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Suicide: Online Products

Volume 823: debated on Monday 27 June 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to address online retailers’ algorithmic recommendations for products that can be used for the purposes of suicide.

Her Majesty’s Government recognise the gravity of this issue and are investing in suicide prevention through the NHS long-term plan. The Advertising Standards Authority already regulates adverts containing references to suicide. The Government are considering how to tackle illegal and legal consumer harms associated with the contents, targeting and placement of online advertising through the online advertising programme. The consultation closed on 8 June and will help us determine how to tackle such harms.

As my noble friend knows, I am a great supporter of the forthcoming Online Safety Bill but, as we have discussed, it will not regulate all harmful content online. When a particular well-known suicide manual is searched for on Amazon, the site’s algorithmic recommendations then specifically suggest material that can be used, or easily assembled, into a device intended to take one’s own life. If this is not to be regulated as harmful content under the Online Safety Bill, how can this sort of harm be regulated? It is broader than just advertising. Has my noble friend discussed this with Ministers in the Department of Health and Social Care?

Yes, we have discussed this matter with our colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care and continue to do so. I am grateful to my noble friend for raising this issue. It is important in the context of the forthcoming Bill, which she knows so well, and through our work on the online advertising programme that is designed to look at the full range of harms that exist in online advertising. The Online Safety Bill will empower users to know what a company’s policies are and how to assert their rights to make sure they can be safe online.

My Lords, there is a general welcome for the structure that has been set up by Ofcom and the CMA’s Digital Markets Unit to cover the area raised by the Question from the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan. A lot will depend on the remit of the regulators. In a recent Ofcom consultation, there was a push-back by the industry, with regulators having a responsibility not for citizens’ interests but for consumers’ interests. In the words of the great political philosopher Mandy Rice-Davies, they would, wouldn’t they? Will the Government resist this push-back?

The CMA, the FCA, the ICO and Ofcom all play a critical role through the Digital Regulation Co-operation Forum, which has an important role to play in delivering the regulatory landscape that protects users from harm. We will continue to work with that forum to explore the role that it and the regulators can have. Of course, these days almost all citizens are consumers online, but the noble Lord makes an important point. We want to make sure that everybody who uses the internet is safe.

My Lords, I am really grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, for raising this important matter. What work is under way to ensure that the Online Safety Bill is being taken seriously by the major platforms on which these systems lie? What are the Government intending to do to ensure that parents are educated in, and made aware of, the danger of these kind of platforms?

The strongest protections in the Online Safety Bill will be for children. The noble Baroness is right that there is an important part for parents and guardians to play in making sure that their children are safe online. We are working through Ofcom and the education system to make sure that children and their guardians are aware of the risks of using the internet and the safeguards available. The Online Safety Bill will make sure that people’s recourse to Ofcom, if the terms and conditions or duties that are placed on companies are not being enforced, is upheld.

Can my noble friend estimate when the provisions of the Online Safety Bill in relation to suicide, and indeed wider problems with children, are likely to actually come into effect?

The Bill is in another place. It may well finish in Committee this week. I look forward to debating it in your Lordships’ House and seeing it on the statute book as quickly as possible.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the people drawn to these platforms, particularly young people, are on the whole extremely vulnerable? What discussions is his department having, if any, with the Department for Health and Social Care to ensure support for young people who perhaps are drawn to these things but lack the kind of support that would turn them away?

Under the self-regulatory system, the Advertising Standards Authority already advises that marketers must take particular care over adverts which contain references to suicide. There is careful guidance for advertisers in this area but we are discussing this with colleagues at the Department of Health, as I say. Through the long-term plan for the NHS, we are also investing to the tune of many millions to try to prevent as many suicides as we can.

My Lords, the Online Safety Bill is an important piece of legislation, but some are querying it in relation to freedom of speech. Can my noble friend say that this will not be used as a reason not to ensure that there is a strong regulatory framework in place, so that those platforms are legislated for and accountable for what they put on those platforms?

My noble friend makes an important point. There are important protections for freedom of expression in the Online Safety Bill. The Bill works by setting out expectations for internet companies to have clear terms and conditions, which users will know of when they sign up to them and which give them recourse to speak to Ofcom if they feel that those terms and conditions are not being upheld. This will empower users, keeping them safe while protecting freedom of expression.

My Lords, there are disturbing reports of TikTok users adopting the term “unalive” as a means of promoting suicide content, while others use shorthand hashtags, such as #ED for eating disorders, as a means of getting round censorship. Can the Minister tell the House whether the Online Safety Bill will do anything to tackle this dangerous creativity of social media users? How will social media platforms be directed to take steps to deal with this as part of their duty of care?

The Online Safety Bill will protect users by putting in place systems and processes to mitigate risks. We know that algorithms play an important part in how companies operate their services. Companies will need to consider how these could cause harm and take steps to mitigate them, but the noble Baroness makes an important point about how people use social media. We are setting out a list of priority harms, such as those she mentions, to make sure that people—particularly vulnerable and young people—are kept safe online.

My Lords, my noble friend has mentioned various statutory agencies, but is this not a particular category of legal but harmful content? Assisting suicide is a criminal offence, as is potentially conspiring to assist suicide. Will he ensure that all those statutory bodies involved really relate to the boundaries of the criminal law that exists today? These companies should be ensuring that they are not assisting or conspiring to assist suicide.

My noble friend is right: there are existing criminal sanctions here and content which encourages or assists suicide, and therefore breaks the existing law, will be covered as well by the safety duties providing for illegal content under the Online Safety Bill. We want to ensure that the Bill adds to the armoury that we have to prevent as many suicides as we can.

My Lords, I think the Minister may have misunderstood the question from my noble friend Lady McIntosh about working with the health services in England and Wales, and in Scotland. It is very important that much more is done to train professional people—health visitors, district nurses, social workers and a whole range of others—about the signs indicating that people might be contemplating suicide. It is also very important that something is done about the waiting lists for access—[Interruption.] I thought someone had committed suicide there. But to be serious about the access to counselling and other services in the National Health Service, there are huge waiting lists for psychological and psychiatric counselling in Scotland, and in England and Wales. Can the Minister take this up with his colleagues in all the departments of health?

If I misunderstood the noble Baroness’s question, I apologise. I will consult the official record and make sure I got it right. The noble Lord is right to reinforce the important role of the National Health Service. The Government are investing an additional £57 million in suicide prevention by 2023 through our NHS long-term plan. That will see investment in every part of the country. In addition, the Department of Health and Social Care provided more than £500,000 to the Local Government Association in the last financial year to bolster the work done by local authorities, which, as he said, play an important role as well.