[Relevant documents: First Report of the Petitions Committee, Online abuse and the experience of disabled people, HC 759, and the Government Response, HC 2122.]
I draw hon. Members’ attention to the fact that our proceedings are being made accessible for people who are deaf or hearing impaired. The interpreters are using British Sign Language, and parliamentlive.tv will show a live simultaneous interpretation and live subtitling of the debate.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 190627 relating to online abuse.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. The petition was started by Katie Price following the abuse of her son Harvey online. The Petitions Committee set up an inquiry into the subject, throughout which we have been led by the experiences of disabled people. We held an event in Westminster to listen to their experiences and scope out our inquiry, as well as six further events around the country. We took formal evidence from the police, technology companies, charities, the Minister and disabled people themselves, and we published draft recommendations and consulted on them. I think we were the first Select Committee to do so, and we held further events around the country to make that work.
I place on record my thanks to all the people who gave so generously of their time to engage with us, and to the Select Committee staff, who not only worked extremely hard on the inquiry but travelled widely throughout the country to do so. That engagement was very important to us because, despite the fact that other Select Committees have done excellent work on both hate crime and internet safety, we found that the voices of disabled people were often not heard, and that became even clearer to us as the inquiry proceeded.
We found that rather puzzling; after all, disabled people are more likely to be in contact with a range of services—from council services to the Department for Work and Pensions and the health service. They therefore should be easy to contact, although, as one of our witnesses said:
“We’re not hard to reach, only easy to ignore.”
That leads to a misunderstanding of what disabled people are facing online, and what their problems really are.
When we asked both the technology companies and the Minister questions about disabled people, we often got answers about children. The Government’s Green Paper on internet safety said very little about the experiences of disabled people. When we raised that with the Minister, she kindly wrote to us in April last year saying that the Government planned to hold a roundtable with disability organisations and social media companies. The only problem with that is that the inquiry closed in December 2017.
Most disabled people are not children; they are adults who are able to make their own choices and decisions, and they deserve to have their voices heard. What we found out when talking to them was truly shocking. Disabled people are less likely to use the internet than the majority of the population but, among those who do, many are avid users. To be frank, the internet has been a boon to many disabled people. It has allowed them to connect with others with similar conditions, which is very important, especially if they have a rare condition. It has allowed them to widen their social circle, progress in their careers, organise, campaign and challenge stereotypes. However, while doing that, they face the most horrendous abuse—not occasionally, but day in, day out.
Such abuse is, frankly, a stain on our society. Disabled people are regularly told that they should have been aborted. They are targeted with requests for explicit images—the implication being that disabled women, in particular, ought to be grateful for any attention. They are told that they are benefit scroungers or fraudsters, and a drain on our society. That leads to a culture of fear among many disabled people who post about their lives online.
I thank the Chair of the Petitions Committee for giving way. She and I worked together on the report, and I commend her for the speech that she is making. Almost all of us in the Chamber know that people say things online that they would never say directly to someone’s face. However, one of the most distressing aspects of the report—this was shared with me during one of the outreach events that we held in Newcastle—is that the abuse that disabled people receive online often reflects the abuse that they receive out and about in their daily lives in the real world. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as is set out in a conclusion of the report, the Government need to amend hate crime legislation to ensure that disability hate crime is dealt with on a par with other hate crime offences, to send a very clear message?
My hon. Friend is exactly right, and I will come to that point later in my remarks.
Online, those with visible disabilities are often mocked for how they look. Those with learning difficulties are targeted for sexual or financial exploitation. Some of the terms used—I will repeat them only to show how vile they are—such as “mong”, “retard” and “spastic”, are as vile as the worst terms of racist abuse; yet they are often not treated in the same way. People even join Facebook groups that disabled people use for support so that they can steal images and transform them into so-called jokes or memes online.
My hon. Friend is entirely right; the disabled people we spoke to were very clear that the abuse that they get online reflects attitudes in society. That is why our report called for more education. We found that 21% of young adults would avoid speaking to a disabled person. Unless we break down those barriers, things will not change. I am sorry that the Government were rather dismissive of that recommendation in their response.
Disabled people were also clear that the abuse had increased since 2010, when certain politicians started to ramp up the rhetoric about benefit fraudsters and scroungers, despite knowing that, even on the worst estimate, benefit fraud is only 1% of the spending. In many estimates, it is less than that. That should be a reminder to everybody that such rhetoric has an impact on real people living their day-to-day lives.
We were clear that part of the way to counter the abuse is to promote more positive images of disabled people. After all, they are 20% of the population, and 19% of the working-age population. They are our friends, neighbours and work colleagues; yet they are seldom visible, either in the media or Government campaigns. That is why we recommended that the Government ensure that there are positive images of disabled people in all their campaigns, events and advertising.
The Government’s response says that they used a picture of a disabled person in a campaign on transport because disabled people often have problems with transport. It would be an understatement to say that that comprehensively misses the point. We do not want always to see pictures of disabled people who have problems—indeed, sometimes they themselves are seen as the problem. We want to see pictures of disabled people going about their everyday lives at work, at leisure and contributing to society, as they do.
That kind of misunderstanding is everywhere. It leads to a situation in which disabled people who report abuse are often told to go offline. That is as unacceptable in the 21st century as it would be to tell a black person or a disabled person not to go down the high street in case they get abused. When that happens, disabled people face a double whammy: first, their health is damaged by the constant abuse—Members of this House ought to know how that feels—and then they are denied opportunities that would improve their health, in volunteering or in work, and their social circle is narrowed. For those who are in work, constantly having to change their details to avoid abuse leads to loss of employment opportunities or promotion.
We cannot do anything about this problem until we start to understand it, but people do not. For example, we became aware during our inquiry that a lot of the abuse related to football, with people using disability terms as insults. Shockingly and appallingly, they were using the name of Harvey Price, who is a child and a football fan, to insult someone on their ability as a footballer. We wrote to the footballing organisations—the Professional Footballers Association, Kick It Out, the Football Association, the Premier League and the English Football League—but only one replied before our inquiry concluded. The Premier League’s reply was about access to football grounds and abuse at the grounds—it just did not get it. It is shocking that some of those organisations did not reply at all; it is shameful, in fact, because clubs and footballers have a great influence on their fans. I hope that in future they will use their position to call out hatred of disabled people in the same way that they have rightly called out racism associated with the game.
It is that lack of understanding that leads to disabled people being categorised as children and to their voices not being heard. We have therefore recommended that in future the Government should consult disabled people explicitly and directly on all matters that concern them—not those who claim to speak on their behalf, but disabled people themselves.
We were bemused about why social media companies have failed to engage with people who could be among their strongest advocates. What engagement there has been has come too late and has often been too little. For example, where people with learning difficulties are concerned, Facebook told us that it thought its how-to videos made easy-read guidelines unnecessary, while Google said that it thought its community guidelines met the easy-read guidelines. Disabled people disagreed: they do not.
Twitter told us that it thought that simplifying its policies would make them harder to understand, yet easy-read versions are frequently produced of complex documents such as health consultations, tenancy agreements and even—dare I say it—Select Committee reports. It is not that the guidance and expertise needed to produce easy-read versions are not available; it is that social media companies have never thought to seek that guidance and act on it.
We also found that most disabled people, like the rest of us, were confused by the fact that policies are called different things on different sites. Even more importantly, reporting mechanisms are often not accessible to disabled people. Shockingly, we heard again and again that when disabled people have reported hate speech, often nothing has been done.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech and is setting out some really unbelievable issues that need to be taken on board and tackled to protect disabled people online and offline. Does she agree that some of the issues result from the fact that the legislation that covers these crimes is so old? I see from the Library briefing that the most recent applicable legislation is from 1997, and some of it goes back to 1861. That is not to say that it is not good or appropriate legislation, but it is clear that our legislative guidelines are so out of date that they cannot take into consideration the modern world and the challenges that disabled people face online.
The hon. Lady makes a very valid point. I will move on to legislation shortly.
Our inquiry has led us to conclude that social media companies do not employ enough moderators, or enough suitably trained moderators, to deal with this abuse. Given how much profit they are making, that is frankly scandalous. We also found that there is a lot of confusion about what is the responsibility of social media companies and what is the responsibility of the police. That confusion is often fed by the social media companies themselves.
I thank the hon. Lady for making a very passionate and capable speech. Does she agree that perhaps we need someone to be a spokesperson for disabled people online, in a similar way to what has been done for racism and hate crime? Does she feel that perhaps the online companies should set aside a figure such as 1% of their earnings to address the issue? Maybe it is because online abuse as a result of racism and hate seems to be—I use the word very loosely—“sexy”, whereas abuse of disabled people is not. We need someone to be a spokesperson; does the hon. Lady agree that we should set somebody aside for that purpose?
Whether there should be a particular person charged with that is one issue, but I think disabled people are well able to speak for themselves about this, and have been doing so when people choose to hear them.
Social media companies should certainly do more. For example, we found that Twitter talks about dealing with threats of violence by removing an offending tweet or suspending an account, but nowhere does it say that threats to kill are a serious criminal offence and should be reported to the police. That in itself is breeding confusion. We often found that the police were having to pick up things that should really have been dealt with by social media companies. We think it quite wrong that police resources should have to be used in that way because the social media companies are failing.
Social media companies need clear rules, policies, mechanisms and settings that are accessible to all disabled people. They also need to be much more proactive in removing hate speech from their sites and reporting potential criminal offences, including the theft of images, which was one of the worst things that we found—particularly images of children that were used to create so-called memes or jokes.
Rightly, the Government’s White Paper on online harms commits to imposing a duty of care on social media companies and making them responsible for harmful or illegal content on their sites. However, the document refers repeatedly to
“children and other vulnerable users”.
We must understand that many disabled people resent the categorisation of all disabled people as vulnerable. They are not. Like the rest of us, some are vulnerable and some are not. Mostly, they are disadvantaged by how society treats them, rather than by the intrinsic nature of their condition. I hope that the Minister’s reply will reassure us that those things will apply to all kinds of abuse.
What is very clear is that self-regulation has comprehensively failed disabled people in the same way that it has failed many other people who use the internet. Unfortunately, so has the law, as the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) pointed out. The Government tell us constantly that what is illegal offline is illegal online. That is true as far as it goes, but it does not go very far. There are potentially 30 statutes that could apply to online offences. Some offences, such as the theft of images or instigating pile-ons, can occur only online.
The fact that, as one of our witnesses put it,
“not all the pieces of the jigsaw join up”
is leading to a low rate of prosecution in this area. If the law cannot deal with the creation of fake child pornography to mock a disabled child and his family, as happened in the case of Harvey Price, it is simply inadequate. We need a new law that is fit for the digital age, which is why we have recommended that the Government bring forward legislation as a matter of urgency and consult disabled people before doing so.
The Government should make disability hate crime an offence in the same way that crime against someone due to their race or religion is an offence. At the moment, it is only an aggravating factor at sentencing, and it is necessary to prove that someone committed a crime because of hostility to someone due to their disability, which is a very high threshold. Both the Crown Prosecution Service and Detective Inspector John Donovan of the Metropolitan police’s online hate crime hub pointed us to the research by the University of Sussex, which shows that disability hate crime was under-reported and under-prosecuted due to the current state of the law.
In their White Paper, the Government include hate crime in a list of harms that they say are clearly defined. I am afraid that it is not clearly defined on disability hate crime, and it urgently needs to be. As our inquiry proceeded, it became clear to us that disabled people do not feel adequately protected by the law, and do not feel that they are heard when they report crimes. People not being heard properly was a recurring theme throughout our inquiry.
Some good work has been done at senior levels of the police and the CPS, but the law will not work properly unless that percolates down through the organisations, and unless the person on the desk in the police station or the officer who comes out to see people understands it. That is why we have recommended more training for police officers, including in dealing with people who have learning disabilities or autism, so that they are not automatically pigeonholed as being unreliable witnesses.
My hon. Friend is being generous with her time. From the most appalling case in my constituency—the abuse and murder of Lee Irving—I know that so-called mate crime is an enormous danger, particularly for people with learning disabilities. The phrase does not adequately describe in any way the serious financial, physical and often sexual exploitation faced by far too many disabled people at the hands of those they are led to believe are their friends. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that although many disabled people can feel isolated in the real world, the friendships that they develop on social media platforms can actually pose a real danger and harm? Social media companies do not have a grip on this, and the legislation does not reflect the seriousness of such offences.
I agree. We say in our report that
“mate crime is hate crime”,
and it should be treated as such. There is a real risk to people from the activities of those vile individuals who target them for exploitation.
We have been asked, and were asked in the petition, whether we thought that a separate register of offenders was necessary for online hate crime. We came to the conclusion that there is no need for a separate register if our suggested changes to the law and to disability hate crime legislation are to be instigated, because those crimes would show up through a normal Disclosure and Barring Service check. We should make it very clear that at the moment, they do not. Often it records the offence but not that it was motivated by hatred of a disabled person. In organisations that are employing someone to deal with disabled people, there is a problem with being unable to check whether they have a record of not instigating any hate crime. That is a real problem, which we think needs to be addressed by changes in the law.
The other thing that we encountered and felt very strongly about during our inquiry was the fact that disabled people do not feel adequately protected by the law, as I said. We were so concerned that we recommended in our report that the Government should commission an overarching review of disabled people’s experiences of the law, including their experiences of reporting crime and giving evidence.
Disabled people are already marginalised by society. They are being marginalised even more by being abused or driven away from one of the key tools of the 21st century: the internet. That really cannot carry on, and I hope the Minister will commit to consulting disabled people on the proposals in the White Paper, just as I hope she will commit to ensuring that internet and social media companies consult them on their policies, settings and so on. In my view, saying simply that that is an example of good practice is not strong enough. We need to ensure that it will happen, because time and again it is clear that disabled people are not heard when they raise issues that concern them. They are not heard when they talk about this kind of abuse, which they get all the time on the internet. It is time that they were fully heard, and that we grasped this issue and did something about it. I hope the Minister will commit to doing that today.
I welcome this debate and am grateful to the Petitions Committee for ensuring that it happened. I endorse a great deal of what the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), the Chair of the Committee, said. I know that she and her fellow Committee members have pursued this issue with great diligence on behalf of the petitioners.
My interest in the matter is that Katie Price, who organised the petition, is a constituent of mine, as is Katie’s mother, Amy, who is watching the debate from the Public Gallery. I have just met Katie and Amy again, having had a number of discussions with them about what motivated them to bring the issue to public attention. The terrible online bullying of Katie’s disabled son, Harvey, and the effect it had on him and on Katie and her family, made her determined to raise the profile of the issue. She was told that, as a public figure, she should expect to take the rough with the smooth, that she should have a thicker skin, that she had asked for trouble through many of the things she had said, and that she therefore had no justification for raising the issue. That seems to miss the point entirely. Whether someone is a public figure, or members of their family are public figures, and whether they have been brought into the public eye by accident or design, it is never justifiable to bully a young person. It is especially unjustifiable to bully a young disabled person who cannot answer back and might be particularly vulnerable to such bullying.
This issue is so important because it draws attention to a new form of bullying and a new means of enabling bullying. Bullying has been around as long as the human race, but it has been enabled, amplified and in many ways made a great deal worse by social media. We all recognise that the law, and the way we deal with the issue, has not kept up with the growth of the problem in our society in recent years. As recently as two decades ago we simply would not have been talking about this as an issue. Online bullying has exploded because of the prevalence of social media. There is a common recognition that we must do something about it; the real question is what?
There are four areas that we must look at, accepting that the problem is very great indeed—we do not need to discuss whether it is or not. The Law Commission has said that
“in 2017 28% of UK internet users were on the receiving end of trolling, harassment or cyberbullying.”
That is a huge proportion of the population. The question is: how can we deal with it, particularly when it does not cross the line between activity that is clearly criminal and activity that is sub-criminal but nevertheless needs to be dealt with?
Although the Law Commission’s November 2018 report stated that
“we do not consider there to be major gaps in the current state of the criminal law concerning abusive and offensive online communications,”
it then gave the very important caveat that
“there is considerable scope to improve the criminal law in this area”.
It made a number of recommendations on how offences, particularly those relating to grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false communication, should be tightened up. I hope that the Minister will explain how the Government intend to respond to those recommendations.
The Law Commission noted that there are several practical and cultural barriers to enforcement. That is the second issue. The first is whether the law itself is adequate. Even if the law is correctly framed to deal with online abuse—as I have said, there are areas where it needs improving—the real question is whether it is being effectively enforced. There is little doubt that the law enforcement authorities have struggled with how to deal with the huge explosion of social media. The Law Commission noted:
“the sheer scale of abusive and offensive communications, and the limited resources…a persistent cultural tolerance of online abuse”—
I will come to that—the need to balance protecting individuals from harm and freedom of expression; technical barriers that make it difficult to prove the identity of perpetrators; and jurisdictional issues in a highly globalised world. Those are all reasons why it might be hard to enforce the law, but that does not mean that we should not make greater efforts to do so.
I want to raise the question of whether the police are adequately structured, and whether the resources are sufficiently following the need for them to deal with this activity. There is no doubt that crime is changing—this is a very good example of that. The police always need more resources, and I am aware that the Government have recently been increasing police resources, but does the current structure of policing make it easy for individual forces to deal with issues such as online crime? Would this kind of crime be better dealt with through some kind of collaborative police activity, or even some radically new police organisation at national level? Is it an example of a kind of crime that should make us look again at the structure of policing, even while we maintain individual police forces across the country for other forms of volume crime? It is worth looking at that, because I think there is a capability issue in relation to how the police deal with these problems, as well as a resources issue.
The second point, therefore, is that we must enforce the existing law more effectively, and it must be enforced just as much online as it is offline. The police and prosecutors often have difficult decisions to make about where the line should be drawn and when it is in the public interest to prosecute. They must make those decisions after having investigated these crimes properly. We cannot have a general absence of investigation simply because the issues are so great that the police feel unable to deal with them.
The third area where we need more action is the responsibility of social media companies to police their own platforms. That is clearly today’s zeitgeist. Gone are the days when those companies could simply say that they are merely publishing platforms and that they do not have the ability or the responsibility to deal with offensive conduct. They do. Although much of the focus is on material that poses a serious threat to the public—it is quite proper that social media companies are under enormous pressure to deal with that—they should also not tolerate hateful content any more than a conventional publisher would in their organs.
We are entitled to expect social media companies to do more to deal with the persistent trolling of people and to ensure that reports of such activity are investigated effectively. We must face down those who say that there should be free speech in this area, that we should all have broad shoulders, and that it is not the role of social media companies to act as police officers. Actually, they do have a responsibility in this area. We cannot allow the world wide web to be some kind of wild west where anything goes. The way these platforms are being used is doing great harm, particularly to young people’s mental health and happiness.
Those who are making money out of these immensely popular social platforms—we all use them, and they do bring a lot of pleasure and happiness to millions of people—must also recognise the ways in which they can be abused. They must take action to deal with that. The action they take must address conduct that is not just criminal and dangerous, but hateful. They have a responsibility to act, big though the problem is. The Government’s online harms White Paper is a step in the right direction. I reject those who say that it represents too much interference in free speech. It is about ensuring that the companies behave like responsible publishers and in a way that we would expect newspapers to behave.
The fourth area—I will conclude on this—is talked about less. It relates to civil society itself and our responsibility to encourage a discourse that is civil, respectful and not hateful. All those who lead in society, not least Members of Parliament, must say that there are ways of speaking to people that are no more acceptable simply because it is in an online discussion than they would be if it were a face-to-face discussion. We appear to be living in an angrier society, in which it is acceptable to abuse people, and in which licence is taken with a lot of angry outbursts on social media. It may be true that public figures should have broader shoulders, but when such comments spill over into bullying, particularly of younger people, they should not be tolerated.
We must take action collectively; we cannot just leave it to law enforcement. We cannot just toughen up the law and demand more of law enforcement agencies and social media companies. Those things must happen, but we also have a responsibility in society to take a step back and say, “Actually, some of the ways in which we are discussing issues has gone too far; it is too angry and hateful, and language should be moderated.” People who use excessive language and do not behave in a civilised way should be called out. If we ourselves are not behaving in that way, we cannot call out those who are doing that.
Those are the four areas where action is needed. Action in one area will not be sufficient. This really is not just about changing the law, important though some changes will be. It is not just about law enforcement; it is also about the responsibility of the social media companies and society at large. We will tackle this problem only by acting across the board. Let us not lose sight of the importance of dealing with it.
I pay tribute to Katie for having the courage to raise the issue, for facing down those who have criticised her for doing so, and for securing the Petition Committee’s investigation and report into online abuse. I hope that she keeps going and recognises that she is making progress. Her concern is, although we talk a lot, what progress will be made? That is a legitimate question for any member of the public to ask. We have these debates, but what will actually happen as a consequence?
I will finish by quoting words from Katie’s petition, which are powerful and speak for themselves:
“Help me to hammer home worldwide that bullying is unacceptable whether it’s face to face or in an online space.”
Surely we can all agree with that.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I will take a few minutes to talk about the absolutely wonderful work of a rather new organisation called Glitch, which draws attention to the absolute blight of online abuse that my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) spoke about so powerfully.
Glitch has highlighted some of the facts that demonstrate how urgent a matter online abuse is. As we all know, last year’s consultation from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport found that four in 10 people had been affected by abuse and that globally, women are 27 times more likely to be affected by abuse, while women of colour face yet more abuse on top of that. Glitch was founded by Seyi Akiwowo, who I am proud to call a friend. I have known her for about 10 years, and first met her at her sixth-form college. She did work experience in my office, and with that experience, become the youngest local councillor in Newham. I am proud to say that she now regularly visits Parliament to talk to us about her experiences and what she does, and also visits other Parliaments and the United Nations.
Glitch was founded because of Seyi’s personal experience and the experiences of many others who have suffered abuse online. Such abuse could easily have driven them out of online spaces entirely; destroyed their mental health; and ended their careers before they had even started. To be honest, that could have happened to Seyi when she first put a tentative toe in the waters of politics. A video of her speaking at the European Parliament was reposted on Twitter and became a magnet for really vile racist and sexist abuse.
Seyi is an amazingly talented young black woman who dared to participate, and she was abused online in such an appalling way. She was called the n-word. Obviously, there were death threats. There was appalling misogyny. The trolls absolutely delighted in referring to female genital mutilation, rape, and even lynching. Of course, Seyi was distraught, but being who she is, she decided to do something about it. That was when she learned how poor the support for people who are being abused can be and how long it can take for anyone to do anything about it.
I remember clearly the day that Seyi rang me to let me know what was happening. I remember her calling and telling me how she felt violated and let down. She was so angry, but proud. I remember how I felt: I was absolutely furious, and I was so much more furious about being completely and utterly impotent when I tried to get the abuse taken down. I am a vocal, committed, determined and clear MP. Anybody who has heard me advocate on behalf of constituents knows that I can be clear, yet I could not get that abuse taken off the internet, and it went on for days. My office and I repeatedly phoned Twitter to try to get the trolls taken down.
Seyi was rightly determined not to let that keep happening to others unchallenged, so she founded Glitch and has helped to ensure that the issue that we are discussing is recognised as urgent and receives an urgent response from the Government. Glitch has some clear and sensible asks, three of which I will highlight.
First, Glitch points out that although legal reform through the White Paper on online harms and beyond is welcome, no law will do the job unless it can be enforced. We therefore need a sustained commitment to training and funding our police teams properly so that they can expand the work that they do currently.
Much social media abuse is organised in secret and closed groups. The trolls then dogpile and harass people, and it sometimes takes a physical form, when employers are contacted, for example. The police do not have specialist teams or the legal force to deal with that. Should that not be taken up as part of the legislation?
My hon. Friend is right. When I was shadow Minister of State for Policing, I visited police forces that raised that issue, and they talked about how they just do not have the resources to deal with it. They also talked to me about how that type of abuse is totally organised and is not something that just happens randomly. There are little offline cabals of bad people who collude and conspire together to troll and show hatred, misogyny, racism, you name it—the kind of things that our communities can well do without. Yes, we absolutely need to fund our police and give them the tools that they need to enforce our laws.
Glitch also argues that the prevention of abuse should be put first, which means a digital citizenship education. That is something that Glitch is involved in, to empower young people to interact positively and safely with others online. There is evidence of the impact of that strategy in Australia and from organisations such as the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. If the Minister is interested, there is proper evidence out there, and all we have to do is look at what has worked elsewhere, so that we can import the best of it. Frankly, we need it.
Finally, Glitch is one of more than 100 organisations that are campaigning for just 1% of the new digital services tax to be used to support the work of diverse civil society groups. An extra £4 million for that work would not change the face of the internet overnight, but I am sure that we all agree that it would build capacity and world-leading expertise. I honestly think that that would be a great investment in a flourishing digital economy, in healthier communities and in a healthier democracy. I hope that the Minister will respond to those three requests specifically.
Amazing young people like Seyi have grown up with the internet, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North rightly said in her excellent contribution, online spaces are too often filled with abuse that simply would not be tolerated in other public spaces. By treating the online world like the wild west for so long and refusing to get to grips with the difficult questions about regulation, we in this place have let those people down. Online abuse has to stop and we have to stop it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. My thanks to the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) and the Petitions Committee for securing this important debate.
Social media has its pros and cons. It permits persons who may not be so mobile to stay in touch and therefore prevents social isolation, giving access to a wider world though, sadly, not necessarily a safer or kinder one. Others may use social media to seek support and/or friendship, frequently from those in similar circumstances to themselves. That commonality could be disability, illness, bereavement, historic abuse and so on, and many will have positive experiences and move on.
Unfortunately, however, those are already potentially at-risk groups, and some people will inevitably encounter those who wickedly seek to exploit them when they are at their lowest ebb. Indeed, social media may create further social isolation for those who fall foul of unscrupulous users. It can be heartbreaking for a victim, who might become withdrawn and fearful over time. A sad indictment of our so-called progressive society is that online trolls—people who seek to gain personal gratification by berating and belittling others—seem to have free rein to do so unabated. There is little in the way of up-to-date and robust regulation to minimise if not eradicate such inhumanity—which is indeed what it is—and at times criminality.
A recent Petitions Committee report recognised a need for Government and social media companies to consult disabled users proactively, and for those companies to be more proactive about accepting responsibility—which they find very difficult—for facilitating such fractious and foul material being aired on their sites. The Government were required to acknowledge a need to enhance legal protections with a review of the justice system to ensure that disabled persons are not being disadvantaged. I welcome such progress and the publication of the Government’s White Paper on online harms, which contains positive and progressive proposals to appoint an independent regulator to draft and enforce stringent new standards, guidance and code of practice to cover dealing with hateful and offensive content online; and to introduce a mandatory duty of care to be adhered to by technology companies, including social media platforms.
I understand that the existing action plan for tackling hate crime will also be revisited and refreshed to ensure that it adequately addresses the totally unacceptable abusive behaviour online, behaviour which knows no bounds and, regrettably, has been experienced by those of different ages, genders—including a number of female MPs—races and religions. Indeed, every walk of life can be affected by the tentacles of online abuse. Now, the focus of those misguided, shameful and wicked individuals is to target those with disabilities, people who already do not feel valued or protected by the law.
Three hundred and eighty-six people in my constituency signed the petition that led to this debate. I ask the Minister to confirm clearly that the Government will, as a matter of urgency, build on the good work already commenced to protect children online, expanding it to encompass the protection of other targeted groups, in particular the disabled. Also, as mentioned previously, will appropriate funding be provided? There is no point having a policy, a law or a rule that does not have the support of funding, whether for the police or for other agencies, including the platform providers, to enable them to continue to operate their secure reporting mechanisms, such as the police’s True Vision website. This is an issue that has to be addressed throughout the United Kingdom. It is intolerable, we are aware of it, and self-policing and self-regulation have not worked over the past decade; it is time for firm, robust regulation that will be adhered to by the platform providers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Ryan, and to speak in this debate. I pay tribute to Katie Price and her work. It is fantastic to see her mother Amy in the Public Gallery— I know we are not supposed to refer to folk there, but I think it is okay to break the rule sometimes. It is also fantastic to see that we have a British Sign language interpreter. That language is one of the most beautiful in the world, literally bringing language to life. To see simultaneous interpretation here in the Westminster Hall Chamber is fantastic. I hope that the House authorities will consider it for all our debates, including in the main Chamber, and that the Minister will respond to that in due course.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones). She and I are becoming season ticket holders, which is what one of my colleagues calls us regulars here in Westminster Hall. The reality is that while Brexit rages on, little else is in the public psyche or even in the main Chamber, so Westminster Hall is really the place where we are discussing and tackling the other big issues of the day.
Online harms, online bullying and bullying of people whether they are disabled, LGBT, women or from our trans community are totally unacceptable. The report produced by the hon. Lady’s Committee is outstanding and I hope that the Government take the recommendations seriously. She went through them in specific detail, but the statement that stood out for me was on the feelings of disabled people about their lack of representation—that we are not hard to find but we are easy to ignore—and it should shame us all that that is how so many disabled people feel.
Hon. Members have referred to intersectionality. The hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) made particular reference to it, and to the work of Seyi who worked in her office and of Seyi’s company, Glitch. That is particularly stark. I regularly meet members of the LGBT disabled community, and they say that women who are LGBT and disabled are some of the most marginalised people, not just online but offline.
The fact that the Committee consulted tech firms, police and disabled people—across the whole spectrum of stakeholders—is to be commended. The lack of response or the poor response of football teams and that sector in general gives me a sense of deep shame. As the SNP’s digital, culture, media and sports spokesperson, I care passionately about diversity in sport. I am a passionate football fan and occasional player, but it is clear to me that a lot of online abuse comes from football fans. Katie and Harvey have obviously felt that keenly, and it is so disgusting. We absolutely need to get to the heart of that; we need to name and shame those clubs.
To be fair, I know—in particular in Scotland but across the UK—that many clubs do a lot of positive work to tackle abuse and online harm, but we must do more. We must hold teams to account, because clearly many football fans hide behind the guise of their online profiles to spread vile abuse, driving many people offline. They give the vast majority of football fans a bad name—the reality is that the vast majority are peaceful, decent folk who just want to support their team, whether in the stadiums or online.
Poor responses from Government are disappointing, and I want to believe that the Minister and her Government can do better, so while I may disagree with them in many areas and feel let down by them on many counts, their White Paper on online harms was hugely ambitious and a massive step in the right direction. We in the SNP and in the Scottish Government very much support its intentions. We would like to see it go further, and the intentions and the suggestions in the Committee report are particularly significant.
I refer specifically to recommendation 18 of the report, about how
“social media companies be required to demonstrate that they have consulted and worked in partnership with disabled people themselves”.
The hon. Member for Warrington North spoke passionately about that. I suggest—I wonder whether she and the Minister will consider this—that we talk specifically to those tech firms about quotas in the jobs that do the monitoring and regulating online. I saw a piece in the media fairly recently about how moderators were having a particularly difficult time due to being harmed by the content that they were having to moderate. We all know that in police forces across the UK, people who deal with online paedophilia, pornography and all those kinds of issues do those jobs for specific periods of time only.
I am not clear how much transparency there is about the profile of moderators and their range of backgrounds, but it stands to reason that if there are more people who are disabled, LGBT and from the BAME community, they will bring their specific perspectives to the moderation of content. That is the same principle that the Government brought forward to get companies to publish their gender pay gaps. Although the legislation had flaws, it has been quite effective from a societal perspective because it has made companies stop and think carefully about what they need to do and the profile of the people they employ. That would be a sensible way forward and something that perhaps we can encourage tech companies to get behind.
The right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) paid tribute to his constituents Katie and Harvey Price and Katie’s mother, Amy. Katie has put her head above the parapet. The notion that people in public life, whether celebrities, politicians or whoever else, should just suck it up is a piece of nonsense. As politicians, we deserve to be criticised and critiqued. We expect robust criticism and debate, but we do not expect—and neither should any celebrity or a member of their family—to be routinely abused and persecuted. There has been persecution of Katie and her son Harvey, which cannot continue. I commend her work, and we in the SNP and other across the House will do everything we can to help.
The right hon. Gentleman also referred to the inadequacy of legislation and policing resources. We have to look at police budgets and the resources that we allocate. The digital world has brought a massive change to the challenges of cyber-crime and the online world. People want police to be on the street. A close member of my family is a local bobby; we commend our police forces and officers, who do an incredibly difficult job, but we have to remember where the threats are and make sure that the police are properly resourced and supported.
Similarly, as I mentioned in my intervention on the hon. Member for Warrington North, legislation is piecemeal and all over the place. We need to take a holistic look at the legislative framework to make sure that it properly tackles the bullying of disabled people or anyone from any group online and offline. I hope the Minister will take the report seriously. It concerns me that, although Committees of the House do fantastic work and put a huge amount of time and effort into reports, quite often those reports are put on a shelf and left to gather dust. The actions suggested and all the work involved are not taken forward. For the sake of Katie, Harvey and every disabled person or anyone else who is abused online, I hope that this report will not be put on a shelf to gather dust. I hope that the Minister will take it very seriously and will enact the sensible recommendations in it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I, too, congratulate Katie Price and her family on bringing forward the petition. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for an outstanding speech to introduce the debate. It was brilliant because it was based on a thorough analysis of the petition. It is good to see the Petitions Committee working in exactly the way that it should.
I do not want to say too much, because our position on how to tackle this problem has been rehearsed with the Minister a number of times over the last year and a half, but there are three or four things that I want to put on the record. First, it is worth remembering that the scale of abuse is staggering. Three quarters of people with learning disabilities and autism say that they have been victims of hate crime. That is a comprehensive failure as a society and a country to keep our neighbours safe. God knows what sacrifices we have made over the last 50 or 60 years in the defence of democracy and free speech. We live in a country where some of our neighbours are hounded out of those privileges; we have to look at ourselves and conclude that we have so much more to do.
The policing environment for online hate is failing comprehensively. There is a very old concept in policing known as keeping the Queen’s peace. Online, the Queen’s peace is simply not observed. I disagree slightly with the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) because it is simply inconceivable ever to expect a police force to police this waterfront. Some time ago, people started producing memes of what goes up online every 60 seconds. As far back as 2017, the statistics were half a million tweets, 500 hours of video and 3.3 million Facebook posts. There is no way any police force on earth will police that waterfront and keep it safe and sound to protect and preserve the Queen’s peace throughout that space. Therefore, we have to put the onus back on some of the most profitable companies on earth.
In the last reported quarter, Facebook made something like £5 billion of net earnings. That means that in the course of this debate, it will have made more than £3 million of profit. It is one of the biggest and most valuable companies on earth, yet it gets away with supporting—not orchestrating or colluding in, but certainly enabling—the abuse of fellow citizens of our society. The time has to come when we say to the wealthiest titans on earth, “Enough is enough.”
The right hon. Gentleman should not traduce what I said. I was quite clear that action needed to be taken across the board, and that social media companies had to accept responsibility. I did not say or seek to imply that the police could police the range of abusive comments across social media. Where they trespass into the criminal, law enforcement agencies do have a responsibility to act, and we need to ensure that they are capable of doing so.
I am grateful for that because I believe we are on the same page. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the police forces in this country will need to be radically reconfigured. The time when a police constable might turn up to a burglary and advise how to target harden the home should be about to go, because the cyber-security of the property and the family in question will often be much more important. At the moment, however, in Birmingham we cannot get police to investigate even violent abuses because there are no police—they have been cut in the west midlands to the smallest number since the force was created in 1974. That is a debate for another day.
Four significant changes need to happento the online regulatory and policing environment. I think the Government have accepted the first: there needs to be a duty of care on social media companies. The concept of duty of care is quite well established in law. Its legal tradition goes back to the early 1970s and it is tried and tested. If I went out and built a stadium here in London and filled it full of people, there would be all kinds of rules and regulations that would ensure that I kept those people safe. If I went out and built a similar online stadium and filled it full with all kinds of nonsense, no such regulations would bite on me. That has to change. We have to ask these firms to identify the harms their services and products might cause and to do something about them, and we have to hold them to account for that.
The second idea is much tighter regulation of hate speech, which the Government have not yet accepted the need to look into. We have raised a number of times in debates like this the approach taken by the Ministry of Justice in Germany. Its Network Enforcement Act—or NetzDG law for short—has created a much more effective policing environment for tackling online hate speech, and it has done so in a way that keeps Germany well within its Council of Europe obligations on protecting free speech. It is time we looked at that because, as the report that has come through from the German Ministry of Justice shows, it is beginning to work.
I am told that something like one in seven Facebook moderators now works in Germany. Google, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have had to take down a significant amount of hateful material. Looking across the Council of Europe space at the countries that are signatories to the European convention on human rights, which includes the protection of free speech, it appears that Germany is leading the way in creating an effective policing environment to tackle hate speech. Surely, it is time for the Government to look at that a little harder.
The third thing we need is a different kind of regulator. Again, I think the Government have accepted that. There are something like nine different regulators with some kind of regulatory, policing or overwatch powers in the internet space. That is too many. We are not saying they need to be boiled down to one, but that number needs to be closer to one than to nine. That means we have to overhaul the regulators, so we are looking forward to seeing a new Bill whenever we see the Queen’s Speech and a new legislative programme for the next Session.
The final change we need, which is more long term, is a bill of digital rights for the 21st century. The reality is that the online world is going to be regulated, re-regulated and re-regulated again over the course of this century. It is therefore important that we set down some first principles that provide something of a north star to guide us and give companies a bit more predictability as we navigate the changes ahead. At the core of that bill of digital rights should be the right to universal digital literacy. Ultimately, as a country, we are all going to have to become more digitally literate so we can start putting back in place some of the norms and boundaries of the civilised discourse that once were the hallmark of democracy in this country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate the Petitions Committee on its impressive work. I thank the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for her speech and for leading that work on the Committee’s report. I assure her that the Government take this issue extremely seriously. I echo her thanks and congratulations to Katie Price and her family on the crusading work they have done. They should never have had to do it in the first place, but they were courageous enough to confront these awful issues on behalf of her son, Harvey.
I have been very affected by the things I have heard in the debate. I had heard some of them before, but some of the content of the debate was new to me, and it is all very shocking. The purpose of the debate has been to look at the effect of horrendous abuse on people with disabilities. Although, obviously, it has not been confined to people with disabilities, until this petition and the Committee’s report, there had not been enough exposure of the true extent of the abuse of people with disabilities.
The hon. Lady alluded to the advice to go offline, which seems to have been handed out to many people with disabilities who have been abused online. That is outrageous advice. No, they should not go offline. She made clear the tremendous benefits that the internet has brought people with disabilities. They should be free to access those benefits, and to come and go online like everybody else, without fear of harassment, abuse or intimidation. It is the internet that has to change, not the experience of people with disabilities.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) has done an excellent job representing the Price family, who are his constituents. He is quite right that this awful abuse and bullying has been with us since the dawn of humanity, but unfortunately, since the dawn of the internet, which is a recent phenomenon, it has been amplified and made far worse. The 24/7 nature of the internet, and the speed and ease with which images and abusive content can be replicated around the world at the touch of a button, have made the phenomenon of abuse—we are here to talk particularly about the abuse of people with disabilities—far worse. I quite agree that social media platforms should operate a policy of zero tolerance of hate speech, and I will come on to the steps that we are taking through the online harms White Paper to ensure that they do that.
The hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) mentioned something I know very well: that women are 27 times more likely than men to receive abuse online. There is a lot of research to back that up. I echo her congratulations to her constituent Seyi and the campaign organisation she founded, Glitch. That was a very courageous move to overcome the awfulness of what she had to cope with online and actually do something about it. If we are going to do something about abuse, we have to confront it, so I congratulate Seyi.
Some of the proposals that Glitch has developed on digital citizenship and digital literacy are very important. There is a section in our White Paper devoted to improving digital literacy, and not just among young people but among the general population—for us all—and particularly with regard to children as they are growing up. That is very important. The hon. Member for West Ham suggested that the proposed measures could be funded from the digital services tax. I am sure that we can ask the Chancellor those questions, but the White Paper proposes that the regulator should be funded via a levy on companies, which would be a similar source of income.
I am delighted to hear what the Minister has just said, and I know that Glitch will be, too. Should she launch a quiet campaign—we know that is how politics is often done—in the Treasury and DCMS to ask for better enforcement and whether we can take a percentage of the money from the digital services tax, she will find that she has friends on the Labour Benches, and we will do our best to give more power to her elbow.
I thank the hon. Lady very much for her support. It is very important that we work across parties in this area. We have welcomed the Labour party’s input to these deliberations, and some of the ideas that it put forward found their way into the White Paper.
I will follow on from that intervention, because the Minister will also find friends on the SNP Benches. It is important that we work cross-party to challenge the big tech firms. Given that a former Member of this place is now in a very senior role in Facebook, I would like to think that it understands and appreciates the strength of feeling on this issue across the House. Only by working cross-party and taking on the tech companies head on will we get them to get in line and get this sorted.
I agree; a cross-party approach is much more powerful. We want to spend our time not arguing across the Floor of the House, but on confronting the tech companies with the responsibility that they should bear, and on representing and championing citizens, who deserve better.
The SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock—[Interruption.]. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant)—I clearly need to know my Scottish constituencies better. I apologise to both hon. Members. I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution and for the outrage he expressed on behalf of his constituents.
The SNP spokesperson is the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell). I share her shock that the majority of football authorities did not even deign to respond to the letters from the Petitions Committee demanding that they become part of the solution against the horrendous level of abuse that seems to emanate from the world of football. Sadly, racism in football has still not been dealt with, but at least they are engaged in tackling that. I will speak to the Minister for Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), to seek her support to get the football authorities to engage on the abuse of disabled people.
The Minister is being generous in giving way. I do not think that the Petitions Committee wrote to any clubs or authorities in Scotland—I make no criticism; that is just an observation. I would be happy to help facilitate contact with them, and I suggest that a copy of the Committee’s report should go to every football club in the United Kingdom, along with a letter calling them to a meeting where we have cross-party representation at which we can eyeball them and tell them just how strongly people in this House feel about their clubs and the action they need to take.
That is an excellent suggestion. I am happy to put that to my hon. Friend the Minister for Sport, and if the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Warrington North, who chairs the Petitions Committee, would like to attend that meeting, we will set that up. Yes, we will definitely invite all football authorities to that meeting.
The hon. Member for Warrington North also talked about the effect on moderators. Thousands of people are now employed by tech companies to moderate content and make decisions on whether it crosses the threshold and should be taken down. We are looking more and more to systems of artificial intelligence to do as much of that job as possible, precisely for the reasons she set out. It is a horrendous job to do, and I imagine that over time it ends up affecting the moderators’ mental health. On a positive note, 75% of the 4 million videos that YouTube has taken down in, I think, the past six months were identified and removed via artificial intelligence. That does offer us some hope for the future.
The Minister is being generous. The only danger with introducing such statistics, which all the social media companies are desperate to put into our hands, is that it creates the impression that somehow they are doing enough when they are not. We will never get to a solution to this problem by relying on voluntary action. That is why the law needs to change, and enforcement needs to change.
I certainly agree with the right hon. Gentleman. I am sorry if I gave that impression; I wanted to offer up some hope that over time more and more solutions for removal will be technological so that moderators, who have a terrible job to do, do not have to spend their working lives wading through this horrendous content. To clarify, that is absolutely not at all to say that companies are doing enough. They are doing more, but it is by no means enough as yet.
One thing that tech companies need to do, as the police, GCHQ and other authorities do, is provide regular counselling for the people who have to deal with such appalling content. At the tech companies, moderating is often done by poorly paid people in very poor countries, and no support is provided for them.
The hon. Lady makes a good point; people would need that. I believe more and more counselling is being offered, but I am not aware of whether that offer is consistent across the industry or provided only by the better-performing companies.
I reassure the hon. Lady that the Government have engaged with disability organisations and will continue to do so. Last year I held a roundtable with organisations focused specifically on online abuse of people with disabilities, and next month I will chair a roundtable focusing on adults with learning disabilities. I really am very sorry if the Government have given the impression that we think these problems are confined to children and young people, because they most certainly are not, as the hon. Lady said eloquently in her speech. I completely agree. In fact, the organisations with whom I had the roundtable mostly represented adults, and the next one will be mostly about young adults with learning disabilities. That is what I will do to follow up the debate and the petition.
I want to say a few words about the online harms White Paper. I reiterate my earlier point that self-regulation has failed—the shadow Minister is right about that. We all agree on that, and that is why the Government will establish a new statutory duty of care to make companies take more responsibility for the safety and security of their users and tackle the harm caused by the content and activity on their services. Compliance with the duty of care will be overseen and enforced by an independent regulator. Companies will be held to account for tackling a comprehensive set of online harms, including behaviours that may or may not be illegal but none the less are highly damaging to individuals and threaten people’s rights online. The Government are consulting on the most appropriate enforcement powers for a regulator.
[Ian Austin in the Chair]
My right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs, who is a former Policing Minister, mentioned the structure of policing and whether there are capability as well as resource issues. I should have mentioned that the White Paper is in fact a joint Home Office and DCMS White Paper. We have therefore had input from Home Office Ministers, and I will raise his point with them. [Interruption.] I am somewhat distracted by a lot of noise—I do not know where it is coming from.
I see that we have had a change of Chair. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship as well, Mr Austin.
Coming back to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs, we intend that the new system of regulation will take some of the burden off the police and place it on to the tech companies. Those companies should be accountable for taking care of their users by eliminating such content, hopefully before it comes online but certainly very swiftly after it is reported.
The law in Germany, which the shadow Minister referred to, requires content to be taken down within 24 hours of companies knowing about it; if it is later than that, swingeing fines can be applied. We want to create an environment in which companies deal with matters themselves and use less and less of our valuable policing time for the privilege.
As I mentioned earlier, we have committed to developing a media literacy strategy—one of the proposals made by Glitch—to ensure that we have a co-ordinated and strategic approach to online media literacy education. We have published a statutory code of practice for social media providers about dealing with harmful contact, and we have consulted on the draft code with a variety of stakeholders, including people with disabilities. The code includes guidance on the importance of social media platforms having clear, accessible reporting processes and accessible information on their terms and conditions, highlighting the importance of consulting users when designing new software, new apps and new safety policies.
There has been some discussion about whether the law itself is adequate, particularly with regard to hate crime. I will say a few words about the Law Commission’s review. In February last year the Prime Minister announced that the Law Commission would undertake a review of current legislation on offensive communications to ensure that laws are up to date with technology. The Law Commission completed the first part of its review and published a report at the end of last year. It engaged with a range of stakeholders, including victims of online abuse, the charities that support them, legal experts and the Government. The report concluded that abusive communications are theoretically criminalised to the same or even greater degree than equivalent offline behaviours—I did not necessarily accept that verdict myself—but practical and cultural barriers mean that not all harmful online conduct is pursued through criminal law enforcement to the same extent that it is in an offline context. I think the consensus in this room is that that is definitely the case.
The Government are now finalising the details of the second phase of the Law Commission’s work. The Law Commission has been asked to complete a wide-ranging review of hate crime legislation in order to explore how to make hate crime legislation more effective, including whether it is effective in addressing crimes targeting someone because of their disability. I urge Members present and organisations that might be taking an interest in this debate to give their input to the review.
I am afraid that I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance. We are not sure when the next Session will commence, but I fear that the timing of the second phase of that work means that it will not be carried out in time to form the basis of much-needed changes to the law, which I hope the Law Commission will propose. We might have to wait until the following Session. Having said that, the Law Commission might have an opportunity to provide some interim results from its inquiries, and there is nothing to stop an hon. Member introducing a private Member’s Bill, should the opportunity arise, to look closely at the subject and bring something forward for debate.
This review of hate crime is very necessary. One of today’s contributions mentioned the fact that hate crime is aggravated by certain characteristics, including disability, but that might not go far enough. These matters and a review of hate crime are part of the remit of the second phase of the Law Commission’s work. I will also be suggesting to the Law Commission that it looks at the issue of online gender-based hate crime. As the hon. Member for West Ham mentioned, a significant amount of online abuse is misogynistic—it devalues women, it degrades them sexually and it amounts to gender-based hatred. There is a powerful case for women to be afforded the same legal protection against misogynistic online abuse as that given to people with other protected characteristics over which they have no control.
In conclusion, I thank Members for their thoughtful contributions and the Petitions Committee for the huge amount of work it has done on this vital subject. I look forward to continued engagement from across the House as we develop the proposals set out in the online harms White Paper.
I thank all the Members who have spoken this afternoon for their useful contributions to the debate, and their suggestions for going further with the task. I know that the Minister takes the matter extremely seriously. However, some of the changes to the law that are required are of course not within her Department. I hope that she will convey to the Home Office the strength of feeling from the debate, particularly about the need to strengthen the legislation on disability hate crime.
There were useful suggestions about, for example, making sure that the people employed by technology companies are diverse and understand the issues, and about ways of looking at digital citizenship education. All those suggestions were welcome and I am sure that the Petitions Committee will do follow-up work and take them into account. However, we need changes in the law. The online harms White Paper is a useful step in the right direction, but other changes are also needed. I might make a comparison with a number of other issues that we have dealt with in the past: sometimes the law follows changes in society, but sometimes the law itself changes people’s perceptions. The Race Relations Act 1965 did not get rid of racism but at least it stopped some of its overt manifestations. It used to be considered acceptable to drink several pints and get behind the wheel of a car, but it is not any longer, because the law changed. Sometimes we need changes in the law to lead people to change their attitudes. That is what we are asking for in the present case.
We also need, as some hon. Members said, to make sure that the police have the right technology and skills, and the right number of people to make sure that the law is enforced. Digital companies must bear their responsibility: that is exactly right, as the Minister said. However, when a crime is committed the police need the resources to pursue the crime and bring people to justice for it.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and to the Minister for what she has said today. I want to mention, again, that the police service in my constituency has had major difficulties in trying to get offensive drill music taken down. It was being used by gang members to call each other out; it was inciting violence on the street. The police tell me that despite the fact that they asked YouTube to take the videos down it did not happen, and that they did not have enforcement powers. We need the powers to do what is right. We need to give our police not only the resources they need but the powers they need to keep children safe.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Today’s debate is perhaps an example of how debates should be conducted in the House—civilly, and with useful contributions—and it has been clear that there is support across the House for change. Most of all, we have to be clear that we are changing attitudes and that things that have previously been considered acceptable, at least by some sections of society, are not acceptable. We have to make sure that the concerns of disabled people and others are finally heard and attended to. They have not been heard in the past and I hope that we have changed that today, and that we shall go on to ensure that the law is changed so they no longer feel excluded.
Before we proceed, we should all thank the sign language interpreters, who have been ensuring that everyone is fully able to follow what has been said in the debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 190627 relating to online abuse.