#DE Bill Vote, 7 April

Been watching  #debill #38degrees #deb on Twitter, and a bunch of great references by lots of tweeple. Thought I’d clarify a couple of points of process, for anyone interested.

There’ll be a one hour debate at close of play tonight, maybe around midnight.  It’ll constitute the Committee Stage and Third Reading (instead of the 50 or so hours the DE Bill would otherwise have had).  The clauses taken are up to the speaker and MPs have to speak to the clauses, unlike last night’s Second Reading where we could speak on any bit of the bill.   There’ll be at least one vote, but probably one only, and that’ll come at the end.  If there is more than one vote, the last one’s the key one which passes the Bill in its entirety. Any other votes are likely to be pseudo-votes on amendments designed to present an appearance of opposition.  So watch for the final vote.

Last night, the Lib Dem (only the front bencher attended, the very decent Don Foster in an impossible position) argued for an amended Clause 43 (the photography stuff, orphans and so forth). His amendment was to exclude photos from before 1950.  Whatever, it won’t matter because Labour and the Tories have agreed to cut it out altogether.  There will be other changes too.

On disconnection, though, it doesn’t look to me like anything’s going to change. Don Foster argued for Lib Dems last night that there should be additional safeguards, but agreed with disconnection without the right to be heard in court. That means the Lib Dems will almost certainly support the bill.

But who knows?  Most Labour, Tory and SNP MPs support the bill, as does the SNP.  Those who don’t have been open about it and will vote accordingly, I think.  But  I noticed a lot of Lib Dem back and frontbench MPs Tweeting against it last night without turning up.  As I’ve said below, none at all spoke.  There’s the pressure point, if I may say.

For what it’s worth, I think any MP who uses social media to tweet their opposition to the bill should be prepared to literally stand up and be counted on the night. If people ask them on Twitter, and we all  know they’re reading tweets as the come in, they can only either hide or respond. There are very few MPs in the chamber right now, which means most are in front of their Macs and PCs.  The question to ask MPs is; “What will you vote on Third Reading”?

This sounds party-political, I guess, but it isn’t intended that way.  It’s just a matter of people being as authentic in real life as they are on social media. I’ve seen a few folk ask what MPs are paid for.  Well we’re ultimately only really paid to legislate.  To literally walk the way we talk.  Folk might be surprised at how some MPs respond to a bit of late pressure.

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What you can (still) do about the DE Bill.

The next working day  at the House of Commons, Tuesday, will see the DE Bill passed unamended, passed amended or put off until the next parliament.  I’ve blogposted about his below, and it’s obviously the case that the Bill should ideally be fully exposed to the formal scrutiny of the Committee Stage and then a Third Reading.  Arguments that the thing has been scrutinised in the Lords and that’s enough are daft, frankly, or what would ever be the point of bills going through the  Commons (i.e. that old elected bit)?

Thanks to Sinister in flikr

As far as amendments are concerned, the disconnection clause is a no-brainer.  Yet while there seem to be good arguments about other parts, much of the stuff I see on Twitter is mainly sloganising amongst and between folk who are pretty much subject-matter experts.  I don’t mean that in a pejorative way, but it’s simply a fact that with most MP’s thinking about the election (bear in mind the Bill will be competing with a likely General Election announcement that day) and not necessarily prioritising the DE Bill anyway, sloganising will simply be ignored by most.  I’ve seen folk on Twitter complaining that they’ve had formulaic letters from some MPs, but if they’re a reply to formulaic complaints (and I’m not saying everyone has sent formulaic letters!) then you can really can’t blame the MP.  MPs get a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff and we tend to concentrate our efforts on issues where constituents have contacted us and placed their concerns into their own localised context.  I appreciate that it might seem odd to suggest that the DE Bill should be seen in a localised way, but MPs start with their constituents’ concerns then generalise out to how these concerns interact with legislation. That’s really the essence of our job.

IMHO, if people want their concerns heard properly, a petition on the Downing Street website, or formulaic tweets, really aren’t going to do it. Although reasoned tweets are certainly worthwhile and can be sent here to any MP.  People really need to contact their local MP and follow through on Tuesday morning.  Decent MP’s will realise folk deserve a fast answer to something which is imminent that day.  But more important than an answer is a chance to influence how they’re thinking.  Most MPs will be sensitive to the lack of scrutiny of such a huge bill in the Commons if constituents raise it with them.  It’s obviously also worth raising your concerns about a specific clause.  Crucially, ask them to attend and make an intervention during the Second Reading and make their concerns known in advance.

Potentially, there’s a lot of support for either a significant amendment (I’ve flagged the disconnection clause above) or for a delay altogether. But party politics will now, of course,  come into it big style.  The Lib Dems have, opportunistically at this late stage, decided to oppose the bill although it’s not clear what changes they want.  Labour and the Tories want it to pass.  In the latter case, it’s because most of the bill is necessary and fine and we all know problems can be revisited using Statutory Instruments (SIs, see my post below).  But of course for anything significant to change at all it needs MPs of all parties (most still don’t tweet, remember) to be alerted to the strength of feeling about the bill.

I’m going to send a note to all of my colleagues for Tuesday morning and follow up with as many conversations during the day as I can.  There are quite a few sympathetic MPs already.  Then there’s the Second Reading itself.  But the more folk who contact their own MP the better.  So it’s pretty much up to you all in that respect.

This is a pretty long post – better to get it out than spend more time making it shorter, I reckon.

There it is.

Thanks to Sinister  from flikr for the piccy.

One MP’s view, for what it’s worth, on the DE Bill (#debill)

The Digital Economy (DE) Bill, #debill on Twitter,  will have its second reading in the House of Commons on 6 April.  Second readings are general debates, always followed by a detailed committee stage attended by a representative sample of nominated MPs and which, in the case of the DE Bill, might reasonably be allocated 40 or more hours of debate. Bills pepper-pot between the Commons and Lords, and process depends upon whether the bill is introduced in the Commons or Lords.  But in the end, the bill gets a Third Reading (less detailed that the Committee Stage but still clause-by-clause) in the Commons then goes back to the Lords, then Queen for Royal Assent. Then it’s an Act.  The Law of the Land.

I sat on the Committee Stage of the Communications Bill a few years ago. It had the longest committee stage of any bill, ever, at the time. The DE Bill is its successor. It covers all the stuff every reader here will know about.  It’s complex and important.  It was put together by Stephen Carter, former head of OFCOM (which the Communications Act created) and a very capable businessman. Carter worked at no.10 for a short while, but it didn’t go well.  Understandably, he lacked the political antennae. He was then popped into the Lords, in theory as a minister but in reality more like an official, to put the DE Bill together.  In effect, OFCOM became part of the government for a bit. Some folk were a little uncomfortable with the idea of the immediate ex-head of OFCOM writing the law for OFCOM to implement.  But in truth, Carter was probably the best man to do it.  Not the best person, perhaps, but as far as I can see such jobs are for boys only.

The result of Carter’s labours was the DE Bill.  It’s been tweaked a little since, but not much.  On the whole, it’s a sensible and competent piece of work. Most people agree with most of what’s in it.  That’s not enough to make law, of course. That’s the point of the Committee stage and the Third Reading, and indeed the scrutiny in the Lords.  Scrutiny is partly about the opposition posturing and essentially being an opposition.  But crucially, it’s also where flaws get ironed out.  Without proper scrutiny there’s a risk, even with a small bill, that you’ll get bad law.  And the DE Bill isn’t small. It’s huge.  And it has flaws.  I won’t rehearse the flaws here; that’s a bunch of blogposts in itself.  Instead, the main flag I want to hoist here (although you need only check out #debill on Twitter for a myriad of reasons), is that it looks like the bill isn’t going to get proper scrutiny. And if it doesn’t, it will be bad law evidenced by the devil in the detail.

When we get to the end of a parliamentary term the party chief whips, business managers, get together.  They look at the unfinished business, like stuff which hasn’t had a Third Reading yet, and agree what uncontentious business can go through on the nod. This process is called the ‘wash-up’. This ensures that decent legislation on which all the parties agree (i.e. there’d have been no vote during or after scrutiny in any case) can hit the statute books in spite of running out of time.  The trouble in the case of the DE Bill, though, is twofold.  First, it has flaws that need addressing. Second, it is patently obviously contentious.

The flaws in the Bill aren’t drafting errors; they’re about business and civil liberty politics.  Ultimately, they’re about the values embedded into the clauses. And they’re where Carter, I think, misjudged the politics.  Carter appeared on Newsnight with his finished product. Because he’s a media pro he probably thought he’d be fine.  It wasn’t fine – it was a disaster.  He didn’t get Paxman and he doesn’t get politics.  His very competent piece of work should therefore have had a serious going over by an experienced politician.  Had Sion Simon, the relevant minister after Carter’s departure, been allowed to do the job I think the flaws would have been fixed.  Instead, he was pushed out of the way and the very able, and lovely, Stephen Timms was given the task part-time (in addition to being a very busy Treasury minister). So here we are.  The bill is flawed and parliament has run out of time.  What to do?

There are three options.  First, Second reading followed by wash-up.  Through it goes in its current form.  Supported by all parties.  Second, and i’m not sure if this is truly an option, the Second Reading is followed by a truncated (i.e. a couple of hours) of Committee of the Whole House (where the Speaker steps down and the main chamber in effect becomes a committee of the house), then a short Third Reading, all on 6 April. This way, some but surely not all of the trickinesses might be ironed out.  The parties could also all agree that amendments will be brought forward in the new parliament in the form of Statutory Instruments (SIs, or tiny bills in themselves).  Third, since all parties want to pass the bill, they could all agree to bring it back again in its entirety in the new parliament whoever is in power.

I don’t know if the second option above is available or would even work.  My instinct is not.  But, failing that, it should fall and be brought forward in the new parliament.

Fundamentally, I think, with most MPs understandably behind the curve on digital engagement, parliament hasn’t had a chance to truly internalise the interest-dynamics, the values, the principles behind this Bill. Most crucially, there are a lot of smart folk out there who have good reasons for objecting to it in it’s current form. Politicians spend a lot of time talking about engaging with the disengaged; of the importance of, for example, new digital media.  If we truly believe in that, then the bill won’t go through on wash-up.