The Queen's Speech and the digital economy

Start-ups will cheer, but our copyright system remains a mess.

As soon as the Queen began to list her government’s priorities on Wednesday it came as no surprise to hear that the Government’s top priority in the next parliamentary session is going to be delivering economic growth. When the Government comes to look at which industries that growth will come from, they will undoubtedly turn to the growing potential of digital businesses and the Internet.

The UK economy has the most Internet-dependent economy of all the industrialised nations. A study by the Boston Consulting Group found that the Internet is currently worth £120bn to the UK Economy, or 8 per cent of GDP, and is forecasted to rise to 12 per cent by 2016. The only other nation coming close to this high a percentage was South Korea with 7.3 per cent. We are world leaders in digital start-ups and SMEs across the UK are the job creators and wealth creators of the future.

The Government signalled in the Queen’s Speech its plans to introduce some really helpful measures for digital businesses. The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill being introduced to Parliament holds some real potential. We understand the Government intends this to be a wide ranging bill and will include key issues such as employment regulation, which is a huge concern for a small business needing to scale up rapidly. This will definitely be one to watch as there is a great opportunity for the Government to provide real benefits to startups and SMEs. Business owners face heavy administrative burdens and significant risks if they get it wrong, so allowing entrepreneurs to do what they do best and grow their businesses more easily will help push forward the growth the UK desperately needs.

Also included was a reference to the much-trailed Draft Communications Data Bill. This refers to plans to allow intelligence agencies to collect data on communications, including across the Internet, also known as Communications Capabilities Development Programme (CCDP). The bill is likely to come up against significant opposition, and not just from free speech advocates. We are yet to see the details of the plans but there will be key questions over who the financial burden of data retention will fall upon, and whether Government intends to break SSL, the system used for secure communications which underpins businesses and e-commerce sites.

However, absent from the speech was any reference to reforming Britain’s outdated copyright law. The purpose of intellectual property protection is to foster innovation, but many aspects of the current copyright regime are having the opposite effect for digital businesses. Innovative entrepreneurs are creating brilliant new models for distributing creative content, yet they have to spend too long navigating complicated licensing schemes rather than developing and growing their business.

Implementing recommendations from the Hargreaves Review, commissioned by the Prime Minister in 2010 and accepted by Government last year, will allow today’s technology start-ups to compete with their European and US rivals.

The Queen’s speech is designed to set the parliamentary agenda, but Government and Parliament are still free to respond legislatively to issues as they arise. We hope they will realise there has never a better time to reform copyright law than now. The recommendations are raring and ready to go and they will allow Britain’s vibrant digital businesses to be able to harness the web’s potential to contribute to deliver the vital economic growth the UK economy needs.

The Queen and Prince Philip at the state opening of Parliament. Photograph: Getty Images

Sara Kelly is the Policy and Development Manager for the Coalition for a Digital Economy.

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.