Skip to main content

Online Safety Bill

Volume 825: debated on Monday 7 November 2022

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government, in light of the Prevention of Future Deaths Report published at the conclusion of the Molly Russell inquest, what plans they have to bring forward the Online Safety Bill in sufficient time to ensure its passage during this parliamentary Session.

My Lords, in begging leave to ask the Question of which I have given private notice, I declare my interests, particularly as founder and chair of 5Rights Foundation.

My Lords, the arrangement of parliamentary business is, as the noble Baroness will appreciate, a matter for business managers through the usual channels. However, the Bill remains a priority. The Secretary of State committed on 20 October to bringing it back to Parliament shortly. We will continue to work with noble Lords, Members in another place and others on the passage of this important legislation.

I thank the Minister for that reply and am happy to see him back in his place. However, after four years of waiting, I am afraid his Answer was not quite good enough.

Coroner Walker’s landmark judgment that Molly Russell died after suffering negative effects of online content, and his Prevention of Future Deaths Report, deserve to be met with action. That action should be finally bringing forward the Online Safety Bill. Molly Russell died five years ago, the same five years in which we have been working on the Online Safety Bill, in the absence of which children suffer an aggressive bombardment of material that valorises self-harm, body dysmorphia, violent porn and, of course, suicide— real harms to real children. Does the Minister agree that it is time to stop this suffering and commit to bringing the Bill to this House before the end of this month, which is the date by which we have been told we need it to ensure correct scrutiny and its passage in this Session?

My Lords, this important legislation has indeed been a long time coming. I was a special adviser in the Home Office when it was first proposed and was in Downing Street when it was first put in the Conservative manifesto in 2017. Like the noble Baroness, I am very keen to see it in your Lordships’ House so that it can be properly scrutinised, so that we can deliver the protections that we all want to see for children and vulnerable people. The noble Baroness is tireless in her defence of these people. She served excellently on the Joint Committee, which has already looked at the Bill. Like her, I am very keen to get it before your Lordships’ House so that we can continue.

My Lords, I register an interest as an adviser to Common Sense Media. I am delighted to see my noble friend the Minister in his place, although I am sad to see that his predecessor has lost his place. Anyway, he is in and he is out.

I regard the Online Safety Bill as the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end. Mindful that the excellent chair of Ofcom is in the Chamber, I say this: is it not time to get on, expedite the Bill and allow Ofcom, finally, to start to regulate these platforms and social media sites? We have seen Elon Musk taking over Twitter—we need some action now. The Bill is effectively being scrutinised in the other place, and it is ready to come here. Let us get on with it.

My noble friend is right to point to the noble Lord, Lord Grade of Yarmouth, as one of many voices in your Lordships’ House who will help us in the important scrutiny of this Bill. We are very keen for that to take place. Of course, the other place has to finish its scrutiny before this happens. Once it has done that, we can debate it here.

My Lords, business managers will be listening. I hope they will make sure that we are given sufficient time in this House to give proper scrutiny to a highly complex Bill.

If part of the compromises that may have been made in the department are to remove aspects of the Bill, particularly around “legal but harmful”, could the Minister also consider—and have conversations across government—about finding time in a subsequent legislative Session for us to finish the job if the Bill that he brings to this House does not do a proper job?

Regarding future legislative Sessions, I will restrict myself to the debate on the current one. The noble Lord is right: the business managers will have heard how anxious your Lordships’ House is to see the Bill and begin its scrutiny. The decision will be communicated in the usual way.

My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that he, the Minister here and the Minister in the other place, will take advice from all the NGOs and other expert groups that have been working on this crucial issue for so long?

I absolutely can. Ministers have had meetings with such groups and officials have continued to have those meetings, even with the change of Ministers in recent weeks. These have informed the scrutiny and improvement of the Bill to date.

My Lords, when I sat on the Puttnam commission 20 years ago, there was some excuse for not taking action for the real harms being caused on the internet. There is no such excuse now, as has been indicated. This House and the other place have been working on this for five years. The regulators are very well tooled up and ready to move. It is inexcusable, and there will be no excuse for leaving things undone due to backroom deals at the last minute. I do not doubt the Minister’s integrity on this but there must be no deals by No. 10 to weaken the Bill at this point; there is too much at stake. I do not think the Government will be forgiven if they renege on past promises to deliver a Bill worthy of the challenges that we are facing.

The noble Lord is quite right. Members of your Lordships’ House and another place will be vigilant. The Bill is being laid before Parliament so that noble Lords and Members in another place can see what is being proposed and inform the debate on it.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the tragic inquest on Molly Russell illustrated that the greatest crime of the 21st century has been the progressive destruction of childhood innocence? Will he therefore talk to business managers to ensure that a carry-over into the next Session happens if it is necessary? As the noble Lord, Lord Knight, said, we must get the Bill on to the statute book after thorough scrutiny in your Lordships’ House.

The inquest into the heartbreaking death of Molly Russell highlights the importance of holding technology companies to account to keep their users, particularly children, safe online. That is why we are bringing forward the Online Safety Bill, why the strongest protections in the Bill are for children and why I look forward to debating it in your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister back to the Front Bench. His former boss, Theresa May, launched the online harms agenda, which we on these Benches supported. Yet, three Prime Ministers later, we are still waiting for this crucial legislation to reach your Lordships’ House. Other noble Lords have noted that the Bill must be completed in this Session, as it has already been carried over. If repeated delays mean that the Bill’s passage conflicts with plans for winding up this Session, will the Government extend the Session to get the protections on to the statute book or simply drop the Bill?

I thank the noble Baroness for her words of welcome. She will appreciate that her final point is one for business managers rather than for me but I reiterate, having been there at the genesis of the discussions that led to the Bill, that I am very keen to see it in your Lordships’ House and to give it that thorough scrutiny. It has already been well improved because of the work of the Joint Committee of both Houses, but it needs to come to your Lordships’ House so that we can scrutinise it properly.

My Lords, the original aim of the Bill was to tackle harm to children, which we can all agree on, but it has expanded enormously and some say represents a real threat to freedom of speech for adults. Will the Minister ensure that he not only sees stakeholders working with those interested in online safety for children but meets free speech organisations and civil liberty campaigners to ensure the Bill does not become a legislative piece of censorship?

The Bill contains strong safeguards for freedom of expression. No platforms will be required to remove legal content and all services will need to have regard to freedom of expression when implementing their safety duties. Of course, although Ministers have met such groups throughout the passage of the Bill so far, I would be very happy to continue to do so to ensure that aspect of the Bill gets proper scrutiny too.

My Lords, as the noble Baroness mentioned, the Bill has been extended. One of the extensions was to financial harm caused online. Will the Government assure us that they remain committed to including strong measures on financial harm? This can hurt people as much as the other forms of harm that we find online.

The context shows the importance of preventing financial harm to people, particularly in the current economic climate. When the Bill comes forward from another place, it will be open to scrutiny by noble Lords on this aspect and many others.

My Lords, the Minister obviously has a very difficult brief to bring before your Lordships’ House. He has barely opened his folder of notes during the course of this Question because all he is able to say is that it is a matter for the business managers, but is it not the case that this is a Bill about which there has been extensive consultation? There is very broad consensus. The only thing now holding it up is an internal row within the Conservative Party. It is not a question of waiting for the business managers. Could he tell his colleagues in the Conservative Party to stop arguing and enable the Bill to be brought forward?

The Bill is being scrutinised in another place by Members of Parliament from all parties. It is important that they complete that work before it comes to your Lordships’ House, but it has benefited from pre-legislative scrutiny by the Joint Committee, which again drew on people from all parties and none. I am keen to see that scrutiny continue in your Lordships’ House.

Could the noble Lord suggest to business managers that if further time is required for the Bill and is not otherwise available, it would be available if the Government were to abandon the ridiculous plans to bring back the Bill of Rights Bill, which the Lord Chancellor appears keen on?

I will pass the noble Lord’s message on to business managers, but he will understand that it is not for me to respond.

My Lords, this seems a classic example of the people we want to protect not getting a voice. Five years’ worth of children have been damaged because of the lack of this. Please can we and the business managers put the children first?

Your Lordships’ House gives voice to those voiceless victims through the right reverend Prelate and, not least, the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, who has rightly asked this Question today. I am keen for all those voices to be joined in the debate on the Bill as soon as possible.

To go back to one of the earlier questions about financial harms, does my noble friend agree that one of the problems facing the Bill is the way in which things keep getting added to it? Once the Bill arrives in your Lordships’ House—the sooner we can get on with scrutinising it, the better—it is important that we all remain self-disciplined, try not to add things to it and just focus on child safety.

My noble friend makes the sort of wise point that one would expect from a former Leader of your Lordships’ House. I think that is the case with any Bill that comes before Parliament. With this one, which has benefited from pre-legislative scrutiny, Members of both Houses have been able to look at it and wider issues. I look forward to thorough but targeted debates when the Bill comes forward.

My Lords, a number of noble Lords and I were fortunate to attend a round table organised by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, with some of the children’s charities. What we heard there, even from my noble friend Lord Gilbert, who believes strongly in free speech, is that when it comes to child protection there really is no debate; there is consensus across the House. The real challenges are some of the harms that may conflict with free speech, for example, but also the issue of harms themselves. Clearly, some definitions of harm suggest that some harms may well be subjective rather than objective. How do my noble friend the Minister and his colleagues intend to deal with some of these subjective arguments over harms?

I pay tribute to my noble friend for his work on this Bill while in office. I saw him at this Dispatch Box answering questions that reflected your Lordships’ eagerness to receive it and begin that scrutiny work. He is tempting me to stray into debates on the Bill itself, which we will have plenty of time for when it comes forward. As I say, the strongest protections in the Bill are for children and nothing in the Bill is designed to harm freedom of expression. The Bill holds those in balance, but I know that is one area that noble Lords will want to scrutinise during the Bill’s passage.

My Lords, has the noble Lord, Lord Kamall, not precisely made the point by pointing out that what we need to do now is talk about the Bill? We are prevented from talking about the Bill for reasons that may be clear to a number of your Lordships but are certainly not clear to me. Is it not time that we get a chance to have the discussions implied in the question from the noble Lord, Lord Kamall? Although Molly Russell was the most—how can one say it? The noble Lord used the word “heartbreaking”—example put before us recently, there have been many others and there will be many more before the Bill gets on to the statute book.

The noble Baroness is right. There have been too many such cases, and we want to get this legislation on to the statute book to prevent as many of those preventable harms as we are able to. I too want to have that debate to continue the scrutiny in your Lordships’ House, but it is important that the other place concludes that before we are able to do so. I hope that it will be engaged in that very swiftly and that the Bill will soon be before your Lordships.