By CHARLES ARTHUR
THE BRITISH government has forced through the controversial digital economy Bill with the aid of the Conservative Party, attaining a crucial third reading – which means it will become law – after just two hours of debate in the Commons.
However, despite opposition from the Liberal Democrats and a number of Labour MPs who spoke up against measures contained in the Bill and put down a number of proposed amendments, Gordon Brown’s government easily won two votes to determine the content of the Bill and its passage through the committee stage without making any changes it had not already agreed.
Tom Watson, the former cabinet office minister who resigned in mid-2009, voted against the government for the first time in the final vote to take the Bill to a third reading. However the vote was overwhelmingly in the government’s favour, which it won by 189 votes to 47.
Earlier, the government removed its proposed clause 18, which could have given it sweeping powers to block sites, but replaced it with an amendment to clause 8 of the Bill.
The new clause allows the secretary of state for business to order the blocking of “a location on the internet which the court is satisfied has been, is being or is likely to be used for or in connection with an activity that infringes copyright”.
Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming protested that this could mean the blocking of the whistleblower site Wikileaks, which carries only copyrighted work.
Stephen Timms, for the government, said that it would not want to see the clause used to restrict freedom of speech – but gave no assurance that sites like Wikileaks would not be blocked.
Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat spokesman for culture, media and sport, protested that the clause was too wide-ranging.
“It could apply to Google,” he complained, adding that its inclusion of the phrase “likely to be used” meant that a site could be blocked on its assumed intentions rather than its actions.
The Lib Dem opposition to that amendment prompted the first vote – known as a division – on the Bill, but the Labour and Conservative whips pushed it through, winning it by 197 votes to 40. The next 42 clauses of the Bill were then considered in five minutes.
Numerous MPs complained that the Bill was too important and its ramifications too great for it to be pushed through in this “wash-up” period in which Bills are not given the usual detailed examination.
However, the government declined to yield – although it had already done a deal with the Tories which meant that a number of its provisions, including clause 43 and the creation of independent local news consortiums, would not be part of the Bill.