper scrutiny and debate.

Not so long ago there was general agreement on both sides of the House that the House had not done a serious enough job of scrutinising legislation and providing the kind of commentary and critique of draft legislation that it should. The House was right to understand that there is a concern out in the country that this Parliament, of all Parliaments that I have had anything to do with, has let down the public by not getting sufficiently involved, and not finding a way of making the Government give it enough time to do the job properly.

We have heard from Members on both sides of the House why we need time to discuss the Bill. There may be quite a lot of agreement about some of the important things in the Bill. I am sure that no one in the House begrudges a great artist or creator of music or words fair return for their labour, but many complicated issues are involved in determining how we secure that return without impeding too much on everyone else’s freedoms. It is difficult to do it in the rather clumsy way that the Government have come up with so far in the relevant early clauses of the Bill.

We need scrutiny not just of the things that cause disagreement across the Chamber-there are several of those, as we heard from Front-Bench speakers on both sides of the House at the opening of the debate. We also need scrutiny of the things that the Chamber largely agrees about, because it is in those areas that it is more likely that mistakes will be made-that the language will be wrong and that the Bill will not carry into effect what the House wishes, because the Bill will have got through without the challenge that we need.

It was for good reason that our predecessors in this place said that there should be a Second Reading of Bills to discuss the principles-“Is it a good idea to have a Bill on this at all?” “Broadly, how do we go about doing it?”-then a little pause to reflect on the Bill, and then a Committee stage, on the Floor of the House for important Bills or upstairs for others. Members of the House most interested in the legislation could go through the Bill line by line, mainly asking the question, “Will this particular phrase, clause or line help us achieve the aim of the Government?”-or the common aim where there is general agreement.
This Government have had 13 years to introduce important legislation on the digital revolution. I cannot believe that any previous Government dared to hold a Second Reading of an extremely important Bill after they had announced the intent to dissolve the House as quickly as possible. It beggars belief that this Government could insult the Commons, and the public we represent, in that way so shortly after it was a matter of common agreement that we needed to do a better job of scrutinising, debating and discussing legislation for the sake of enacting legislation that works.

The legislation has 11 principal areas and themes. The debate in this shortened time available for Second Reading may discuss only three or four of them in detail; most will go unremarked, or will be mentioned en passant by speakers mainly interested in something else, because there is not even proper time for a full Second Reading debate, because there were questions, statements and so on before we got to Second Reading and we are all under time pressures to limit our speeches as a result. Naturally, Members are concentrating on the things that are most difficult or that matter most to them, so those of us concerned enough to be in the Chamber will only be able to discuss some elements. It is quite understandable that, now that an election has been called, some Members feel they have duties elsewhere. If they feel that they are not immediately required for a vote, they may be tidying up their affairs or communicating with their constituents. This is not a good time to be discussing something so technical, difficult and important.

One of the big issues that we have heard about so far relates to the powers that the Secretary of State should take under the legislation and the powers that should be delegated to Ofcom to tackle copyright infringement. The House will know that I am the author of johnredwood.com. Members may know that I do not seek to charge anyone for using that wonderful resource about modern British politics, and they may also know that I have received several offers from people wishing to advertise on my site for a reasonable fee and I have always turned them down because I do not want it to be a commercial site.
Like me, many people see the web as a wonderful means for creating a community of people interested in a subject that matters to them. It can create argument, discussion and debate, and provoke ideas, viewpoints and discussion, which is entirely helpful to the democratic process or whatever interest has led people to set up a site. As has been said, even under this rather crude legislation, there is nothing to stop people such as me continuing to offer a free service without worrying about infringement of copyright. I should be happy for anyone to reproduce anything I have written on the site as long as they do not libel me or lampoon it too much. It is perfectly good for people to use the site; it shows that the site is of interest and of use.

However, there are people who are trying to make a living from their creative work and they naturally want a sensible legal framework that enables them to protect their legitimate intellectual property and to continue to make a living. We know that the internet has brought great good. It has involved many more people in many more activities. It informs people much better and enables them to research much more quickly and easily topics of interest to them. It allows communities to communicate one with another and allows events to be publicised. It brings all sorts of goods to local society. I hope Members share the perception that there is much good in the internet and would not want the legislation to damage in any way the good that the internet can do.

Let us think about the comparison with protecting the copyright of an author who chooses to publish their written words not on the web but in the form of a newspaper or magazine article, or a book. In the past, many of us in the House have written articles or books for which we may have been paid small sums. We have some protection in the copyright under existing copyright laws. The House should remember, however, that there is no comprehensive protection in copyright law for the written word published in those ways. If I publish an article or a book, I am sure that people may lend the book or article to others for free, and I have no right to say, “You must not do this. I demand a royalty every time that book or article is lent to somebody.” We do not go that far. We feel that it is part of a free society to allow people to lend books or articles to their friends, family, neighbours or whoever.

It is also probably the case that, quite often in the furtherance of education, the better articles-one hopes-and the better chapters or sections of books are reproduced on copying machines and used as teaching materials that are provided to pupils and students in schools and universities. I am sure that very often the school or university does not bother to contact the author to seek permission and does not bother to ask the author whether they would like a token payment to allow them to reproduce such material. It would be a pretty odd author who got really hot under the collar about that and started to sue the schools, although they could, because they would understand that such activities are quite helpful to them in building their reputation and name in some ways-again, assuming that their work is not lampooned or completely shredded-and one has to live in a free society and we want people to be educated. We should approach any suggestion that we need tighter regulation of the internet with that in mind. We are not looking for something completely comprehensive. We need to live and let live.
Quite a large number of people outside the House are worried about our rushing through, for example, clauses 10 to 18 tonight-if that is a serious proposition between the two Front-Bench teams-because although if many of those people were challenged they would probably say, “Yes, of course, someone who has sung or written a great song should get some money for its reproduction,” they are very worried that we will criminalise people who are doing very minor things that are quite normal to do with, for example, copies of magazines and newspapers, that we will get the wrong people, or that the person who has a series of internet facilities in an organisation will be picked on when they cannot control the use of such material or cannot even establish who used it or whether it was a persistent offence.

A lot of this could be sorted out if we had time to go into the detail and if we had time to examine the language that the Government propose, to discover whether they have got the balance right. All hon. Members would agree, from whichever direction they approach this argument, that we need a balance. No one says that there should be no copyright at all for anything. No one would take the opposite extreme and say that, every time that anyone says, does, sings or whatever anything, that creates an important copyright that they should be able to defend against everyone. That would be ludicrous, and it would greatly extend our traditional copyright law on newspapers and books. We need a workable compromise.
I will not have time to consider these clauses in any detail, I am afraid, because my time will be artificially restricted by the guillotine and the proposals for today, although they are wide-ranging enabling clauses. If people are worried, such clauses lead to greater suspicion. We are invited to believe that, under the orders that will implement these wide-ranging clauses, provisions will be made that will produce such a judicious balance. We are being asked to buy a pig in a poke, or to sign a rushed cheque against an invoice that we have not been sent. That is not good practice. We need more from Ministers to persuade us that they have thought through these complicated issues about balance and that they have in mind practical orders that would not make unreasonable intrusions into the freedom of those who provide such web and internet services and would not restrict the rather minor examples of freesharing that are common in a free society and that one needs to be able to enjoy.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that any draft orders under the Bill, if it goes forward, should be amendable? My hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) intends to make that proposal, and we hope that the Secretary of State will take it on board.

Mr. Redwood: That would be most unusual. I have served on a good many order-making Committees in my time, and one of the most unsatisfactory things is that it is a take-it-or-leave-it process and the Government always say to vote to take it. So we can argue an extremely fine case and say that sentence 3 should be rephrased in the Government’s interest, and they will still do absolutely nothing about it because the junior Minister does not have the power or the interest and intends to ram the order through in its current form. That naturally leads to suspicion, most obviously among hon. Members, but also outside the House. If we leave all the big judgment calls on the censorship of the web-this is really about censorship-to a set of orders that we cannot see and do not know about, it is asking too much, this close to a general election. This is extremely sloppy work, which we all find very worrying.

I am glad that my hon. Friends who sit on the Front Bench find some things in the Bill with which they profoundly disagree. I am tempted to say that the Government should take the whole thing back and do their homework properly, and it would be for the new Government to sort all this out when they are chosen by the British people on 6 May, but I understand that the mood of the House is to try to reach some kind of accommodation. I urge my hon. Friends to be extremely firm, because we have absolutely no need to take half-baked and ill thought-out legislation from the Government this late in the day, when it is their fault that we are in this position, as they had five years and a thumping great majority to put any sensible proposals through the House that could have come to the relief of the creative industries. They chose not to do that, and they are now attempting to bounce us at 5 minutes after midnight, when it is already well known that the House is closing down with the current management and all will be put out to the electorate to decide who should run it in the future.

My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt), who initiated the debate for the Opposition, very wisely said that the Government are showing their true socialist colours and that all they ever believe in is more taxes, and there is more tax in this legislation, more regulation, and there is tons more regulation for Ofcom of a kind to be specified later in orders, and more subsidy, when all else fails or when they are trying to do something that the market and the general public are not sufficiently interested in for it to be a commercial proposition. The Bill has all three elements. That is surely another reason why my hon. Friends who sit on the Front Bench should be extremely sceptical about allowing great chunks of the legislation through, when there is concern outside and a lack of precision in the legislation, when these unwelcome features will intrude into an area of business and social life that is a great success in this country under the current regime, which is perhaps a little chaotic, and when we should be proud of so much achievement in the world of the web and in the creative industries that we see outside.

Unfortunately, my time is up. I wanted to speak about half a dozen other important elements of the Bill, but I am not allowed to do so, only because the Government, once again, so hate the House of Commons that they will not give us time to consider these measures properly.

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5 Comments

  1. Andrew Robinson
    Posted April 7, 2010 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    I suppose it's rather unusual for the leader of another party to post favourable comments on a blog like this, but I feel I need to commend John Redwood on the record for the very sensible remarks above. As leader of the Pirate Party UK, I have always said that what we need is not copyright abolition, but a balanced compromise that takes into account the fact that copyright law is moving out of it's traditional area of governing business to business relationships, and into restricting things that the general public do on the internet as a matter of course. As I commented on twitter at the time, when Austin Mitchell and John Redwood agree on something, it's time for the front benches to pay attention!

    • Crosbie Fitch
      Posted April 7, 2010 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

      And this is why copyright abolitionists are not members of the Pirate Party, given it perversely still supports the iniquitous 18th century privilege any pirate worthy of the name would infringe without compunction.

  2. Alan Wheatley
    Posted April 7, 2010 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    John, I think your contribution to the debate was excellent in what was obviously difficult circumstances.

    I agree whole heartedly with your dissatisfaction about the way the government treated parliament. Enabling clauses are so open to abuse I think there is a good case for them being prohibited. I can well believe GB loves them: not only do they avoid the need clear thinking before legislating but they give the serial fiddler a field day.

    What a shame that these issues are not brought to the attention of the public by the media, at least not by that section of the media I consult.

  3. Antisthenes
    Posted April 8, 2010 at 1:14 am | Permalink

    I am not sure if you can castigate the government for rushing through bills last minutes if this is normal practice, you can if it is not, I have no knowledge of theses things. However what I have observed is a great deal of present government legislation is put on the statute book without proper consideration due I believe to many of the prerogatives of parliament being stolen away from it by government.

    As for the bill it is manifestly honest in what it sets out to achieve but it will not achieve it's purpose and it will condemn mostly innocent people to be prosecuted. Internet users are a very technically savvy lot and avoidance of detection is fairly simple and using innocent third parties will be prevalent.

    The internet is phenomena that is changing every day life from shopping to politics and anyone who tries to fight it will lose, to win embrace it and adapt to it.

    The performing arts would do well to recognise that fact and adapt in a way that they can take advantage of the internet rather than opposing it.

  4. Mark Goodge
    Posted April 11, 2010 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    John,

    I watched the debate itself on TV and was impressed with your contribution. I agree with much of what you have said here, and I particularly appreciate your comments about the absurdity of taking copyright protection to the extremes which would prevent normal human interaction by means of sharing – which, unfortunately, is precisely what the authors of the Bill seem determined to achieve. I am not an abolitionist as far as copyright itself is concerned – it has a long and effective history of protecting the rights of authors and creators, and Britain can be justly proud that we gave the world the first modern copyright legislation – but over time it has become more and more a device to benefit vested interests rather than promoting creativity and protecting creators, and is now overdue for significant reform. The law needs to recognise that sharing is not stealing.

    I only wish you had found the time to actually vote against the Bill's progress, rather than abstaining. Given your obvious opposition to it in the debate, even an abstention gives the impression that you, too have been bought off or had your arm twisted to stay away. I sincerely hope that is not the case, and that your reasons for not voting were much less malign.

    Reply: Of course I did not change my view – if I had changed my view I would have felt it necessary to say so and explain why to the Commons. I remained against it, and had voted twice against the government's steamroller to get it through. There are limits to how many times you bash your head against a brick wall.

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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