• 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.

    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. It was attempted to be introduced 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 the 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.


09 June 2016

Gavin Newlands (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (SNP)

f he will take steps to ensure that football supporters from all nations of the UK have non-paying access to watch their national team play on TV. [905302]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr John Whittingdale)

The Ofcom code on listed events ensures that key sporting events are made available for free-to-air channels. Our sport strategy, published last year, made it clear that the Government do not propose to review that list.

Gavin Newlands

Like every other football fan on these islands, Scottish fans are looking forward to Euro 2016. We have our wallcharts at the ready and will be watching keenly. During qualification, however, we were unable to watch significant matches, including those against the world champions, Germany, on free-to-air channels. This month, we will be able to watch matches such as Romania versus Albania and Iceland versus Austria. How can those fixtures be regarded as of national interest when those of our national teams are not?

Scottish football fans will have the choice of the three home nations that have qualified in the championships to support, and I am sorry that on this occasion Scotland did not make it through. However, the question of which matches are shown by which broadcaster is essentially one for the sporting authorities. The limited list applies only to a very restricted number of sporting events, but beyond that it is for each sporting body to decide how best to strike the balance between maximising revenue for their sport and reaching as large an audience as possible.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab)

I am sure that the whole House will want to wish the teams of England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland all the best in the European championships. Football shows us that we have more in common with our European neighbours than divides us, as I am sure the Secretary of State will agree. That was demonstrated by the singing of the Marseillaise at Wembley in defiant response to the attacks in Paris. In that spirit, will he join me in urging fans to enjoy the tournament peacefully, whether they are travelling to France or watching in the company of their friends at home or in public places, and to assist the police and security services in trying to ensure that we have a safe and secure tournament?

Mr Whittingdale

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman and I am grateful to him for putting the case as he has done and giving me the opportunity to endorse everything that he says. We look forward to the matches in the championships to come and we wish all the home nations success. I have a second interest in that I drew England in the departmental sweepstake and will be supporting England in their match against Russia, which, sadly, was drawn by the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), so she will have torn loyalties. We hope nevertheless that that match and every other match pass peaceably and to the maximum enjoyment of those participating and watching.


The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr John Whittingdale)

I thank the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) for giving the House the opportunity to debate the White Paper on the future of the BBC, even if I am less than happy with the terms of her motion. The motion talks about the “threat” to the

“editorial and financial independence of the BBC”—

two principles that will be explicitly strengthened, rather than weakened, under the proposals in the White Paper. However, that is typical of the entire debate around the charter renewal process, which has been characterised by the Government’s critics tilting at windmills, perhaps in tribute to Cervantes, the 400th anniversary of whose death we are commemorating, alongside that of Shakespeare.

Read more ...

10. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Whether he plans to meet FIFA representatives to discuss arrangements for the World cup; and if he will make a statement. [900104]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr John Whittingdale): I have no plans to meet FIFA officials at this stage. However, I did meet the chairman and the chief executive of the English Football Association yesterday, and I intend to keep in close touch with them on this matter and, indeed, on other matters relating to football in this country.

Michael Fabricant: My right hon. Friend might like first to thank the Americans for finally exposing the corruption in FIFA that we have all suspected has been endemic for the past 10 or 20 years. Will he speak to his colleague the Foreign Secretary to see whether there can be a re-analysis with Qatar as to whether the World cup should be held there? Precisely what should our relationship with FIFA be, because Blatter’s departure is not necessarily going to mean that corruption has ended?

Mr Whittingdale: I agree with my hon. Friend. In order to achieve the reforms that all of us believe are vitally necessary in FIFA, the first requirement was a change in leadership. We have now obtained that, but that is the beginning of the process and certainly not the end of it. It is for the football associations of the home nations to work with other football associations that are equally determined to see change, in order to ensure that the new leadership is properly committed to achieving those changes.

In response to my hon. Friend’s second question, on Qatar, that is a separate matter. The Swiss authorities are continuing to investigate the bidding process that resulted in the decision to give the 2018 games to Russia and the 2022 games to Qatar, and we await the outcome of those investigations.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): I welcome the Secretary of State and the sports Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), to their new posts.The investigation into FIFA will go on, but the fight for its heart and soul will start now that Sepp Blatter has announced he is standing down. I wonder about these people at the top of FIFA and whether they have ever actually been to a football match for which they bought their own tickets, whether they have followed a football team week in, week out, or whether they have pulled on a football shirt and played in a match. We really need to get rid of these people at the top of the game.

Is the Secretary of State satisfied that Government agencies that are investigating the possibilities of corruption involving UK financial institutions have all the resources they need and that they are doing all they can to root out any criminal activity that may have taken place? Will he say exactly what he can do to ensure that we root out corruption in FIFA?

Mr Whittingdale: In the first instance, that is obviously a matter for the Serious Fraud Office and other investigatory bodies in this country, but I have spoken to the Attorney General about it. We will of course ensure that all the resources necessary to carry out a thorough investigation are available to those bodies and we will work closely with the Swiss and American authorities, which are leading on this matter.

On the reforms necessary in FIFA, we are absolutely committed to working through the FA and other football associations to ensure that the new leadership of FIFA is utterly committed to carrying out the sweeping reforms that are so obviously necessary.

2. Alex Chalk (Cheltenham) (Con): What steps his Department is taking to improve broadband coverage in Gloucestershire. [900096]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr John Whittingdale): The Government have committed nearly £27 million to the roll-out of superfast broadband in Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. This should take superfast broadband coverage to an additional 130,000 homes and businesses across the two counties, providing almost 93% coverage by the end of 2017. Small and medium-sized enterprises in Gloucester and Cheltenham are now eligible for a grant of up to £3,000 to improve their broadband connectivity under the broadband connection voucher scheme.

Alex Chalk: I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. None the less, a significant number of homes and businesses in Cheltenham fall between two stools, being, apparently, not sufficiently rural for Fastershire to see fit to step in but too rural for commercial providers to consider it viable to extend broadband provision. Will he meet me to discuss how we can help those stuck in limbo and cut this Gordian knot?

Mr Whittingdale: First, I congratulate my hon. Friend on his election to this House and commend him on his efforts on behalf of his constituents in order that they should obtain superfast broadband. He will be aware that 96% of Cheltenham will already have access to it by the end of 2017, which is above the national target, and many small and medium-sized enterprises can also benefit from the broadband connection voucher I mentioned. We are examining ways of extending the reach beyond that 96%, but I would of course be happy to meet him and some of his constituents to discuss what more we might do to help.

Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con) rose—

Mr Speaker: Order. I note the ingenuity of the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer), but Nottinghamshire is a little distance away from Gloucestershire and Herefordshire.

Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): May I support the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) and remind the Secretary of State that many rural villages, certainly in my constituency, still do not have sufficiently strong broadband connections? That hampers people who are running small businesses from home, as well as children who are trying to use the internet to learn. What can he do to speed up the provision in those small villages?

Mr Whittingdale: I understand my hon. Friend’s concern for his constituents, particularly those in more rural areas. As he may be aware, under phase 1 of the broadband scheme we expect to reach 87.1% of premises across the whole of Herefordshire and Gloucestershire by December 2016, and under phase 2 we hope to extend that to 92.8%. Those in the more remote areas may still prove to be outside, and we will be looking at alternative means by which we can reach them with superfast broadband, but, again, I am happy to talk him further about this.

Superfast Broadband

3. Heidi Allen (South Cambridgeshire) (Con): What progress his Department is making on the roll-out of superfast broadband. [900097]

4 Jun 2015 : Column 733

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr John Whittingdale): More than 2.5 million additional homes and businesses now have access to superfast broadband as a result of the Government’s intervention. We continue to add 40,000 more homes and businesses every week.

Heidi Allen: I feel that I am about to gatecrash a party, but we have exactly the same situation in South Cambridgeshire. Connecting Cambridgeshire is doing a fantastic job of rolling out broadband across much of the constituency, but our roads are at gridlock—a happy consequence of our economic success—and it is vital that we keep people working in local hubs and from home. I, too, am interested in what other technologies we might explore to reach those people who are missing, so please may I come along too?

Mr Whittingdale: I congratulate my hon. Friend on her election and she is a very welcome party guest. The Government are investing more than £8 million in Connecting Cambridgeshire, which will increase coverage in her constituency to 94% by 2017. As she pointed out, there will be some areas that are much harder to reach and it might not be possible to do so by the traditional methods, so we are running pilot projects to explore other ways in which we can bring coverage up to reach even the furthest parts of her and other hon. Members’ constituencies. I would be happy to talk to her further.

20. [900114] Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con): Further to that answer, what more can we do to support alternative ways of delivering broadband, such as that offered by W3Z in my constituency, which can provide high-speed broadband to the most rural homes and can get it to them far quicker than fibre broadband will?

Mr Whittingdale: My hon. Friend is completely right that although fibre will, we hope, supply superfast broadband to the overwhelming majority of premises in the country there will be some for which it is not practical. That is why we are piloting alternatives through our three pilot projects testing fixed wireless technologies in rural areas in North Yorkshire, North Lincolnshire and Monmouthshire. These are being run by Airwave, Quickline and AB Internet. We will consider the results to assess the best way of extending the programme still further into the most difficult areas.

18. [900112] Matt Warman (Boston and Skegness) (Con): One of the issues that remain for the people who will not get superfast broadband via fibre is that it is very hard to find out from BT or local councils that they will definitely not get it. Our programme has made remarkable progress, but would the Secretary of State like to see BT and local councils providing much greater clarity to communities so that they can explore other technologies such as microwave, wi-fi or satellite?

Mr Whittingdale: Again, I congratulate my hon. Friend on his election. I know that in his capacity as a former technology editor he brings a particular expertise to our debates on this subject. He is absolutely right that there will be some cases where, for the time being, it will not be possible to extend superfast broadband. I hope that we will eventually be able to do so, but in the meantime I entirely agree with him that it is important that people should be aware of that position. We are introducing a seven-digit postcode checker, which is now on the gov.uk website, so that people can be made aware of that position.