Part of Financial Services and Markets Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:45 pm on 7th December 2022.
I rise to speak in support of new clause 27, tabled by my hon. Friend Sally-Ann Hart. As she said, it would prohibit payment service providers from refusing to supply a customer based on the customer exercising their lawful right to freedom of expression.
The effect of PayPal’s decision was to temporarily disrupt the ability of those organisations to operate. In some cases, their accounts were frozen, thereby denying them access to their funds. In the light of that, 42 peers and MPs wrote to the then Business Secretary, my right hon. Friend Mr Rees-Mogg, and to the Minister currently on the Front Bench. PayPal then restored the accounts of UsForThem and the Free Speech Union. Although PayPal’s actions may seem unjustifiable, payment providers and high street banks may terminate the accounts of groups on the basis of lawful speech, so long as adequate notice is given. As the law stands, the only thing that PayPal did wrong was not to give sufficient notice of the closure.
Sadly, the actions of PayPal in September were not a one-off. It also closed the accounts of the UK Medical Freedom Alliance and Law or Fiction, both of which are opposed to lockdowns, and it has not reopened either of them. It is therefore hard to avoid interpreting PayPal’s actions as an orchestrated, politically motivated move to restrict certain views within the UK. This is unacceptable.
In an increasingly cashless society—we have heard a lot about the merits of cash today—access to a digital payment system is not a luxury, but a basic requirement for participation in society. No campaigning organisation can function without the ability to perform financial transactions. Imagine if the suffragettes had not been allowed to have or use cash, or if those campaigning for Brexit had been refused a bank account. Freedom of speech and freedom of expression are foundational to democracy, and there can be no meaningful freedom of expression without the ability to conduct financial transactions.
It is of course right that in the UK private companies can choose which customers they do and do not want to do business with, but this is based on the assumption that there is a functional marketplace with healthy competition and that companies are regulated by, and compliant with, UK law and regulations. PayPal is eight times larger than its nearest competitor. It is a Californian company with its European headquarters in Luxembourg. Are we happy to delegate important powers relating to freedom of speech and expression to unaccountable global tech firms?
Of course, unlike socialists, conservatives want markets to operate freely, without unnecessary bureaucracy and state control. But as conservatives, unlike liberals or libertarians, we understand that there must be limits to this freedom, because without limits, human beings and organisations will sometimes—perhaps often—put their own interests before the best interests of customers and societies. As UK national conservatives, we believe that the proper bodies to set the bounds of free speech and political opinions in the UK are the UK Parliament and UK courts. That is why we must act to legally prevent payment providers from closing accounts of the basis of political beliefs, because if we do not, big global companies will put their own interests—financial, reputational and political—before any moral duty to act fairly.
The principle of using law to protect free speech is well established. The Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religious or philosophical beliefs, but this protects individuals, not organisations, which is why it cannot be used in this case. The Government are also acting to protect free speech in universities, and the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is today making its passage through the other place.
The PayPal saga identified a gap in our free speech protection that must be filled with appropriate legislation, which is why I support new clause 27. I thank the Minister for his engagement on this issue, which I know he takes very seriously—I was delighted by his opening remarks and commitment to work further on it. I very much hope that, following the evidence that he will gather, he will legislate if it is appropriate to do so. I appreciate his assurances on that.
I want to finish with a recent example of what happens when free speech is threatened. I know we do not want to think back to covid, but we had lockdowns and school closures. In fact, UK schools were closed for longer than those in almost any other country in Europe, and our children missed more face-to-face learning than those in any country other than Italy. The effects on children have been absolutely horrendous and will last a generation. They include lost learning, an increase in eating disorders, self-harm, a loss of socialisation, exposure to domestic violence—I could go on and on. [Interruption.] But I will not, because you are clearly telling me not to, Madam Deputy Speaker.
The Government now say that doing that was a mistake and that there was not sufficient evidence, but one reason that schools were reopened and children were eventually protected was the effective campaigning of the group UsForThem, which—unlike so many—stood up for children and their welfare. Its views were unpopular and it was said to be spreading misinformation. Imagine if its bank account had been cancelled two years ago—where we would be now? We need this protection. I appreciate the Minister’s commitment and I look forward to working with him further.