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Topical Questions

Volume 688: debated on Thursday 4 February 2021

Last week, I met a number of footballers to discuss the issue of racist and misogynistic abuse on social media as part of a series of roundtables on the future of football. To be clear, we will not tolerate racism in any form, and we are committed to holding platforms to account through our new online safety laws, which we set out to the House in December. I also held a roundtable this week with players and campaigners across a number of sports to discuss the issue of concussion and what more can be done to improve player safety. Of course, in the meantime, we continue to work across Government on a road map for the recovery and reopening of our sectors.

The hopes and ambitions of thousands of Newcastle United fans for their great club are caught in limbo due to the ongoing takeover saga that the English Premier League helped to create. Can there be a more pressing reason for the Secretary of State to deliver the fan-led review of football governance promised in his party’s 2019 manifesto?

I reassure the hon. Lady that I remain firmly committed to the fan-led review, and events such as the meetings to discuss racism that I mentioned will help to frame it. Certainly, the events relating to football finance over the past year have demonstrated the need for that, and we will be making further progress on it this year.

If I were to make a report of online abuse to a social media company, it is likely that a team halfway across the world would look at it and that I would not get a response for a few weeks. It may even not be classed as abuse, because the team may not understand nuances in the English language. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be better for social media companies to use UK-based teams that understand nuances in the English language—what is abuse and what is not—and are therefore quicker in responding and perhaps more effective in stamping out online abuse and racism? (911775)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point, and that is something that I have raised with social media companies. I know that many people are concerned that the moderators are not actually based in the United Kingdom, and speed of response is crucial. Through our online safety Bill, we will require social media companies to take swift and effective action against criminal abuse online, and as part of that we will put in place effective user reporting and redress mechanisms.

I am not quite sure about that yet, Mr Speaker, but thank you for the introduction.

The Minister for Media and Data, the right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), who is not in his place this morning, has rightly won praise for his work on journalistic freedom and the protection of journalists, so may I ask the Secretary of State what advice he would give to fellow Ministers who respond to standard queries from journalists with public attacks and Twitter pile-ons?

May I begin by welcoming the hon. Gentleman to his place and, on behalf of the whole Conservative party, wishing the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) a swift recovery? I know that she is doing very well.

The hon. Gentleman mentions press freedoms. I have been working closely with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Media. We will shortly be publishing the material to which the hon. Gentleman refers—that is to say, the action plan to provide safety for journalists. That will be coming forth very shortly.

I thank the Secretary of State for his kind words about my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens); she will be watching and will be very grateful.

Ofcom is to become a super-regulator with a huge breadth of responsibilities and all their technical complexities, particularly in the digital sphere: online harms and safety, the BBC and broadcasting in general, security of telecoms infrastructure against hostile threats, broadband, and the Post Office. Does the Secretary of State agree that the new chair of Ofcom should have at least some knowledge of and experience in those complex sectors in order to be appointed?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the position of Ofcom chair is vacant. I can update the House that I will shortly be launching the competition for that new role, and a number of excellent candidates have already expressed an interest.

I have grave concerns about restricting the advertising of products that are high in fat, sugar and salt, because I am not convinced that a level playing field on enforcement can be achieved between broadcasters and online platforms. How does my right hon. Friend plan to make such platforms legally responsible under statutory rules for ensuring that advertising for food and drink that is high in fat, sugar and salt does not appear online? (911777)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Covid has been a stark reminder of the importance of reducing obesity, and that is why it is right that we look to restrict the advertising of those products. I have been clear from the beginning in my discussions with the Prime Minister and others that we must ensure equivalence between the approaches to traditional broadcasting platforms and online. Any restrictions should not disproportionately disadvantage broadcasters over online providers, which is why we will bring in reforms to both media at the same time.

In the light of the arrest of freelance photographer and National Union of Journalists member Andy Aitchison following his reporting on a demonstration at Napier barracks in Kent, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to prevent undue interference with the freedom of the press to freely report on the conditions in which asylum seekers are held? (911776)

Freedom of expression is one of the cherished liberties that we have fought for, and one that Members of this House have defended for generations. I fully intend to continue to promote freedom of expression. As part of that, we will be publishing the plan for the protection of journalists, which will be coming forward shortly, as I said to the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson)

Many people, including those with very limited resources, suffer online harms as a result of financial scams promoted on the likes of Facebook and Google. Will my right hon. Friend consider including protections and provisions against that in his forthcoming online harms legislation? (911780)

Like my hon. Friend, I am deeply concerned about the growth of online fraud, and we are working closely with industry and law enforcement to disrupt those committing crimes online. While the online harms legislation will focus on user-generated content, we are also determined to tackle fraud such as phishing and fake websites. The Government’s “Cyber Aware” campaign has been set up to inform the public about how to keep safe online.

I hope the Secretary of State will join me in congratulating the team at Celtic Connections on an amazing virtual festival over the past few weeks, but the artists performing there are desperate to get back in front of live audiences, including many of my constituents. Instead of indulging in a blame game with the European Union, when will there be actual progress on ensuring visa-free travel for our world-class artists? (911778)

I join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating Celtic Connections on the huge success of its first wholly virtual festival, with more than 27,000 tickets sold and audiences tuning in from over 16 countries. That is testament to the strength of our United Kingdom. Of course, I will continue to work to provide ways to ensure that artists can continue to tour, but it is a bit rich for the Scottish nationalist party to talk about blame games; they are virtually its raison d’être.

The Six Nations rugby tournament starts this weekend, with England playing Scotland at what will be a sadly empty Twickenham stadium, but at club level matches are not permitted. What plans does the Minister have to encourage players of all sports, just as soon as it is safe to do so, to get back on to the pitch? (911783)

Like my hon. Friend, I very much regret that there will not be fans in the stadiums for the Six Nations, particularly after the interrupted tournament last year, but we in this House all understand the reasons why. We have had to take decisive action to maintain this national lockdown, but we will be working to get fans back in stadiums as soon as it is safe to do so.