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Online Safety Bill (Programme) (No. 4)

Volume 724: debated on Monday 5 December 2022

I beg to move,

That the following provisions shall apply to the Online Safety Bill for the purpose of varying and supplementing the Order of 19 April 2022 in the last session of Parliament (Online Safety Bill: Programme) as varied by the Orders of 12 July 2022 (Online Safety Bill: Programme (No.2)) and today (Online Safety Bill: Programme (No.3)).


(1) The Bill shall be re-committed to a Public Bill Committee in respect of the following Clauses and Schedules—

(a) in Part 3, Clauses 11 to 14, 17 to 20, 29, 45, 54 and 55 of the Bill as amended in Public Bill Committee;

(b) in Part 4, Clause 64 of, and Schedule 8 to, the Bill as amended in Public Bill Committee;

(c) in Part 7, Clauses 78, 81, 86, 89 and 112 of, and Schedule 11 to, the Bill as amended in Public Bill Committee;

(d) in Part 9, Clause 150 of the Bill as amended in Public Bill Committee;

(e) in Part 11, Clause 161 of the Bill as amended in Public Bill Committee;

(f) in Part 12, Clauses 192, 195 and 196 of the Bill as amended in Public Bill Committee;

(g) New Clause [Repeal of Part 4B of the Communications Act: transitional provision etc], if it has been added to the Bill, and New Schedule [Video-sharing platform services: transitional provision etc], if it has been added to the Bill.

Proceedings in Public Bill Committee on re-committal

(2) Proceedings in the Public Bill Committee on re-committal shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on Thursday 15 December 2022.

(3) The Public Bill Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it meets.

Consideration following re-committal and Third Reading

(4) Proceedings on Consideration following re-committal shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which those proceedings are commenced.

(5) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.

(6) Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings on Consideration following re-committal.

I know that colleagues across the House have dedicated a huge amount of time to getting the Bill to this point, especially my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries), who unfortunately could not be with us today. I thank everybody for their contributions through the pre-legislative scrutiny and passage and for their engagement with me since I took office. Since then, the Bill has been my No. 1 priority.

Does the right hon. Member not agree that it is regrettable that her junior Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully)—failed to acknowledge in his winding-up speech that there had been any contributions to the debate on Report from Labour Members?

As the right hon. Member will note, the Minister had to stop at a certain point and he had spoken for 45 minutes in his opening remarks. I think that he gave a true reflection of many of the comments that were made tonight. The right hon. Member will also know that all the comments from Opposition Members are on the parliamentary record and were televised.

The sooner that we pass the Bill, the sooner we can start protecting children online. This is a groundbreaking piece of legislation that, as hon. Members have said, will need to evolve as technology changes.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Department will consider amendments, in relation to new clause 55, to stop the people smugglers who trade their wares on TikTok?

I commit to my hon. Friend that we will consider those amendments and work very closely with her and other hon. Members.

We have to get this right, which is why we are adding a very short Committee stage to the Bill. We propose that there will be four sittings over two days. That is the right thing to do to allow scrutiny. It will not delay or derail the Bill, but Members deserve to discuss the changes.

With that in mind, I will briefly discuss the new changes that make recommittal necessary. Children are at the very heart of this piece of legislation. Parents, teachers, siblings and carers will look carefully at today’s proceedings, so for all those who are watching, let me be clear: not only have we kept every single protection for children intact, but we have worked with children’s organisations and parents to create new measures to protect children. Platforms will still have to shield children and young people from both illegal content and a whole range of other harmful content, including pornography, violent content and so on. However, they will also face new duties on age limits. No longer will social media companies be able to claim to ban users under 13 while quietly turning a blind eye to the estimated 1.6 million children who use their sites under age. They will also need to publish summaries of their risk assessments relating to illegal content and child safety in order to ensure that there is greater transparency for parents, and to ensure that the voice of children is injected directly into the Bill, Ofcom will consult the Children’s Commissioner in the development of codes of practice.

These changes, which come on top of all the original child protection measures in the Bill, are completely separate from the changes that we have made in respect of adults. For many people, myself included, the so-called “legal but harmful” provisions in the Bill prompted concerns. They would have meant that the Government were creating a quasi-legal category—a grey area—and would have raised the very real risk that to avoid sanctions, platforms would carry out sweeping take-downs of content, including legitimate posts, eroding free speech in the process.

Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the work of the all-party parliamentary group against antisemitism? Does she agree with the group, and with us, that by removing parts of the Bill we are allowing the kind of holocaust denial that we all abhor to continue online?

I have worked very closely with a range of groups backing the causes that the hon. Lady mentions in relation to cracking down on antisemitism, including the Board of Deputies, the Antisemitism Policy Trust and members of the APPG. [Hon. Members: “They don’t back it.”] They do indeed back the Bill. They have said that it is vital that we progress this further. We have adopted their clause in relation to breach notifications, to increase transparency, and we have injected a triple shield that will ensure that antisemitism does not remain on these platforms.

I return to the concerns around “legal but harmful”. Worryingly, it meant that users could run out of road. If a platform allowed legal but harmful material, users would therefore face a binary choice between not using the platform at all or facing abuse and harm that they did not want to see. We, however, have added a third shield that transfers power away from silicon valley algorithms to ordinary people. Our new triple shield mechanism puts accountability, transparency and choice at the heart of the way we interact with each other online. If it is illegal, it has to go. If it violates a company’s terms and conditions, it has to go. Under the third and final layer of the triple shield, platforms must offer users tools to allow them to choose what kind of content they want to see and engage with.

These are significant changes that I know are of great interest to hon. Members. As they were not in scope on Report, I propose that we recommit a selection of clauses for debate by a Public Bill Committee in a very short Committee stage, so that this House of Commons can scrutinise them line by line.

I assure hon. Members that the Bill is my absolute top priority. We are working closely with both Houses to ensure that it completes the remainder of its passage and reaches Royal Assent by the end of this parliamentary Session. It is absolutely essential that we get proper scrutiny. I commend the motion to the House.

There has been long-standing consensus since the Bill was first mooted more than four years ago—before anyone had even heard of TikTok—that online and social media needed regulating. Despite our concerns about both the previous drafting and the new amendments, we support the principle of the Online Safety Bill, but I take issue with the Secretary of State’s arguments today. [Interruption.] I think the hon. Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) is trying to correct my language from a sedentary position. Perhaps he wants to listen to the argument instead, because what he and the Secretary of State are doing today will take the Bill a massive step backwards, not forwards.

The consensus has not just been about protecting children online, although of course that is a vital part of the Bill; it is also about the need to tackle the harms that these powerful platforms present when they go unmitigated. As we have heard this evening, there is a cross-party desire to strengthen and broaden the Bill, not water it down, as we are now hearing. Alas, we are not there.

This is not a perfect Bill and was never going to be, but even since the last delay before the summer, we have had the coroner’s inquest into the tragic Molly Russell case, Russian disinformation campaigns and the takeover and ongoing implosion of Twitter. Yet the Government are now putting the entire Bill at risk. It has already been carried over once, so if we do not complete its passage before the end of this parliamentary Session, it will fall completely. The latest hold-up is to enable the Government to remove “legal but harmful” clauses. This goes against the very essence of the Bill, which was created to address the particular power of social media to share, to spread and to broadcast around the world very quickly.

I understand the shadow Minister’s concern about what the Government are trying to do, but I do not understand why she is speaking against a programme motion that gives the Opposition more time to scrutinise the Bill. It must be the first time I have heard a member of the Opposition demand less time in which to scrutinise a Bill.

I shall come on to that. It is we, on the Opposition side of the House, who are so determined to get the Bill on to the statute book that I find myself arguing against the Government’s further delay. Let us not forget that six months have passed between the first day on Report and the second, today—the longest ever gap between two days of Report in the history of the House—so it is delay after delay.

Disinformation, abuse, incel gangs, body shaming, covid denial, holocaust denial, scammers—the list goes on, all of it actively encouraged by unregulated engagement algorithms and business models that reward sensational, extreme, controversial and abusive behaviour. It is these powers and models that need regulating, for individuals on the receiving end of harm but also to deal with harms to society, democracy and our economy. The enormous number of amendments that have been tabled in the last week should be scrutinised, but we now face a real trade-off between the Bill not passing through the other place in time and the provision of more scrutiny. As I told the Secretary of State a couple of weeks ago in private, our judgment is this: get the Bill to the other place as soon as possible, and we will scrutinise it there.

Does the hon. Lady agree that what the Labour party did was initiate a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister rather than making progress with the Bill—which she says is so important—at the time when it was needed?

The hon. Lady remembers incorrectly. It was members of her own party who tabled the motion of no confidence. Oh, I have just remembered: they did not have confidence in the Prime Minister at the time, did they? We have had two Prime Ministers since then, so I am not sure that they have much confidence—[Interruption.]

I will move on now, thank you.

We would not have been here at all if the Secretary of State had stuck to the guns of her predecessor, who, to be fair to her—I know she is not here today—saw off a raft of vested interests to enable the Bill to progress. The right hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries) understood that this is not about thwarting the right to hold views that most of us find abhorrent, but about not allowing those views to be widely shared on a powerful platform that, in the offline world, just does not exist. She understood that the Online Safety Bill came from a fundamental recognition that the algorithms and the power of platforms to push people towards content that, although on its own may not be illegal, cumulatively causes significant harm. Replacing the prevention of harm with an emphasis on free speech lets the platforms off the hook, and the absence of duties to prevent harm and dangerous outcomes will allow them to focus on weak user controls.

Simply holding platforms to account for their own terms and conditions—the Secretary of State referred to that earlier—which, as we saw just this week at Twitter, can be rewritten or changed at whim, will not constitute robust enough regulation to deal with the threat that these platforms present. To protect children, the Government are relying on age verification, but as those with teenage children are well aware—including many of us in the House—most of them pass themselves off as older that they are, and verification is easy to get around. The proposed three shields for adults are just not workable and do not hold up to scrutiny. Let us be clear that the raft of new amendments that have been tabled by the Government this week are nothing more than a major weakening and narrowing of this long-awaited legislation.

This is not what Labour would do. We would tackle at root the power of the platforms to negatively shape all our lives. But we are where we are, and it is better to have the regulator in place with some powers than to have nothing at all. I fear that adding more weeks in Committee in the Commons, having already spent years and years debating this Bill, will not make it any better anyway. Going back into Committee is an unprecedented step, and where might that end? What is to prevent another new Minister or Secretary of State from changing their mind again in the new year, or to prevent there being another reshuffle or even another Prime Minister? That might happen! This is a complex and important Bill, but it is also long, long overdue. We therefore support the original programme motion to get the Bill into the other place immediately, and we will not be voting to put the Bill back into Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) would have been speaking in this debate but she is indisposed, so I am delighted to offer some of her bons mots to the House. The effect of this motion is to revive the Third Reading debate that was previously programmed to take place immediately after the Report stage ended. It is fair to say that there has been a bit of chaos in the UK Government in recent times, with a disastrous yet thankfully short prime ministerial period when it looked as if the Online Safety Bill might be scrapped altogether. We on the SNP Benches are glad to see the Bill return to finish its Report stage. Although we are not entirely happy with the contents of the Bill—as Members can see by the number of amendments we had rejected in Committee and the number of amendments we tabled on Report today—we strongly believe that this version is better than the version the Government are proposing to create by recommitting the Bill later today. If this programme motion were to fall, the Government might not be able to recommit the Bill.

During the progress of both the legislative and pre-legislative stages of the Bill, as well as in the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, we have heard from survivors who have been permanently scarred as a result of so-called legal but harmful content. We have heard from families whose loved ones have died as a result of accessing this content, as Members around the House well know. It is surely imperative that action is taken; otherwise, we will see more young people at risk. Having protections in place for children is a good step forward, but it is not sufficient. Therefore we will be voting against this programme motion, which creates the conditions for recommitting a Bill that—as I well know, having sat through it—has already had 50 hours of Committee scrutiny and countless hours in the pre-legislative Joint Committee.

With the leave of the House, in making my closing remarks, I want to remind all Members and all those watching these proceedings exactly why we are here today. The children and families who have had their lives irreparably damaged by social media giants need to know that we are on their side, and that includes the families who sat in the Gallery here today and who I had the opportunity to talk to. I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work they have done, including Ian Russell. They have shone a spotlight and campaigned on this issue. As many Members will know, in 2017, Ian’s 14-year-old daughter Molly took her own life after being bombarded by self-harm content on Instagram and Pinterest. She was a young and innocent girl.

To prevent other families from going through this horrendous ordeal, we must all move the Bill forward together. And we must work together to get the Bill on the statute book as soon as possible by making sure this historic legislation gets the proper scrutiny it deserves, so that we can start protecting children and young people online while also empowering adults.

For too long, the fierce debate surrounding the Bill has been framed by an assumption that protecting children online must come at the expense of free speech for adults. Today we can put an end to this dispute once and for all. Our common-sense amendments to the Bill overcome these barriers by strengthening the protections for children while simultaneously protecting free speech and choice for adults.

However, it is right that the House is allowed to scrutinise these changes in Committee, which is why we need to recommit a selection of clauses for a very short Committee stage. This will not, as the Opposition suggest, put the Bill at risk. I think it is really wrong to make such an assertion. As well as being deeply upsetting to the families who visited us this evening, it is a low blow by the Opposition to play politics with such an important Bill.

We will ensure the Bill completes all stages by the end of this Session, and we need to work together to ensure that children come first. We can then move the Bill forward, so that we can start holding tech companies to account for their actions and finally stop them putting profits before people and before our children.

Question put.