Skip to main content

Public Representatives: Online Abuse

Volume 812: debated on Wednesday 16 June 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the fifth anniversary of the murder of Jo Cox MP, what assessment they have made of (1) the security needs of public representatives subjected to online abuse, and (2) the need for regulation to tackle such abuse.

My Lords, I think that this is a very solemn day for all of us as we remember Jo Cox’s tragic murder five years ago. I am sure that the House joins me in acknowledging the courage of her sister, whatever our party affiliations, in standing as a candidate in the by-election in Jo’s former seat.

The online abuse and intimidation of public representatives is completely unacceptable. It risks deterring talented people from entering public life and has a chilling effect on democracy. We are absolutely committed to protecting public representatives’ security both online and offline. The online safety Bill will play an important part in this.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her Answer. Given that Jo’s murder was partly fuelled by online conspiracy communications and that violent language sometimes leads to violent actions, how can the Government strengthen even the online safety Bill? We already have the Malicious Communications Act, but it seems to do little to deter bad behaviour. Will the online safety Bill be properly resourced and enforced to provide protection for public representatives both actually and online?

I hope that I can reassure the right reverend Prelate. We are absolutely clear that Ofcom, in its role as the regulator here, will be properly resourced. We are also clear that the approach in the Bill provides absolutely clarity, if it did not exist already, for social media companies and others on the expectations for how they enforce their terms and conditions, that there will be clear mechanisms for user redress and that there will be very significant enforcement powers.

My Lords, this is not just about MPs, of course. When I was a council leader—admittedly, before social media—receiving abuse and violent threats was common. One individual pursued me in the street and in the supermarket, as well as by phone, with abuse directed at family members and work colleagues, and by pinning up defamatory notices around the locality. He ended up in prison for unrelated violence. He would have relished being able to disseminate his abuse via social media. Of course, social media companies must be much more proactive in dealing with this—I hope that the online safety Bill will help with that—but does the Minister agree that the policing resources available are inadequate for the scale of the problem of dealing with fixated individuals before they escalate to violence? The Metropolitan Police’s parliamentary liaison and investigation team does a wonderful job, but where is its equivalent for local government?

The Government aim to make sure that people can operate in the public sphere safely at all levels, as the noble Lord rightly highlights. We expect the Bill to make a great difference to that when it becomes law. It is clear that, when the police use their existing powers, particularly under the Investigatory Powers Act, they are successful in identifying anonymous users online in particular.

My Lords, I declare an interest as someone whose receipt of online abuse is somewhat off the scale but who feels uncomfortable with public figures playing the victim card on this. I feel even more uncomfortable with the implicit conflation of a brutal murder with a Twitter pile-on. Does the Minister agree that there is a danger in principle of confusing physical harassment, such as was horribly meted out to the BBC journalist Nick Watt, with online trolling, however unpleasant it may be? Does she note free speech activists’ concern that online abuse is being used to justify censoring lawful content? My fears about the online safety Bill outweigh any fear of harassment.

The noble Baroness is right to raise the unacceptable abuse that Nick Watt received the other day. I highlight that we have just published our National Action Plan for the Safety of Journalists and a call for evidence is live at the moment. I encourage your Lordships to contribute to that as appropriate.

My Lords, as we remember a very brave and remarkable woman, should we not also take on board the fact that public life has been further coarsened and cheapened since her death by the indiscriminate use of social media? Should we not take steps to outlaw anonymous contributions to social media?

The Government are clear that abuse is unacceptable, whether anonymous or not. Our intention is to try to address that.

My Lords, all our thoughts are with the Cox family today. Does the Minister agree that what we now know makes it more and more clear that the report of the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, for this House, Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust, should be included in the work of both the pre-legislative scrutiny committee and the final Bill committee?

As the noble Lord knows, we look forward to pre-legislative scrutiny starting. It will be up to that panel to decide what they will cover within it.

My Lords, I, too, pay tribute to the inspirational Jo Cox as a model public servant, campaigner and mum, whose tragic murder we remember today. In a healthy, just and open democracy, our representatives should be free to speak out without fear of recrimination, whether physical or from online abuse. Sadly, we see MPs and others, particularly women, bullied out of public life. In my view, a good start in curtailing online abuse would be to end anonymity. Transparency would help to restore accountability in one stroke. Does the Minister agree? If so, what steps is she taking to deliver this?

As my noble friend knows, this is a complicated area. Anonymity provides protection for a number of groups that deserve it but can be seen as an enabler of those who choose to abuse. In the first instance, it should be for social media companies to close the gaps that so many of us feel exist between their quoted terms and conditions and our experiences online.

I, too, pay tribute to Jo Cox, a brave woman. However, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and the noble Baroness, Lady Fall, that anonymity online seems to encourage the worst sort of behaviour in those who wish to be abusive. There must be more that can be done to stop that. Whenever this issue is raised, the Minister tells us about the need to preserve free speech, protect those suffering from terrorism and so on, including the need to offer them some means of making their case felt. I appreciate that, but if you Google “anonymity online”, what pops up is a company that boasts “We tell nobody anything and, for £5 a month, you are guaranteed complete anonymity.” I do not believe that that is saving anybody from terrorism.

The noble Baroness makes her point very powerfully. I imagine that issues around anonymity will be covered by the pre-legislative scrutiny committee, and I look forward very much to its reflections.

On the anniversary of the murder of Jo Cox MP, may her memory be for a blessing. It was an absolute disgrace to see the BBC’s Nick Watt pursued in the street as though he were an animal being hunted down. Decency and democracy demand that journalists can go about their business free from abuse, harassment and physical violence. How does the Minister plan to tackle the growing culture that makes some people think that they have an inalienable right to abuse public figures online and in person? What assessment has been made of the impact of this on the likelihood of underrepresented groups taking their place as public figures?

I am not aware of a formal impact assessment of the nature that the noble Baroness suggests, but I am sure she will agree with me that it can only have a deterring effect given the preponderance of abuse towards minority groups in particular.

Going back to the safety of journalists, in the action plan, which was developed together with the National Union of Journalists, the police and others, there are clear calls for training for the police so that they can respond to those issues.

My Lords, five years on from the despicable murder of Jo Cox, the values by which she lived should continue to inspire us all. During the passage of the Domestic Abuse Bill, I witnessed the relentless online abuse to which some women—activists, academics and survivors of domestic abuse—who spoke out on the issue were subjected. Will the Government commit to working with politicians and public figures from all parties and from civil society in reviewing online abuse and developing strategies to counter it?

We are absolutely open to and are already working on this issue. I have met with numerous women’s groups with great expertise on this issue and we will continue to do so.