Putting the DE Bill in perspective

It’s tempting, particularly as a subject matter expert, to take parliamentary reverses personally.

The recent “wash-up” treatment of the Digital Economy Bill attracted the attention of geeks and techies like few parliamentary issues I can remember, with 20,000 people reportedly writing to their MPs to object; a world-wide “trending topic” on Twitter (#DEBill); uncounted people watching the “debate” on TV or live via the web; and so on.

Many of those people remarked that it was the first time they had paid such close attention to the passage of a Bill through our legislature – and many also remarked that those debutants will have been dismayed and discouraged by what they saw. Just to recap:

– the sponsor of this Bill, Lord Mandelson, is an unelected participant in our government – promoted to a peerage so that he could be given a place in Gordon Brown’s cabinet;

– the Bill itself, regardless of party political affiliations, is widely acknowledged to be complex and far-reaching… attempting to address a swathe of unrelated issues including broadband coverage, regional news broadcasts, radio frequency allocation, the statutory role of Channel 4 (!), copyright, and illegal file-sharing;

– ordinarily, a Bill of this scope would expect to go through 3-4 weeks of line-by-line examination in the Commons Committee Stage. This Bill did not (the Committee Stage was compressed to a couple of hours as part of the “wash-up”);

– The “wash-up” itself meant that the Government’s business managers deliberately put into the ‘fast-track, compromise process’ a Bill which they knew was too large, complex and contentious to receive adequate consideration;

– like few issues to date (but more and more in future, I suspect) it brings public policy-making increasingly close to technology specifics. Too close, one suspects, for the MP who apparently thinks that the “IP” in “IP Address” stands for Intellectual Property. (Stop sniggering at the back… and no, it doesn’t stand for Intellectual Pygmy either, Molesworth);

– and those tuning in to watch the proceedings will instantly have been struck by the pathetically insignificant percentage of MPs who even attended, let alone contributed to the debate. When the electorate is constantly blamed for failure to engage with the political process, or turn out to vote, the sight of a 6% turn-out by our elected law-makers sets a poor example as few other things could.

As will be clear by now, there is ample material for anyone who wants to show what a dismal farce our parliamentary process can be. For those of us who live in the digital domain, it is depressing and de-motivating to see our pet subject treated so shabbily.

And yet…

And yet… just because it is our pet subject, we should do what we can to keep this in perspective. For instance, even in the relatively short time I have been interested in the public policy dimensions of IT (or indeed any other topic), there are other examples I can point to which aroused exactly the same feelings of outrage, powerlessness and depression. In the spirit of helping us all come to terms with the DEBill fiasco, here are a few of them:

(1) Pride of place must surely go to the ID Cards Bill; how many pieces of legislation lead the Home Secretary to launch personal attacks on individual academics from the safety of their ministerial and parliamentary position? The unspeakable in defence of the indefensible. But the Government’s obduracy on ID Cards persists even to the 2010 budget: they would sooner cut the budgets for education, healthcare and law enforcement than the ID Card scheme.

(2) 90-day detention without trial; defeated by a single vote in the House of Commons on 9/11 (that’s November the 9th… 2005 – and incidentally, Mr Blair’s first Commons defeat). This, despite [the then perennial Chancellor] Gordon Brown having been recalled from the tarmac at Ben Gurion so that he could vote, rather than mediate between Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas. What far-sighted and statesmanlike prioritisation.

(3) exemption of MPs’ expenses and correspondence from the Freedom of Information Act; David Maclean’s contemptible bid to ensure that MPs not only set and vote on their own remuneration, but that the results should be beyond scrutiny.

(4) the Audit Commission’s blanket discriminatory treatment of local government employees’ payroll data and banking details; using the “National Fraud Initiative” legislation to compel local authorities (but not other public sector bodies such as central government departments, teachers, healthcare workers or forces personnel) to disclose the banking details of their employees – whether or not that included joint bank accounts.

(5) the egregious National DNA Database, which continues to be stocked in contravention to a damning and unanimous ECHR ruling that it “overstepped any acceptable margin” of proportionality. By the way, the ECHR is due to have reviewed, in March, the Government’s progress towards compliance with the ruling. I wonder what they will have made of the current Home Secretary’s decision to make DNA retention an election issue.

Oh, the list could go on and on. And to accusations of political partiality I will say only this:

I’ve only ever blogged under a Labour government. If a non-Labour government fails to provide just as much blog-fodder, I will supplement that dwindling diet with my hat.

So, the DEBill is a child of many parents, none of them loving. Its offspring, the DEAct, is an orphan work which will mate (unnaturally, of course, for it is an unnatural Act) with the next government and give birth to many more little mutant offspring, many of them midwived by the law courts, and each as misconceived and grotesque as the next.

Probably not even their own progenitor, Lord Mandelson, could love them.

But we shall, because, hideous as they will all undoubtedly be, each one will remind us that we told them the Bill was flawed, badly drafted and unworkable, and we will feel vindicated.

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2 thoughts on “Putting the DE Bill in perspective

  1. pangloss says:

    Beautifully written – sigh.RIPA, data retention..But see the quotes in my latest blog for a silver lining?ps I used to teach family law & I never thought the new legislation there was as messy as this. but maybe that was because one man Eric Clive who actually knew his stuff mostyly drafted it?

  2. flay says:

    Wonderful piece.

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