Online Safety Bill - Third Reading – in the House of Lords at 4:21 pm on 6 September 2023.

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay:

Moved by Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay

That the Bill do now pass.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, in begging to move that the Bill do now pass, I add my words of thanks to all noble Lords who have been involved over many years and many iterations of the Bill, particularly during my time as the Minister and in the diligent scrutiny we have given it in recent months. The Bill will establish a vital legislative framework, making the internet safer for all, particularly for children. We are now closer than ever to achieving that important goal. In a matter of months from Royal Assent, companies will be required to put in place protections to tackle illegal content on their services or face huge fines. I am very grateful to noble Lords for the dedication, attention and time they have given to the Bill while it has been before your Lordships’ House.

The Bill will mark a significant change in children’s safety online. Last month, data from UK police forces showed that 6,350 offences relating to sexual communications with a child were recorded last year alone. These are horrifying statistics which underline the importance of the Bill in building a protective shield for our children online. We cannot let perpetrators of such abhorrent crimes stalk children online and hide behind their screens, nor let companies continue to turn a blind eye to the harm being done to children on their services. We are working closely with Ofcom to make sure that the protections for children established by the Bill are enforced as soon as possible, and we have been clear that companies should not wait for the legislation to come into force before taking action.

The aim of keeping children safe online is woven throughout the Bill, and the changes that we have made throughout its passage in your Lordships’ House have further bolstered it. In order to provide early and clear guidance to companies and Ofcom regarding the content from which children must be protected, rather than addressing these later via secondary legislation, the categories of primary priority and priority content which is harmful to children will now be set out in the Bill.

Following another amendment made during your Lordships’ scrutiny, providers of the largest services will also be required to publish summaries of their risk assessments for illegal content and content which is harmful to children. Further changes to the Bill have also made sure that technology executives must take more responsibility for the safety of those who use their websites. Senior managers will face criminal liability if they fail to comply with steps set by Ofcom following enforcement action to keep children safe on their platforms, with the offence punishable with up to two years in prison.

Noble Lords have rightly raised concerns about what the fast-changing technological landscape will mean for children. The Bill faces the future and is designed to keep pace with emerging technological changes such as AI-generated pornography.

Child sexual exploitation and abuse content generated by AI is illegal, regardless of whether it depicts a real child or not, and the Bill makes it clear that technology companies will be required to identify this content proactively and remove it. Whatever the future holds, the Bill will ensure that guard rails are in place to allow our children to explore it safely online.

I have also had the pleasure of collaborating with noble Lords from across your Lordships’ House who have championed the important cause of strengthening protections for women and girls online, who we know disproportionately bear the brunt of abhorrent behaviour on the internet. Following changes made earlier to the Bill, Ofcom will be required to produce and publish guidance which summarises in one clear place measures that should be taken to reduce the risk of harm to women and girls online. The amendment will also oblige Ofcom to consult when producing the guidance, ensuring that it reflects the voices of women and girls as well as the views of experts on this important issue.

The Bill strikes a careful balance: it tackles criminal activity online and protects our children while enshrining freedom of expression in its legislative framework. A series of changes to the Bill has ensured that adults are provided with greater control over their online experience. All adult users of the largest services will have access to tools which, if they choose to use them, will allow them to filter out content from non-verified users and to reduce the likelihood of encountering abusive content. These amendments, which have undergone careful consideration and consultation, will ensure that the Bill remains proportionate, clear and future-proof.

I am very grateful to noble Lords who have helped us make those improvements and many more. I am conscious that a great number of noble Lords who have taken part in our debates were part of the pre-legislative scrutiny some years ago. They know the Bill very well and they know the issues well, which has helped our debates be well informed and focused. It has helped the scrutiny of His Majesty’s Government, and I hope that we have risen to that.

I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have made representations on behalf of families who have suffered bereavements because of the many terrible experiences online of their children and other loved ones. There are too many for me to name now, and many more who have not campaigned publicly but who I know have been following the progress of the Bill carefully, and we remember them all today.

Again, there are too many noble Lords for me to single out all those who have been so vigilant on this issue. I thank my colleagues on the Front Bench, my noble friends Lord Camrose and Lord Harlech, and on the Front Bench opposite the noble Lords, Lord Knight and Lord Stevenson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Merron. On the Liberal Democrat Benches, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Allan of Hallam—who has been partly on the Front Bench and partly behind—who have been working very hard on this.

I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, whom I consider a Front-Bencher for the Cross Benches on this issue. She was at the vanguard of many of these issues long before the Bill came to your Lordships’ House and will continue to be long after. We are all hugely impressed by her energy and personal commitment, following the debates not only in our own legislature but in other jurisdictions. I am grateful to her for the collaborative nature of her work with us.

I will not single out other noble Lords, but I am very grateful to them from all corners of the House. They have kicked the tyres of the Bill and asked important questions; they have given lots of time and energy to it and it is a better Bill for that.

I put on record my thanks to the huge team in my department and the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, who, through years of work, expertise and determination, have brought the Bill to this point. I am grateful to the staff of your Lordships’ House and to colleagues from the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, in particular Maria White and Neil Shah, and, at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, Sarah Connolly, Orla MacRae, Caroline Bowman and Emma Hindley as well as their huge teams, including those who have worked on the Bill over the years but are not currently working on it. They have worked extremely hard and been generous with their time to noble Lords for the use of our work.

The Bill will make a vital difference to people’s safety online, especially children’s safety. It has been a privilege to play a part in it. I was working as a special adviser at the Home Office when this area of work was first mooted. I remember that, when this Bill was suggested in the 2017 manifesto, people suggested that regulating the internet was a crazy idea. The biggest criticism now is that we have not done it sooner. I am very grateful to noble Lords for doing their scrutiny diligently but speedily, and I hope to see the Bill on the statute book very soon. I beg to move that the Bill do now pass.

Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Shadow Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology)

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his very kind words to everybody, particularly my Front Bench and me. I also wish him a speedy recovery from his recent illness, although I was less sympathetic when I discovered how much he has been “managing upwards”—in the words of my noble friend Lord Knight—and achieving for us in the last few days. He has obviously been recovering and I am grateful for that. The noble Lord has steered the Bill through your Lordships’ House with great skill and largely single-handedly. It has been a pleasure to work with him, even when he was turning down our proposals and suggestions for change, which he did in the nicest possible way but absolutely firmly.

As has been mentioned, the original Green Paper was a response to the consultation on internet safety that the noble Lord mentioned, which started in October 2017. We are fast approaching six years later. A commitment to legislate has appeared in all the party election manifestos since then, but there have been changes in approach. That is not surprising given the turnover in Secretaries of State and junior Ministers, not forgetting that there has also been a change of department in that period. However, nearly six years on, it is gratifying to see that the bones of the original approach, albeit modified by the White Paper, are still in this version of the Bill.

Government processes can be cumbersome, but on this Bill they have worked very well. The Green and White Papers, and the government response to many of the consultations, all helped to set out thinking, clarify the approach and give early notice to companies likely to be in scope of the Bill. It was a very smart move to select Ofcom as the regulator early on and to fund it to prepare and scale up. That will prove to be a very good investment in future years.

Adding the pre-legislative joint scrutiny committee, which the noble Lord mentioned and which had five Members from this House, was a very important step. Damian Collins MP, who perhaps does not get the credit that he should, was a very good choice as chairman. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, kept us fully briefed on the report as we went through the various stages—he probably has a copy in his hands as we speak and may well want to quote from it even more. That so many of those recommendations are now in the Bill shows, as the Minister says, what can happen if we pool our efforts and pull together for a common aim.

Given that there was broad political agreement and that the key principles of the Bill were right, at Second Reading in your Lordships’ House I called for us to work together across party lines to ensure that we got the best Bill that we could out of what was before us. I was touched that so many colleagues from across the House agreed with my approach and went out of their way to offer their support. It was really good to see colleagues working together across the House, ignoring party lines, in pursuit of a better Bill. We are all Cross-Benchers at heart, or Bishops—perhaps not.

We got off to a slightly rocky start in Committee, with virtually everything being dismissed with a very superior form of words—usually that we had not foreseen the unforeseen consequences of our amendment being accepted—but it is good to see a lot of those amendments trumping back into the Bill now. But the debates themselves were useful and built a consensus around several key areas. It was clear that this collaborative approach can be very effective. Indeed, this way of working has shown parliamentary scrutiny at its best. We had debates of high quality, generating real insights on the Floor of the House. To be fair, by the time we got to Report, the Government rose to the challenge and responded with nearly 200 amendments that are going forward to the Commons. If you think about it, this is all the more remarkable given the intense partisanship that has characterised our public life during this time.

While a few significant issues still need to be resolved, there have been big changes and developments in the last few days. Following discussions with my noble friend Lady Merron, Sir Jeremy Wright and the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, the Government have offered to bring forward amendments at the Commons consideration of Lords amendments stage next week. But, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, said, we need to see those and to be clear that they are going in the direction that we have been told they will. We want to make sure that the Government will deliver what they have offered in these outstanding points. If they do, we can look forward to the strong possibility of completing parliamentary processes on the Bill by the end of this September sitting.

I thank the Bill team for all the work they did throughout. It was particularly good that the Minister mentioned them by name, because they have given a huge amount to us. I do not think that any holidays or time off have been allowed over the last few years, as they have worked through the various changes we have proposed. Their willingness to share their thinking has been absolutely fantastic. Taking us into their confidence on the policy issues that were still not finalised within government was difficult for them, and of course runs counter to all the usual approaches. I have been on Bills when we have had no information at all about the thinking. It was better here when we were talking about these things, having meetings that looked at the options and thinking about the ways in which they might be taken forward. I am sure it gave us the chance to make better decisions about when to settle, and as a result I hope that the Bill team will agree that the Bill is now in much better shape than it was.

Of course, the Opposition are at a considerable disadvantage to the Government in the support we can command when trying to take on legislation and give good scrutiny, as we wish to do. Dan Stevens in our office has done a magnificent job for us, despite having several other policy briefs to deal with. We would have struggled to deal with this Bill without his calm and measured advice and administrative skills. I think we should put it on record that we have also had a lot of support from the Public Bill Office. It is very hard to get amendments that say what you want, in language that will be accepted and allows them to be debated. Its staff often say that they are not parliamentary draftsmen or lawyers, but they make a pretty good job of what they have to do.

I also pay tribute to the All-Party Group on Digital Regulation and Responsibility, chaired by Sir Jeremy Wright, which has tracked the progress of the Bill throughout its many stages, organised meetings and circulated briefings, which has been incredibly useful. I think all of us involved in the Bill have benefited from the expertise and knowledge of the Carnegie UK Trust, led on this occasion by one of its trustees, William Perrin, who, with Professor Lorna Woods, was key to the initial development of the duty of care approach, and who, together with Maeve Walsh and others from the Carnegie team, supplied high-quality briefings and advice as we went through the various stages.

Finally, I thank my noble friends Lady Gillian Merron and Lord Jim Knight, who have supported me throughout this period despite having significant responsibilities in other areas, have taken the strain when needed without complaint, and have indeed won improvements to the Bill that I perhaps would not even have thought of, let alone obtained. It has been a real team effort, a joy and a pleasure, and a most enjoyable experience.

Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology) 4:30, 6 September 2023

My Lords, I am probably going to echo quite a lot of what the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, had to say, and I also pay tribute to him. This is an absolutely crucial piece of cross-party-supported legislation that many said was impossible. I believe that it is a landmark, and we should all take huge encouragement from seeing it pass through this House.

We started with the Green Paper, as the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, said, back in 2017. Many of us have been living with this issue since then, and I hope that therefore the House will not mind if I make a few more extended remarks than usual on the Motion that the Bill do now pass. I will not disappoint the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, because I will quote from the original Joint Committee report. As we said in the introduction to our Joint Committee report back in 2021:

“The Online Safety Bill is a key step forward for democratic societies to bring accountability and responsibility to the internet”.

We said that the most important thing was to

“hold online services responsible for the risks created by their design and operation”.

Our children and many others will be safer online as a result.

Across the House, this has been a huge joint venture. We made some very good progress, with the Minister and the Secretary of State demonstrating considerable flexibility. I thank them sincerely for that. We have tightened the Bill up, particularly regarding harms and risks, while, I believe, ensuring that we protect freedom of expression. Many Members of this House, including former Members of the Joint Committee, can take some pride in what has been achieved during the passage of the Bill through the House. I will add my thanks to some of them individually shortly.

The Minister mentioned a relatively short list; he was actually rather modest in mentioning some of the concessions that have been given while the Bill has passed through the House. For instance, the tightening up of the age-assurance measures and the adding of a schedule of age-assurance principles are really important additions to the Bill.

Risk assessment of user empowerment tools is very important, and I believe that the provisions about app stores and future regulation are an important aspect of the Bill. The freedom of expression definition has been inserted into the Bill. We have had new offences, such as facilitating self-harm and intimate image abuse, added during the passage of the Bill. I am delighted to say that, as the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, said, we expect to hear further concessions in the Commons on both the functionality issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and the category 1 aspects raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan.

We very much welcome the amendments that have been tabled today, including the remote-viewing clarification. We wait to hear what the Government’s position will be—I am sure that discussions are ongoing since the House voted to include a provision to review whether animal cruelty offences online should be brought into scope, and I am delighted to see the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, here—and whether they will preserve the amendment and perhaps also include wildlife-trafficking offences in order to ensure that we avoid ping-pong on that last issue.

We on these Benches have never been minded to spoil the ship for a halfpenny-worth of tar, but that is not to say that there are not areas where we would have liked to have seen a bit more progress. I do not think the Minister will be surprised to hear me say that there are one or two such areas, such as: risk assessment, where we believe that the terms of service should be subject to a mandatory risk assessment; the threshold of evidence required for illegality; the prosecution threshold as regards the encouragement of non-fatal self-harm; the intent requirement for cyber flashing; and verification status and visibility, and whether Ofcom can actually introduce requirements.

I heard what the Minister had to say about AI-generated pornography but, like the NSPCC, I am not convinced that we have adequately covered the features provided as part of a service in the metasphere with which users interact. Bots in the metaverse are demonstrating an extraordinary level of autonomy that could potentially be harmful and, it seems, may not be covered by the Bill. Time will tell, and we will see whether that is the case.

Then of course there is the lack of legislative teeth for the review of research access and no requirement for guidance afterwards. I very much hope that will happen, despite there being no obligation at the end of the day.

I have mentioned Clauses 176 and 177. We wait to see how those will pan out. Then of course there is the issue on which these Benches have spoken virtually alone: the question of news publisher definition and exemption.

I very much welcome the last piece of assurance that the Minister gave in terms of Ofcom’s powers under Clause 122. Even as late as last night we heard news reports and current affairs programmes discussing the issue, and I genuinely believe that what the Minister said will be reassuring. Certainly I took comfort from what he had to say, and I thank him for agreeing to say it at a pretty late stage in the proceedings.

I think we all recognise that in many ways the Bill is just the beginning. There will be much further work to be done. We need to come back on misinformation when the committee set up under Clause 153 has reported. I hope that in particular it will look at issues such as provenance solutions such as those provided by the Content Authenticity Initiative. Fundamental changes will be needed to our electoral law in order to combat misinformation in the course of our elections, because we have had several Select Committees say that, and I believe the misinformation advisory committee will come to the same conclusion.

It is also clear that Parliament itself needs to decide how best to scrutinise the Bill in both its operation and its effectiveness. As we in the Joint Committee sought to suggest, there could be a Joint Committee of both Houses to carry on that scrutiny work, but I very much hope that will not be the case. I hope the SIT Select Committee in the Commons will pick up the cudgel and that the committee of the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, the Communications and Digital Select Committee, will do likewise in the House of Lords.

There are going to be many codes. The Minister talked about this, and we very much welcome his statement about the intent to consult and lay the codes in good time. I hope the committees will engage in the scrutiny of those as we go through, because the codes will be absolutely crucial to how this Bill will be implemented. The timing of the implementation of the Bill’s provisions will be crucial. I hope that Ofcom and DSIT will be very clear in their guidance about the timings and how the different parts of the Bill will be brought into operation and the codes of conduct drafted.

I know it is invidious in these proceedings to single out individuals but, as everybody who has spent time here during the course of this Bill will know, this has been a Back-Bench inspired set of amendments. In many ways, it is not really the Front Benches that have made a lot of the running; the passion and expertise of so many Back-Benchers has driven so many of the amendments. I pay tribute to all of them without, sadly, being able to read out all their names. I think they should know that they have the gratitude of everybody who has had anything to do with this Bill.

I do, however, want to single out my friend the Labour Front-Bench spokesman, who has spent so much time on this Bill: the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson. In particular, his dispute-resolution skills have been to the fore. He set the tone at the very beginning of our proceedings in this House, which is highly unusual; I do not think we will be expecting similar behaviour any time soon. His open offer at the very beginning was highly significant and has coloured our proceedings. Of course, we all need to single out the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. She is a total force of nature, and we all stand in awe of what she has managed to achieve with this Bill.

I thank my noble friend Lord Allan, who identified the marshmallow problem, for his considerable expertise and practical experience, which has been totally invaluable. I thank my noble friends Lords McNally and Lady Burt and, in absentia, my noble friend Lady Featherstone, who has now returned to her place; I am delighted to see that. I thank our extraordinarily hard-working Sarah Pughe, who is ably assisted by Mohamed-Ali Souidi in our Whips’ Office, and my former senior researcher, Zoë Asser, from Queen Mary University of London.

I also—finally, noble Lords will be pleased to hear—pay my own tribute to Carnegie UK, especially Will Perrin, Maeve Walsh and Professor Lorna Woods, for having the vision five years ago as to what was possible around the construction of a duty of care and for being by our side throughout the creation of this Bill. I also thank Reset, which has helped co-ordinate our activities, and the huge number of organisations that have briefed us on issues ranging from children’s safety to freedom of speech throughout our proceedings. I echo our thanks to Sir Jeremy Wright and the all-party group, and to Damian Collins, who has been a tower of strength in helping us. Quite often, the other end ceases to take much interest in what we do as soon as a Bill comes here, but we have gone through this Bill hand-in-hand and that has been of huge usefulness and importance.

We are entering unknown territory in many ways, but with a huge amount of good will to make this Bill work.

Photo of Baroness Kidron Baroness Kidron Crossbench 4:45, 6 September 2023

My Lords, I want to thank the Minister and other noble colleagues for such kind words. I really appreciate it.

I want to say very little. It has been an absolute privilege to work with people across both Houses on this. It is not every day that one keeps the faith in the system, but this has been a great pleasure. In these few moments that I am standing, I want to pay tribute to the bereaved parents, the children’s coalition, the NSPCC, my colleagues at 5Rights, Barnardo’s, and the other people out there who listen and care passionately that we get this right. I am not going to go through what we got right and wrong, but I think we got more right than we got wrong, and I invite the Minister to sit with me on Monday in the Gallery to make sure that those last little bits go right—because I will be there. I also remind the House that we have some work in the data Bill vis-à-vis the bereaved parents.

In all the thanks—and I really feel that I have had such tremendous support on my area of this Bill—I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin. She was there before many people were and suffered cruelly in the legislative system. Our big job now is to support Ofcom, hold it to account and help it in its task, because that is Herculean. I really thank everyone who has supported me through this.

Photo of Lord Moylan Lord Moylan Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee

My Lords, I am sure that your Lordships would not want the Bill to pass without hearing some squeak of protest and dissent from those of us who have spent so many days and weeks arguing for the interests of privacy and free speech, to which the Bill remains a very serious and major threat.

Before I come to those remarks, I associate myself with what other noble Lords have said about what a privilege it has been, for me personally and for many of us, to participate over so many days and weeks in what has been the House of Lords at its deliberative best. I almost wrote down that we have conducted ourselves like an academic seminar, but when you think about what most academic seminars are like—with endless PowerPoint slides and people shuttling around, and no spontaneity whatever—we exceeded that by far. The conversational tone that we had in the discussions, and the way in which people who did not agree were able to engage—indeed, friendships were made—meant that the whole thing was done with a great deal of respect, even for those of us who were in the small minority. At this point, I should perhaps say on behalf of the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, who participated fully in all stages of the Bill, that she deeply regrets that she cannot be in her place today.

I am not going to single out anybody except for one person. I made the rather frivolous proposal in Committee that all our debates should begin with the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam; we learned so much from every contribution he made that he really should have kicked them all off. We would all have been a great deal more intelligent about what we were saying, and understood it better, had we heard what he had to say. I certainly have learned a great deal from him, and that was very good.

I will raise two issues only that remain outstanding and are not assuaged by the very odd remarks made by my noble friend as he moved the Third Reading. The first concerns encryption. The fact of the matter is that everybody knows that you cannot do what Ofcom is empowered by the Bill to do without breaching end-to-end encryption. It is as simple as that. My noble friend may say that that is not the Government’s intention and that it cannot be forced to do it if the technology is not there. None of that is in the Bill, by the way. He may say that at the Dispatch Box but it does not address the fact that end-to-end encryption will be breached if Ofcom finds a way of doing what the Bill empowers it to do, so why have we empowered it to do that? How do we envisage that Ofcom will reconcile those circumstances where platforms say that they have given their best endeavours to doing something and Ofcom simply does not believe that they have? Of course, it might end up in the courts, but the crucial point is that that decision, which affects so many people—and so many people nowadays regard it as a right to have privacy in their communications—might be made by Ofcom or by the courts but will not be made in this Parliament. We have given it away to an unaccountable process and democracy has been taken out of it. In my view, that is a great shame.

I come back to my second issue—I will not be very long. I constantly ask about Wikipedia. Is Wikipedia in scope of the Bill? If it is, is it going to have to do prior checking of what is posted? That would destroy its business model and make many minority language sites—I instanced Welsh—totally unviable. My noble friend said at the Dispatch Box that, in his opinion, Wikipedia was not going to be in scope of the Bill. But when I asked why we could not put that in the Bill, he said it was not for him to decide whether it was in scope and that the Government had set up this wonderful structure whereby Ofcom will tell us whether it is—almost without appeal, and again without any real democratic scrutiny. Oh yes, and we might have a Select Committee, which might write a very good, highly regarded report, which might be debated some time within the ensuing 12 months on the Floor of your Lordships’ House. However, we will have no say in that matter; we have given it away.

I said at an earlier stage of the Bill that, for privacy and censorship, this represents the closest thing to a move back to the Lord Chamberlain and Lady Chatterley’s Lover that you could imagine but applied to the internet. That is bad, but what is almost worse is this bizarre governance structure where decisions of crucial political sensitivity are being outsourced to an unaccountable regulator. I am very sad to say that I think that, at first contact with reality, a large part of this is going to collapse, and with it a lot of good will be lost.

Photo of Baroness Benjamin Baroness Benjamin Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I rise very briefly to thank the Minister for getting us to where we are today—the content of a Bill that I have advocated for over a decade. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for her kind words. She is my heroine.

I am so happy today to discuss the final stages of this Bill. The Minister has shown true commitment, tenacity and resilience, even through the holiday period. He has listened to the voices of noble Lords from across the House and to parents, charities and schools, and he has acted in the best interests of the future of society’s well-being. To him I say thank you. I fully support what he has to say today about measures that he has put down to safeguard children to prevent the worst type of child sexual abuse and exploitation imaginable, which, according to the IWF, has doubled in the last two years.

I am pleased that the Government have not been blown off course by those who feel that privacy is more important than child protection. I hope that Clause 122 of the Bill in relation to the use of technology notices remains unchanged in the final stages of deliberation. It will be good to have that confirmation once again today from the Minister.

On behalf of the IWF, CEASE and Barnardo’s— I declare an interest as a vice-president—we are so grateful to the Minister for the diligence, hard work and dedication to duty that he has shown. I very much look forward to continuing working closely with him, and with noble Lords from all sides of the House, to ensure that the implementation of the amendments we have all worked so hard to secure happens.

I look ahead to the review into pornography, which is often the gateway to other harms. I also look forward to working to make the UK the safest place in the world—the world is looking at us—to go online for everyone in our society, especially our children. As I always say, childhood lasts a lifetime. What a legacy we will leave for them by creating this Bill. I thank the Minister for everything that he has done—my “Play School” baby.

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Chair, Communications and Digital Committee, Chair, Communications and Digital Committee 5:00, 6 September 2023

My Lords, I shall ask my noble friend the Minister a question about encryption but, before I do, I will briefly make a couple of other points. First, I echo all the tributes paid around the House to those involved in this legislation. It is no secret that I would have preferred the Bill to be about only child safety, so I particularly congratulate the Government, and the various Members who focused their efforts in that area, on what has been achieved via the Bill.

That said, the Government should still consider other non-legislative measures, such as banning smartphones in schools and government guidance for parents on things such as the best age at which to allow their children to have their own smartphones. These may not be points for DCMS, but they are worth highlighting at this point, as the Bill leaves us, soon to become legislation.

As I said on Report, I remain concerned about the reintroduction of some protections for adults, in lieu of “legal but harmful”, without any corresponding amendments to reinforce to Ofcom that freedom of expression must be the top priority for adults. We now have to leave it to Ofcom and see what happens. I know that the current leadership is deeply conscious of its responsibilities.

On encryption, I was pleased to hear what my noble friend said when he responded to the debate at Third Reading. If he is saying that the technology not existing means that Clause 122 cannot be deployed, as it were, by Ofcom, does that mean that the oversight measures that currently exist would not be deployed? As my noble friend will recall, one of the areas that we were still concerned about in the context of encryption was that what was in the Bill did not mirror what exists for RIPA. I am not sure whether that means that, because Clause 122 has been parked, our oversight concerns have been parked too. It would be helpful if the Minister could clarify that.

In the meantime, in the absence of Clause 122, it is worth us all reinforcing again that we want the tech firms to co-operate fully with law enforcement, either because a user has alerted them to illegal activity or when law enforcement suspects criminal behaviour and seeks their help. In that latter context, it would be helpful to understand what the Minister has said and to know what oversight that might involve. I congratulate my noble friend on this marathon Bill, and I am sorry to have delayed its passing.

Photo of Lord Allan of Hallam Lord Allan of Hallam Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health)

My Lords, I will make a short contribution so that I do not disappoint the noble Lord, Lord Moylan; I will make a few direct and crunchy comments. First, I thank colleagues who participated in the debate for giving me a hearing, especially when I raised concerns about their proposals. It has been a constructive process, where we have been, as the Minister said, kicking the tyres, which is healthy in a legislature. It is better to do it now than to find faults when something has already become law.

I am in the unusual position of having worked on problems comparable to those we are now placing on Ofcom’s desk. I have enormous empathy for it and the hard work we are giving it. I do not think we should underestimate just how difficult this job is.

I want to thank the Minister for the additional clarification of how Ofcom will give orders to services that provide private communications. Following on from what the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, said, I think this is a challenging area. We want Ofcom to give orders where this is easy—for example, to an unencrypted service hosting child sexual abuse material. The technology can be deployed today and is uncontroversial, so it is important that we do not forget that.

I heard the Minister say that we do not want Ofcom to move so fast that it breaks encryption. It should be moving but it should be careful. Those are the fears that have been expressed outside: on the day that this becomes law, Ofcom will issue orders to services providing encrypted communications that they will not be able to accept and therefore they will leave the UK. I think I heard from the Minister today that this is not what we want Ofcom to do. At the same time, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell said, we are not expecting Ofcom to ease off; any online service should be doing everything technically possible and feasible to deal with abhorrent material.

I humbly offer three pieces of advice to Ofcom as we pass the baton to it. This is based on having made a lot of mistakes in the past. If I had been given this advice, I might have done a better job in my previous incarnation. First, you cannot overconsult; Ofcom should engage with all interested parties, including those who have talked to us throughout the process of the Bill. It should engage with them until it is sick of engaging with them and then it should engage some more. In particular, Ofcom should try to bring together diverse groups, so I hope it gets into a room the kind of organisations that would be cheering on the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, as well as those that would be cheering on the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. If Ofcom can bring them into the room, it has a chance of making some progress with its regulations.

Secondly, be transparent. The more information that Ofcom provides about what it is doing, the less space it will leave for people to make up things about what it is doing. I said this in the previous debate about the access request but it applies across the piece. We are starting to see some of this in the press. We are here saying that it is great that we now have a government regulator—independent but part of the UK state—overseeing online services. As soon as that happens, we will start to see the counterreaction of people being incredibly suspicious that part of the UK state is now overseeing their activity online. The best way to combat that is for Ofcom to be as transparent as possible.

Thirdly, explain the trade-offs you are making. This legislation necessarily involves trade-offs. I heard it again in the Minister’s opening remarks: we have indulged in a certain amount of cakeism. We love freedom of expression but we want the platforms to get rid of all the bad stuff. The rubber is going to hit the road once Ofcom has the powers and, in many cases, it will have to decide between one person’s freedom of expression and another’s harm. My advice is not to pretend that you can make both sides happy; you are going to disappoint someone. Be honest and frank about the trade-offs you have made. The legislation has lots of unresolved trade-offs in it because we are giving lots of conflicting instructions. As politicians, we can ride that out, but when Ofcom gets this and has to make real decisions, my advice would be to explain the trade-offs and be comfortable with the fact that some people will be unhappy. That is the only way it will manage to maintain confidence in the system. With that, I am pleased that the Bill has got to this stage and I have a huge amount of confidence in Ofcom to take this and make a success of it.

Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell Conservative

I rise briefly to raise the question of access to data by academics and research organisations. Before I do so, I want to express profound thanks to noble Lords who have worked so collaboratively to create a terrific Bill that will completely transform and hold to account those involved in the internet, and make it a safer place. That was our mission and we should be very proud of that. I cannot single out noble Peers, with the exception of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, with whom I worked collaboratively both on age assurance and on harms. It was a partnership I valued enormously and hope to take forward. Others from all four corners of the House contributed to the parts of the Bill that I was particularly interested in. As I look around, I see so many friends who stuck their necks out and spoke so movingly, for which I am enormously grateful.

The question of data access is one of the loose ends that did not quite make it into the Bill. I appreciate the efforts of my noble friend the Minister, the Secretary of State and the Bill team in this matter and their efforts to try and wangle it in; I accept that it did not quite make it. I would like to hear reassurance from my noble friend that this is something that the Government are prepared to look at in future legislation. If he could provide any detail on how and in which legislation it could be revisited, I would be enormously grateful.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, I will be brief and restrict myself to responding to the questions which have been raised. I will hold to my rule of not trying to thank all noble Lords who have played their part in this scrutiny, because the list is indeed very long. I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said about this being a Back-Bench-driven Bill, and there are many noble Lords from all corners of the House and the Back Benches who have played a significant part in it. I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, not just for her kind words, but for her years of campaigning on this, and to my noble friend Lord Bethell who has worked with her—and others—closely on the issues which she holds dear.

I also thank my noble friend Lord Moylan who has often swum against the tide of debate, but very helpfully so, and on important matters. In answer to his question about Wikipedia, I do not have much to add to the words that I have said a few times now about the categorisation, but on his concerns about the parliamentary scrutiny for this I stress that it is the Secretary of State who will set the categorisation thresholds. She is, of course, a Member of Parliament, and accountable to it. Ofcom will designate services based on those thresholds, so the decision-making can be scrutinised in Parliament, even if not in the way he would have wished.

I agree that we should all be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam, because he addressed some of the questions raised by my noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston. In brief, the provision is flexible for where the technological solutions do not currently exist, because Ofcom can require services to develop or source new solutions.

This close to the gracious Speech, I will not point to a particular piece of legislation in which we might revisit the issue of researchers’ access, as raised by my noble friend Lord Bethell, but I am happy to say that we will certainly look at that again, and I know that he will take the opportunity to raise it.

Noble Lords on the Front Benches opposite alluded to the discussions which are continuing—as I committed on Report to ensure that noble Lords are able to be part of discussions as the Bill heads to another place—on functionalities and on the amendment of my noble friend Lady Morgan on category 1 services. She is one of a cavalcade of former Secretaries of State who have been so helpful in scrutinising the Bill. It is for another place to debate them, but I am grateful to noble Lords who have given their time this week to have the discussions which I committed to have and will continue to have as the Bill heads there, so that we can follow those issues hopefully to a happy resolution.

I thank my noble friend Lady Harding of Winscombe for the concessions that she wrought on Report, and for the part that she has played in discussions. She has also given a great deal of time outside the Chamber.

We should all be very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Grade of Yarmouth, who has sat quietly throughout most of our debates—understandably, in his capacity as chairman of Ofcom—but he has followed them closely and taken those points to the regulator. Dame Melanie Dawes and all the team there stand ready to implement this work and we should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Grade of Yarmouth, and to all those at Ofcom who are ready to put it into action.

Bill passed and returned to the Commons with amendments.