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Hate Speech Online

Volume 720: debated on Thursday 20 October 2022

We will lead the world in this area, and we will bring back the Online Safety Bill imminently, ensuring that social media platforms finally prioritise protecting children, remove abhorrent illegal content quickly—including hate crimes—and keep their promises to their own users.

Online hate speech affects all and aims to sow division, yet the Government are making painfully slow progress in making online spaces less toxic. Home Office figures reveal a sharp increase in far-right activity, with Muslim and Jewish communities facing the largest number of hate crimes in the UK year after year. Along with other parliamentary colleagues, I suffer online abuse on a regular basis. What steps will the Minister take to tackle Islamophobia and antisemitism online?

Crimes such as those that the hon. Member has mentioned, including hate crimes, are not acceptable on any platform. As I have said, we will bring back the Online Safety Bill imminently. I cannot announce House business here today, but I can assure all Members that the Bill will be coming back very shortly. I share his concerns, as I am sure do all Members.

Let me first welcome the Secretary of State to her place, and welcome, too, the refreshing degree of engagement with the Select Committee that is now under way. I also welcome her assurance that she will be strengthening the Online Safety Bill’s protections for children, but there has been speculation, following previous comments, that she will be reviewing the duties of care for adults relating to so-called “legal but harmful content”. Can she clarify what changes she is minded to make in relation to such content?

We will be coming back to the House with this in due course, and the Bill will be coming back imminently. This is my key priority—I cannot stress that enough. Protecting children should be the fundamental responsibility of this House, and we will strengthen the provisions for children. I have given that assurance directly to Ian Russell, and I give it again now in the House. We are, however, rebalancing elements for adults’ freedom of speech, while also holding social media companies to account so that they cannot treat different races and religions differently, contrary to their own terms and conditions. Fundamentally, the Bill must be about ensuring that we are protecting children, and we will be bringing it back to the House as soon as possible.

Last weekend there was yet another case of vile online racist abuse being hurled at a professional footballer, on this occasion the Brentford striker Ivan Toney. Ironically, tomorrow we will all come together to recognise Show Racism the Red Card day. If the Government are at all serious about keeping people safe online, it is vital for those at the top of these multimillion-pound social media companies to be held personally accountable. The Online Safety Bill is our opportunity to do better. Can the Minister therefore tell us exactly why the Government have failed to introduce personal criminal liability measures for senior leaders who have fallen short on their statutory duty to protect us online?

I think it is about time the Opposition remembered that it is this Government who are introducing the Online Safety Bill. It is this Government who committed themselves to it in our manifesto. As I have already told Opposition Members, we will bring it back imminently. I am sure you agree, Mr Speaker, that it would not be proper for me to announce House business here today, but I can assure the hon. Member that this is my top priority. We will be coming back with the Bill shortly. I mean what I say, and I will do what I say.

I welcome the right hon. Lady—my fifth Culture Secretary—to her place. I agree with my friend the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) that there is a more constructive atmosphere on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, on which I sit.

Last night, I was honoured to be present at the PinkNews awards, where I spoke up for trans rights with colleagues across party, including Conservatives. There has been an explosion of hate speech online. Women are targeted disproportionately and trans women are targeted especially. Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre had to lock its door after barrages of violent online threats, and these are dangerous times. An atmosphere of hate has been fanned by too many newspapers and, sadly, politicians.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the now Prime Minister was wrong to weaponise anti-trans rhetoric during the Tory leadership campaign, as she did in attacking the now Leader of the House?

I do not think that anybody disputes the fact that hate speech and hate crime should have no place in our society, but freedom of speech, of course, is the bedrock from which all freedoms stem. I personally believe that every member of this House has a duty to protect free speech as well as protecting our citizens from illegal harms.