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Online Safety Bill (Thirteenth sitting)

Debated on Tuesday 21 June 2022

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairs: Sir Roger Gale, †Christina Rees

† Ansell, Caroline (Eastbourne) (Con)

† Bailey, Shaun (West Bromwich West) (Con)

† Blackman, Kirsty (Aberdeen North) (SNP)

† Carden, Dan (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab)

† Davies-Jones, Alex (Pontypridd) (Lab)

† Double, Steve (St Austell and Newquay) (Con)

† Fletcher, Nick (Don Valley) (Con)

† Holden, Mr Richard (North West Durham) (Con)

† Keeley, Barbara (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab)

† Leadbeater, Kim (Batley and Spen) (Lab)

† Miller, Dame Maria (Basingstoke) (Con)

Mishra, Navendu (Stockport) (Lab)

† Moore, Damien (Southport) (Con)

Nicolson, John (Ochil and South Perthshire) (SNP)

† Philp, Chris (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

† Russell, Dean (Watford) (Con)

Stevenson, Jane (Wolverhampton North East) (Con)

Katya Cassidy, Kevin Maddison, Seb Newman, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 21 June 2022


[Christina Rees in the Chair]

Online Safety Bill

We are now sitting in public and proceedings are being broadcast. Please switch electronic devices to silent. Tea and coffee are not allowed during the sitting. I understand the Government wish to move a motion to amend the programme order agreed by the Committee, so that the Committee’s session at 2pm on Thursday will not take place.

I beg to move,

That the Order of the Committee of 24 May 2022, as amended on 26 May 2022, be further amended, in paragraph (1)(h), by leaving out “and 2.00pm”.

In the light of the rail strike on Thursday, I am grateful to the Opposition Front Bench for agreeing to the suggestion that the Committee does not sit that afternoon.

Because this motion has not been agreed by the programming sub-committee, it may only be proceeded with if everyone is content. Does anyone object to the motion?

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 118

Penalty for failure to comply with confirmation decision

We now come to amendment 135 to clause 118, with which it will be convenient to discuss amendments 136 to 138. All these amendments have been tabled by Carla Lockhart, who is not a member of the Committee. Would any Member like to move the amendment? I see no Member wishing to do that.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Clause 119 stand part.

Government amendments 154 to 157.

Clauses 120 and 121 stand part.

Bore da, Ms Rees. It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairship. I rise to speak to clauses 118 to 121 and Government amendments 154 to 157.

As we all know, clause 118 is important and allows Ofcom to impose a financial penalty on a person who fails to complete steps that have been required by Ofcom in a confirmation decision. This is absolutely vital if we are to guarantee that regulated platforms take seriously their responsibilities in keeping us all safe online. We support the use of fines. They are key to overall behavioural change, particularly in the context of personal liability. We welcome clause 118, which outlines the steps Ofcom can take in what we hope will become a powerful deterrent.

Labour also welcomes clause 119. It is vital that Ofcom has these important powers to impose a financial penalty on a person who fails to comply with a notice that requires technology to be implemented to identify and deal with content relating to terrorism and child sexual exploitation and abuse on their service. These are priority harms and the more that can be done to protect us on these two points the better.

Government amendments 155 and 157 ensure that Ofcom has the power to impose a monetary penalty on a provider of a service who fails to pay a fee that it is required to pay under new schedule 2. We see these amendments as crucial in giving Ofcom the important powers it needs to be an effective regulator, which is something we all require. We have some specific observations around new schedule 2, but I will save those until we consider that schedule. For now, we support these amendments and I look forward to outlining our thoughts shortly.

We support clause 120, which allows Ofcom to give a penalty notice to a provider of a regulated service who does not pay the fee due to Ofcom in full. This a vital provision that also ensures that Ofcom’s process to impose a penalty can progress only when it has given due notice to the provider and once the provider has had fair opportunity to make fair representations to Ofcom. This is a fair approach and is central to the Bill, which is why we have not sought to amend.

Finally, we support clause 121, which ensures that Ofcom must state the reasons why it is imposing a penalty, the amount of the penalty and any aggravating or mitigating factors. Ofcom must also state when the penalty must be paid. It is imperative that when issuing a notice Ofcom is incentivised to publish information about the amount, aggravating or mitigating factors and when the penalty must be paid. We support this important clause and have not sought to amend.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Ms Rees, and I congratulate Committee members on evading this morning’s strike action.

I am delighted that the shadow Minister supports the intent behind these clauses, and I will not speak at great length given the unanimity on this topic. As she said, clause 118 allows Ofcom to impose a financial penalty for failure to take specified steps by a deadline set by Ofcom. The maximum penalty that can be imposed is the greater of £18 million or 10% of qualifying worldwide revenue. In the case of large companies, it is likely to be a much larger amount than £18 million.

Clause 119 enables Ofcom to impose financial penalties if the recipient of a section 103 notice does not comply by the deadline. It is very important to ensure that section 103 has proper teeth. Government amendments 154 to 157 make changes that allow Ofcom to recover not only the cost of running the service once the Bill comes into force and into the future but also the preparatory cost of setting up for the Bill to come into force.

As previously discussed, £88 million of funding is being provided to Ofcom in this financial year and next. We believe that something like £20 million of costs that predate these financial years have been funded as well. That adds up to around £108 million. However, the amount that Ofcom recovers will be the actual cost incurred. The figure I provided is simply an indicative estimate. The actual figure would be based on the real costs, which Ofcom would be able to recoup under these measures. That means that the taxpayer—our constituents —will not bear any of the costs, including the set-up and preparatory cost. This is an equitable and fair change to the Bill.

Clause 120 sets out that some regulated providers will be required to pay a regulatory fee to Ofcom, as set out in clause 71. Clause 120 allows Ofcom to impose a financial penalty if a regulated provider does not pay its fee by the deadline it sets. Finally, clause 121 sets out the information that needs to be included in these penalty notices issued by Ofcom.

I have questions about the management of the fees and the recovery of the preparatory cost. Does the Minister expect that the initial fees will be higher as a result of having to recoup the preparatory cost and will then reduce? How quickly will the preparatory cost be recovered? Will Ofcom recover it quickly or over a longer period of time?

The Bill provides a power for Ofcom to recover those costs. It does not specify over what time period. I do not think they will be recouped over a period of years. Ofcom can simply recoup the costs in a single hit. I would imagine that Ofcom would seek to recover these costs pretty quickly after receiving these powers. The £108 million is an estimate. The actual figure may be different once the reconciliation and accounting is done. It sounds like a lot of money, but it is spread among a number of very large social media firms. It is not a large amount of money for them in the context of their income, so I would expect that recouping to be done on an expeditious basis—not spread over a number of years. That is my expectation.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 118 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 119 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 120

Non-payment of fee

Amendments made: 154, in clause 120, page 102, line 20, after “71” insert:

“or Schedule (Recovery of OFCOM’s initial costs)”.

This amendment, and Amendments 155 to 157, ensure that Ofcom have the power to impose a monetary penalty on a provider of a service who fails to pay a fee that they are required to pay under NS2.

Amendment 155, in clause 120, page 102, line 21, leave out “that section” and insert “Part 6”.

Amendment 156, in clause 120, page 102, line 26, after “71” insert—

“or Schedule (Recovery of OFCOM’s initial costs)”

Amendment 157, in clause 120, page 103, line 12, at end insert—

“or Schedule (Recovery of OFCOM’s initial costs)”.—(Chris Philp.)

Clause 120, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 121 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 122

Amount of penalties etc

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

With this it will be convenient to discuss:

Government amendment 158.

That schedule 12 be the Twelfth schedule to the Bill.

Labour supports clause 122 and schedule 12, which set out in detail the financial penalties that Ofcom may impose, including the maximum penalty that can be imposed. Labour has long supported financial penalties for those failing to comply with the duties in the Bill. We firmly believe that tough action is needed on online safety, but we feel the sanctions should go further and that there should be criminal liability for offences beyond just information-related failures. We welcome clause 122 and schedule 12. It is vital that Ofcom is also required to produce guidelines around how it will determine penalty amounts. Consistency across the board is vital, so we feel this is a positive step forward and have not sought to amend the clause.

Paragraph 8 of schedule 12 requires monetary penalties to be paid into the consolidated fund. There is no change to that requirement, but it now appears in new clause 43, together with the requirement to pay fees charged under new schedule 2 into the consolidated fund. We therefore support the amendments.

I have nothing further to add on these amendments. The shadow Minister has covered them, so I will not detain the Committee further.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 122 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 12

Penalties imposed by OFCOM under Chapter 6 of Part 7

Amendment made: 158, in schedule 12, page 206, line 43, leave out paragraph 8.—(Chris Philp.)

Paragraph 8 of Schedule 12 requires monetary penalties to be paid into the Consolidated Fund. There is no change to that requirement, but it now appears in NC43 together with the requirement to pay fees charged under NS2 into the Consolidated Fund.

Schedule 12, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 123

Service restriction orders

I beg to move amendment 50, in clause 123, page 106, line 36, at end insert—

“(9A) OFCOM may apply to the court for service restriction orders against multiple regulated services with one application, through the use of a schedule of relevant services which includes all the information required by subsection (5).”

This amendment would give Ofcom the ability to take action against a schedule of non-compliant sites, while still preserving the right of those sites to oppose the application for, and/or appeal through the courts against any, orders to block access or support services.

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 51, in clause 125, page 110, line 20, at end insert—

“(7A) OFCOM may apply to the court for service restriction orders against multiple regulated services with one application, through the use of a schedule of relevant services which includes all the information required by subsection (6).”

This amendment would give Ofcom the ability to take action against a schedule of non-compliant sites, while still preserving the right of those sites to oppose the application for, and/or appeal through the courts against any, orders to block access or support services.

With your permission, Ms Rees, I will speak to clause stand part and clauses 124 to 127 at the same time. Labour supports clause 123, which outlines the powers that Ofcom will have when applying to the court for business disruption measures. Business disruption measures are court orders that require third parties to withdraw services or block access to non-compliant regulated services. It is right that Ofcom has these tools at its disposal, particularly if it is going to be able to regulate effectively against the most serious instances of user harm. However, the Bill will be an ineffective regime if Ofcom is forced to apply for separate court orders when trying to protect people across the board from the same harms. We have already waited too long for change. Labour is committed to giving Ofcom the powers to take action, where necessary, as quickly as possible. That is why we have tabled amendments 50 and 51, which we feel will go some way in tackling these issues.

Amendment 50 would give Ofcom the ability to take action against a schedule of non-compliant sites, while still preserving the right of those sites to oppose the application for—and/or appeal through the courts against any—orders to block access or support services. The Bill currently requires Ofcom to seek a separate court order for each service against which it wishes to take enforcement action in the form of blocking access or services. That is the only effective mechanism for overseas websites. UK-based services will be subject to enforcement notices and financial penalties that can be enforced without having to go to court. That creates a disadvantage for UK sites, which can be more easily enforced against.

Given that there are 4 million to 5 million pornographic websites, for example, the requirement for separate court orders will prevent Ofcom from taking action at scale and creating a level playing field for all adult sites. Under the Bill, Ofcom must take action against each offending website or social media company individually. While we acknowledge that the Government have stated that enforcement action can be taken against multiple offending content providers, in our opinion that is not made clear in the Bill.

Moreover, we are concerned that some pornography websites would seek to avoid the Bill’s requirements by changing their domain name—domain hopping. That was threatened last year when Germany moved to issue a blocking order against major providers of internet pornography. That is why Ofcom must be granted clear enforcement powers to take swift action against multiple websites and content providers in one court action or order.

This group of amendments would also provide clarity and ease of enforcement for internet service providers, which will be expected to enforce court orders. Labour wants the Bill to be genuinely effective, and amendments 50 and 51 could ensure that Ofcom has the tools available to it to take action at pace. We urge the Minister to accept these small concessions, which could have a hugely positive impact.

Amendment 51 would give Ofcom the ability to take action against a schedule of non-compliant sites, while preserving the right of those sites to oppose an application for an order to block access or support services, or to appeal through the courts against any such order.

It will come as no surprise that Labour supports clause 124, which sets out the circumstances in which Ofcom may apply to the courts for an interim service restriction order. We particularly support the need for Ofcom to be able to take action when time is not on its side, or where, put plainly, the level of harm being caused means that it would be inappropriate to wait for a definite failure before taking action.

However, we hope that caution is exercised if Ofcom ever needs to consider such an interim order; we must, of course, get the balance right in our approach to internet regulation more widely. I would therefore be grateful if the Minister could outline his understanding of the specifics of when these orders may be applied. More broadly, Labour agrees that Ofcom should be given the power to act when time demands it, so we have not sought to amend clause 124 at this stage.

Labour also supports the need for Ofcom to have the power to apply to the courts for an access restriction order, as outlined in clause 125. It is vital that Ofcom is given the power to prevent, restrict or deter individuals in the UK from accessing a service from a non-compliant provider. We welcome the specific provisions on access via internet service providers and app stores. We all know from Frances Haugen’s testimony that harmful material can often be easily buried, so it is right and proper that those are considered as “access facilities” under the clause. Ultimately, we support the intentions of clause 125 and, again, have not sought to amend it at this stage.

We also support clause 126, which sets out the circumstances in which Ofcom may apply to the courts for an interim access restriction order. I will not repeat myself: for the reasons I have already outlined, it is key that Ofcom has sufficient powers to act, particularly on occasions when it is inappropriate to wait for a failure to be established.

We welcome clause 127, which clarifies how Ofcom’s enforcement powers can interact. We particularly welcome clarification that, where Ofcom exercises its power to apply to the courts for a business disruption order under clauses 123 to 126, it is not precluded from taking action under its other enforcement powers. As we have repeatedly reiterated, we welcome Ofcom’s having sufficient power to reasonably bring about positive change and increase safety measures online. That is why we have not sought to amend clause 127.

Thank you for chairing this morning’s sitting, Ms Rees.

I agree with the hon. Member for Pontypridd that these clauses are necessary and important, but I also agree that the amendments are important. It seems like this is a kind of tidying-up exercise, to give Ofcom the ability to act in a way that will make its operation smoother. We all want this legislation to work. This is not an attempt to break this legislation—to be fair, none of our amendments have been—but an attempt to make things work better.

Amendments 50 and 51 are fairly similar to the one that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children proposed to clause 103. They would ensure that Ofcom could take action against a group of sites, particularly if they were facing the same kind of issues, they had the same kind of functionality, or the same kind of concerns were being raised about them.

If the Minister does not intend to accept amendments 50 and 51, will he at least ensure that if Ofcom comes to the Secretary of State and says, “Look, we’re really struggling because we’ve got to do all of these applications individually,” there is some power or ability for the Secretary of State or Parliament to amend this legislation to ensure that Ofcom’s ability to act is not hampered? This is not about Ofcom bringing cases against people who should not have cases brought against them; it is just about making the paperwork easier for Ofcom. These clauses may not allow delegated powers, but will the Minister commit to considering the issue at a future stage? Obviously, the Bill will go to the other place afterwards. If the Minister were to consider including the provision at a future point, that would make the legislation better, and it would make it easier for Ofcom to operate. We do not want Ofcom to spend money and time unnecessarily; we want it to focus on making a big difference. If it is mired in unnecessary extra paperwork, its ability to do so will be hampered.

If no other Members wish to speak to amendments 50 and 51 and clauses 123 to 127, I will call the Minister to respond.

Let me start with amendments 50 and 51, which were introduced by the shadow Minister and supported by the SNP spokesperson. The Government recognise the valid intent behind the amendments, namely to make sure that applications can be streamlined and done quickly, and that Ofcom can make bulk applications if large numbers of service providers violate the new duties to the extent that interim service restriction orders or access restriction orders become necessary.

We want a streamlined process, and we want Ofcom to deal efficiently with it, including, if necessary, by making bulk applications to the court. Thankfully, however, procedures under the existing civil procedure rules already allow so-called multi-party claims to be made. Those claims permit any number of claimants, any number of defendants or respondents and any number of claims to be covered in a single form. The overriding objective of the CPR is that cases are dealt with justly and proportionately. Under the existing civil procedure rules, Ofcom can already make bulk applications to deal with very large numbers of non-compliant websites and service providers in one go. We completely agree with the intent behind the amendments, but their content is already covered by the CPR.

It is worth saying that the business disruption measures—the access restriction orders and the service restriction orders—are intended to be a last resort. They effectively amount to unplugging the websites from the internet so that people in the United Kingdom cannot access them and so that supporting services, such as payment services, do not support them. The measures are quite drastic, although necessary and important, because we do not want companies and social media firms ignoring our legislation. It is important that we have strong measures, but they are last resorts. We would expect Ofcom to use them only when it has taken reasonable steps to enforce compliance using other means.

If a provider outside the UK ignores letters and fines, these measures are the only option available. As the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Pontypridd, mentioned, some pornography providers probably have no intention of even attempting to comply with our regulations; they are probably not based in the UK, they are never going to pay the fine and they are probably incorporated in some obscure, offshore jurisdiction. Ofcom will need to use these powers in such circumstances, possibly on a bulk scale—I am interested in her comment that that is what the German authorities had to do—but the powers already exist in the CPR.

It is also worth saying that in its application to the courts, Ofcom must set out the information required in clauses 123(5) and 125(3), so evidence that backs up the claim can be submitted, but that does not stop Ofcom doing this on a bulk basis and hitting multiple different companies in one go. Because the matter is already covered in the CPR, I ask the shadow Minister to withdraw the amendment.

I am interested to know whether the Minister has anything to add about the other clauses. I am happy to give way to him.

I thank the shadow Minister for giving way. I do not have too much to say on the other clauses, because she has introduced them, but in my enthusiasm for explaining the civil procedure rules I neglected to respond to her question about the interim orders in clauses 124 and 126.

The hon. Lady asked what criteria have to be met for these interim orders to be made. The conditions for clause 124 are set out in subsections (3) and (4) of that clause, which states, first, that it has to be

“likely that the…service is failing to comply with an enforceable requirement”—

so it is likely that there has been a breach—and, secondly, that

“the level of risk of harm to individuals in the United Kingdom…and the nature and severity of that harm, are such that it would not be appropriate to wait to establish the failure before applying for the order.”

Similar language in clause 124(4) applies to breaches of section 103.

Essentially, if it is likely that there has been a breach, and if the resulting harm is urgent and severe—for example, if children are at risk—we would expect these interim orders to be used as emergency measures to prevent very severe harm. I hope that answers the shadow Minister’s question. She is very kind, as is the Chair, to allow such a long intervention.

In a Bill Committee, a Member can speak more than once. However, your intervention resolved the situation amicably, Minister.

I welcome the Minister’s comments about clauses 124 and 126 in answer to my questions, and also his comments about amendments 50 and 51, clarifying the CPR. If the legislation is truly to have any impact, it must fundamentally give clarity to service users, providers and regulators. That is why we seek to remove any ambiguity and to put these important measures in the Bill, and it is why I will press amendment 50 to a Division.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Clause 123 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 124 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 125

Access restriction orders

Amendment proposed: 51, in clause 125, page 110, line 20, at end insert—

“(7A) OFCOM may apply to the court for service restriction orders against multiple regulated services with one application, through the use of a schedule of relevant services which includes all the information required by subsection (6).”—(Alex Davies-Jones.)

This amendment would give Ofcom the ability to take action against a schedule of non-compliant sites, while still preserving the right of those sites to oppose the application for, and/or appeal through the courts against any, orders to block access or support services.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Clause 125 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 126 and 127 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 128

Publication of details of enforcement action

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Minister and his Back Benchers will, I am sure, be tired of our calls for more transparency, but I will be kind to him and confirm that Labour welcomes the provisions in clause 128.

We believe that it is vital that, once Ofcom has followed the process outlined in clause 110 when issuing a confirmation decision outlining its final decision, that is made public. We particularly welcome provisions to ensure that when a confirmation decision is issued, Ofcom will be obliged to publish the identity of the person to whom the decision was sent, details of the failure to which the decision relates, and details relating to Ofcom’s response.

Indeed, the transparency goes further, as Ofcom will be obliged to publish details of when a penalty notice has been issued in many more areas: when a person fails to comply with a confirmation decision; when a person fails to comply with a notice to deal with terrorism content or child sexual exploitation and abuse content, or both; and when there has been a failure to pay a fee in full. That is welcome indeed. Labour just wishes that the Minister had committed to the same level of transparency on the duties in the Bill to keep us safe in the first place. That said, transparency on enforcement is a positive step forward, so we have not sought to amend the clause at this stage.

I am grateful for the shadow Minister’s support. I have nothing substantive to add, other than to point to the transparency reporting obligation in clause 64, which we have debated.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 128 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 129

OFCOM’s guidance about enforcement action

I beg to move amendment 7, in clause 129, page 114, line 3, at end insert—

“(aa) the Information Commissioner, and”.

This amendment ensures that before Ofcom produce guidance about their exercise of their enforcement powers, they must consult the Information Commissioner.

If I may, in the interest of speed and convenience, I will speak to clause stand part as well.

The clause requires Ofcom to issue guidance setting out how it will use its enforcement powers in the round. That guidance will ensure that the enforcement process is transparent, it will cover the general principles and processes of the enforcement regime, and it is intended to help regulated providers and other stakeholders to understand how Ofcom will exercise its powers.

Government amendment 7 seeks to make it mandatory for Ofcom to consult the Information Commissioner’s Office before producing guidance on how Ofcom will exercise its enforcement powers in relation to the enforceable requirements in the Bill. That is important because the Information Commissioner’s Office has a significant interest in matters of data protection and privacy, and we want to make sure its opinion is properly taken into account before changes are made. We therefore think it is appropriate that the Information Commissioner’s Office is consulted in such circumstances.

Clause 129(4) states that the Secretary of State will be consulted in the process. What would be the Secretary of State’s powers in relation to that? Would she be able to overrule Ofcom in the writing of its guidance?

The hon. Member asks for my assistance in interpreting legislative language. Generally speaking, “consult” means what it suggests. Ofcom will consult the Secretary of State, as it will consult the ICO, to ascertain the Secretary of State’s opinion, but Ofcom is not bound by that opinion. Unlike the power in a previous clause—I believe it was clause 40—where the Secretary of State could issue a direct instruction to Ofcom on certain matters, here we are talking simply about consulting. When the Secretary of State expresses an opinion in response to the consultation, it is just that—an opinion. I would not expect it to be binding on Ofcom, but I would expect Ofcom to pay proper attention to the views of important stakeholders, which in this case include both the Secretary of State and the ICO. I hope that gives the hon. Member the clarification he was seeking.

As we know, clause 129 requires Ofcom to publish guidance about how it will use its enforcement powers. It is right that regulated providers and other stakeholders have a full understanding of how, and in what circumstances, Ofcom will have the legislative power to exercise this suite of enforcement powers. We also welcome Government amendment 7, which will ensure that the Information Commissioner—a key and, importantly, independent authority—is included in the consultation before guidance is produced.

As we have just heard, however, the clause sets out that Secretary of State must be consulted before Ofcom produces guidance, including revised or replacement guidance, about how it will use its enforcement powers. We feel that that involves the Secretary of State far too closely in the enforcement of the regime. The Government should be several steps away from being involved, and the clause seriously undermines Ofcom’s independence—the importance of which we have been keen to stress as the Bill progresses, and on which Conservative Back Benchers have shared our view—so we cannot support the clause.

I repeat the point I made to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton a moment ago. This is simply an obligation to consult. The clause gives the Secretary of State an opportunity to offer an opinion, but it is just that—an opinion. It is not binding on Ofcom, which may take that opinion into account or not at its discretion. This provision sits alongside the requirement to consult the Information Commissioner’s Office. I respectfully disagree with the suggestion that it represents unwarranted and inappropriate interference in the operation of a regulator. Consultation between organs of state is appropriate and sensible, but in this case it does not fetter Ofcom’s ability to act at its own discretion. I respectfully do not agree with the shadow Minister’s analysis.

Apologies, Ms Rees, for coming in a bit late on this, but I was not aware of the intention to vote against the clause. I want to make clear what the Scottish National party intends to do, and the logic behind it. The inclusion of Government amendment 7 is sensible, and I am glad that the Minister has tabled it. Clause 129 is incredibly important, and the requirement to publish guidance will ensure that there is a level of transparency, which we and the Labour Front Benchers have been asking for.

The Minister has been clear about the requirement for Ofcom to consult the Secretary of State, rather than to be directed by them. As a whole, this Bill gives the Secretary of State far too much power, and far too much ability to intervene in the workings of Ofcom. In this case, however, I do not have an issue with the Secretary of State being consulted, so I intend to support the inclusion of this clause, as amended by Government amendment 7.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Amendment 7 agreed to.

Clause 129, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 130

Advisory committee on disinformation and misinformation

I beg to move amendment 57, in clause 130, page 115, line 4, leave out “18” and insert “6”

This amendment changes the period by which the advisory committee must report from 18 months to 6.

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 58, in clause 130, page 115, line 5, at end insert—

‘(6) Following the publication of the report, OFCOM must produce a code of practice setting out the steps services should take to reduce disinformation across their systems.”

This amendment requires Ofcom to produce a code of practice on system-level disinformation.

Clause stand part.

Clause 130 sets up a committee to advise Ofcom on misinformation and disinformation, which is the only direct reference to misinformation and disinformation in the entire Online Safety Bill. However, the Bill gives the committee no identifiable powers or active role in tackling harmful misinformation and disinformation, meaning that it has limited practical purpose. It is also unclear how the advisory committee will fit with Ofcom’s wider regulatory functions.

The remaining provisions in the Bill are limited and do not properly address harmful misinformation and disinformation. If tackling harmful misinformation and disinformation is left to this clause, the Bill will fail both to tackle harm properly, and to keep children and adults safe.

The clause risks giving a misleading impression that action is being taken. If the Government and Ofcom proceed with creating the committee, we need to see that its remit is strengthened and clarified, so that it more effectively tackles harmful disinformation and misinformation. That should include advising on Ofcom’s research, reporting on drivers of harmful misinformation and disinformation, and proportionate responses to them. There should also be a duty on Ofcom to consult the committee when drafting relevant codes of practice.

That is why we have tabled amendment 57. It would change the period by which the advisory committee must report from 18 months to six. This is a simple amendment that encourages scrutiny. Once again, the Minister surely has little reason not to accept it, especially as we have discussed at length the importance of the advisory committee having the tools that it needs to succeed.

Increasing the regularity of these reports from the advisory committee is vital, particularly given the ever-changing nature of the internet. Labour has already raised concerns about the lack of futureproofing in the Bill more widely, and we feel that the advisory committee has an important role and function to play in areas where the Bill itself is lacking. We are not alone in this view; the Minister has heard from his Back Benchers about just how important this committee is.

Amendment 58 would require Ofcom to produce a code of practice on system-level disinformation. Again, this amendment will come as no surprise to the Minister, given the concerns that Labour has repeatedly raised about the lack of provisions relating to disinformation in the Bill. It seems like an obvious omission that the Bill has failed to consider a specific code of practice around reducing disinformation, and the amendment would be a simple way to ensure that Ofcom actively encourages services to reduce disinformation across their platforms. The Minister knows that this would be a welcome step, and I urge him to consider supporting the amendment.

I want to briefly agree with the sentiments of the Opposition Front Bench, especially about the strength of the committee and the lack of teeth that it currently has. Given that the Government have been clear that they are very concerned about misinformation and disinformation, it seems odd that they are covered in the Bill in such a wishy-washy way.

The reduction of the time from 18 months to six months would also make sense. We would expect the initial report the committee publish in six months to not be as full as the ones it would publish after that. I do not see any issue with it being required to produce a report as soon as possible to assess how the Act is bedding in and beginning to work, rather than having to wait to assess—potentially once the Act is properly working. We want to be able to pick up any teething problems that the Act might have.

We want the committee to be able to say, “Actually, this is not working quite as we expected. We suggest that Ofcom operates in a slightly different way or that the interaction with providers happens in a slightly different way.” I would rather that problems with the Act were tackled as early as possible. We will not know about problems with the Act, because there is no proper review mechanism. There is no agreement on the committee, for example, to look at how the Act is operating. This is one of the few parts of the Bill where we have got an agreement to a review, and it would make sense that it happen as early as possible.

We agree that misinformation and disinformation are very important matters that really need to be tackled, but there is just not enough clout in the Bill to allow Ofcom to properly tackle these issues that are causing untold harm.

When I spoke at the very beginning of the Committee’s proceedings, I said that the legislation was necessary, that it was a starting point and that it would no doubt change and develop over time. However, I have been surprised at how little, considering all of the rhetoric we have heard from the Secretary of State and other Ministers, the Bill actually deals with the general societal harm that comes from the internet. This is perhaps the only place in the Bill where it is covered.

I am thinking of the echo chambers that are created around disinformation and the algorithms that companies use. I really want to hear from the Minister where he sees this developing and why it is so weak and wishy-washy. While I welcome that much of the Bill seeks to deal with the criminality of individuals and the harm and abuse that can be carried out over the internet, overall it misses a great opportunity to deal with the harmful impact the internet can have on society.

Let me start by speaking on the issue of disinformation more widely, which clearly is the target of the two amendments and the topic of clause 130. First, it is worth reminding the Committee that non-legislatively—operationally—the Government are taking action on the disinformation problem via the counter-disinformation unit of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which we have discussed previously.

The unit has been established to monitor social media firms and sites for disinformation and then to take action and work with social media firms to take it down. For the first couple of years of its operation, it understandably focused on disinformation connected to covid. In the last two or three months, it has focused on disinformation relating to the Russia-Ukraine conflict —in particular propaganda being spread by the Russian Government, which, disgracefully, has included denying responsibility for various atrocities, including those committed at Bucha. In fact, in cases in which the counter-disinformation unit has not got an appropriate response from social media firms, those issues have been escalated to me, and I have raised them directly with those firms, including Twitter, which has tolerated all kinds of disinformation from overt Russian state outlets and channels, including from Russian embassy Twitter accounts, which are of particular concern to me. Non-legislative action is being taken via the CDU.

I would also point to the legislative action that is currently in train. The Committee will be aware that the National Security Bill had its Second Reading a week or two ago. Colleagues who have studied that Bill—as I am sure they have—will have noticed that clause 13 creates a new foreign interference offence, and that cross-refers to clause 24 in that Bill. I may be over-reaching by trying to memorise two Bills rather than one, but I think those references are right.

That new foreign interference offence, which is being criminalised separately from this Bill, makes it a criminal offence for a foreign state-backed organisation to propagate disinformation, and it specifies the circumstances or conditions that have to be met. I observe in passing that once the National Security Bill has received Royal Assent, it will be possible to add that offence to the Online Safety Bill as a priority offence under schedule 7, so levers will be available.

In addition, for certain kinds of disinformation and misinformation that cause adults harm, it will be possible for that harm to be designated in secondary legislation as a priority category of harm. We may discuss that further in due course.

It is fantastic to hear that those other things are happening—that is all well and good—but surely we should explicitly call out disinformation and misinformation in the Online Safety Bill. The package of other measures that the Minister mentions is fantastic, but I think they have to be in the Bill.

The hon. Lady says that those measures should be in the Bill—more than they already are—but as I have pointed out, the way in which the legal architecture of the Bill works means that the mechanisms to do that would be adding a criminal offence to schedule 7 as a priority offence, for example, or using a statutory instrument to designate the relevant kind of harm as a priority harm, which we plan to do in due course for a number of harms. The Bill can cover disinformation with the use of those mechanisms.

We have not put the harmful to adults content in the Bill; it will be set out in statutory instruments. The National Security Bill is still progressing through Parliament, and we cannot have in schedule 7 of this Bill an offence that has not yet been passed by Parliament. I hope that that explains the legal architecture and mechanisms that could be used under the Bill to give force to those matters.

On amendment 57, the Government feel that six months is a very short time within which to reach clear conclusions, and that 18 months is a more appropriate timeframe in which to understand how the Bill is bedding in and operating. Amendment 58 would require Ofcom to produce a code of practice on system-level disinformation. To be clear, the Bill already requires Ofcom to produce codes of practice that set out the steps that providers will take to tackle illegal content— I mentioned the new National Security Bill, which is going through Parliament—and harmful content, which may, in some circumstances, include disinformation.

Disinformation that is illegal or harmful to individuals is in scope of the duties set out in the Bill. Ofcom’s codes of practice will, as part of those duties, have to set out the steps that providers should take to reduce harm to users that arises from such disinformation. Those steps could include content-neutral design choices or interventions of other kinds. We would like Ofcom to have a certain amount of flexibility in how it develops those codes of practice, including by being able to combine or disaggregate those codes in ways that are most helpful to the general public and the services that have to pay regard to them. That is why we have constructed them in the way we have. I hope that provides clarity about the way that disinformation can be brought into the scope of the Bill and how that measure then flows through to the codes of practice. I gently resist amendments 57 and 58 while supporting the clause standing part of the Bill.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Amendment proposed: 58, in clause 130, page 115, line 5, at end insert—

‘(6) Following the publication of the report, OFCOM must produce a code of practice setting out the steps services should take to reduce disinformation across their systems.”—(Alex Davies-Jones.)

This amendment requires Ofcom to produce a code of practice on system-level disinformation.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Clause 130 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 131

Functions of the Content Board

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The clause allows Ofcom to confer functions on the content board in relation to content-related functions under the Bill, but does not require it to do so. We take the view that how Ofcom manages its responsibilities internally is a matter for Ofcom. That may change over time. The clause simply provides that Ofcom may, if Ofcom wishes, ask its content board to consider online safety matters alongside its existing responsibilities. I trust that the Committee considers that a reasonable measure.

Labour welcomes the clause, which, as the Minister has said, sets out some important clarifications with respect to the Communications Act 2003. We welcome the clarification that the content board will have delegated and advisory responsibilities, and look forward to the Minister’s confirmation of exactly what those are and how this will work in practice. It is important that the content board and the advisory committee on disinformation and misinformation are compelled to communicate, too, so we look forward to an update from the Minister on what provisions in the Bill will ensure that that happens.

The shadow Minister has asked how this will work in practice, but as I said, the internal operation of Ofcom obviously is a matter for Ofcom. As Members have said in the recent past—indeed, in the last hour—they do not welcome undue Government interference in the operation of Ofcom, so it is right that we leave this as a matter for Ofcom. We are providing Ofcom with the power, but we are not compelling it to use that power. We are respecting Ofcom’s operational independence—a point that shadow Ministers and Opposition Members have made very recently.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 131 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 132

Research about users’ experiences of regulated services

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

We support clause 132, which ensures that Ofcom is required to understand and measure public opinion concerning providers of regulated services, as well as the experiences and interests of those using the regulated services in question. The Bill in its entirety is very much a learning curve for us all, and I am sure we all agree that, as previously maintained, the world really is watching as we seek to develop and implement the legislation. That is why it is vital that Ofcom is compelled to conduct and arrange its own research to ensure that we are getting an accurate picture of how our regulatory framework is affecting people. I stress to the Minister that it is imperative that Ofcom consults all service providers—big and small—which the CBI stressed to me in recent meetings.

We also welcome the provisions outlined in subsection (2) that confirm that Ofcom must include a statement of its research in its annual report to the Secretary of State and the devolved Administrations. It is important that Ofcom, as a regulator, takes a research-led approach, and Labour is pleased to see these provisions included in the Bill.

We welcome the inclusion of clause 133, which extends the communication panel’s remit to include online safety. This will mean that the panel is able to give advice on matters relating to different types of online content under the Bill, and on the impacts of online content on UK users of regulated services. It is a welcome step forward, so we have not sought to amend the clause.

I want to make one short comment about clauses 132 and 133, which are really important. There is no intention to interfere with or fetter the way that Ofcom operates, but there is an obligation on this Committee, and on Parliament, to indicate what we would expect to see from Ofcom by way of the clauses, because they are an essential part of the transparency that we are trying to inject into the sector.

Research about users’ experiences is hugely important, and such reports contain important insights into how platforms are used, and the levels of misinformation and disinformation that people are exposed to. Ofcom already produces highly authoritative reports on various aspects of the online world, including the fact that three in four adults do not think about whether the online information that they see is truthful. Indeed, one in three adults believes that all or most information that they find online is truthful. We know that there is a significant gap between consumers perception and reality, so it is important to ensure that research has good exposure among those using the internet.

We do not often hear about the problems of how the online world works, and the level of disinformation and inaccuracy is not well known, so will the Minister elaborate on how he expects Ofcom to ensure that people are aware of the reality of the online world? Platforms will presumably be required to have regard to the content of Ofcom reports, but will Ofcom be required to publicise its reports? It is not clear that such a duty is in the Bill at the moment, so does the Minister expect Ofcom to have a role in educating people, especially children, about the problem of inaccurate data or other aspects of the online world?

We know that a number of platforms spend a great deal of money on going into schools and talking about their products, which may or may not entail accurate information. Does Ofcom not have an important role to play in this area? Educating users about the changes in the Bill would be another potential role for Ofcom in order to recalibrate users’ expectations as to what they might reasonably expect platforms to offer as a result of the legislation. It is important that we have robust regulatory frameworks in place, and this Bill clearly does that. However, it also requires users to be aware of the changes that have been made so that they can report the problems they experience in a timely manner.

I agree with the right hon. Member for Basingstoke that these are important clauses. I want to put them into the context of what we heard from Frances Haugen, who, when she spoke to Congress, said that Facebook consistently chose to maximise its growth rather than implement safeguards on its platforms. She said:

“During my time at Facebook, I came to realise a devastating truth: Almost no one outside of Facebook knows what happens inside Facebook. “The company intentionally hides vital information from the public, from the U.S. government, and from governments around the world.”

When we consider users’ experiences, I do not think it is good enough just to look at how the user engages with information. We need far more transparency about how the companies themselves are run. I would like to hear the Minister’s views on how this clause, which looks at users’ experiences, can go further in dealing with the harms at source, with the companies, and making sure a light is shone on their practices.

I welcome the support of the hon. Member for Pontypridd for these clauses. I will turn to the questions raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke. First, she asked whether Ofcom has to publish these reports so that the public, media and Parliament can see what they say. I am pleased to confirm that Ofcom does have to publish the reports; section 15 of the Communications Act 2003 imposes a duty on Ofcom to publish reports of this kind.

Secondly, my right hon. Friend asked about educating the public on issues pertinent to these reports, which is what we would call a media literacy duty. Again, I confirm that, under the Communications Act, Ofcom has a statutory duty to promote media literacy, which would include matters that flow from these reports. In fact, Ofcom published an expanded and updated set of policies in that area at the end of last year, which is why the old clause 103 in the original version of this Bill was removed—Ofcom had already gone further than that clause required.

Thirdly, my right hon. Friend asked about the changes that might happen in response to the findings of these reports. Of course, it is open to Ofcom—indeed, I think this Committee would expect it—to update its codes of practice, which it can do from time to time, in response to the findings of these reports. That is a good example of why it is important for those codes of practice to be written by Ofcom, rather than being set out in primary legislation. It means that when some new fact or circumstance arises or some new bit of research, such as the information required in this clause, comes out, those codes of practice can be changed. I hope that addresses the questions my right hon. Friend asked.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton asked about transparency, referring to Frances Haugen’s testimony to the US Senate and her disclosures to The Wall Street Journal, as well as the evidence she gave this House, both to the Joint Committee and to this Committee just before the Whitsun recess. I have also met her bilaterally to discuss these issues. The hon. Gentleman is quite right to point out that these social media firms use Facebook as an example, although there are others that are also extremely secretive about what they say in public, to the media and even to representative bodies such as the United States Congress. That is why, as he says, it is extremely important that they are compelled to be a lot more transparent.

The Bill contains a large number of provisions compelling or requiring social media firms to make disclosures to Ofcom as the regulator. However, it is important to have public disclosure as well. It is possible that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton was not in his place when we came to the clause in question, but if he turns to clause 64 on page 56, he will see that it includes a requirement for Ofcom to give every provider of a relevant service a notice compelling them to publish a transparency report. I hope he will see that the transparency obligation that he quite rightly refers to—it is necessary—is set out in clause 64(1). I hope that answers the points that Committee members have raised.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 132 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 133 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 134

OFCOM’s statement about freedom of expression and privacy

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

As we all know, the clause requires Ofcom to publish annual reports on the steps it has taken, when carrying out online safety functions, to uphold users’ rights under articles 8 and 10 of the convention, as required by section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998. It will come as no surprise to the Minister that Labour entirely supports this clause.

Upholding users’ rights is a central part of this Bill, and it is a topic we have debated repeatedly in our proceedings. I know that the Minister faces challenges of his own, as the Opposition do, regarding the complicated balance between freedom of speech and safety online. It is only right and proper, therefore, for Ofcom to have a specific duty to publish reports about what steps it is taking to ensure that the online space is fair and equal for all.

That being said, we know that we can and should go further. My hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen will shortly address an important new clause tabled in her name—I believe it is new clause 25—so I will do my best not to repeat her comments, but it is important to say that Ofcom must be compelled to publish reports on how its overall regulatory operating function is working. Although Labour welcomes clause 134 and especially its commitment to upholding users’ rights, we believe that when many feel excluded in the existing online space, Ofcom can do more in its annual reporting. For now, however, we support clause 134.

I welcome the shadow Minister’s continuing support for these clauses. Clause 134 sets out the requirement on Ofcom to publish reports setting out how it has complied with articles 8 and 10 of the European convention on human rights.

I will pause for a second, because my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley and others have raised concerns about the implications of the Bill for freedom of speech. In response to a question he asked last week, I set out in some detail the reasons why I think the Bill improves the position for free speech online compared with the very unsatisfactory status quo. This clause further strengthens that case, because it requires this report and reminds us that Ofcom must discharge its duties in a manner compatible with articles 8 and 10 of the ECHR.

From memory, article 8 enshrines the right to a family life, and article 10 enshrines the right to free speech, backed up by quite an extensive body of case law. The clause reminds us that the powers that the Bill confers on Ofcom must be exercised—indeed, can only be exercised—in conformity with the article 10 duties on free speech. I hope that that gives my hon. Friend additional assurance about the strength of free speech protection inherent in the Bill. I apologise for speaking at a little length on a short clause, but I think that was an important point to make.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 134 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 135

OFCOM’s transparency reports

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Again, Labour welcomes clause 135, which places a duty on Ofcom to produce its own reports based on information from the transparency reports that providers are required to publish. However, the Minister will know that Labour feels the Bill has much more work to do on transparency more widely, as we have repeatedly outlined through our debates. The Minister rejected our calls for increased transparency when we were addressing, I believe, clause 61. We are not alone in feeling that transparency reports should go further. The sector and his own Back Benchers are calling for it, yet so far his Department has failed to act.

It is a welcome step that Ofcom must produce its own reports based on information from the provider’s transparency reports, but the ultimate motivation for the reports to provide a truly accurate depiction of the situation online is for them to be made public. I know the Minister has concerns around security, but of course no one wants to see users put at harm unnecessarily. That is not what we are asking for here. I will refrain from repeating debates we have already had at length, but I wish to again put on the record our concerns around the transparency reporting process as it stands.

That being said, we support clause 135. It is right that Ofcom is compelled to produce its own reports; we just wish they were made public. With the transparency reports coming from the providers, we only wish they would go further.

I have spoken to these points previously, so I do not want to tax the Committee’s patience by repeating what I have said.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 135 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 136

OFCOM’s report about researchers’ access to information

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Again, Labour welcomes clause 136, which is a positive step towards a transparent approach to online safety, given that it requires Ofcom to publish a report about the access that independent researchers have, or could have, to matters relating to the online safety of regulated services. As my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South rightly outlined in an earlier sitting, Labour strongly believes that the transparency measures in the Bill do not go far enough.

Independent researchers already play a vital role in regulating online safety. Indeed, there are far too many to list, but many have supported me, and I am sure the Minister, in our research on the Bill. That is why we have tabled a number of amendments on this point, as we sincerely feel there is more work to be done. I know the Minister says he understands and is taking on board our comments, but thus far we have seen little movement on transparency.

In this clause we are specifically talking about access to information for researchers. Obviously, the transparency matters were covered in clauses 64 and 135. There is consensus across both parties that access to information for bona fide academic researchers is important. The clause lays out a path to take us in the direction of providing that access by requiring Ofcom to produce a report. We debated the matter earlier. The hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South—I hope I got the pronunciation right this time—

The hon. Lady made some points about the matter in an earlier sitting, as the shadow Minister just said. It is an area we are giving some careful thought to, because it is important that it is properly academically researched. Although Ofcom is being well resourced, as we have discussed, with lots of money and the ability to levy fees, we understand that it does not have a monopoly on wisdom—as good a regulator as it is. It may well be that a number of academics could add a great deal to the debate by looking at some of the material held inside social media firms. The Government recognise the importance of the matter, and some thought is being given to these questions, but at least we can agree that clause 136 as drafted sets out a path that leads us in this important direction.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 136 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 137

OFCOM’s reports

Briefly, before I hand over to my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South, I should say that Labour welcomes clause 137, which gives Ofcom a discretionary power to publish reports about certain online safety measures and matters. Clearly, it is important to give Ofcom the power to redact or exclude confidential matters where needs be, and I hope that there will be a certain level of common sense and public awareness, should information of this nature be excluded. As I have previously mentioned—I sound a bit like a broken record—Labour echoes the calls for more transparency, which my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen will come on to in her new clause. However, broadly, we support this important clause.

I would like to press the Minister briefly on how exactly the exclusion of material from Ofcom reports will work in practice. Can he outline any specific contexts or examples, beyond commercial sensitivity and perhaps matters of national security, where he can envision this power being used?

I welcome the shadow Minister’s support for the clause, once again. The clause provides Ofcom with the power to publish relevant reports about online safety matters to keep users, the public and Parliament well informed. Again, clearly, it is up to Ofcom to decide how it publishes those reports; we will not compel it.

On the question about confidential material that might be withheld, the relevant language in clause 137 looks, to me, to precisely echo the language we saw previously in clause—where was it? Anyway, we have come across this in a previous clause. When it comes to publishing material that can be excluded, the language is just the same.

I would like to make it clear that, while, obviously, this decision is a matter for Ofcom, I would expect that exclusion to be used on a pretty rare basis. Obviously, one would expect matters that are acutely commercially sensitive to be excluded—or redacted—to address that. If there was very sensitive intellectual property, where it would prejudice a company’s commercial interest to have all of that intellectual property exposed, I would expect Ofcom to exercise the exclusion or at least redact what it publishes.

However, because transparency is so important—it is a point that the Committee has made repeatedly—I would expect these exclusions to be used sparingly, and only where absolutely necessary to deliver issues such as the commercial confidentiality or IP protection. Then, it should be used to the minimum extent necessary, because I think that this Committee thinks, and Parliament thinks, that the disclosure around these reports and the reports about breaches—mentioned in the clause I was trying to reach for previously, which was clause 128(4)(b) and (5)(b); perhaps Hansard would be kind enough to clarify that point to make me look slightly more articulate than I in fact am—should be used only very carefully and very rarely. The Committee should be clear on that, and that the bias, as it were—the assumption—should be on the side of disclosure rather than withholding information.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 137 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 138

Appeals against OFCOM decisions relating to the register under section 81

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Good morning, Ms Rees. It is a pleasure to serve on the Committee with you in the Chair. Clause 138 allows companies to make appeals against Ofcom’s decisions regarding the categorisation of services within categories 1, 2A or 2B.

We have argued, many times, that we believe the Government’s size-based approach to categorisation is flawed. Our preference for an approach based on risk is backed up by the views of multiple stakeholders and the Joint Committee. It was encouraging to hear last week of the Minister’s intention to look again at the issues of categorisation, and I hope we will see movement on that on Report.

Clause 138 sets out that where a regulated provider has filed an appeal, they are exempt from carrying out the duties in the Bill that normally apply to services designated as category 1, 2A or 2B. That is concerning, given that there is no timeframe in which the appeals process must be concluded.

While the right to appeal is important, it is feasible that many platforms will raise appeals about their categorisation to delay the start of their duties under the Bill. I understand that the platforms will still have to comply with the duties that apply to all regulated services, but for a service that has been classified by Ofcom as high risk, it is potentially dangerous that none of the risk assessments on measures to assess harm will be completed while the appeal is taking place. Does the Minister agree that the appeals process must be concluded as quickly as possible to minimise the risk? Will he consider putting a timeframe on that?

Clause 139 allows for appeals against decisions by Ofcom to issue notices about dealing with terrorism and child sexual abuse material, as well as a confirmation decision or a penalty notice. As I have said, in general the right to appeal is important. However, would an appeals system work if, for example, a company were appealing to a notice under clause 103? In what circumstances does the Minister imagine that a platform would appeal a notice by Ofcom requiring the platform to use accredited technology to identify child sexual abuse content and swiftly take down that content? It is vital that appeals processes are concluded as rapidly as possible, so that we do not risk people being exposed to harmful or dangerous content.

The shadow Minister has set out the purpose of the clauses, which provide for, in clause 138 appeal rights for decisions relating to registration under clause 81, and in clause 139 appeals against Ofcom notices.

I agree that it is important that judicial decisions in this area get made quickly. I note that the appeals are directly to the relevant upper tribunal, which is a higher tier of the tribunal system and tends to be a little less congested than the first-tier tribunal, which often gets used for some first-instance matters. I hope that appeals going to the upper tribunal, directly to that more senior level, provides some comfort.

On putting in a time limit, the general principle is that matters concerning listing are reserved to the judiciary. I recall from my time as a Minister in the Ministry of Justice, that the judiciary guards its independence fiercely. Whether it is the Senior President of Tribunals or the Lord Chief Justice, they consider listing matters to be the preserve of the judiciary, not the Executive or the legislature. Compelling the judiciary to hear a case in a certain time might well be considered to infringe on such principles.

We can agree, however—I hope the people making those listing decisions hear that we believe, that Parliament believes—that it is important to do this quickly, in particular where there is a risk of harm to individuals. Where there is risk to individuals, especially children, but more widely as well, those cases should be heard very expeditiously indeed.

The hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South also asked about the basis on which appeals might be made and decided. I think that is made fairly clear. For example, clause 139(3) makes it clear that, in deciding an appeal, the upper tribunal will use the same principles as would be applied by the High Court to an application for judicial review—so, standard JR terms—which in the context of notices served or decisions made under clause 103 might include whether the power had been exercised in conformity with statute. If the power were exercised or purported to be exercised in a manner not authorised by statute, that would be one grounds for appeal, or if a decision were considered so grossly unreasonable that no reasonable decision maker could make it, that might be a grounds for appeal as well.

I caution the Committee, however: I am not a lawyer and my interpretation of judicial review principles should not be taken as definitive. Lawyers will advise their clients when they come to apply the clause in practice and they will not take my words in Committee as definitive when it comes to determining “standard judicial review principles”—those are well established in law, regardless of my words just now.

There is a concern that platforms might raise appeals about their categorisation in order to delay the start of their duties under the Bill. How would the Minister act if that happened—if a large number of appeals were pending and the duties under the Bill therefore did not commence?

Clearly, resourcing of the upper tribunal is a matter decided jointly by the Lord Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Justice, in consultation with the Lord Chief Justice, and, in this case, the Senior President of Tribunals. Parliament would expect the resourcing of that part of the upper tribunal to be such that cases could be heard in an expedited matter. Particularly where cases concern the safety of the public—and particularly of children—we expect that to be done as quickly as it can.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 138 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 139 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 140

Power to make super-complaints

I beg to move amendment 143, in clause 140, page 121, line 1, after “services” insert “, consumers”.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 144, in clause 140, page 121, line 2, after “users” insert “, consumers”.

Amendment 145, in clause 140, page 121, line 4, after “services” insert “, consumers”.

Amendment 146, in clause 140, page 121, line 5, after “users” insert “, consumers”.

Amendment 147, in clause 140, page 121, line 6, at end insert “, consumers”.

Amendment 148, in clause 140, page 121, line 7, after “users” insert “, consumers”.

Amendment 149, in clause 140, page 121, line 14, after “service” insert “, consumers”.

Amendment 150, in clause 140, page 121, line 18, at end insert “, consumers”.

Amendment 151, in clause 140, page 121, line 19, after “users” insert “, consumers”.

Amendment 152, in clause 140, page 121, line 25, at end insert—

“‘consumers’” means individuals in the United Kingdom acting for purposes that are wholly or mainly outside the trade, business, craft or profession of the individuals concerned.”

The Committee has been flexible about grouping clauses should it make sense to do so. I ask that the Committee allow me to speak to this set of amendments alone. It does not make sense for me to discuss these amendments and amendment 77 at the same time. If I could separately discuss amendment 77, as it says on the Order Paper, then I would appreciate that.

This group of amendments specifically relate to consumer protection. It is the case that online fraud facilitated through social media platforms and search engines is one of the most prevalent forms of crime today. Reported incidents increased significantly during the pandemic, and often resulted in victims losing life-changing amounts of money. In addition to the financial impact of being scammed, there is the emotional and physical impact. We know it has a significant effect on people’s mental health. I am glad that the Government listened to the Joint Committee and the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and changed the legislation to include fraud.

Amendment 143 is about expanding who can make super-complaints, in order to reflect the expansion of the Bill to include fraud. The Bill does not leave a lot of the details around super-complaints to be made in secondary legislation. These amendments specifically allow groups that are acting on behalf of consumers, or those who are making requests on behalf of consumers, to make super-complaints. I am not sure that if somebody is acting on behalf of consumers that fits into the definitions of users of the service and people representing users of the service. Perhaps the Minister can convince me otherwise. If consumers are losing significant amounts of money, or where there is risk of significant numbers of people losing significant amounts of money—for example, where a search engine allows fraudulent advertising to be the top result—including “consumers” in the Bill will allow organisations acting on behalf of consumers to take action. It may be that the Minister can give me some comfort in this, and let us know that organisations acting on behalf of consumers would potentially—if they meet other criteria—be able to put forward a super-complaint.

I understand that there are other methods of complaining—it is possible for other complaints to be made. However, given the significant increase in the risk to consumers in the past few years, it would seem sensible that the Minister give some consideration to whether this is adequately covered in the Bill, and whether consumers are adequately protected in this section of the Bill, as well as in the additional flawed clauses that the Minister added between publication of the original draft Bill and the Bill that we have before us today.

The Bill currently specifies that super-complaints can be made back to Ofcom by bodies representing users or members of the public. The addition of consumer representatives through the amendments is important. Consumer representatives are a key source of information about harms to users of online services, which are widespread, and would be regulated by this legislation. We support the amendments, which would include consumers on the list as an entity that is eligible to make super-complaints.

Clearly, we want the super-complaint function to be as effective as possible and for groups of relevant people, users or members of the public to be able to be represented by an eligible entity to raise super-complaints. I believe we are all on the same page in wanting to do that. If I am honest, I am a little confused as to what the addition of the term “consumers” will add. The term “users” is defined quite widely, via clause 140(6), which then refers to clause 181, where, as debated previously, a “user” is defined widely to include anyone using a service, whether registered or not. So if somebody stumbles across a website, they count as a user, but the definition being used in clause 140 about bringing super-complaints also includes “members of the public”—that is, regular citizens. Even if they are not a user of that particular service, they could still be represented in bringing a complaint.

Given that, by definition, “users” and “members of the public” already cover everybody in the United Kingdom, I am not quite sure what the addition of the term “consumers” adds. By definition, consumers are a subset of the group “users” or “members of the public”. It follows that in seeking to become an eligible entity, no eligible entity will purport to act for everybody in the United Kingdom; they will always be seeking to define some kind of subset of people. That might be children, people with a particular vulnerability or, indeed, consumers, who are one such subset of “members of the public” or “users”. I do not honestly understand what the addition of the word “consumers” adds here when everything is covered already.

Will the Minister explicitly say that he thinks that an eligible entity, acting on behalf of consumers, could, if it fulfils the other criteria, bring a super-complaint?

Yes, definitely. That is the idea of an eligible entity, which could seek to represent a particular demographic, such as children or people from a particular marginalised group, or it could represent people who have a particular interest, which would potentially include consumers. So I can confirm that that is the intention behind the drafting of the Bill. Having offered that clarification and made clear that the definition is already as wide as it conceivably can be—we cannot get wider than “members of the public”—I ask the hon. Member for Aberdeen North to consider withdrawing the amendments, particularly as there are so many. It will take a long time to vote on them.

I thank the Minister for the clarification. Given that he has explicitly said that he expects that groups acting on behalf of consumers could, if they fulfil the other criteria, be considered as eligible entities for making super-complaints, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment proposed: 66, in clause 140, page 121, line 8, at end insert—

“(d) causing harm to any human or animal.”

This amendment ensures groups are able to make complaints regarding animal abuse videos.(Alex Davies-Jones.)

I beg to move amendment 77, in clause 140, page 121, line 9, leave out subsection (2).

This amendment removes the tests that complaints have to be of particular importance in order to be admissible.

When I first read clause 140, subsection (2) raised a significant number of red flags for me. The subsection might be reasonable if we did not have giant companies—social media platforms particularly—that significant numbers of people across the UK use regularly. Facebook might be counted as a “single regulated service”, but 85% of UK residents—57.1 million people—had a Facebook account earlier this year. Twitter is used by 28% of people living in the UK, which is 19 million users. TikTok is at 19%, which is significantly less, but still a very high number of people—13 million users. I can understand the decision that a super-complaint picking on one certain company might be a bit extreme, but it does not make sense when we are considering the Facebooks of this world.

If someone is making a complaint about a single regulated service and that service is Facebook, Twitter, TikTok or another large platform—or a new, yet-to-be-created platform—that significant numbers of people use, there is no justification for treating that complaint differently just because it is against a single entity. When a complaint is made against Facebook—I am picking on Facebook because 85% of the UK public are members of it; it is an absolute behemoth—I would like there to be no delay in its being taken to Ofcom. I would like Ofcom not to have to check and justify that the complaint is “of particular importance”.

Subsection (2)(a) states that one of the tests of the complaint should be that it “is of particular importance” or, as subsection (2)(b) notes, that it

“relates to the impacts on a particularly large number of users of the service or members of the public.”

I do not understand what

“large number of users of the service”

would mean. Does a large number of the users of Facebook mean 50% of its users? Does it mean 10%? What is a large number? Is that in percentage terms, or is it something that is likely to impact 1 million people? Is that a large number? The second part—

“large number…of members of the public”—

is again difficult to define. I do not think there is justification for this additional hoop just because the complaint relates to a single regulated service.

Where a complaint relates to a very small platform that is not causing significant illegal harm, I understand that Ofcom may want to consider whether it will accept, investigate and give primacy and precedence to that. If the reality is that the effect is non-illegal, fairly minor and impacts a fairly small number of people, in the order of hundreds instead of millions, I can understand why Ofcom might not want to give that super-complaint status and might not want to carry out the level of investigation and response necessary for a super-complaint. But I do not see any circumstances in which Ofcom could justify rejecting a complaint against Facebook simply because it is a complaint against a single entity. The reality is that if something affects one person on Facebook, it will affect significantly more than one person on Facebook because of Facebook’s absolutely massive user base. Therefore this additional hoop is unrealistic.

Paragraph (a), about the complaint being “of particular importance”, is too woolly. Does it relate only to complaints about things that are illegal? Does it relate only to things that are particularly urgent—something that is happening now and that is having an impact today? Or is there some other criterion that we do not yet know about?

I would very much appreciate it if the Minister could give some consideration to amendment 77, which would simply remove subsection (2). If he is unwilling to remove that subsection, I wonder whether we could meet halfway and whether, let us say, category 1 providers could all be excluded from the “single provider” exemption, because they have already been assessed by Ofcom to have particular risks on their platforms. That group is wider than the three names that I have mentioned, and I think that that would be a reasonable and realistic decision for the Government—and direction for Ofcom—to take. It would be sensible.

If the Government believe that there is more information—more direction—that they could add to the clause, it would be great if the Minister could lay some of that out here and let us know how he intends subsection (2) to operate in practice and how he expects Ofcom to use it. I get that people might want it there as an additional layer of protection, but I genuinely do not imagine that it can be justified in the case of the particularly large providers, where there is significant risk of harm happening.

I will illustrate that with one last point. The Government specifically referred earlier to when Facebook—Meta—stopped proactively scanning for child sexual abuse images because of an issue in Europe. The Minister mentioned the significant amount of harm and the issues that were caused in a very small period. And that was one provider—the largest provider that people use and access. That massive amount of harm can be caused in a very small period. I do not support allowing Meta or any other significantly large platform to have a “get out of jail” card. I do not want them to be able to go to Ofcom and say, “Hey, Ofcom, we’re challenging you on the basis that we don’t think this complaint is of particular importance” or “We don’t think the complaint relates to the impacts on a particularly large number of users of the service or members of the public.” I do not want them to have that ability to wriggle out of things because this subsection is in the Bill, so any consideration that the Minister could give to improving clause 140 and subsection (2) would be very much appreciated.

We support the SNP’s amendment 77, moved by the hon. Member for Aberdeen North. The super-complaints mechanism introduced by clause 140 is a useful device for reporting numerous, widespread concerns about the harm caused by multiple or single services or providers. Subsection (1) includes the conditions on the subjects of super-complaints, which can relate to one or more services. However, as the hon. Member has pointed out, that is caveated by subsection (2), under which a super-complaint that refers to a single service or provider must prove, as she has just outlined, that it is “of particular importance” or

“relates to the impacts on a particularly large number of users of the service or members of the public.”

Given the various hoops through which a super-complaint already has to jump, it is not clear why the additional conditions are needed. Subsection (2) significantly muddies the waters and complicates the provisions for super-complaints. For instance, how does the Minister expect Ofcom to decide whether the complaint is of particular importance? What criteria does he expect the regulator to use? Why include it as a metric in the first place when the super-complaint has already met the standards set out in subsection (1)?

There must be no loopholes in the complaints procedures, including as regards holding individual services and providers to account. Amendment 77 both strengthens and simplifies the super-complaint provisions, and we support it.

I think the Committee, and the House, are pretty unanimous in agreeing that the power to make super-complaints is important. As we have discussed, there are all kinds of groups, such as children, under-represented groups and consumers, that would benefit from being represented where systemic issues are not being addressed and that Ofcom may have somehow overlooked or missed in the discharge of its enforcement powers.

I would observe in passing that one of the bases on which super-complaints can be made—this may be of interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley—is where there is a material risk under clause 140(1)(b) of

“significantly adversely affecting the right to freedom of expression within the law of users of the services or members of the public”.

That clause is another place in the Bill where freedom of expression is expressly picked out and supported. If freedom of expression is ever threatened in a way that we have not anticipated and that the Bill does not provide for, there is a particular power here for a particular free speech group, such as the Free Speech Union, to make a super-complaint. I hope that my hon. Friend finds the fact that freedom of expression is expressly laid out there reassuring.

Let me now speak to the substance of amendment 77, tabled by the hon. Member for Aberdeen North. It is important to first keep in mind the purpose of the super-complaints, which, as I said a moment ago, is to provide a basis for raising issues of widespread and systemic importance. That is the reason for some of the criteria in sections (1)(a), (b) and (c), and why we have subsection (2)—because we want to ensure that super-complaints are raised only if they are of a very large scale or have a profound impact on freedom of speech or some other matter of particular importance. That is why the tests, hurdles and thresholds set out in clause 140(2) have to be met.

If we were to remove subsection (2), as amendment 77 seeks to, that would significantly lower the threshold. We would end up having super-complaints that were almost individual in nature. We set out previously why we think an ombudsman-type system or having super-complaints used for near-individual matters would not be appropriate. That is why the clause is there, and I think it is reasonable that it is.

The hon. Lady asked a couple of questions about how this arrangement might operate in practice. She asked whether a company such Facebook would be caught if it alone were doing something inappropriate. The answer is categorically yes, because the condition in clause 140(2)(b)—

“impacts on a particularly large number of users”,

which would be a large percentage of Facebook’s users,

“or members of the public”—

would be met. Facebook and—I would argue—any category 1 company would, by definition, be affecting large numbers of people. The very definition of category 1 includes the concept of reach—the number of people being affected. That means that, axiomatically, clause 140(2)(b) would be met by any category 1 company.

The hon. Lady also raised the question of Facebook, for a period of time in Europe, unilaterally ceasing to scan for child sexual exploitation and abuse images, which, as mentioned, led to huge numbers of child sex abuse images and, consequently, huge numbers of paedophiles not being detected. She asks how these things would be handled under the clause if somebody wanted to raise a super-complaint about that. Hopefully, Ofcom would stop them happening in the first place, but if it did not the super-complaint redress mechanism would be the right one. These things would categorically be caught by clause 140(2)(a), because they are clearly of particular importance.

In any reasonable interpretation of the words, the test of “particular importance” is manifestly met when it comes to stopping child sexual exploitation and abuse and the detection of those images. That example would categorically qualify under the clause, and a super-complaint could, if necessary, be brought. I hope it would never be necessary, because that is the kind of thing I would expect Ofcom to catch.

Having talked through the examples from the hon. Lady, I hope I have illustrated how the clause will ensure that either large-scale issues affecting large numbers of people or issues that are particularly serious will still qualify for super-complaint status with subsection (2) left in the Bill. Given those assurances, I urge the hon. Member to consider withdrawing her amendment.

I welcome the Minister’s fairly explicit explanation that he believes that every category 1 company would be in scope, even if there was a complaint against one single provider. I would like to push the amendment to a vote on the basis of the comments I made earlier and the fact that each of these platforms is different. We have heard concerns about, for example, Facebook groups being interested in celebrating eight-year-olds’ birthdays. We have heard about the amount of porn on Twitter, which Facebook does not have in the same way. We have heard about the kind of algorithmic stuff that takes people down a certain path on TikTok. We have heard all these concerns, but they are all specific to that one provider. They are not a generic complaint that could be brought toward a group of providers.

Would the hon. Lady not agree that in all those examples—including TikTok and leading people down dark paths—the conditions in subsection (2) would be met? The examples she has just referred to are, I would say, certainly matters of particular importance. Because the platforms she mentions are big in scale, they would also meet the test of scale in paragraph (b). In fact, only one of the tests has to be met—it is one or the other. In all the examples she has just given, not just one test—paragraph (a) or (b)— would be met, but both. So all the issues she has just raised would make a super-complaint eligible to be made.

I am glad the Minister confirms that he expects that that would be the case. I am clearer now that he has explained it, but on my reading of the clause, the definitions of “particular importance” or

“a particularly large number of users…or members of the public”

are not clear. I wanted to ensure that this was put on the record. While I do welcome the Minister’s clarification, I would like to push amendment 77 to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Steve Double.)

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.