Clause 15 - Duties to protect content of democratic importance

Part of Online Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:30 pm on 7th June 2022.

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Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 4:30 pm, 7th June 2022

Sometimes we miss out the fact that although MPs face abuse, we have a level of protection as currently elected Members. Even if there were an election coming up, we have a level of security protection and access that is much higher than for anybody else challenging a candidate or standing in a council or a Scottish Parliament election. As sitting MPs, we already have an additional level of protection because of the security services we have in place. We need to remember, and I assume this is why the amendment is drawn in a pretty broad way, that everybody standing for any sort of elected office faces significant risk of harm—again, whether or not that meets the threshold for illegality.

There are specific things that have been mentioned. As has been said, epilepsy is specifically mentioned as a place where specific harm occurs. Given the importance of democracy, which is absolutely vital, we need to have a democratic system where people are able to stand in elections and make their case. Given the importance of democracy, which is absolutely vital, we need to have a democratic system where people are able to stand in elections and make their case. That is why we have election addresses and a system where the election address gets delivered through every single person’s door. There is an understanding and acceptance by people involved in designing democratic processes that the message of all candidates needs to get out there. If the message of all candidates cannot get out there because some people are facing significant levels of abuse online, then democracy is not acting in the way that it should be. These amendments are fair and make a huge amount of sense. They are protecting the most important tenets of democracy and democratic engagement.

I want to say something about my own specific experiences. We have reported people to the police and have had people in court over the messages they have sent, largely by email, which would not be included in the Bill, but there have also been some pretty creepy ones on social media that have not necessarily met the threshold. As has been said, it is my staff who have had to go to court and stand in the witness box to explain the shock and terror they have felt on seeing the email or the communication that has come in, so I think any provision should include that.

Finally, we have seen situations where people working in elections—this is not an airy-fairy notion, but something that genuinely happened—have been photographed and those pictures have been shared on social media, and they have then been abused as a result. They are just doing their job, handing out ballot papers or standing up and announcing the results on the stage, and they have to abide by the processes that are in place now. In order for us to have free and fair elections that are run properly and that people want to work at and support, we need to have that additional level of protection. The hon. Member for Batley and Spen made a very reasonable argument and I hope the Minister listened to it carefully.