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Online Harms

Volume 676: debated on Thursday 4 June 2020

I know how hard my right hon. and learned Friend worked on online harms during his time as Secretary of State, and I pay tribute to him for the work he did. I can reassure him and all hon. Members that I remain committed to introducing this important Bill, which will enable us to have world-leading regulation that protects users while not imposing excessive burdens on business. We will publish a full Government response to the White Paper later this year and will be ready for the Bill to be introduced later in this Session.

I am grateful for what my right hon. Friend has said. Given that we have all been spending more time online recently, especially the most vulnerable among us, he will accept that the case for sensible, balanced regulation of online harms, centred on a duty of care for online platforms, is as strong as ever. I am grateful, too, for what he says about the timetable, but can I urge him to bring forward legislation as soon as possible so that the House can consider it? Also, what action do the Government intend to take in relation to the draft age appropriate design code and when?

I can reassure my right hon. and learned Friend that almost as we speak, and on pretty much a daily basis, I am taking the decisions necessary to ensure we bring forward the response to the White Paper and then the Bill itself. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) is seeking to intervene from a sedentary position. I can reassure her and other Members: it will be in this Session, as we have said consistently. On the age appropriate design code, I am taking the necessary steps to lay the code, as required by statute. I recognise concerns raised by businesses and indeed hon. Members, however, which is why I have asked the Information Commissioner’s Office to produce an assessment of its economic impact, and I will be including frequently asked questions for the news media sector in the code’s explanatory memorandum when I lay it.

With the exception of Parliament, we are all of us online now: grandparents and schoolchildren, businesses and book clubs, theatres and tea parties, scammers and paedophiles. Online fraud has risen 400%, and the former Home Secretary and Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), described the pandemic as a perfect storm for child abuse, yet the Government refuse to introduce any draft legislation—neither the online harms Bill nor the age appropriate design code—although they have been discussed and announced, including in manifestos. The Secretary of State talks about bringing it forward in this Session, but we do not even know how long this Session will last. Parents, the NSPCC and three Select Committees all say we need legislation now. The tech giants say it would be burdensome. Whose side is he on? Can he give me dates for the code and the Bill?

I have great respect for the hon. Lady, as she knows, but I fear she did not listen to my answer to the previous question. I am on the side of young people—I have a daughter myself who is just entering adolescence—and of course I understand completely the need for stringent regulation. That is why, as I said in my answer to the previous question—I am happy to reassure her again—that the age appropriate design code will be laid imminently, and as I have said repeatedly we will respond to the online harms White Paper and introduce legislation in this Session.

Can the Secretary of State say with any certainty whether online harms legislation will be delivered in the next 12 months, and will its scope reflect the lessons from our experiences of disinformation in this covid-19 pandemic? Also, does he agree that online harms are a much broader and more substantive issue that speaks to the functioning of our society, rather than solely a matter of child protection, however important that is?

As ever, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. I can see that the House is trying to nail me down to an exact date for a Bill that will be introduced in this Session. I can assure him that it will be introduced within the year. As all hon. Members will appreciate, there are usual channels to go through to introduce the Bill, but I think I have given a clear assurance on that, as I did to the Select Committee. On his question about lessons learnt, I would restate the point about younger people. It is really important that we have robust protections for young people online but also that we hold social media companies to their own terms and conditions. That is an important part of the online harms legislation.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this point. That is why my hon. Friend the tourism and sports Minister has engaged extensively with gambling companies on measures they can take and why the Government have already introduced a ban on using credit cards for gambling and will be issuing a call for evidence on loot boxes, which are also a way gambling can take place online.