My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for introducing this debate. I do not think any of us can claim that this is the most digitally aware workplace in the country. Indeed, when talking about Twitter with a colleague here the other day, he asked me how many followers he had. I had to explain that as he was not signed up and did not have a Twitter account, he did not actually have any followers. I do not think he is unrepresentative.
I cannot pretend to be a digital whizz myself, but I am on Twitter. Somehow, without knowing how, I have managed to set up my Twitter account to feed automatically to my Facebook page, which I am rather pleased with. I have just over 5,000 followers, which pales into insignificance compared to, say, the noble Lord, Lord Sugar, who, with nearly 5.5 million followers, understands the power of communicating directly and influencing a very large audience. With 500 million tweets posted every day and 1.33 billion people active daily on Twitter, the power of online platforms cannot be ignored.
I wish to focus my remarks on how this revolution is affecting public life. Social media has made communication with those of us in public life much easier. More than 70% of UK adults own a smartphone, which can be used from any location to send messages directly to the social media accounts of politicians and candidates. My interest, as noble Lords may be aware, is as chair of Women2Win, which encourages and supports female Conservative candidates to stand for election. A recent Fawcett Society survey of women in public life found that most women failed to report abuse as they did not think the platforms would act. This is wrong. They should take tough action against abusers.
I very much welcome the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s recent inquiry, which showed, among other things, that Conservative candidates, especially women, were more likely to be the subject of intimidatory behaviour than candidates representing other parties. This is worrying. It is hard enough to get women to stand for public office, and all barriers need to be addressed. If they are not we will be left with a political culture that does not reflect the society it should represent, with serious implications for our democracy.
Let me give your Lordships a real example—one of many. During the election campaign in June, the Ealing Central and Acton Conservative candidate was met daily outside her home by a large group of Momentum and Labour activists yelling at her, and I quote—and please, my Lords, forgive the unparliamentary language and block your ears if you are sensitive or easily offended—“Fucking Tory cunt”. This young woman has a young child. How can this be acceptable? How does this not deter other mothers from stepping up? Her activists and volunteers were routinely spat at. They told an Asian activist that she deserved to have her throat slit and to be in the ground for being a Conservative—and much, much more, especially on social media.
Standing for election and public office for whatever political party should be recognised and celebrated as a noble, honourable and responsible action to take. This abusive behaviour is fuelled by the anonymity which social media platforms provide. This is just one example of many where, during an attempt to take part in the democratic process, a candidate was subject to abuse, intimidation, libel and slander. Civil, criminal and electoral laws were broken, yet no action was taken. Online platforms have a responsibility to play their part in preventing this in future.