Online Safety Bill
Over the last 4 weeks, working alongside Miriam Cates (Conservative MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge) and the NSPCC, we have made a truly groundbreaking change in the protection of children online. My amendment, which ultimately had the support of over 50 Conservative MPs, introduced the personal criminal liability of directors within big tech where they have been found to have consented or connived in ignoring enforceable requirements and therefore risking serious harm to children. The amendment proposed a penalty of imprisonment for up to two years, or a fine (or both), for such actions.
As a result of the substantial support for this amendment by Conservatives, I negotiated with the Secretary of State a commitment printed in what is called a Written Ministerial Statement, printed in Hansard, so that the Government has now guaranteed to table an amendment in the House of Lords as follows:
“The final government amendment at the end of ping pong between the Lords and the Commons will be carefully designed to capture instances where senior managers, or those purporting to act in that capacity, have consented or connived in ignoring enforceable requirements, risking serious harm to children. The criminal penalties, including imprisonment and fines, will be commensurate with similar offences. While this amendment will not affect those who have acted in good faith to comply in a proportionate way, it gives the Act additional teeth to deliver change and ensure that people are held to account if they fail to properly protect children”
The debate on Tuesday 17th January highlighted the immensely strong support for my own and Miriam’s determined insistence in protecting young people and their families from all sides of the House for this vital change. Please see below my speech on the subject. Members of Parliament from across the House gave strong words of support and personal thanks in the debate, and Miriam Cates ended her speech with the following kind words:
“I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash); without his determination, knowledge and experience, it would not have been possible to achieve this change. He has been known as Mr Brexit, but as he said, even before he was Mr Brexit, he was Mr Child Protection, having been involved with the Protection of Children Act 1978. It is certainly advantageous in negotiations to work with someone who knows vastly more about legislation than pretty much anyone else involved. He sat through the debate in December on the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), and while the vote was taking place, he said, “I think we can do this.” He spent the next week in the Public Bill Office and most of his recess buried in legislation. I pay tribute to him for his outstanding work.”
Having helped draft the Protection of Children Act 1978, I view this as a vital moment in the protection of children and their families online in the ever-evolving world of social media. In far too many ways, these platforms and algorithms are depraved and driven by the financial gain of big tech companies causing untold misery, self-harm and suicide of young people. Indeed, I discovered that the lobbying companies spent over £27 million last year alone on trying to lobby for the legislation they want. I raised this my concerns with the Prime Minister in the Liaison Committee meeting on 20th December 2022 “There is an urgent need, in particular, to protect our children and grandchildren in relation to the monstrous and evil state of affairs now stalking the land”. The threat of imprisonment is absolutely necessary, and by the time it has been through the House of Lords with this commitment the Government has agreed, children and their families will be properly protected.
Speech (Report Stage - Online Safety Bill) 17th January 2023
“In a nutshell, we must be able to threaten tech bosses with jail. There is precedent for that—jail sentences for senior managers are commonplace for breaches of duties across a great range of UK legislation. That is absolutely and completely clear, and as a former shadow Attorney General, I know exactly what the law is on this subject. I can say this: we must protect our children and grandchildren from predatory platforms operating for financial gain on the internet. It is endemic throughout the world and in the UK, inducing suicide, self-harm and sexual abuse, and it is an assault on the minds of our young children and on those who are affected by it, including the families and such people as Ian Russell. He has shown great courage in coming out with the tragedy of his small child of 14 years old committing suicide as a result of such activities, as the coroner made clear. It is unthinkable that we will not deal with that. We are dealing with it now, and I thank the Secretary of State and the Minister for responding with constructive dialogue in the short space of time since we have got to grips with this issue.
The written ministerial statement is crystal clear. It says that
“where senior managers, or those purporting to act in that capacity, have consented or connived in ignoring enforceable requirements, risking serious harm to children. The criminal penalties, including imprisonment and fines, will be commensurate with similar offences.”
We can make a comparison, as the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) made clear, with financial penalties in the financial services sector, which is also international. There is also the construction industry, as my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) just said. Those penalties are already on our statute book.
I do not care what the European Union is doing in its legislation. I am glad to know that the Irish legislation, which has been passed and is an Act, has been through different permutations and examinations. The Irish have come up with something that includes similar severe penalties. It can be done. But this is our legislation in this House. We will do it the way that we want to do it to protect our children and families. I am just about fed up with listening to the mealy-mouthed remarks from those who say, “You can’t do it. It’s not quite appropriate.” To hell with that. We are talking about our children.
On past record, which I just mentioned, in 1977-78, a great friend of mine, Cyril Townsend, the Member for Bexleyheath, introduced the first Protection of Children Bill. He asked me to help him, and I did. We got it through. That was incredibly difficult at the time. You have no idea, Mr Deputy Speaker, how much resistance was put up by certain Members of this House, including Ministers. I spoke to Jim Callaghan—I have been in this House so long that I was here with him after he had been Prime Minister—and asked, “How did you give us so much time to get the Bill through?” He said, “It’s very simple. I was sitting in bed with my wife in the flat upstairs at No. 10. She wasn’t talking to me. I said, ‘What’s wrong, darling?’ She replied, ‘If you don’t get that Protection of Children Bill through, I won’t speak to you for six months.’” And it went through, so there you go. There is a message there for all Secretaries of State, and even Prime Ministers.
I raised this issue with the Prime Minister in December in a question at the Liaison Committee. I invited him to consider it, and I am so glad that we have come to this point after very constructive discussion and dialogue. It needed that. It is a matter not of chariots of fire but of chariots on fire, because we have done all this in three weeks. I am extremely grateful to the 51 MPs who stood firm. I know the realities of this House, having been involved in one or two discussions in the past. As a rule, it is only when you have the numbers that the results start to come. I pay tribute to the Minister for the constructive dialogue.
The Irish legislation will provide a model, but this will be our legislation. It will be modelled on some of the things that have already enacted there, but it is not simply a matter of their legislation being transformed into ours. It will be our legislation.”