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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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage