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Child Protection Online

Volume 720: debated on Thursday 20 October 2022

The inquest into Molly Russell’s tragic death further highlights that the No. 1 priority of the Online Safety Bill has to be protecting children and young people. I commit to strengthening that aspect and getting it back to this House imminently.

I welcome what my right hon. Friend says about the imminent return of the Online Safety Bill. She knows that children and their families have already waited far too long for the Bill to progress. Will she apply a similar sense of urgency to what will happen once the Bill has passed? As she knows, a series of actions are required of Ofcom and the Government to bring this regime fully into force. Will she undertake to ensure that the Government’s part in that happens swiftly?

My right hon. and learned Friend has been a huge advocate of this Bill, on which he has worked personally. He is absolutely right that it is not just about getting the Bill through this place and the other place; it is also about ensuring the Bill works on the ground and makes a tangible difference in protecting children and young people, day in and day out. I will commit to looking at this and ensuring that we go as fast as possible.

I recently had the privilege of meeting a group of Carshalton and Wallington mums who brought to me the very sad case of their children who had accessed illegal drugs through social media companies such as Instagram and Snapchat, which sadly resulted in their taking an overdose and dying. These mums are inspirational in sharing their story. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the Online Safety Bill will provide the protections they need to ensure that no other children go through the same thing?

I completely concur with my hon. Friend, who is a fantastic advocate for his constituents. Selling illegal drugs is a priority illegal offence in the Online Safety Bill. Platforms will need not only to take content down, but to take proactive steps to prevent drug dealers from abusing their services. If platforms do not remove this content quickly, they will face tough enforcement measures, including huge fines, and the same goes for any other illegal content.

One thing the coroner highlighted was the effect of harmful algorithms that directed harmful content towards Molly Russell. Will the Minister undertake specifically to look into that issue and deal with that sort of harmful content, because the owners of Meta describe those as not being specifically harmful. It is worrying when the people who run these platforms do not see this as a problem.

My Ministers and I have been looking at this area. One fundamental problem relates to the accountability of these companies and who is ultimately responsible for these algorithms. We have been looking at that and I look forward to updating the House as soon as we bring the Bill back.

Are we not playing a wonderful game at the moment, guessing who the Ministers are, Mr Speaker? I shall miss it when everything is stabilised. I chaired the Education Committee and looked at this area. The fact is that sophisticated, mendacious and quite evil people are involved in this; they are clever—they move. Minister, please do not underestimate what you are taking on.

I do not think anybody is underestimating the scale of the challenge. We will be the first country in the world to really tackle this head on to the extent that we will be doing. I have committed in the House to bringing this Bill back imminently, and that it will be one that will deliver, especially for children and young people, which is vital.

The Secretary of State will have seen the research last week from Ofcom on children’s online ages, which showed that because children routinely sign up for social media before the supposed minimum age of 13, using a false date of birth, they then continue to get older in how they appear online, as well as getting older in their actual age. That means that by the time they reach 14 or 15 huge swathes of teenagers appear to the social media platforms to be over 18. So how can we ensure that protections that are meant to protect children online do in fact protect them?

I know that my right hon. Friend is passionate about this Bill and has played a leading role in helping to shape it to this point. I agree that unless social media platforms manage to assess the age of their users, they will fall foul of the Bill. Let us face it: for too long social media companies have got away scot-free. That will end with this Bill, because we will put in place protections for children that will be even stronger.

I thank the Secretary of State very much for her determination to change things for the better, which is what we all want. In four out of five cases of online grooming the victims are girls. Recent studies have shown that to be factual. So what discussions has she had with the Department for Education about online awareness in schools? It is very important that this starts there, because if we start it there, we can stop these things later on.

My ministerial team and I, as well as the Department, work closely with the Department for Education. Media literacy is of course essential, and the Online Safety Bill will strengthen Ofcom’s media literacy functions. I look forward to further discussions about this with that Department.

I welcome the new Secretary of State to her post. She and I have worked together before and I look forward to working with her again in future.

Molly Russell’s death was an avoidable tragedy and serves as a further call to action to regulate social media. We owe it to her family and countless others to do this without delay—this is beyond party politics. The coroner found that much of the self-harm and suicide material that Molly saw was not content she sought, but was pushed to her by engagement algorithms. That goes to the heart of what the Online Safety Bill was seeking to address. Although it was not perfect, the Bill had almost completed its passage here before the summer, and it was already long overdue. Does the Secretary of State accept that these delays are costing lives? Will she take up the offer that I have made to her in private to work together to do whatever it takes to get this Bill on the statute book as soon as possible?

I would be delighted to meet the hon. Member. I have worked with her extensively over the years and I have a great deal of respect for her. I absolutely share her commitment to protecting children. That is why the Online Safety Bill really is my No. 1 priority. As I said, I cannot announce the business of the House today, but I can assure the House that the Bill will be brought back very soon—a commitment I also gave to Ian Russell. We must protect children from being allowed to be subjected by social media companies to the type of content that Molly Russell was subjected to, and the horrendous tragedy that followed. For too long, social media platforms have shirked their responsibilities for protecting children. It is time that we all worked together to put an end to that.

I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment and look forward to working together. To be fair to the previous Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries), she committed to the very difficult task of getting the Bill through, with all the vested interests and internal differences. The current Secretary of State says she is rewriting it, but I fear that will lead to further delay and disagreement. She is never going to satisfy those who dogmatically view this only through the lens of free speech. They do not understand that the issue is not the views expressed, but the power of the platforms to cause harm, which Ian Russell described as “monetising misery”. Does she agree that sticking to the important principles of duty of care and regulating business models, algorithms and their impact is the best way of squaring this circle?

I want to be absolutely clear: my intention is not to appease everybody; my intention is to ensure that we bring the Bill back as soon as we possibly can and that we prioritise protecting children and young people. The hon. Member will see that happen very shortly.