April 26, 2010

When it first appeared as a twinkle in the Queen’s Speech, I never believed for one moment that the Digital Economy Bill could become the Digital Economy Act 2010. I was wrong. Of course, if we lived in a rational world, I would have been right. But the Act went through most of its legislative stages in the last days of a dying Parliament. It was not considered in the House of Commons until Tuesday 5 April and received Royal Assent on 9 April. Clearly people in the Palace of Westminster do not inhabit a rational world. 

The sum total of consideration of the Act’s many complex provisions by our elected representatives was a Second Reading debate lasting just a few hours. That debate, overshadowed as it was by the final confirmation of the date for the General Election, was attended by only 36 MPs. One can hardly blame those who stayed away. Those who did attend and speak were subject to a strict guillotine and there is a clear, and readily understandable, frustration in many of their speeches. They knew that the die had been cast and that the Act was to go through in the wash-up with most of its provisions intact. The main focus of the speeches was directed at the highly controversial provisions directed at restricting the capacity of Internet users to share copyrighted files unlawfully, but not one MP knew at that stage what those provisions were to be. Four days later, provisions had been finalised and were law. In such circumstances, which might well have been inspired by Lewis Carroll, it is a wonder that any MPs turned up at all and a greater wonder that many made perceptive and valuable contributions. The sad thing is that their remarks should have been contributions to a real debate about the controversial aspects of the proposed legislation but that real debate never took place. 

The wash-up is not new and is a necessary element in the system we have. Compromises and deals over legislation are the grease on the wheels of the legislative process- some of the ‘grease’ in the legislative process is a worry but that’s a separate story. The need for legislation to be passed with great speed in an emergency has to be recognised. The problem is not with any of those factors. Neither does the problem lie, for me at least, with the provisions of the new Act. 

Here was a Bill before Parliament that had actually captured the attention of a significant portion of the nation – not on the scale of the Hunting Act or the abolition of the death penalty, of course, but it addressed issues that mattered to many. Moreover, it is generally accepted that those who did engage with the democratic process over this Bill were often from among the vast numbers of young people who are normally disenchanted and disengaged. And what do they find when they turn their attention to the goings-on in the Mother of Parliaments? They find a major Bill amended and reamended by some shambolic opposition in the House of Lords. They find an Official Opposition complaining, but accepting notwithstanding that they had the power to require the government to ditch any element in the Bill. Most obviously, they find a government that requires a major piece of legislation to be passed without proper scrutiny by elected representatives – an important cornerstone of democracy ignored. 

The delicious irony in all this is that only Lord Mandelson comes out of it with my increased respect. The fact that it is the sort of respect that one might give a Mafia overlord is neither here nor there. He got what he wanted, and I didn’t really see him as a champion of grass roots democracy anyway. 

As a result of this democratic farce, those who seek to confront illegal file-sharing through education and persuasion will find their job made harder. Those who believe that the music industry and the film industry are engaged in a great conspiracy worthy of Matrix 6 have had a new legend to add to their tales. It will make sensible enforcement harder – and it was already hard enough.


It is a sad sorry mess and yet another confirmation that our politicians just don’t get it – or just don’t care.