Don Foster MP

Don Foster MP - 48/267 - Bath's #1 Supporter

Local Media

December 6, 2023 by admin in Don in Parliament, News

Mr Don Foster (Bath) (LD): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. The debate gives me the opportunity formally to welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), to his post on the Front Bench.

We are discussing a really important issue. The Minister rightly recognised that we all had an opportunity to namecheck our excellent local newspapers. He did so with the Wantage and Grove Herald, and I certainly want to do the same for my own paper, The Bath Chronicle, which is now, sadly, a weekly rather than a daily. The Bath Chronicle, the Wantage and Grove Herald and all other local newspapers are important in ensuring the accountability of our local councils and other public bodies, and they are a focal point for the community. Sometimes they do interesting things; the Minister gave us the example of the coverage of his expenses. About eight years ago, when The Bath Chronicle was a daily, the letters page included a letter complaining that there were too many photographs of Don Foster in the paper. I was delighted that the paper chose to illustrate the letter with a quarter-page photograph of me, with a banner underneath saying, “Too many photographs?”

Local newspapers and the local media-radio and so on-also act as good vehicles for important local campaigns. Let me just say on a serious note, and with a degree of personal interest, that the front page of today’s edition of The Bath Chronicle includes an article about my part-time secretary in my constituency office. This lady has had breast cancer and bone cancer, and she now has liver cancer. She is quite seriously ill and she was, most recently, taking Herceptin, until her consultants discovered that it was causing heart failure. The only drug now available to her is relatively new. It was recommended by her consultants, but it has not, unfortunately, gone through the final stages of approval by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, so she is being denied access to this life-saving drug. I am delighted that my local newspaper is running a campaign to gain support for her and that my secretary’s local MP, the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), is supporting her.

Local newspapers, local radio and local media overall are clearly important, and they provide all the things that I have described. They also provide a training ground where many people can develop their media skills before moving to more regional or national newspapers. Given the emphasis that the coalition Government place on localism, it is critical that we find ways of supporting and defending local media so that they can carry out important checks on what happens locally.

As we have heard from the Minister, there are many problems. The local media industry has been contracting for the past five years. Thousands of jobs have been lost in regional and local newspapers, and 25% of jobs are being cut in local papers. Sixty titles were cut last year alone, and more jobs and titles will potentially be lost. Reference has also been made to ITV, where some 1,000 jobs have already gone in the regional news service. More than half of local commercial radio stations are now loss-making, and the industry’s total revenue has gone down dramatically-by nearly a quarter-in the past few years. Its audience share has also declined.

The Minister has given us some of the reasons for what has happened. Of course, it is largely to do with the recession and, therefore, the fall in advertising revenue. However, there has also been a move to new platforms, not least on the internet-an issue to which I will return shortly. If we believe that something needs to be done, the real question is what we are going to do about these issues. I am delighted that the coalition agreement makes clear reference to the coalition Government’s desire to

“enable partnerships between local newspapers, radio and television stations to promote a strong and diverse local media industry.”

The question is how we do that. I want to make a number of suggestions to the Minister and to pick up on some of the points that he and others have made.

Let me start by saying that it is critical that we understand the important role that the BBC plays, and that we make it clear that we would do great damage to local, regional and national media if we followed the advice of the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) and top-sliced the BBC’s licence fee. That would undermine the BBC’s independence-something that I am delighted the Secretary of State, in his recent speech on these issues, made clear the coalition Government are not prepared to do. The minute we allow top-slicing at the BBC, the corporation will be constantly looking over its shoulder to make sure that it is not offending the Government of the day, and its independence from the Government will be lost. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that I strongly oppose top-slicing and I hope that that will be the view of the coalition Government.

The Internet and Privacy

December 6, 2023 by admin in Don in Parliament, News

Mr Don Foster (Bath) (LD): Many other Members want to speak, so I will make my remarks as brief as I can. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing this really important debate. In passing, let me tell him that it is not necessary for many of us to repeat what he said about Google, because I suspect that nearly all of us share a real concern about what has happened. We are particularly concerned that this country seems to be doing significantly less about these issues than almost anywhere else in the world, and we need to do something about that.

I particularly commend the hon. Gentleman on drawing attention to the simple fact that there is a big difference between an ordinary member of the public taking a photograph of somebody’s house and Google taking pictures for Street View. That is because of not just the scale at which Google is operating, which my hon. Friend rightly mentioned, but the purpose. Google is doing this for commercial purposes. I do not know whether my hon. Friend is aware of this, but the latest figures on the value of e-commerce in this country were revealed just today. In a few years, the value of e-commerce has gone from nothing to £100 billion, or 7% of the economy, and we all know that that figure will rise. It is therefore not surprising that Google wants to capture as many data as possible and to use them for commercial purposes. That is why we have to be particularly mindful to ensure that we have the right safeguards in place in the growing e-commerce market.

I was delighted that my hon. Friend drew attention to others who are scraping and gathering data of one sort or another. As has been said, there is a real issue not only about whether they should be allowed to gather data and to use them for some of the purposes that they do, but about security, as we have seen, sadly, on so many occasions with the large collections that are held.

I draw particular attention to ACS:Law. Many people will be aware that that law firm is making money by sending letters to people saying that they have allegedly been involved in illegal file sharing or similar illegal activities on the internet. It then demands about £500 from the recipient. If they fail to provide the money, the firm threatens legal action. As my hon. Friend said, the idea that someone is innocent until proven guilty does not seem to apply for that law firm. However, the real concern is not about the activity that ACS:Law is undertaking, although many of us should be concerned about it, but about the simple fact that it, too, recently managed to get hold of a lot of data from ISPs. The information, which was not encrypted, was sent by e-mail, which it should not have been. Other people then obtained it and used it for inappropriate activities. Even worse, the firm managed to put some of the data on its own website. There are real issues about the security of data.

Another issue, which has not been touched on, although I mentioned it in a brief intervention, relates to the activities of organisations such as Phorm. As many hon. Members know, Phorm was apparently established secretly. BT ran trials in about 2007 to gather details about how people operated on the internet and what sites they looked at, so that information and advertising could be targeted at them. I accept that Phorm claims that it was developing a system that would completely protect the individual and maintain their anonymity. The problem, however, is that there was no evidence that members of the public knew that the trial was happening or that the system would give the protection that the firm claimed it would. I am, once again, saddened that proper investigations have not taken place.

That brings us to the role of the Information Commissioner. I hope that many Members will have listened to what he has to say. I do not want to make accusations about his role, but the difficulty for him and his team is that there is a lack of clarity about where the boundaries of his powers lie. One reason why we need to set up organisational structures to allow us to have the investigation that he proposes is that we need to look, among other things, at his role in dealing with the issues that we are discussing.

Nadine Dorries: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is a lack of clarity and that the only way to guarantee clarity is to test those boundaries? It is not enough for the Information Commissioner to stand back and say that he does not know where the boundaries are; he needs to push them and test them, and he will soon find out where they are.

Mr Foster: The hon. Lady-indeed, my hon. Friend-is absolutely right to raise that issue. We have heard it argued that one barrier might be data protection legislation, but I have some difficulty understanding why somebody who is there to check out these issues on our behalf is being told that he and his staff cannot do their jobs because of such legislation. It is absolutely right that we have to push at the boundaries in the way that my hon. Friend suggests.

I want to end with a point that has been made by the hon. Member for Harlow and my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge. I have one criticism of my hon. Friend and I share one area of agreement with him. I find it difficult to accept entirely what he says about the Digital Economy Act 2010. I accept entirely that the provisions of the Act that dealt with illegal web activity included a proposal, which I and my party opposed, that could block websites even before they had done anything illegal, because they might possibly do something illegal in the future. It was a bit like the film “Minority Report” in which someone could be arrested because they might do something in the future. That is nonsense and must go, but if my hon. Friend looks closely at the elements of that Act on illegal file sharing, he will find that it is not true that the idea that someone is innocent until proved guilty is not there.

The staged approach in the legislation-we must have some sort of law to protect intellectual property-is going the right way. I disagree with my hon. Friend about that, but I entirely agree with him about the intercept modernisation programme. I am delighted that he raised it yesterday in the House with the Prime Minister. Many of us are very concerned, for the reasons that he eloquently gave, to think that the programme may still be going forward under the coalition Government. There are those of us who care about privacy and the freedoms of people in this country: the very people who have stood up against the growth in the number of CCTV cameras. It is ludicrous that we have 1% of the entire world’s population and 20% of its CCTV cameras. Is any other evidence needed of the way Big Brother is beginning to operate? We have rolled back some of that effect; we rolled back ID cards and some of the other planned databases of the Labour Government. We must be on the ball in checking what the Government do about the intercept modernisation programme. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harlow on an important debate and desperately hope the Government will listen. I shall be listening particularly to my hon. Friend, the excellent Minister.

Daylight Saving Bill

December 6, 2023 by admin in Don in Parliament, News

Mr Don Foster (Bath) (LD): My hon. Friend and constituency neighbour, the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), who is no longer in his place, made a telling intervention in which he pointed out that nothing in the Bill-and, indeed, nothing that Parliament can do-will increase the amount of daylight in any particular location in this country. The Bill seeks to find the most effective way of using daylight for the benefit of our constituents, whether they be in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or England.

I was delighted to hear the speech by the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long). Her contribution was one of the finest that we have heard. She clearly fully understood the purpose of the Bill. She rightly expressed concern that there had not been much debate on this issue in Northern Ireland, and pointed out that limited research had been carried out there. She also said that she had a number of concerns about what might happen if we adopted the proposals. She went on to say, crucially, that because of the lack of evidence, and because many people believe that there will be real benefits from the proposals, the Bill should be given a fair wind so that the appropriate research, and the appropriate analysis of that research, can be carried out, and decisions could then be made on whether any further action should be taken. It has to be said that her speech was in marked contrast to those made by representatives of the Scottish National party.

The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) made a valuable contribution. She began by saying that she was agnostic about the issue. She admitted that she had approached it with an open mind and that, having reviewed the evidence, she was not particularly impressed by it and was now ambivalent about the matter. That is fine, and at least she did not deny that there might be merit in the proposals, and in continuing with the research. That was in stark contrast to the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil).

Dr Whiteford: If the Bill dealt with no more than the research phase, I would be very happy to support it. It does not, however; it proposes a trial and, in the light of all the evidence that I have seen so far, I do not believe that the case has been made for such a trial.

Mr Foster: The hon. Lady condemns herself out of her own mouth. She says that the evidence to date does not persuade or convince her. Fine. Then let us carry out the research, and the independent analysis of that research, and bring back a proposal to the House through an order so that we can decide whether to go on with a trial.

Mr MacNeil rose -

Mr Foster: I will give way briefly, but the hon. Gentleman has taken up a lot of the House’s time today.

Mr MacNeil: I am not sure whether that is good or bad. The hon. Gentleman is arguing for research, and analysis of that research, to be carried out. If that were covered by one Bill, and the trial were covered by another, many of us would feel a lot more secure. This Bill, however, sets us on a slippery slope, and we would go from A to B to C very quickly. We would have three years of misery, followed by repentance from all sides as we changed back to the current system.

Mr Foster: The hon. Gentleman seems to change his tune with almost every intervention. Only a few minutes ago, he was intervening on the excellent contribution from the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) to ask whether she would be willing to change her mind on the basis of empirical research. I want to ask the hon. Gentleman whether he will change his mind on the basis of such research-

Mr MacNeil rose -

Mr Foster: I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman. He would do well to read in detail what the Bill says. I applaud the hon. Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) for introducing a Bill that addresses all the approaches to this issue that might exist in this House. Perhaps it is worth reminding Members and others listening to the debate what the Bill actually says. It states:

“The Secretary of State must conduct a cross-departmental analysis of the potential costs and benefits of advancing time by one hour for all, or part, of the year, including…a breakdown, so far as is possible, of these costs and benefits for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland”.

It goes on to state that the analysis must take into account research that is done

“by such bodies as the Secretary of State thinks fit.”