Clause 15 - Duties to protect content of democratic importance

Part of Online Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:13 pm on 7th June 2022.

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Photo of Kim Leadbeater Kim Leadbeater Labour, Batley and Spen 4:13 pm, 7th June 2022

I rise to speak to amendments 105 and 106, in my name, on protecting democracy and democratic debate.

Within the Bill, there are significant clauses intended to prevent the spread of harm online, to protect women and girls against violence and to help prevent child sexual exploitation, while at the same time protecting the right of journalists to do their jobs. Although those clauses are not perfect, I welcome them.

The Bill is wide-ranging. The Minister talked on Second Reading about the power in clause 150 to protect another group—those with epilepsy—from being trolled with flashing images. That subject is close to my heart due to the campaign for Zach’s law—Zach is a young boy in my constituency. I know we will return to that important issue later in the Committee, and I thank the Minister for his work on it.

In protecting against online harm while preserving fundamental rights and values, we must also address the threats posed to those involved in the democratic process. Let me be clear: this is not self-serving. It is about not just MPs but all political candidates locally and nationally and those whose jobs facilitate the execution of our democratic process and political life: the people working on elections or for those elected to public office at all levels across the UK. These people must be defended from harm not only for their own protection, but to protect our democracy itself and, with it, the right of all our citizens to a political system capable of delivering on their priorities free from threats and intimidation.

Many other groups in society are also subjected to a disproportionate amount of targeted abuse, but those working in and around politics sadly receive more than almost any other people in this country, with an associated specific set of risks and harms. That does not mean messages gently, or even firmly, requesting us to vote one way or another—a staple of democratic debate—but messages of hate, abuse and threats intended to scare people in public office, grind them down, unfairly influence their voting intentions or do them physical and psychological harm. That simply cannot be an acceptable part of political life.

As I say, we are not looking for sympathy, but we have a duty to our democracy to try to stamp that out from our political discourse. Amendment 105 would not deny anybody the right to tell us firmly where we are going wrong—quite right, too—but it is an opportunity to draw the essential distinction between legitimately holding people in public life to account and illegitimate intimidation and harm.

The statistics regarding the scale of online abuse that MPs receive are shocking. In 2020, a University of Salford study found that MPs received over 7,000 abusive or hate-filled tweets a month. Seven thousand separate messages of harm a month on Twitter alone directed at MPs is far too many, but who in this room does not believe that the figure is almost certainly much higher today? Amnesty conducted a separate study in 2017 looking at the disproportionate amount of abuse that women and BAME MPs faced online, finding that my right hon. Friend Ms Abbott was the recipient of almost a third of all the abusive tweets analysed, as alluded to already by the hon. Member for Edinburgh—