A major change to UK copyright law is likely to be introduced and debated within the space of one hour on the last day of the current parliament, according to Labour MP Tom Watson.
Watson said the lack of time available for parliamentary discussion before the general election — expected to be on 6 May — means the Digital Economy Bill will skip the weeks of scrutiny usually given to complex legislation.
"This is a fiendishly complex piece of legislation, and it therefore requires proper and adequate scrutiny," Watson said to ZDNet UK on Tuesday. "At the moment, it looks like it will get a day's second reading where [MPs] talk about the general principles of the bill, then it'll be banged through in an hour on the last day of Parliament."
The House of Lords passed the bill on Monday, handing it over to MPs for final approval. However, one element, known as Clause 18, remained unapproved. This clause would make it possible for rights holders to gain takedown injunctions against ISPs, forcing them to block access to websites that allegedly host or facilitate access to illicitly copied music, films and games.
Government minister Lord Young said at Monday's debate that Clause 18 was "unenforceable" and that it would be replaced by the government. As a result, Liberal Democrat peer Lord Clement-Jones — who had tabled the clause under Amendment 120A — withdrew new amendments that would have "rebalanced" the measure by letting website owners appeal against their sites being blocked.
Several other amendments tabled at the end of last week were also withdrawn.
Clement-Jones told ZDNet UK on Tuesday that "the government decided they were going to do something different when it came to the Commons [so] there was no point pushing to amend [Clause 18] further, when it would be lost in the wash-up anyway".
The 'wash-up' is a brief period in the dying hours of a sitting parliament, when outstanding legislation is pushed through in frontbench deals. Convention dictates that any legislation approved by one house of Parliament and passed through a second reading in the other is eligible for this treatment.
In this case, according to Clement-Jones, a deal could be done that involves compromises across the Digital Economy Bill and one or more other pieces of legislation that land in the wash-up, such as the Equality Bill, Bribery Bill, Financial Services Bill or Finance Bill.
Watson, who has criticised some copyright provisions in the Digital Economy Bill, said that the legislation will be introduced in the Commons "in the form it leaves the Lords", and can only be amended in the committee or report stages. He added that the tight schedule before the general election means the committee stage is likely be skipped, so the government will probably introduce its replacement for Clause 18 at report stage on the last day of Parliament.
The government's replacement could follow Clause 18 or its predecessor, which would have given the business secretary the right to amend copyright law so as to keep up with new technical ways of unlawfully sharing copyrighted material.
According to Clement-Jones, if the new clause leads to dissent between the Labour and Conservative frontbenches, then the Commons will have to vote on the matter, after which the clause will be returned to the Lords for fresh approval. "What happens in the Lords [then] is absolutely not clear," he added.
However, as Watson pointed out, the two major parties' frontbenchers broadly agree on copyright enforcement.
"There is plenty in the bill that is less controversial and generally consensual — videogames classification for example," Watson said. "That is the sort of thing you could put through in the wash-up. But major change to copyright law in an hour? Parliament would be asking for trouble — if you don't test the bill and scrutinise it, the law of unintended consequences can kick in."
Watson noted that "the logical thing to do would be to remove the copyright changes from the bill and start again [with those changes] after the election". He urged people to email their MP, calling for the bill's copyright-changing clause to be removed and dealt with separately after the election.
"No party really wants to enter an election on a row," Watson said, adding that demonstrations against the Digital Economy Bill, scheduled to take place in London and Sheffield on 24 March, were "important".