Former digital secretary Dorries slams successor over Online Safety Bill amendments

Former DCMS minister says her replacement Michelle Donelan ‘does not understand’ pending legislation

Credit: Crown Copyright/Open Government Licence v3.0

Former digital secretary Nadine Dorries has said there is “absolutely no reason” to alter the Online Safety Bill, and has accused her successor Michelle Donelan of not understanding the legislation.

In an interview for PublicTechnology sister publication The House magazine, Dorries said the government was “going to have a lot of explaining to do” over plans to drop clauses in the bill which would require social media companies to tackle “legal but harmful” content, such as posts promoting suicide or self-harm.

Donelan, who took over the cabinet post from Dorries in September, claimed shortly after her appointment that she would be “changing” the clause amid concerns over its implications for freedom of speech.

“There is absolutely no reason whatsoever why the bill needs to be altered in any way,” Dorries said. “Mainly because all of the difficult and contentious stages of the bill, including legal but harmful, have already been passed. It’s already through. Our own party voted for it.”

She added: “Michelle [Donelan] has been in the job five minutes and does not understand enough about it.”

Dorries admitted that plans to water down the Online Safety Bill made her feel “pretty rubbish”, and that she expected the amended version would be seen as a “blank piece of paper” by the House of Lords.

“The government now, and certainly my successor, is going to have a lot of explaining to do on why she thinks that posting encouraging people to self-harm is something that should be allowed to happen,” she continued. 

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Dorries was candid about her own battles to progress the bill while she was in government, claiming that her predecessor Oliver Dowden had attempted to stop it from doing so.

She said: “I can tell you what Oliver Dowden said to me when I took over the job. He said: ‘This is a horrible bill, kick it into the long grass.’ And I thought to myself, no, because I’m the person who would have to explain to Molly Russell’s parents, to all of those parents who have suffered the loss of their children, and the parents of all those children who have been damaged.”

Russell took her own life in 2017, aged 14. Her family have since campaigned for tighter regulations on social media.

Following a recent inquest into her death, which concluded that social media contributed “more than minimally”, her father said it was “time the toxic corporate culture” of social media giants to change. 

“It’s time for the government’s Online Safety Bill to urgently deliver its long-promised legislation,” he said in a statement.  “It’s time to protect our innocent young people, instead of allowing platforms to prioritise their profits by monetising their misery.”

Dorries continued: “I had to convince everybody, from the business managers, the leader of the House, the chief whip and the policy officials in No 10.”

Since Boris Johnson announced his resignation in July, the final stages of the Online Safety Bill have been delayed twice, leading to concerns that it was due to be scrapped.

The bill is understood to be slated to return to parliament before the end of this year.

Setting out her plans for the legislation in September, Donelan said she would be looking to amend the “legal but harmful” clause before it progressed.

“I’m not going to announce today exactly how we’ll be changing that because the due process will be to do that in parliament,” she told BBC Radio Four’s Today programme. “But that element is in relation to adults. The bits in relation to children and online safety will not be changing. And that is the overarching objective of the bill, and why we put it in our manifesto. The main part of the Bill is about making it a priority for social media providers and websites that generate user content and making sure that if they do act in the wrong way that we can stick massive fines on them, which would be very punitive and prevent them from doing so again.”


Sam Trendall

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