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Washup politics

Mark D'Arcy | 17:07 UK time, Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Commentator Frank James Gunn asks what will happen to the Digital Economy Bill in the washup (see post below).

A very good question.

As often happens with big, complicated, highly technical bills that are not at the cutting edge of party controversy, the DEB started in the Lords, and will be debated for the first time in the Commons the day before the expected start of the washup (the fast-track processing of half-digested bills, to get them through in the few days before Parliament is dissolved for the election).

That means MPs will not have had a chance to get their teeth into some of the very complicated issues, including:

Clause 18 - which gives the High Court the power to "grant an injunction against a service provider, requiring it to prevent access to online locations specified in the order of the court for the prevention of online copyright infringement". The main concern is that this adversely affects sites like YouTube or Facebook, that host user-generated content, much of which may be in violation of copyright laws. Major critic Open Rights Group also complains that the bill is poorly drafted and will lead to injunctions being ordered against legitimate sites.

Clauses 10-16 - which deal with the procedure, implementation, appeals, and cost-sharing measures for limiting internet access. Under these, the Business Secretary can order OFCOM to investigate subscribers that are breaking copyright laws, and subsequently have them disconnected from the internet.

Important stuff - and the creative industries are particularly keen to update the law to clamp down on illegal file-sharing. So the chances are that a deal will be done between the two main party leaderships to speed the bill into law.

The Conservative Culture spokesman Jeremy Hunt has made it clear he doesn't like the provisions on a new funding mechanism for regional news, so their removal may be part of his price. In the Commons, such a deal, backed by government and Opposition would be certain to go through - but if some amendments were needed, they would have to be sent back to their Lordships for approval.

And that looks like the only point at which dissidents would be able to intervene. All bills have to be agreed by both houses of parliament before they become law. So awkward peers could make life difficult for the party leaderships, but, if the main parties were agreed, they would be facing an uphill struggle.

At least one influential voice - Culture Media and Sport Select Committee Chairman John Whittingdale - is saying it would be a constitutional outrage to force such provisions through without proper scrutiny by MPs, on the strength of a few hours debate at Second Reading. Lawmaking should not be so perfunctory, he argues.

But he also accepts that if the bill does not get through, the issues it addresses are not likely to top the "to do" list of any incoming government - so it would be a long time before the DEB could be revived. So anyone uncomfortable with rushing the bill through has to weigh the implications of not legislating on those issues, perhaps for some years.

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