I beg to move,
That this House
has considered online harms.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I am delighted to have secured this debate this afternoon. I know that lots of colleagues are keen to participate, and many of them have much greater expertise in this policy area than I do. I have never been more overwhelmed on securing a debate by offers of briefings, information, research and support from organisations that are dedicated to trying to make a difference in this area. Given the strength of feeling and the depth of the evidence base, it is remarkable that we have not made more progress.
I was approached by the Petitions Committee who asked if four online petitions could be considered as part of this debate. Those petitions are entitled: “Make online abuse a specific criminal offence and create a register of offenders,” “Make online homophobia a specific criminal offence,” “Hold online trolls accountable for their online abuse via their IP address” and “Ban anonymous accounts on social media”. The petitions have collectively been signed by more than half a million people and I am pleased to say that there were 773 signatories from my Halifax constituency.
I had intended to include a list and thank all those who sent briefings, but there were so many, it would take me about 12 hours to read out that list. I would therefore just like to mention the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Barnardo’s, the Antisemitism Policy Trust, John Carr OBE, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, and my good and honourable Friend Chris Elmore, who has a vast knowledge and expertise in this area, not least in his capacity as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on social media. I will reference others throughout my speech. I thank them all for the information and support in shaping the focus of my efforts.
During lockdown, we have seen how the internet has facilitated digital connection and social media has provided a lifeline to the outside world for so many. None of us in this room is ignorant of the good that social media can do; however, as lawmakers, we are all collectively responsible for the utter failure to regulate it and for the societal damage that that is causing.
The online harms White Paper published last year confirms that nearly nine in 10 UK adults and 99% of 12 to 15-year-olds are online. The NSPCC estimates that in the first three months of 2020, online sex crimes recorded against children surpassed 100 a day—that is roughly one every 14 minutes. Barnardo’s also contacted me about some of the harrowing online experiences it has been supporting children through as part of its new “See, Hear, Respond” campaign over the course of the lockdown—the sorts of experiences that would significantly damage adults, let alone children.
As MPs, we all know what it is like to be in the public eye and to be on the receiving end of online abuse, but I started to ramp up my work in this area when I was approached by a brilliant woman, Nicky Chance-Thompson, who is the chief exec of the magnificent Piece Hall in my constituency, which everyone should come and visit when they have the opportunity. She is a deputy lieutenant and the Yorkshire Choice Awards Business Woman of the Year 2019. She is also on Northern Power Women’s power list.
When Caroline Flack tragically died in February this year, Nicky bravely approached me and others to share her own experiences of women in the public eye and to call on all of us to get a grip of online abuse before any further lives are lost. Nicky published an article with the Yorkshire Evening Post describing how she was a victim and survivor of online abuse, which rides high on social media. She said:
“Cowards hiding behind fake profiles can say anything they like about anyone, and there appears to be no consequences for them nor recourse for the victims…Misogyny is unpalatably frequent. Many women in high profile or public positions cop it simply for doing their jobs or being successful.”
She urged everyone involved to speak up and take action because “silence is killing people.”
Nicky’s article was published by the Yorkshire Evening Post as part of their “Call It Out” campaign, which has been spearheaded by editor, Laura Collins. It proved to be the catalyst for a broader initiative between Nicky, myself, editors of the Yorkshire Post and Yorkshire Evening Post, James Mitchinson and Laura Collins, Stop Funding Hate, the Conscious Advertising Network and the Journalism Trust Initiative, led by Reporters Without Borders. We came together to agree a constructive way forward to make progress on cleaning up the internet. We interrogated the online harms White Paper; its joint ministerial statement bears the names of two former Cabinet Members who both left Government over a year ago, which hardly screams urgency, but it does state:
“While some companies have taken steps to improve safety on their platforms, progress has been too slow and inconsistent overall.”
I am afraid that, in itself, is a reflection of the Government’s inaction.
We talk a great deal about public health right now, but, as my hon. Friend Catherine McKinnell said in a discussion I had with her about her Petitions Committee investigation into online abuse, we will look back on this period in history with disbelief and shame that we did nothing in the face of what can only be described as a public health ticking time bomb. She compared unregulated online abuse and hate to smoking, and that analogy is entirely right.
Until a landmark study in the 1950s, whether a person chose to smoke was nothing to do with Government, and even when the body of research provided evidence for the link between tobacco use and lung cancer and other chronic diseases, Governments were slow to involve themselves in efforts to stop people smoking, or to get them to smoke less or not to start in the first place. If we think about where we are now on smoking, although smoking cessation budgets have been slashed in recent years, we proactively fund stop smoking services, have school education programmes and heavily regulate what is available to purchase and how it is advertised.
We do that because we recognised that smoking was having a detrimental impact on physical health. We invested, not only because it was the right thing to do, but because it was more cost-effective to intervene than to allow so many people to become so unwell as a consequence. Compare that with online abuse and hate and the impact we know it is having on the wellbeing and mental health of society, particularly young people.