Online Harms — [Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:15 pm on 7th October 2020.

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Photo of Darren Jones Darren Jones Chair, Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, Chair, Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee 3:15 pm, 7th October 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir Edward, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Holly Lynch on securing this important and timely debate. I also thank House officials for ensuring that Westminster Hall is open once again, so that we can have these debates. Before I begin my remarks, I will note my declarations of interest: my chairmanship of the parliamentary internet, communications and technology forum all-party parliamentary group, and of the APPG on technology and national security; my chairmanship of Labour Digital and the Institute of Artificial Intelligence; and my previous professional work on these issues as a technology lawyer, as noted in the Register of Members’ Financial Interest.

The online harms Bill will be a big and important piece of legislation, covering a range of difficult issues, from defining content that is harmful but not illegal and how we protect children, through to ensuring an effective regulatory framework that delivers a meaningful duty of care. Given the time, I will not rehearse the many important arguments for getting this right; I will keep my remarks short, both to give the Minister enough time to give substantive and full answers and so that other colleagues have a chance to contribute. The Secretary of State confirmed to the House in early September that the full response to the White Paper would be published this year—that is, 2020—and that legislation would be introduced early next year, which is 2021. On that basis, I have three sets of questions.

First, can the Minister confirm whether the publication of the full response to the White Paper is currently allocated to her Department’s forward grid, and if so, when it is pencilled in for publication? My understanding is that it will be published between now and December. Could she also tell us whether the Department has secured a legislative slot with the Leader of the House for First Reading, and if so, give us a rough idea of when that might be? Does the Department envisage a period of prelegislative scrutiny before Second Reading? If it does, what role will the House of Lords play in that?

Secondly, can the Minister reassure us that the initial scope of the duty of care and the enforcement powers being made available to the regulator have not been watered down, and that she agrees with me that, while it is difficult to define what is harmful but not illegal, Parliament is the body best placed to do so, not private companies? Will she also reassure us that the passage of this Bill will not be linked to negotiations with the United States on the UK-US trade deal, given that we know that the United States has placed liability loopholes for platforms in trade deals with other countries?

Finally, will the Minister confirm that the answer I received from the Security Minister on the Floor of the House--that the online harms Bill will include provisions for enhancing sovereign defensive and offensive digital capabilities--is correct? If so, will she tell us whether the progression of the Bill is linked to the ongoing integrated review?