Secret ‘wash-up’ will decide fate of digital economy bill

Gordon Brown’s decision to call a general election on 6 May leaves the fate of the digital economy bill hanging in the balance.

Neil Moss
Neil Moss

In the past 12 months, Parliament has finally – if reluctantly – begun to open up. Politicians’ expenses have been revealed. Even the function and dining room bookings in the Palace of Westminster are now open for scrutiny. Parliament’s dirty laundry has been fully exposed for all to see. It isn’t pretty.

Yet one thing still remains closed and shrouded in darkness – the secretive world of the “wash-up”. Marketing and media professionals should be very aware of the 2010 wash-up. More of that later. The wash-up is rarely written about. It’s not “on the record” and journalists are never present. Indeed, even Parliament’s own superb website omits to mention its existence in the relevant Passage of a Bill section. Why?

There is generally a few days between the announcement of an election and subsequent dissolution of Parliament. According to a briefing note published by the House of Commons Library: “During this interval, usually referred to as the ’wash-up’ period, which might only be a few days (but possibly longer) the Government will decide what its priorities are and seek the co-operation of the Opposition in getting legislation through.”

Fair enough. Parliament always relies on a degree of co-operation in order to run smoothly. In Westminster parlance, it’s seen as discussion through “the usual channels”. In other words, the necessary co-operation between the business managers or party whips whose jobs it is to drive through (or halt) the Government’s agenda.

Yet in the dying days of a Parliament, the election campaign is in full thrust and there’s a different urgency. The Library note warns: “There will invariably be sacrifices to be made.” Sacrifices? Some understatement! Some bills might be lost completely, while others might be progressed quickly but in a shortened form. Much depends on where the bills are in the legislative process and how controversial they are.

Of course, all governments want – and need – to be seen as strong and effective legislators. Now’s the time to deliver those promises outlined in the Queen’s Speech; and fulfill those pledges first enshrined back in the last election manifesto that brought them to power. Behind closed doors, the Opposition can drop the ya-boo rhetoric and must strike the uneasy balance between being compliant and being obstructionist. But “wash-up” is effectively five-to-midnight and, with no time for posturing, all parties will be forced to compromise.

I asked the Lord Chancellor Jack Straw whether we could shed light on the shady world of the washup. He joked that allowing cameras into the Whips Office and filming the negotiations would only make interesting and amusing reality television for political anoraks. I don’t think it’s such a bad idea. Millions love the negotiations, bartering and bargaining in The Apprentice. And that’s just to watch unknowns sell raw fish. Parliamentary legislation actually affects our lives.

Parliament likes its conventions and the wash-up is no different. It seems that so long as a bill passes through one House and reaches at least the second reading stage in the second House, it can be eligible.

A topical example, familiar to many Marketing Week readers, is the Digital Economy Bill. Among other things, the bill imposes controversial obligations on internet service providers to reduce online copyright infringement, updates Channel 4 with a new remit to provide public service content on a range of digital media, modifies the licensing regime to facilitate switchover to digital radio, provides more flexibility over the licensing of Channel 3 and Channel 5 services and allows Ofcom to appoint providers of regional and local news.

It awaits its second reading debate in the Commons, after completion of its Lords stages, including a marathon second reading Debate, no less than seven days set aside for committee stage debates, a further three days debate in report stage and a day for a third reading.

Even after all this, critics are arguing that the legislation is in danger of being rushed through Parliament. These siren voices add that it is “undemocratic” for the only scrutiny to have been by the (unelected) Peers, rather than the MPs.

At any rate, Shadow Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has already said the Conservatives will sink the entire Digital Economy Bill, a flagship piece of legislation, if the Government clings to its proposals for independently financed news consortia. He was quoted in the Financial Times as saying: “This is a red line for us. We want this clause out of the bill.”

This legislation is vital to the future of the communications sector. There’s been years of work and hundreds of thousands of pounds spent by those in public affairs, PR, advertising, stake holder and press relations, trying to agenda-set on behalf of competing broadcasters, rival media and communications companies, broadband suppliers, ISPs and telecoms companies. Lots of submissions have been made. Culture Ministers, including Digital Britain author Stephen Carter, have come and gone. Briefs have been circulated, emails sent and phone calls made to 645 MPs, 700-plus Peers and dozens of opinion formers. There’s already been an armful of amendments. And yet the whole project might still be sunk.

At a recent Hansard Society seminar, I asked the Lord Chancellor Jack Straw, a former Leader of the Commons, whether for the sake of democratic accountability and transparency, we could shed light on the shady world of the wash-up. He joked that allowing cameras into the Whips Office and filming the negotiations would only make interesting and amusing reality television for political anoraks.

I don’t think it’s such a bad idea. And why think of it as niche viewing – millions love the negotiations, bartering and bargaining in The Apprentice. And that’s just to watch unknowns sell raw fish. Parliamentary legislation actually affects our lives. How much more relevant to witness the hitherto “off-the-record” whips bludgeon each other to healthy compromise? This broadcasting would be educational, informative and entertaining..and unarguably a public service.

Perhaps if the bill receives Royal Assent and Channel 4 gets its new digital remit, it should bid to produce “All Washed Up” ready for the next dissolution in four or five years’ time.

Neil Moss was BBC political and parliamentary officer from 1998-2008. He works as a public affairs and media consultant

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