Online Harms — [Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:11 pm on 7th October 2020.

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Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke 3:11 pm, 7th October 2020

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and I congratulate Holly Lynch on securing the debate. I also thank the NSPCC, CARE, UK Safer Internet Centre, Girlguiding and Refuge for their excellent briefings. As the hon. Lady pointed out, this is an enormously complex issue. A number of petitions touching on areas of online harm have attracted around half a million signatories in total, as she said. That shows the Minister not only the strength of feeling but the importance of the Government’s providing a comprehensive response to this.

Let us be honest: when this sector wants to act, it does. It acted back in 2010 on online child abuse images, by putting in place protocols around splash pages, and it has acted on some issues around electoral fraud and fake news. However, the problem is that the industry does not consistently react, because it does not feel that it needs to. That has to change.

The Government have shown a clear intent to act in this area, through the 2017 Green Paper, the White Paper and the promise of legislation. The core concept that the Government want to put forward—as we understand it, anyway—is a duty of care: to make companies take responsibility for the safety of their users and to tackle the harm caused by their content, their activities and their services. Those are basic things that one would think were already in place, but they are not. They are to be applauded as a starting point, but again let us be clear that it is only a starting point, because setting up a regulator and regulatory frameworks do not provide a route of redress for victims. Lawyers know that a duty of care will not enable people to pursue a complaint to the regulator about an individual problem; it will just give the regulator an opportunity to fine companies or hit them over the head with a big stick.

People can bring a claim through ordinary legal proceedings, but that is limited by the existing legal framework, which we know is inadequate. The Law Commission is belatedly looking at a number of these areas, but it feels like the horse has already bolted. We might have to wait months or even years for its recommendations to come through, be reviewed and then be put forward in further legislation. It would be wholly unacceptable for the Government to bring forward a Bill with only measures to regulate, not legislation that actually has teeth.

We also need to deal with the inadequacies of the legislation, and I suggest that the Government should focus on at least three areas. When it comes to image-based abuse, the law is a mess. We have layer upon layer of legislation that does not give the police the necessary tools to protect victims. The second area is age verification, which my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce has already gone through. That is a promise we have not yet delivered on, and this Bill has to deliver on it. The third area is the importance of putting in place legislation that protects victims of intimidation during elections, which again the Government have promised to look at.

In conclusion, the coronavirus lockdown has served to create a perfect storm for online abuse. The Government have to act, and act quickly. Regulation alone is not enough; we need legislative reform as well.