Amendment 134

Online Safety Bill - Committee (9th Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 2:42 pm on 25 May 2023.

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Baroness Merron:

Moved by Baroness Merron

134: Schedule 7, page 202, line 9, at end insert—“Animal crueltyA1_ An offence under section 4 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 (unnecessary suffering).A2_ An offence under section 19 of the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 (unnecessary suffering).A3_ An offence under section 1 of the Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996 (offences).”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment adds a number of animal welfare offences to the list of priority offences outlined in Schedule 7.

Photo of Baroness Merron Baroness Merron Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, this is an unusual group: it has just one amendment—Amendment 134 in the name of my noble friend Lord Stevenson. It has also been signed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, whom I thank; I know that the right reverend Prelate is currently in a debate in Grand Committee.

This amendment seeks to add animal cruelty offences to the list of priority offences set out in Schedule 7, which would require platforms to proactively identify and remove content that depicts animal cruelty, including torture and death. This content is increasingly common, and it is shocking—films of cats being kicked about as footballs, dogs being set on fire and monkeys being ensnared into plastic bottles with dogs then being set upon them. All this is widely shared and viewed, and none of it is properly addressed by social media companies. These animal cruelty offences clearly meet the criteria of prevalence, risk of harm and severity of that harm, which have been set out and previously used by the Government to justify additions to the list.

I turn first to prevalence. The Social Media Animal Cruelty Coalition database comprises over 13,000 social media links showing animal abuse, collected over the past two years. Social media platforms often fail to remove animal cruelty films when they are reported, despite that being a clear contravention of their policies. In fact, less than 50% of links reported by the coalition since August 2021 have been removed, with predictions of a “rapid proliferation” of animal cruelty footage over the years ahead. This analysis is supported by the RSPCA, which received 756 reports of animal cruelty on social media in 2021, compared with 431 in 2020 and 157 in 2019.

The evidence of harm is also clear. Polling commissioned by the RSPCA five years ago found that nearly one in four of 10 to 18 year-olds had seen animal cruelty on social media sites—a proportion which is very likely to have increased subsequently, given the growth in the prevalence of animal abuse films in recent years. Viewing animal cruelty can cause psychological harm to children, with findings suggesting that,

“There is emerging evidence that childhood exposure to maltreatment of companion animals is associated with psychopathology in childhood and adulthood”.

Viewing animal abuse can also lead to imitative behaviour. Research suggests that children who witness animal cruelty are three to eight times more likely to abuse animals themselves, while those engaging in animal cruelty at a young age are more likely to exhibit abusive and violent behaviour towards people as they grow older.

Amendment 134 supports practical consideration of the effect of policy upon the welfare of animals as sentient beings to fulfil the requirements of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022 and help the Government to meet their pledge to

“continue to raise the bar” for animal welfare in the UK.

The adoption of the measures outlined in Amendment 134 would be a popular move. Thousands upon thousands of people have written in to make the Government aware that they want to see this modest addition, and they are supported by a wide range of animal welfare charities, including the RSPCA, the Born Free Foundation and the Humane Society International.

The Bill Minister in the other place stated that the addition of animal cruelty offences

“deserves further consideration as the Bill progresses through its parliamentary stages”.—[Official Report, Commons, 12/7/22; cols. 165-166.]

Earlier this year, as a comparator, the Government agreed to add offences under Section 24 of the Immigration Act, relating to illegal immigration, to the priority offences list. At the time, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State admitted that

“offences in Section 24 cannot be carried out online”,—[Official Report, Commons, 17/1/23; col. 314.] but insisted that the inclusion of the offences was justified on the grounds of the damage that online encouragement of illegal immigration could cause to children. This is a helpful reference point and suggests that offences under Section 4 of the Animal Welfare Act—unnecessary suffering would be the reference—are directly commissioned for online content, which is growing in prevalence and causing demonstrative harm to children, should be added to the priority list.

I hope the Minister is sympathetic to Amendment 134 so we can make the necessary progress. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology) 2:45, 25 May 2023

My Lords, I rise to support Amendment 134, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, which was so ably introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Merron. The Government accepted the Joint Committee’s recommendation that priority offences should be put in the Bill, and that is now contained in Schedules 5, 6 and 7. In particular, Schedule 7 sets out the priority offences. The noble Baroness, Lady Merron, has nailed it in setting out why these animal suffering-related offences fall within the Government’s criteria.

When the Government responded to the Joint Committee, they accepted our recommendation that we should put priority content in the Bill. As the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, said, the criteria are very clearly set out in paragraph 86 of their report:

“The prevalence of such content on regulated services … The risk of harm being caused to UK users by such content; and … The severity of that harm”.

The noble Baroness has absolutely set out how these offences fall within those criteria: the prevalence of these offences; the abuse that is present; the viewing by children and its impact on them; the impact on animal welfare, which would be positive if this content were treated as a priority offence; and the very strong public support.

Of course—the noble Baroness did not quite go here, but I will—there is a massive contrast with the inclusion of the encouragement of immigration offence in Schedule 7. These offences have far greater merit for inclusion in Schedule 7. I very much hope the Minister will accede to what I think is an extremely reasonable amendment.

Photo of Viscount Camrose Viscount Camrose Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I thank the noble Baroness for her amendment and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for speaking so powerfully, as ever. I very much recognise the harms and horrors of cruelty to animals online or anywhere else. The UK has a proud history of championing and taking action on animal welfare, and the Government are committed to strengthening animal welfare standards and protections.

Our Action Plan for Animal Welfare demonstrates the Government’s commitment to a brighter future for animals both at home and abroad and provides a foundation for conversations on how we can continue to improve animal welfare and conservation in future. I can also reassure your Lordships that this Bill will tackle some of the worst online activities related to animal cruelty.

Amendment 134 seeks to add certain specified animal offences to the list of priority offences in Schedule 7. It is worth reminding ourselves that the Bill will already tackle some of the worst examples of animal cruelty online. This includes, for example, where the content amounts to an existing priority offence, such as extreme pornography, which platforms must prevent users encountering. Equally, where content could cause psychological harm to children, it must be tackled. Where the largest services prohibit types of animal abuse content in their terms of service, the Bill will require them to enforce those terms and remove such content. Improved user reporting and redress systems, as mandated by the Bill, will make it easier for users to report such content.

The Bill, however, is not designed to address every harm on the internet. For it to have an impact, it needs to be manageable for both Ofcom and the companies. For it to achieve the protections envisaged since the start of the Bill, it must focus on its mission of delivering protections for people. Schedule 7 has been designed to focus on the most serious and prevalent offences affecting humans in the UK, on which companies can take effective and meaningful action. The offences in this schedule are primarily focused on where the offences can be committed online—for example, threats to kill or the unlawful supply of drugs. The offences that the noble Baroness proposes cannot be committed online; while that would not stop them from being added for inchoate purposes, the Government do not believe that platforms would be able to take effective steps proactively to identify and tackle such offences online.

Crucially, the Government feel that adding too many offences to Schedule 7 that cannot be effectively tackled also risks spreading companies’ resources too thinly, particularly for smaller and micro-businesses, which would have to address these offences in their risk assessments. Expanding the list of offences in Schedule 7 to include the animal cruelty offences could dilute companies’ efforts to tackle other offences listed in the Bill which have long been the priority of this legislation.

Beyond the Bill, however, the Government are taking a very wide range of steps to tackle animal cruelty. Since publishing the Action Plan for Animal Welfare in 2021, the Government have brought in new laws to recognise animal sentience, introduced additional legislative measures to tackle illegal hare-coursing, and launched the animal health and welfare pathway as part of our agricultural transition plan. We will, of course, continue to discuss these important issues with colleagues at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who lead on our world-leading protections for animals, but, for the reasons I have set out, I am unable to accept this amendment. I therefore hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw it.

Photo of Baroness Merron Baroness Merron Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his considered reply, outlining the ways in which he believes the Bill supports where this amendment is going. I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for his support. Indeed, it is my view that the criteria have been met for inclusion of these animal welfare offences in this list of priority offences. It is, of course, disappointing that the Minister does not share the view that we have expressed.

Perhaps I could pick up a point from the Minister’s response. It seems to me that something that is illegal offline should also be illegal online. If something is illegal under the various Acts referred to but there is user-to-user content of these animal cruelty films, for example, is the Minister saying that this will be covered by the Bill in its current form?

I note that the Minister has spoken of continuing discussions with Defra, which is very welcome. I am also requesting a meeting to pursue this. It is something on which we could make progress, and I hope that the Minister would be open to that. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 134 withdrawn.

Amendment 135 not moved.