Incoming legislation for internet safety removed from parliamentary business
The Online Safety Bill has been dropped from Commons business for the second time in four months, despite pledges it would return “in the autumn”.
The report stage and third reading of the Bill – the final stages before it is sent to the House of Lords – were due to take place on Tuesday 1 November, but have since been removed from Commons business. These stages were originally meant to take place in July, but the process was delayed following the resignation of Boris Johnson as prime minister.
Speaking during a Westminster Hall debate, Labour MP Alex-Davies Jones asked culture minister Damian Collins why the next legislative stages were being delayed for the second time.
Collins did not deny that the Bill had been removed from Commons business for next week, and suggested that the recent change in prime minister may have prompted the most recent delay.
But he insisted that the government was still committed to bringing it forward, adding that staff in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport had been working “tirelessly” on progressing it.
“I can speak to the bill, I can’t speak to the business of the house. So that is a matter for the business managers in the usual way,” he said. “But the department has been working… tirelessly on this bill to make sure we can get it in a timely fashion. I want to see this bill complete its Commons stages and go to the House of Lords as quickly as possible. And our target is to make sure obviously, the bill receives its safe passage in this session of parliament. But, obviously, I cannot talk to the business of the house which, as a consequence of the changes of the government, may alter.”
Shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell said it was “disgraceful” that the Bill had been delayed again, particularly in light of the recent inquest into the death of London teenager Molly Russell, which concluded that the 14-year-old died as a result of “an act of self-harm while suffering from depression and the negative effects of online content”.
“In the wake of Molly Russell’s inquest, the need for urgent regulation has never been clearer, yet, unbelievably, this government can’t decide if it wants to keep children safe online. This bill must not be the victim of another grubby, backroom deal by the new PM. Last week, Labour offered to work with the new culture secretary (Michelle Donelan), to get the final stages of this sill done, an offer she accepted. Every week that passes costs lives and takes a huge toll on those affected by abuse, trolling, scamming and algorithms encouraging self-harm and suicide.”
Commenting on the news of the delay, Richard Collard, child safety online policy and regulatory manager at the NSPCC, said those affected by gaps in online safety should not “have to pay twice” due to changes of power in Westminster.
“Last Thursday, the culture secretary said a strengthened Online Safety Bill was her number one priority and vital legislation would return to Parliament imminently,” Collard said. “Less than a week later it appears to have been delayed again. Families have long paid the price for the failure of tech firms to make their sites safe for children – they should not have to pay twice due to turmoil in Westminster.”
Collard urged the new prime minister, Rishi Sunak, to “deliver on the manifest promise to make the UK the safest place to be online” and commit to passing the Online Safety Bill as soon as possible.
The Online Safety Bill aims to allow Ofcom to regulate online platforms, mainly by enforcing companies’ terms of conditions on certain types of harmful content that is legal.
It also proposed introducing fines for digital companies if they do not comply with new regulations, and prison sentences could also be handed down to senior managers if they continue to breach regulations.
But both Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak pledged support for the bill during their leadership campaigns, though each suggested they would amend it if given the opportunity.
Sunak suggested at a hustings July some concerns relating to freedom of speech needed to be “properly addressed”.
“I do think we need to have a way to protect children against harm, as I said and I say that first and foremost as a parent, he said. “But I do want to make sure that we are also protecting free speech and the legal but harmful bit is the one that I would want to spend some time as prime minister going over and making sure that we’re getting that bit exactly right. I think it’s fair that people have raised some concerns about that and its impact on free speech. And I think it’s right that those concerns are properly addressed.”