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Laurie Penny: Digital Politics - Replacing 'unnecessary laws'

It’s time to ditch the Digital Economy Act.

Nick Clegg is angling for some much-needed goodwill from the left with his announcement this morning that the public will be able to nominate "unnecessary laws" that they want to see repealed.

The Deputy Prime Minister is crowdsourcing people's ideas for the repeal or reform of legislation in three key areas:

  • Laws that have eroded civil liberties
  • Regulations that stifle the way charities and businesses work
  • Laws that are not required and which are likely to see law-abiding citizens criminalised

The Your Freedom website allows the public to suggest changes to invasive laws, and to "rate" those that they would like the government to consider for repeal or reform in the upcoming Freedom Bill, which will be unveiled in the autumn.

Depending on which suggestions make it into the bill, this may well herald a whole new way of forming policy, as well as allowing Clegg to put on a solemn voice to inform us that "Today is the launch of Your Freedom", rather like a civil servant auditioning for the role of deranged desert prophet.

The Your Freedom initiative isn't precisely direct digital democracy -- the government has no obligation to consider any of the suggestions, which, according to the Telegraph, will be "sifted" before any assessment is made -- but it's a start.

There is really only one way for civil liberties campaigners to respond to such an unprecedented display of faith in digital politics: with a lobby to reform the antediluvian Digital Economy Act, removing the sections of the bill which threaten internet users with summary disconnection for engaging in free file-sharing.

This morning, a group of Open Rights Group supporters and opponents of the Digital Economy Bill, led by Katie Sutton, convenor of the Stop Disconnection demonstration in March, put together the following statement:

The Digital Economy Act (DEA) is an insult to British citizens, and the government should consider its repeal in the upcoming Freedom Bill as a matter of urgency. The DEA was rushed through at the tail-end of the last parliament in an undemocratic manner, allowing the owners of copyrighted content such as music and film (rights holders) to demand that an internet service provider (ISP) cut someone's internet connection if they suspect that they have downloaded copyrighted content. Rights holders only need to prove that the wrongdoing occurred using the internet connection they wish to be cut, not that the persons affected are guilty.

This leaves account holders responsible for the actions of anyone using their connection, whether legitimately or by piggybacking without permission. In this digital age, an internet connection is essential for simple tasks like banking, paying bills and jobhunting, and as a result, taking away a connection used by several people as punishment for the actions of an individual who may not even be known to them is fundamentally wrong.

Simply put, the act imposes disproportionate, collective punishment, does not follow the principle of innocent until proven guilty and contravenes Magna Carta, which in 1215 stated that, as a basic human right, no person may be punished without a fair trial. The Digital Economy Act is a massive insult to our civil liberties and should be repealed in its entirety, subject to the less objectionable clauses being redrafted and discussed democratically in the Houses of Parliament to pave the way for a proper digital economy which does not punish innocent people.

If the Liberal Democrats are looking for "bad laws", they should look no further than the Digital Economy Act, which was forced through during the wash-up, despite huge opposition from a digital grass-roots movement of internet users, civil rights protesters and allies within Westminster.

The act could be construed in any of the three available categories:

  • as a threat to civil liberties (in 2009, EU Amendment 138/46 declared that access to the internet is a fundamental human right)
  • as a threat to businesses and charities (many sections of the music, film and other UK creative industries depend on file-sharing to support their business model and disseminate ideas), and
  • as an unecessary law that threatens to criminalise the seven million law-abiding British internet users who regularly share files.

It's only a pity that the Liberal Democrats, who voiced their opposition to the Digital Economy Bill in March, couldn't be bothered to turn up to vote against this regressive, draconian law in significant numbers prior to the election campaign.

Still, better late than never: for those of us who care about digital rights, the patronisingly titled Your Freedom site is a brilliant opportunity to make our voices heard.

What you can do

Comment on and rate any or all of the following suggestions, uploaded to Your Freedom by concerned citizens, to repeal aspects of the Digital Economy Act.

It is telling that, within hours of the site going live, a number of suggestions to reform the act have already been put forward, as well as some sillier ideas for what the government should throw out ("The EU in general" is my favourite so far). I've selected what seem to be the most comprehensive and well-supported proposals, referring to specific clauses of the act that need to be repealed. All of them deserve your rating and comments:

  1. An official proposal, put together by the Open Rights Group in consultation with human rights lawyers and digital freedom activists (link to come). If you vote for only one idea, make it this one.
  2. Save Britain's Digital Economy by Repealing the Digital Economy Act.
  3. Repeal the Digital Economy Act 2010. You'll need to log in or register at the Your Freedom website, but the process takes just a few seconds and does not require you to give out sensitive information.

If you believe, as I do, that access to the internet is a fundamental right, you should get behind this campaign.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

A protest in 2016. Getty
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Fewer teachers, more pupils and no more money. Schools are struggling

With grammars and universal school meals, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking.

If you ask people in Britain what the ­biggest political issues are, schools don’t make the top five. Yet last week Labour set its first party political broadcast in a fictional classroom where a teacher described Jeremy Corbyn’s plans for schools’ future. Without a Labour government, the teacher opines, there will be no more libraries, or teachers, or school trips. Though the scenario is a flagrant breach of the law – teachers must remain politically impartial – education isn’t a bad place for Labour to start its campaign. Schools really are quite screwed.

Three things are hitting hard. Schools have less money, fewer people want to be teachers, and an avalanche of under-sevens is hitting the playgrounds and won’t stop for several more years.

How did we get here? In 2015 the Conservatives pledged to keep school funding at the same rate per pupil over the lifetime of the parliament. Yet while the money coming in has remained flat, schools have faced huge hikes in costs, particularly staffing. Big increases in mandatory pension contributions and National Insurance have taken their toll; so has the apprenticeship levy. The
Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that all told, schools will have lost about 8 per cent of their budget by 2020. That’s £3bn of savings that must be found. Or, more bluntly, the starting salaries of 100,000 teachers.

It is worth remembering at this point how huge the schools sector is and how many people are affected. About half a million teachers work in the 20,000-plus state schools. A further 300,000 people work in allied professions. There are eight million children and an estimated 12 million parents. Lump in their grandparents, and it’s fair to say that about 20 million voters are affected by schools in one way or another.

The budget squeeze is leading many of these schools to drastic measures: firing teachers, increasing class sizes, cutting music from the curriculum, charging parents for their child’s place on a sports team, dropping transport provision, and so on. Begging letters to parents for donations have become commonplace; some have asked for contributions of up to £60 a month.

On top of money worries, teachers are abandoning the profession. In 2015, an additional 18,000 went to work in international schools – more than were trained at universities over the same year. They joined the 80,000 teachers already working in British schools abroad, attracted by higher pay and better working conditions.

Graduates are also snubbing teaching. With starting salaries increasing at less than 1 per cent a year since 2010, new teachers are now paid about 20 per cent less than the average graduate trainee. Changes to higher education are also such that trainees must now pay £9,000 in order to gain their teaching qualification through a university. The government has missed its target for teacher trainees for five years now, and there is no coherent plan for hitting it.

No money and no teachers is less of a problem if you are in a demographic dip. We had a bizarrely low birth rate at the turn of the century, so we currently have a historically small proportion of teens. Unfortunately, the generation just behind them, of seven-year-olds and under, is enormous. Why? Because the “baby echoers”, born in the 1970s to the baby boomers, had children a bit later than their parents. Add to that the children recently born to immigrants who arrived in their twenties when the European Union expanded in the early 2000s, and Britain is facing an El Niño of toddlers. By 2025 a million extra children will be in the school system than in 2010.

To keep on top of the boom the government has been creating schools like a Tasmanian devil playing Minecraft. But 175,000 more places will be needed in the next three years. That’s the equivalent of one new secondary school per week from now until 2020.

In fairness, the government and councils have put aside money for additional buildings, and roughly the same number of parents are getting their first-choice school as before. The free schools policy, which delivers new schools, has not always been well managed, but it is now more efficient and targeted. However, many more children combined with squeezed budgets and fewer teachers typically leads to bigger class sizes. Most classrooms were built to house 30 pupils. Exam results may not get worse, but no parent wants their child working on a makeshift desk improvised out of a windowsill.

Instead of addressing these challenges, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking. Theresa May wants more grammar schools, ostensibly because they will give more choice to parents – though these are the only schools that pick pupils, as opposed to the other way around. And she says they will aid social mobility, though all the evidence (and I really do mean all) suggests the opposite.

Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, is offering free lunches to all seven-to-11-year-olds, which sounds worthy until you realise that children from low-income families already get free lunch, and that feeding every child a hot sit-down meal is virtually impossible, given the limited space and kitchen facilities in most schools. Plus, the evidence this £1bn policy would make any significant difference
to health or attainment is pretty sketchy. Labour has also sensibly talked about cash and promised to “fully fund” schools, but it isn’t clear what that means.

What’s missing so far from the Conservatives and Labour alike is a set of policies about teacher recruitment or place planning. The sector needs to know how schools will be built, and where the teachers will come from for the extra kids. In other words, the message to both sides is – must try harder.

Laura McInerney is the editor of Schools Week and a former teacher

Laura McInerney taught in East London for six years and is now studying on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Missouri. She also works as Policy Partner at LKMCo.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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