Digital Economy Bill passes through House of Lords

Peers anticipate some ping-pong as ‘Christmas tree’ bill returns to the Commons

The House of Lords has passed the Digital Economy Bill – Photo credit: PA

The Digital Economy Bill has this week passed its third reading in the House of Lords, and has returned to the House of Commons for MPs to consider the amendments made by peers.

The legislation is often described as a “Christmas tree bill” because of the breadth of areas it spans This includes electronic communications and broadband speeds, restrictions on access to online pornography and provisions to increase data-sharing in the public sector.

Speaking in the Lords on 5 April, Liberal Democrat peer Timothy Clement-Jones said it was a “disparate bill covering a huge range of issues most of which are unified only by the word digital’” and that it had been “quite a challenge” for the peers scrutinising the bill.

He added that, although “we certainly have not achieved everything that we wanted”, the bill was leaving the upper chamber “in much better shape” than it arrived.

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The bill has come under attack from privacy campaigners, who have said that the wording risks giving the government the power to broaden the scope of data-sharing without proper accountability.

The area of contention is that the bill aims to provide “a single gateway” for public authorities to share personal information for a “specified objective” and that this would be carried out by a “specified person”.

However, the definition of “specified persons” did not appear on the face of the bill, and was instead to be defined in regulations made by “the appropriate national authority”.

This also caused concern within the Lords, with the Delegated Powers Committee saying it gave ministers “almost untrammeled powers” to prescribe a list of public authorities as specified persons, and to prescribe “non-specific purposes for which the information may be disclosed and used, which need only meet the general conditions about improvement of public services”.

In response to the committee’s concerns, the government said it would “specify the list of persons on the face of the bill” – rather than in the codes of practice – and that the list of people and objectives for information sharing would be “narrowed” down from the draft list.

In total, the House of Lords has made some six amendments to the bill, which will now go to the House of Commons for MPs to consider – it is expected that some of these amendments, for instance on broadband speed, will be batted back to the peers.

“Of course, we anticipate ping-pong with great delight,” said Clement-Jones, but added that he hoped the government would give full consideration to the amendments.

Once MPs have considered the amendments, the bill will receive Royal Assent and become an act of law.


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