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Online Safety Bill

Volume 706: debated on Thursday 6 January 2022

2. What recent discussions she has held with (a) Cabinet colleagues and (b) civil society groups on the proposed Online Safety Bill. (904863)

May I echo my colleague’s warm welcome to the shadow Front Bench team, particularly the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell)? I am quite sure that we support different football teams and I know that we are from different cities, but we are both north-westerners and I look forward to a positive working relationship.

I have met a range of stakeholders, including civil society groups, to discuss the Online Safety Bill. I have also had regular meetings with my ministerial colleagues, and I have heard a wide range of opinions on the Bill. I am taking those options into account alongside the recommendations of the Joint Committee.

There has been widespread support throughout this House for the Online Safety Bill, and yet it has been subject to contradictory messaging and delays. None of that is helpful for the Department or good government. Will the Secretary of State finally provide a clear timetable so that the vital work of scrutiny and improvement can begin?

There have been absolutely no delays. The Joint Committee reported on 10 December and the Bill will come to the House very shortly. We have taken time to consider the recommendations carefully, and the recommendations of the Law Commission, and the Bill will be here very shortly.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Select Committee system is the jewel in the crown of Parliament and well capable of providing the right scrutiny. Those are not my words but those of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House. With that in mind, in the upcoming Online Safety Bill will the Secretary of State proceed with utmost caution over the proposed permanent standing Joint Committee, which would curtail her own powers and those of Ministers across Government, and if the precedent were followed to its logical conclusion, it could lead to the dilution of the Select Committee system? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I thank him for his question. The Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is the jewel in the crown, as is the scrutiny of all Select Committees, but the Online Safety Bill is groundbreaking and novel and will legislate in an area in which we have never legislated or enforced before. I am quite sure that the place for the debate about whether or not there will be additional layers of scrutiny will be when the Bill comes before the House.

The Secretary of State may have seen the excellent research in The Guardian newspaper this week showing that search engines such as Google are disguising advertisements as search results, particularly those linked to fossil fuel companies, so much so that ClientEarth describes it as “endemic greenwashing”. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that she will use the Bill to crack down on these over-mighty, arrogant tech platforms?

That is a central purpose of the Bill. As a result of the work by the Joint Committee and others, including the Law Commission and those who have examined the first edition of the draft Bill, when we bring the Bill to the House there will be improvements and enhancements that will go even further in relation to those who use their power on the internet—those big tech companies and others—and the legislation will be there to provide the reassurances that I think the hon. Gentleman is looking for.

Last year, with 50 of my colleagues, I wrote to five of the major social media companies calling for meaningful change and asking them to recognise their moral duty to make this change. Only three of the five even bothered to reply to the correspondence, which makes me concerned that they are not taking the matter seriously enough. Will my right hon. Friend be characteristically robust about ensuring meaningful change in the forthcoming legislation?

I am disappointed to hear about the response from the tech companies, but frankly not surprised. We will bring forward legislation that introduces criminal sanctions, including pretty steep fines—10% of global annual turnover, which could be as much as £18 billion, so they will be considerable. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We should not be having to do this. Those organisations have a moral responsibility to provide the protections that young people require. It is their responsibility to ensure that illegal material is no longer placed online, that they remove content that is legal but harmful, but most of all that they protect young people and children. The Bill will have those three considerations at its heart. The companies could be doing what they need to do right now—they do not need the Bill. They could be removing those harmful algorithms right now.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Happy new year to you and to the whole House.

After years of Government delay, we still do not have a confirmed timetable for implementation of online safety legislation. With thousands of unvaccinated covid-19 patients in our hospitals, appalling attacks on NHS workers, and misinformation about the vaccines circulating readily online, what is the Secretary of State doing now—not in a year’s time, not when the legislation is finally enacted—to properly address misinformation about the covid-19 vaccines online?

The disinformation and misinformation unit is working, and we have done everything possible. I know there have been—accusations is a strong word; perhaps concerns. Concerns have been expressed by Opposition Front Benchers that the disinformation and misinformation unit is no longer in existence. That is not the case; it is not true. The unit is there and it is working. We had a pilot, which ran for six months and stopped, but the work from that pilot continues with the disinformation and misinformation unit. That work takes place daily. Daily, we work to remove harmful online content and, particularly when it comes to covid-19 vaccinations, content that provides misinformation and disinformation. Daily, we have contacts with online content providers, and the work is ongoing.

Happy new year, Mr Speaker.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Allan Dorans) raised a strong point about scrutiny and good government. Before Christmas, the Secretary of State appointed her preferred candidate as chair of the Charity Commission. Within a week he was gone, after it was discovered that he had behaved inappropriately to women colleagues, sending one a picture of himself in a Victoria’s Secrets store—

Order. I do not think that is linked to the question, which is about the Online Safety Bill. Your question has to be linked; that is why it is taken. I will call you on topicals, so you can ask the question then. [Interruption.] They are not my rules. They are rules the House has set so it is no use getting angry with me. The question has to be relevant.