Friday 4 February 2022
Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Modernising Communications Offences: Law Commission Review
I wish to inform the House that the Government will be accepting the recommended harm-based communications offence, false communications offence and threatening communications offence, as laid out in the Law Commission’s “Modernising Communications Offences” report, published in July 2021.
The offences will be brought into law through the online safety Bill, which we are committed to introducing to Parliament as soon as possible.
These new offences will help ensure that the criminal law is focused on the most harmful behaviour while protecting freedom of expression. The current offences are sufficiently broad in scope that they could constitute a disproportionate interference in the right to freedom of expression. The new offences will protect freedom of expression and, in the case of the harm-based offence by increasing the threshold of harm to serious distress, will ensure that communications that individuals find offensive, such as the expression of a view they do not like or agree with, will not be caught. In addition, the court cannot find someone guilty of the harm-based offence or false communications offence if they have a reasonable excuse. A reasonable excuse would include if the communication was or was intended as a contribution to the public interest.
We have also accepted the Law Commission’s recommendation to include a press exemption within the general harm-based communications offence and the knowingly false communications offence. While we do not expect the new offences will capture communication made by the media, including this press exemption demonstrates the Government’s commitment to upholding media freedom.
The Government will repeal the existing communication offences, including section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1988 and sections 127(1) and (2) of the Communications Act 2003, as recommended by the Law Commission.
Alongside the online safety regulatory framework, the offences will help deliver the Government’s objective of making the UK the safest place to be online.
In addition, as the Prime Minister has indicated, we welcome the recommended offence on cyber-flashing and are carefully considering it.
The report recommends a further three offences. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Ministry of Justice are carefully considering the remaining offences and accompanying recommendations, including the hoax calls offence, an offence for encouraging or assisting self-harm and an offence for epilepsy trolling. We will continue to assess these offences and issue a full response to the Law Commission later this year.
I would like to express my sincere thanks for all the work that the Commission has carried out as part of this review over the past four years.
Health and Social Care
The pandemic has shone a light on the unacceptable disparities in health outcomes that exist across the country. The Government are committed to reducing health disparities, addressing the gap in healthy life expectancy that exists between different communities and building on the positive action set out in the levelling up White Paper.
I am therefore pleased to announce that we will take bold action on health disparities through a health disparities White Paper, aiming to break the link between people’s background and their prospect for a healthy life.
We will publish our plans in spring 2022 and look forward to engaging with stakeholders and partners to address this critical agenda.
Linked to the health disparities White Paper, I would also like to announce two reviews with a focus on health disparities:
Independent review on tobacco control
Firstly, I have asked Javed Khan to lead an independent review into smoking in support of the Government’s bold ambition to be smoke free by 2030.
While the Government have made good long-term progress in reducing smoking rates, there are still nearly 6 million smokers in England, and an estimated 64,000 people died from smoking in 2019 alone. Smoking is one of the largest drivers of health disparities and causes a disproportionate burden to our most disadvantaged families and communities.
As a leading figure in the UK public and voluntary sectors, Javed Khan will bring a wealth of experience to help determine what more can be done to drive down smoking rates. The review will support the Government to identify the most impactful interventions to reduce the uptake of smoking, and support people to stop smoking, for good.
The independent, evidence-based findings will inform both the health disparities White Paper and the Government’s new tobacco control plan, which will be published later this year. Javed Khan will report back to the Government in April 2022.
Independent review into medical devices
Professor Dame Margaret Whitehead will lead an independent review of the health impact of potential ethnic bias in the design and use of medical devices.
Professor Dame Margaret Whitehead has vast experience in tackling health inequalities, and for many years has led the work of the World Health Organisation’s Collaborating Centre for Policy Research on the Determinants of Health Equity.
The review into the design and use of medical devices in the UK aims to:
Identify systematic inequalities in medical devices registered for use in the UK.
Make recommendations on how inequalities should be tackled.
Consider what systems need to be in place to ensure emerging technologies are developed without ethnic inequalities.
Improve global standards to better healthcare and tackle disparities.
I look forward to the outcome of both reviews so we can continue to level up across society and make sure everyone—no matter where they live or come from—can live a long, healthy life.
Essex Mental Health Inquiry: Indemnity
It is normal practice, when a Government Department proposes to undertake a contingent liability in excess of £300,000 for which there is no specific statutory authority, for the Minister concerned to present a departmental minute to Parliament giving particulars of the liability created and explaining the circumstances; and to refrain from incurring the liability until 14 parliamentary sitting days after the issue of the minute, except in cases of special urgency.
I have today laid a departmental minute proposing to provide an indemnity that is necessary in respect of a Department of Health and Social Care established non-statutory, independent inquiry into the care and treatment pathways and the circumstances and practices surrounding the deaths of mental health inpatients in Essex.
The Essex Mental Health Independent Inquiry has been established to investigate deaths which took place in mental health inpatient facilities across NHS Trusts in Essex between 1 January 2000 and 31 December 2020. It will draw conclusions in relation to the safety and quality of care provided locally and nationally to mental health inpatients.
In January 2021, the Minister of State for Patient Safety, Suicide Prevention and Mental Health announced the establishment of the inquiry—HCWS729, 21 January 2021—to be chaired by Dr Geraldine Strathdee CBE. The indemnity will cover the entire duration of the inquiry’s work, from January 2021 until when the inquiry submits its final report, expected in 2023, and for an unlimited period after that date. However, we believe there is a low risk of the indemnity being called upon beyond five years of the inquiry having reported. The indemnity will cover the chair and all other members of the inquiry team, against any liability, including any legal or other associated costs, arising from any act done, or omission made, honestly and in good faith, when carrying out activities for the purposes of the inquiry in accordance with its terms of reference.
The indemnity will only apply to acts done or omissions made during the course of the inquiry and will exclude personal criminal liability, negligence or reckless acts. There will be no cap placed upon the indemnity, so the maximum exposure is strictly unlimited. However, any losses are not expected to exceed a value of £3 million based upon the best estimate currently available at this stage of the inquiry’s work. If the liability is called, provision for any payment will be sought through the normal supply procedure.
The Treasury has approved the proposal in principle. If, during the period of 14 parliamentary sitting days beginning on the date on which this minute was laid before Parliament, a Member signifies an objection by giving notice of a parliamentary question or by otherwise raising the matter in Parliament, final approval to proceed with incurring the liability will be withheld pending an examination of the objection.
Northern Ireland: Resignation of First Minister
I wish to inform the House that Paul Givan has resigned as the First Minister of the Northern Ireland Executive. This decision is extremely disappointing and I want to make it clear that the Government want to see a return to ministerial roles immediately, to ensure the necessary delivery of public services for the citizens of Northern Ireland.
The Government’s priority is for a strong, functioning Executive delivering a better, more prosperous, shared future for the people of Northern Ireland. We want to continue to build on the Belfast (Good Friday) agreement’s promise of a stable, co-operative power-sharing Executive, built on respectful relationships with a shared commitment to serve all the people of Northern Ireland.
The last two years since the New Decade, New Approach agreement restored devolved Government in Northern Ireland have demonstrated the potential that can be unlocked when the political parties in Northern Ireland work together. We must not return to a state of political deadlock and inertia.
The Government recognise the impact that the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol is having on the ground, and we have been clear for some time that the protocol has been causing a serious unbalancing of the delicate and hard-won political stability in Northern Ireland. We remain fully committed to fixing the problems with the protocol and to protecting the Belfast (Good Friday) agreement in all its dimensions.
I have spoken to Northern Ireland party leaders and the Irish Government, to encourage a return to stable devolved Government in Northern Ireland. The Government hope that Northern Ireland's political leaders will quickly take the necessary steps to restore the stability in the devolved institutions that the people of Northern Ireland deserve. In addition, the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petition of Concern) Bill currently before Parliament will aid and underpin stability.