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Racist Abuse on Social Media

Volume 699: debated on Wednesday 14 July 2021

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on the prevalence of racist abuse on social media.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. I will take a moment to reflect on the extraordinary success of the England football team in this tournament, knowing as we do the background to the urgent question. That team played their hearts out for us, and they won through to their first international final for 55 years. They did so with enormous skill, with sportsmanship and with dignity. They brought our country together and they united us in joy. It is therefore a great shame that the success and achievements of every member of that team have been overshadowed by the racism of online trolls.

In Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister just reinforced our collective condemnation of racism online and offline. Individuals who commit racist offences should face the full force of law, and we already have robust legislation in place to deal with online hate. Governments around the world are grappling with how we collectively tame the wild west of the internet. We are leading the world in tackling online harms through the introduction of the online safety Bill, which will put in place measures to tackle illegal and legal but harmful abuse, including racist abuse.

If major platforms do not meet their own standards to keep people safe and address abuse quickly and effectively, they could face enforcement action. Let one message ring loud and clear to those companies: there is no reason for companies to wait until the regime is fully running to take action against this abhorrent abuse. Indeed, I suspect that such delays will serve to stiffen the resolve of the Government and of this House.

In addition, we have asked the Law Commission to conduct a wide-ranging review into hate crime, including offensive online communications. Let us put that in context: in 2019-20, the police recorded more than 76,000 race hate crimes. Increases in police-recorded hate crime in recent years have been driven by improvements in crime recording and better identification of what constitutes a hate crime. Although statistics can help us track trends, we must always remember that behind the numbers are real people who are often left traumatised and shaken by their experiences. There is nothing so damaging and corrosive as the impact that racism has both on victims and on our communities more widely.

I would like to conclude this statement with the words of our England manager Gareth Southgate:

“We have been a beacon of light in bringing people together…the national team stands for everybody and so that togetherness has to continue. We have shown the power our country has when it does come together”.

Let us all live up to those words.

I am grateful for that response, but the reaction of the Government has lacked urgency and completely failed to understand the scale of the revulsion that exists as a result of the events of recent days. The England men’s football players have been a credit to the country on and off the pitch. When they took the knee to stand against racism, that was not gesture politics. They spoke courageously to a desire for change across our country. The failure of the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary to condemn those who were booing the team while they took the knee was shameful, and frankly makes their later protestations of support for the team no more than empty words. The Home Secretary has not even bothered to turn up to answer this urgent question today.

The racist abuse to which Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka have been subjected is disgraceful. Such behaviour has been too common on social media for too long. Social media platforms have had more than long enough to act. The Home Secretary said to me on Monday that “legislation will be absolutely pivotal”, but the Government have dragged their feet bringing the online harms Bill forward. Worse still, the Bill as proposed will not address what we have seen in the past couple of days—allowing social media companies to set their own terms and conditions will not be enough.

Will the Government therefore commit to including criminal sanctions for senior executives in the Bill? In addition, will the Minister tell us exactly when the Government will be acceding to the demand from Opposition Members to extend football banning orders to offences that take place online, as was promised by the Prime Minister in Prime Minister’s questions?

Finally, will the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary finally show some leadership, and apologise for siding with those who are booing and not with the brave England players?

If I may, I will just explain to the House where the Home Secretary is today. She is at this very moment hosting a long-standing meeting with charities on the frontline of tackling violence against women and girls and with the survivors of those crimes, so I hope the House will instead put up with me answering this urgent question. However, I know that the Home Secretary would reject many, indeed all, of the allegations that the right hon. Gentleman has just made about her conduct. She has been relentless—relentless —in pursuing social media companies to ensure that they take much tougher stances, as we all expect, not just on racism online, but on child sex exploitation, terrorism and other offences. So I do not accept his accusations across the Dispatch Box.

On the online safety Bill, this is a landmark piece of legislation. The Government have been very careful to ensure that the Bill receives the scrutiny of the House, and that is why we are taking the confident step, I would say, of opening up the draft Bill to pre-legislative scrutiny. We do not do that for every Bill, but we want to get this Bill right. The House will remember that we did exactly the same with the Domestic Abuse Bill, and the Bill was made all the better for it. I am delighted that Labour has now, I understand, provided the names of its Committee members, so that the pre-legislative scrutiny can take place at pace. However, I underline the message that this House, but also the public, are watching the behaviours of online companies very carefully, and any company would be very wise to set out what it plans to do in relation to meeting the expectations of this place and of the public when it comes to conducting their systems in a way that is clear and that prevents the sorts of abuse we have seen this weekend.

On football banning orders, again the right hon. Gentleman will have heard what the Prime Minister said very clearly at PMQs about the work the Government are conducting in relation to football banning orders. It is complex because we know, for example, that some of the trolls who have targeted some members of the team over the weekend are overseas, but we very much want to work with football clubs and others to ensure that these orders have the powers that we all want them to have. As I have said throughout—and this is the golden thread that runs throughout our work on tackling online crimes—what is illegal offline is illegal online, and that is the principle we will be adopting throughout the online safety Bill.

I thank my hon. Friend for her statement and for calling out some of the vile racist abuse that our brilliant players have had to face. On Sunday night, the Centre for Countering Digital Hate identified and reported 105 Instagram accounts that racially abused members of the England football team. As of this morning, only six of them have been taken down, so while we are getting warm words from some of these social media companies, that appears to be all we are getting from them at present. Can my hon. Friend therefore confirm that the online safety Bill will be brought forward with speed, and that those who post this abuse online will be held to proper account?

My hon. Friend highlights some of the very practical responses that social media companies can take right now; they do not need to wait for the online safety Bill. I read with some dismay and anger a report in the i paper today about how Instagram had applied its own rules—community rules—in relation to offensive emojis and indeed highly offensive words that were sent to players, but the social media companies themselves have to explain how exactly their community rules accord with the expectations and indeed the law of our country. May I, however, just make the point again that we are not alone in this? This is a challenge facing every democratic society in the world, and it is by working together, as we are doing with our voluntary principles on tackling terrorism and child sexual exploitation, that we are going to be able to make real progress against these companies and against this hatred.

The disgusting online racism faced by England players is unfortunately overshadowing a fantastic tournament and a fantastic performance by an England team that has lately attracted admiration and perhaps even a little bit of envy.

Yes, we urgently need stronger online regulation. Content must be taken down faster, and platforms must no longer be allowed to support racist content through shamefully lax rules. We also need a debate on how we identify and punish those peddling this hate. Does the Minister agree that social media regulation is not a silver bullet, that online racism reflects offline racism, and that the Government need to take tackling racism, including structural and institutional racism, more seriously?

Whatever our disagreements, no one could say that the previous Prime Minister did not take tackling racism incredibly seriously. Why do we struggle to say the same about the current Prime Minister? Is it not because on his watch too many in his party have spent more time downplaying racism than tackling it, and more time ridiculing anti-racism campaigners than going after those who actually peddle racism? So yes, we will support action to clamp down on online platforms, but will the Minister support a change of attitude in her party?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I can assure him that had Scotland reached the same dizzy heights as England, I would have been cheering them on with great passion and strength of feeling, so I am pleased that he was able to concede some support for the England team.

As for the hon. Gentleman’s wider question about racism and hate speech across society, he is right to acknowledge that this is a matter for us all to tackle. As a member of the Home Affairs Committee, he will be aware of the work that the Government are doing to tackle hate speech and hate crimes. Of course, “hate crimes” is a very broad term: it includes not only racism but hatred towards disabled people, hatred towards transgender people, and so on. That is why we have asked the Law Commission to look at online crimes to ensure that the position is up to date and meets our expectations.

However, there is a wider message on racism more generally. I have been overwhelmed by the public’s response to those trolls over the weekend—by, for example, the way they responded to what happened to the mural in Withington: how angry they were that some individual had defaced it, and how positive their reaction has been. I think that that is what we need to reflect on and act on. Indeed, that is why I quoted our team’s manager. I think he has summed up where the public are and where we are on this, and I think it is by working together that we will tackle some of these hateful attitudes.

I know that the Home Secretary herself has been at the receiving end of terrible racist abuse. Does the Minister agree that fighting racism online and in any other form is a priority for her and for the Government? Does she also agree that that fight will be most effective when racism and anti-racism campaigns are fully understood by everyone, and that what really matters is meaningful action to tackle the scourge of racism?

Very much so. The Home Secretary has been targeted,, along with other Members on both sides of the House, and it seems that, sadly, women in particular—women of colour—are targeted by online trolls.

There are many, many people in our society who have to deal with this racism, not just online but, I am afraid, offline. I think that part of our national conversation should be about how each of us can show our complete support for the campaigns to combat racism, and how we can all ensure that we are doing everything we can, both individually and as a country, to tackle racist behaviour. I know that the Home Secretary feels very strongly about this, and indeed she has been particularly strong in her communications with tech companies throughout the two years for which she has been in office; but I also know that this is a feeling shared by many in the House, and, as I say, I am very conscious that there are others in this place who are victims as well.

On the Instagram profiles of England heroes this lunch time, there are still racist posts, including blatantly racist words and emojis, that have been up for more than 24 hours. I have challenged Instagram on this from the Home Affairs Committee repeatedly over the last few days. It told me this morning that using some of those emojis as racist slurs is against its rules, yet inexplicably, they are still up, and it is still taking Instagram days to remove these posts. Speed matters.

Can the Minister tell me what the Online Safety Bill is actually going to do to take action on this speed issue and to penalise companies for not moving fast enough? At the moment it looks as though that action will not happen. That is unacceptable. Keyboard cowards are being given a megaphone by these social media companies, and it has to stop.

I completely agree with the right hon. Lady, the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee. I do not think these tech companies quite understand the anger and frustration of everyone involved in trying to scrutinise and hold them to account when they come back at us with, “It doesn’t meet our community rules.” Words such as the words I suspect she is thinking about, the emojis, the language—that is unacceptable in any civilised society, and that includes online fora as well as offline. The Bill is a real opportunity for the Government to lay the law down but also, as I say, for parliamentarians across the House to make their views known. I have long urged the companies to listen carefully to Members of Parliament, and I would urge them again to do so, because if they do not listen, we will act.

As someone who represents one of the most diverse constituencies in the entire country, may I put on the record how abhorrent racism is, in any form? Does my hon. Friend agree that many of these online trolls hide behind the cloak of anonymity? Can she confirm that the police can still prosecute anonymous postings, and will she consider whether we should outlaw such online posting? I think that people would take more personal responsibility if it were in their own name.

My hon. Friend alights upon a very important point, but also one that will require the scrutiny and debate of this House. While we know that many, many cowards hide behind anonymous accounts, there are people who use their anonymity legitimately—victims of domestic abuse, for example, and indeed whistleblowers in very restrictive regimes overseas. I know that this place, when we come to scrutinise the Bill, will weigh those arguments up very carefully, but again, I have great sympathy with my hon. Friend’s viewpoint that if people are able to hide behind these accounts anonymously, of course that makes it much more difficult for the police to trace them. Again, we need to think through collectively where we are prepared to draw the boundaries in the wild west of the internet.

The Minister gave the usual Tory platitudes. Yes, she condemned the horrific racism our England stars have faced, but what did she think about the Prime Minister when he was describing black people as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”, when he used newspaper columns to mock Muslim women as “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”, when he refused to condemn the booing of England players taking the knee, and when his Home Secretary derided that anti-racist message as “gesture politics”? Is it not the case, like England star Tyrone Mings has said, that the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister were stoking the fire of racism and giving the green light to racism, and only now, when the consequences are clear, are they feigning outrage?

I had hoped that we would be able to conduct this debate in a measured and collective way. I do not genuinely think the hon. Lady is accusing either the Prime Minister of this country or, indeed, the Home Secretary of racism. That would be a truly extraordinary allegation to make. I hope that, at some point, we will be able to work together to tackle racism. That is what we all want to do. That is what the work of this Government is directed towards. I hope that we can lower the tone a little bit and understand that in—[Interruption.] Again, the hon. Lady is trying to shout at me. In tackling these horrific instances of racism, we need to work collectively together, and shouting at me across the Dispatch Box is not going to help with that.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the incidents of racism on social media over the past few days show why the approach taken in the draft Online Safety Bill is right? We need an independent regulator that will hold companies to account. Those companies have failed to take down this abuse, even though it is against their platform policies, and they have failed to take it down when people have complained about it. Worse than that, their own recommendation tools were actually promoting the content on Sunday night. This has to stop, but it will only stop once there is independent regulation of these companies.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right in describing that Bill as necessary and required. I think that in 10 or 15 years’ time we will look back on this era of the internet, and with the regulations we will be in a much better place in terms of people accessing social media in a positive, healthy way, rather than having to put up with the hatred we have seen in some quarters. In the Bill, as part of imposing that duty of care, we propose fines for the companies concerned of up to £18 million or—importantly—up to 10% of qualifying annual turnover. I suspect that the second figure may be the one that helps to concentrate minds.

Is not the issue that the Government have refused to take any action towards ending social media discrimination of any kind? That, in turn, has fanned the flames of divisiveness and hate in our communities that we are currently witnessing, as my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) pointed out. The Amnesty International report on “Toxic Twitter” pointed out that black women are 84% more likely to experience racist abuse online than anyone else. What real steps will the Minister take, urgently, to ensure that no one—and I mean absolutely no one—is able to post racist abuse online?

I suspect I am not the only person who feels a little astonished that it is this right hon. Member who chose to ask that question about taking immediate action to tackle racism. I remind the House of the findings of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission under his watch—Labour has

“unlawfully discriminated against, harassed or victimised people because they are Jewish.”

I am also reminded that a Jewish female MP had to have police protection at the right hon. Gentleman’s party conference, because of fears for her own safety. I will listen to many people about tackling racism and I will work with pretty much anyone, but I will take a long spoon with which to sup with this particular Member.

It is popular to blame mutant algorithms for many things, but social media giants could use them quickly and effectively to shut down accounts that are spouting racist bile. Will my hon. Friend assure me that the Government are prepared to take action against platforms such as Instagram, which have been painfully slow to respond to the horrific racist abuse targeted at black players since Sunday?

My right hon. Friend alights on an important point. This power is already within the reach of internet companies. Those companies seem to think that their community rules somehow take precedence over the laws of our country, and I imagine that is the same across other countries in the world. The message to those tech companies is this: please listen to the public’s outrage at some of the posts festering on your platforms, and deal with them. It is simply not acceptable to expect players, or victims of such abuse, to deal with it themselves. The tech companies have the algorithms and no doubt the powers to intervene, and they should use them now.

My question is a similar one. The racist abuse targeted at black footballers has been absolutely abhorrent. The tech giants could have stopped it, but they chose not to because it suits their business model. In October 2020, Mark Zuckerberg decided, literally on a whim, to remove holocaust denial from his Facebook, and he did that. In February 2021, after a public outcry, Instagram made a U-turn, changed its policy and started to regulate some direct messages of racial abuse.

Does the Minister agree that it is not the powers or the capability of the tech giants that is lacking, but the will? Everybody knew that the Wembley final could result in a torrent of abuse, yet the online platforms chose not to plan, not to monitor and not to act. Does she further agree that if we are to turn empty rhetoric into action, it is not enough to fine the companies, but the Government must legislate to hold the senior executives to personal account? They should be personally liable for failing to remove harmful content from their platforms.

I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Lady and mindful of her own experiences with abuse, online and offline. I agree that of course these powers exist already, so one can only conclude that in the cases highlighted in this Chamber and in newspapers, the businesses concerned do not wish to remove those items; I have no doubt that if I am wrong, they will correct me.

There must be a will there. I very much hope that a former Member of this House—one Sir Nick Clegg, who, as we know, advises Facebook at a very senior level in California—is advising Facebook as to the powers of this place and the anger that Members across the Chamber feel. It seems to me that responding to these concerns makes not just good moral sense, but good business sense.

The abuse that we saw after England’s heroic final Euro game is beyond disgusting and has no place in any world, let alone the modern world. I know that my hon. Friend will agree that it is not beyond the ingenuity of social media platforms to deploy their vast coding expertise to develop artificial intelligence and algorithmic solutions to rapidly remove disgusting, abusive racist posts while still being able to protect appropriate freedom of speech. Sadly, there is more than enough training data for them to use.

Very much so. My challenge to these tech companies is, “Look: you have some of the brightest brains in the world. You recruit from the top universities. You pay—I imagine—handsomely. Use those brilliant brains to do some good and to stop this abuse on your platforms.”

The whole England team have been remarkable in opposing racism and championing justice and equality for all. Sadly, they have not had the full support of this Government. It is up to all of us with a public platform, including the Home Secretary, to personally confront racism in all its forms and give our full support to those who are working against it. The Home Secretary is not here today, so I cannot ask her personally, but will the Minister add her support to the petition to ban racists for life from all football matches in England, which now has more than 1 million signatories?

I do not know whether the hon. Lady was in the Chamber at the beginning of this urgent question when I explained that the Home Secretary is hosting a meeting—a long-standing meeting—with charities that work with survivors of violence against women and girls. I hope that the House will understand.

On the hon. Lady’s general allegations, I am minded to point out that the Home Secretary herself receives extraordinary levels of online hatred. Some of the things that she—and, in fairness, others across this House—have to deal with are eye-watering. I urge hon. Members to join together with us in tackling this racism.

On the petition, the hon. Lady may have missed the Prime Minister’s answer at Prime Minister’s questions. We are going even better than the petition, because we are looking urgently at football banning orders to ensure that people who express these racist views are stopped from going to our matches entirely.

I believe this great and united nation is one of the most tolerant and anti-discrimination nations I know, and that what we have witnessed is orchestrated hate crime by the minority and trolls. Does the Minister agree that we need tougher punishments for racially driven violence, intimidation and abuse on social media? The biggest issue I see is with the social media companies, which have been very slow to remove abuse from their platforms.

My hon. Friend has worked assiduously not just on online hatred directed on racist grounds, but on other categories of people affected on social media, including women. I hope she will work tirelessly with the Government on our forthcoming Online Safety Bill to ensure not only that these companies do what they should do and clear out their own backyard, but that we work together to tackle the horrific attitudes that underline this abuse.

Minister, we live in an era when online abuse is becoming normalised. The disgusting comments directed at our footballers on social media have in many cases been illegal, and the perpetrators must be brought to justice. But in other cases the abuse has been technically legal, yet remains extremely harmful and distressing. Warm words and veiled threats are clearly not enough. Will she therefore commit today to ensuring that legal but harmful content will be adequately addressed in the Online Safety Bill, to improving the Bill to ensure that social media companies’ terms and conditions meet a minimum standard, and to ensuring that those standards are enforced so that harmful content is swiftly removed from their platforms?

Yes, I am very happy to confirm that of course we are looking at legal but harmful material. Let me draw the House’s attention to the fact that the Online Safety Bill is a really significant piece of legislation but there will be other vehicles for legislating on these sorts of crimes, including not only the victims Bill but the Law Commission’s work on online hate law more generally. It is really important that we get this right. The law has probably struggled to keep up to date with some of these developing advances in technology and we have to make sure it is future-proofed to cover these terrible crimes.

Since Sunday’s final, everyone I have spoken to in my constituency, everywhere I have been, has expressed nothing but pride in our England team. Racist abuse online has inspired an outpouring of support and solidary. By contrast, figures released by Twitter in 2020 show that the company responded to less than 50% of all requests for information from law enforcement in the UK. Alongside support for campaigns such as Kick It Out, does my hon. Friend agree that such social media platforms must seriously raise their game or face serious repercussions?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend, and I am delighted to hear that the football team have received such support in her constituency—I suspect that that is the experience of us all. The racist attitudes that have been displayed by a small number of people and trolls, some of which we know originate from overseas, are very much in the minority. The overwhelming majority of us are incredibly proud of our great team.

I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and my position as co-chair of the all-party group on showing racism the red card. Show Racism the Red Card does fantastic work in tackling racist abuse, online and elsewhere, but the Home Office, in its wisdom, cut its funding to zero 18 months ago. Show Racism the Red Card still gets funding from the Scottish and Welsh Governments, so will the Minister meet me, parliamentary colleagues and Show Racism the Red Card so that we can discuss its funding, to help to tackle this scourge in our society?

I am very happy to do that. I should point out that a huge programme of work continues, including the online crime hub run by the police, which we help to fund. Campaigns that help to tackle racism are clearly in our country’s interests, so I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss those issues further.

Sunday night should have been a celebration of achievement. Instead, we woke up the next morning with racism aimed at three men simply doing their job. That is not acceptable. We know that social media is at the centre of the storm and has a growing influence across our lives, from bullying and racism to my interest, which is in body image. Does my hon. Friend agree that social media campaigns and companies have a duty and responsibility to work proactively with Government and the police to better our society?

I most certainly do agree. In fairness, as the House would expect, I should say that we do a lot of work with online companies across a great range of subjects. Indeed, only yesterday I met business leaders, including tech leaders, to discuss how we can create opportunities for our hardest-to-reach young people who are at risk of serious violence. I am grateful to them for those activities, but the message is coming out loud and clear not just in this country but across the world that somehow we must tame the wild west of the internet so that these more hateful practices are not dominating our national headlines and taking away from the great achievements of our England team.

Racist abuse online is not just abhorrent; it normalises racist views offline and desensitises people to them. The true spirit of Greater Manchester is in the scenes that the Minister mentioned of the community placing messages of support and love on the defaced Marcus Rashford mural, not the graffiti of some pea-brained moron. As a Man City fan, I say that United’s Rashford is among the best of us. I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to extending football banning orders to cover online abuse, for which Labour has been calling for some time. Given the urgency, when and how will that happen?

I do not have a timeframe to hand, but I will happily write to the hon. Gentleman on that. May I thank him, as a Man City fan and a Member of Parliament for one of the greatest cities on the planet, for highlighting the great humour and support that the people of Withington have shown?

We all know that social media companies have the tools and powers to prevent online hate, yet it is still happening day in, day out. The incidents following Sunday evening have shone a light on this disgusting abuse. If social media companies will not act on their own, what actions will the Government take to ensure that finally we put a full stop to online hate?

My hon. Friend has identified the opportunity for the Government, and indeed the House, in the Online Safety Bill. The powers-that-be in the tech companies are no doubt watching the debate closely, and I assume they have got the message loud and clear from all parts of the House about our expectations on their next moves.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House this afternoon. Racist incidents online do not exist in a vacuum; they exist in a world where, according to the YMCA, 95% of young black British children have witnessed racism in education. They exist in a world where, according to the Runnymede Trust, racism in the UK is systematic in our health system, in the criminal justice system, in employment and even in politics, which I know all too well. I want every young black and minority ethnic person watching today to know that they have a place in this society and they can reach the height that I did from a council estate in Brixton. I will continue to do my bit to ensure that we speak out against racism.

This racism also exists in a world where so-called spectators even want to boo their own team—disgraceful! Social media companies need to take a lot more action, but, until they feel the full weight of the law, they will not understand that. Will the Minister confirm whether the Government will introduce criminal sanctions against social media executives in the Online Harms Bill?

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments; she spoke with such passion, and she is right. Every time she and other Members of this House stand up to speak on behalf of their constituents, they are role models. I am delighted that this House is more diverse than it has ever been, although it needs to be even more diverse. I am also very proud of the fact that the Government are more diverse than they have ever been. The fact that two of the great offices of state are filled by people who happen to be of ethnic minority heritage is a real credit to our country and to how one can achieve what one wants with hard work and effort.

On the hon. Lady’s question relating to executives, that is something we are looking at in the Bill. There are measures in it that have been set out to deal with executives. Of course, I welcome her and any other Members’ input to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that the Bill is meeting the expectations of all.

Some of these vile abusers are totally open, but the cloak of anonymity does embolden others. It also opens the door for hostile actors, with the divisive exploitation that can sometimes follow. As the Minister said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan), anonymity is important in some contexts, including, for example, for survivors of domestic abuse, but it does not follow that it is therefore required in all contexts. If someone is communicating online in their own identity, should they not be able to say that they want to hear from and be commented on only by other people who are using their own identity? Will the Government please look at that again in the Online Safety Bill?

Like thousands of other Welsh fans, I stand with Marcus Rashford and others, including many Welsh players, against the vile racist abuse they have received. Tory Home Secretaries have wasted years through their inaction on this issue. In 2016, I introduced my Criminal Offences (Misuse of Digital Technologies and Services) (Consolidation) Bill, which included tackling racist abuse online, to make the current fragmented law workable in the 21st century. Five years on, we are still waiting for action. I have a specific question: will the Online Safety Bill provide clarity on what constitutes illegal racist hate speech against groups of people as well as offences against individuals?

The hon. Lady knows that we have asked the Law Commission to look into the laws relating to malicious online communications. I declare my interest as a former prosecuting counsel. This is a horribly complex area of law, and as technology develops with, for example, deep fake images and so on, it becomes more complex. That is precisely why we asked the Law Commission to look into it. In terms of the hon. Lady’s other challenges, the Bill is going to be scrutinised at length by the House, so she will no doubt have the opportunity put her views forward. I want to get the message out that the Online Safety Bill needs to be considered carefully, because we very much want it to be a piece of legislation that stands the test of time. I cannot really think of another country in the world that has entered into such an ambitious project to try to bring some of these corners of the internet into the light so that we do not see these sorts of practices online.

Much of the online racist abuse against England’s footballers is thought to have originated from overseas social media accounts. What steps are she and her Department taking with counterparts in other countries to ensure that there is a concerted international effort to stamp out these appalling attacks so that there is no hiding place?

I think my hon. Friend is referring to the early analysis by the Premier League. I hope he will be reassured by the fact that we are looking into this with some urgency. Given that it is a global football competition, it is perhaps no leap of the imagination to suppose that some of this abuse may have come from overseas, and we want to look at that carefully. This also underlines the point that the internet is available across the world and that we have to act collectively with other nation states in order to bring these trolls to heel. We are already doing that through the Five Eyes and through the voluntary principles that we have won agreement on in relation to child sexual exploitation and tackling terrorism.

I join the Minister and others in their congratulations and tributes to the England football team, and in their condemnation of the abuse suffered by the three black players. In a couple of months’ time, David, in the form of Northern Ireland, will take on Goliath, in the form of Italy, in World cup qualifying. We will endeavour to build on the national pride and endeavour we have seen in the past few weeks.

On the online safety Bill, will the Minister reassert, as she has said several times, that if the providers do not act, they will suffer grievous financial hardship and we will hit them where it hurts, in their corporate pockets?

I am pleased to join the hon. Gentleman’s support for Northern Ireland. I am sure Italy will pose no problem for Northern Ireland, and I wish Northern Ireland all the greatest of success.

On the serious subject of our work to tackle the online hatred we saw again this weekend, the online safety Bill is a landmark piece of legislation and I look forward to working with the House on its passage.

Racism, racist bullying and any form of bullying is completely unacceptable, and I hope my hon. Friend uses all her powers to stamp down on such behaviour. On divisiveness in our society, it appears it has become about whether or not people take the knee. Does she agree that the single biggest cause of divisiveness is the lack of tolerance and respect from both sides of the argument, equally? It does not matter whether someone chooses to take the knee. What matters is that they have tolerance and respect for those who choose to and, equally, for those who choose not to.

My hon. Friend has defined what it is to live in a free country. We abide by the principles of free speech, within the genuine and legitimate confines of legislation such as hate crime legislation. We have a wonderfully diverse football team with enormous talent and enormous skills. Just as they have acted with tolerance, respect and humility in the face of the nation’s joy and adoration, we should extend that to each other and treat each other with tolerance and respect.

We all know that racist abuse is not confined to social media. On 3 July, The Sunday Times ran an article stating that Raheem Sterling’s success in the Euros was being celebrated on the “violent Jamaica streets” where he grew up. This sort of ignorant and tasteless commentary only feeds the stereotype that black people and black populations or countries are dangerous. Will the Minister today condemn the disgusting attitudes that have been propelled by the tabloids and broadsheets for decades? What will she do about it?

I have not seen that report, but my memory of Raheem Sterling is the story he told of growing up in the shadow of the Wembley arch and imagining himself playing under that arch—instead of being outside the stadium, being inside the stadium. Of course, he has done exactly that.

That shows that in this country there is the opportunity and the chance, if you have the talents of Mr Sterling and others, to succeed. I very much hope that is the message that comes out of our debate both this afternoon and more generally in relation to the horrendous hate crimes we saw over the weekend.

Does the Minister agree that this should be a matter where both sides of the House and all parties come together to ensure we put an end to racist abuse once and for all? Will she highlight how, through the online safety Bill, this will actually happen?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. By working together, we are so much stronger. Today we have seen that there is great unity of intent and will across the House to ensure that those who express racist views are held to account and brought to justice, and that each part of society plays its part, including online companies.

Does the Minister think her colleagues’ refusal to condemn the booing of players for taking the knee, their dismissal of taking the knee as “gesture politics”, No. 10’s denial of institutional racism in the UK or the Government’s three-year delay to legislation that would crack down on online abuse could have given space to a culture or hostile environment that sees the racist abuse of England players as acceptable? Does the Minister regret that denial of the problem and the failure to act?

I am going to temper the hon. Lady’s remarks with some facts. The Home Secretary did not say that she supported football fans booing England players for taking the knee. The Prime Minister was clear in saying that the public should be cheering our team, not booing them. We have to be very careful with how we handle the facts; we are presenting our plans for the future to help to eradicate racism and our plans for taming the internet, and that is how we will achieve things. A little bit of back and forth at the Dispatch Box is welcome and part of our rich tapestry of democracy, but I do hope that the hon. Lady will stick to facts next time.

I draw the Minister’s attention to the paradox identified by Sunder Katwala, the director of British Future: there are far fewer overt racists in Britain today than there were 20 or 30 years ago, which is a very good thing, and there are far fewer racist attitudes in Britain, but because of social media and the fact that everyone is always online, individuals from black and ethnic minority communities experience far more racism on a day-to-day basis than they did then. That is why fixing this needs to be a public policy priority and why people at Twitter and Facebook need to step up. They need to stop people who are banned opening new accounts, and they need to address the algorithms that promote that material, and in that way we can rebuild community cohesion.

We all acknowledge the echo chamber that social media provides, and the fact that being available online across the world perhaps enables just a single person to have far more volume added to their voice than would be the case if they were known, as they usually are, to be sitting in their bedroom rather pathetically tapping away on their laptop or phone. We must build resilience among our young people in schools to prepare them to understand that torrents of abuse like this may represent only a tiny number of people, and very much build on education and the cultural attitudes that we are seeking to address through relationships, health and sex education in schools to ensure that people understand the principles of tolerance and kindness in being able to debate without hatred. There are many ways of tackling racism. I look forward to debating them in the months and years to come, but we do not need to take chunks out of one another while we are debating.

I am now suspending the House for a few minutes to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.

Sitting suspended.