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Saturday, March 20, 2010

A failure of scrutiny on digital bill

Yesterday's Guardian reports on an open letter from a group of senior public figures who have called on the government to abandon its plan to push through the controversial digital economy bill before the election, amid claims that the move could "sidestep" the democratic process.

They are concerned that the short time left will mean that the bill will end up in the Parliamentary wash-up after Parliament is prorogued, leaving highly contentious clauses unchallenged and unamended:

The plans, which first became public last autumn, have caused controversy at almost every turn.

As well as the three strikes rule and measures to take down websites accused of infringing copyright - which could potentially result in the closure of major web destinations such as YouTube - Lord Mandelson has also sought the power to alter copyright law without the assent of parliament.

In addition, it has also been suggested that the bill's measures to prosecute the owners of internet connections used for illegal file sharing could hit anybody who provides web access - such as universities, libraries and cafes, as well as those individuals who leave their home Wi-Fi connections open.

While the made it through three readings in the House of Lords, it was not without serious objections. Lord Puttnam, the film producer, said he had faced "an extraordinary degree of lobbying" over the proposals, while others questioned the revelation that an amendment used language British music industry body the BPI.

It is of course up to Parliament to pass what laws it sees fit but many Acts are not properly scrutinised due to lack of time. Any attempt to squeeze this bill through before the General Election will leave far less time than usual for scrutiny and challenge, which could result in draconian measures becoming law almost by default.

This Bill and the way that it is being handled underlines the need for Parliament to gain control of its own timetable from the executive. That is a process that is already being mooted but must not be lost in the rush to the polls.
Even if the payroll vote in the Commons passes the Bill, the Lords would be within its (their?) rights in rejecting it, as the objectionable parts do not constitute a manifesto commitment. The question is, will they?
I think it has been through the Lords as it was introduced there. Only the Commons left.
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