I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been slightly amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will be suspensions between debates. I remind Members participating, physically and virtually, that they must arrive for the start of a debate in Westminster Hall and are expected to remain for the entire debate. I must remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times, both to one another and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and before they leave the room. I remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall—although, of course, not when you are speaking. Members attending physically who are in the latter stages of the call list should use the seats in the Public Gallery initially and move on to the horseshoe when seats there become available. Members can speak from the horseshoe only where there are microphones to facilitate Hansard.
It is my pleasure to call Maria Miller to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered online abuse of elected women representatives.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I start by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate, which was called for by members of the all-party parliamentary group on women in Parliament. It is a great privilege for me to be able to open the debate. May I, in advance, thank hon. Members for their overwhelming support for the debate today? I also thank the organisations that have provided briefings, including the Local Government Association, the Centenary Action Group, the Fawcett Society and Compassion in Politics.
Parliaments are at their best when they are diverse. King’s College London’s global institute for women’s leadership, chaired by Julia Gillard, put it well when it showed the evidence that equal participation of men and women strengthens our democracy. We have made huge progress here: one in three of our Members is now female. Record numbers of women stood for election in 2019, and record numbers were elected to this place. They were inspired to make a difference to their community and their country; inspired not to accept the world as it is but to put themselves forward, despite the barriers that remain, to be here and to be able to change things; and inspired by many of the right hon. and hon. Members taking part in the debate today. Many Members, including in this debate, do not want to accept politics as it is today —a politics in which aggression and abuse are part and parcel of our working day. That is not the democracy that we have signed up for. We want a democracy that relies not on that, but on reasoned debate.
The evidence is also clear that online abuse is not only a factor in preventing women from taking on careers in politics; it is also cutting short the careers of those who stand and are successful in being elected. Members of the APPG on women in Parliament called for this debate because tackling online abuse, particularly when it impacts the freedom of speech of elected Members, needs to be a bigger priority, not only for the Government but for Parliament.
Mr Speaker has done an incredible amount of work to improve the physical security of Members. I very much welcome in particular the statement on
Let us be clear about what this abuse looks like. It is not offensive language. It is not strongly held views in political debate. For some colleagues, online abuse is a threat of rape, murder, stalking, or physical violence towards them or their families. At other times it is mass co-ordinated online harassment by groups. Online anonymity means the police can find it difficult to take action swiftly. Above all, online abuse is an attempt to keep women away from contributing to political life. As elected representatives, we condemn those who take that approach, and we need to redouble our efforts to stop them.
I want to be clear: MP or not, there is absolutely no place for any vile abuse online and the law needs to protect everyone better. I look forward to the introduction of the Government’s online harms Bill as soon as possible. Legislation needs to specifically address online abuse, which is designed to bully, intimidate and silence. When it comes to elected representatives, we need to recognise that the impact of that abuse is particularly concerning and unacceptable. In a free and open democracy, no elected representative should ever be intimidated or feel constrained in speaking out on behalf of their constituents, but that, at the moment, is exactly what happens.
This debate is about elected female representatives who endure online abuse disproportionately, but I know that many, including the Local Government Association, are concerned that those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, members of the LGBT+ community and those with disabilities are also being particularly targeted.
The current police advice is to remove victims’ social media presence, which is completely unacceptable as it prevents candidates from campaigning online and engaging effectively with residents once they are elected. It is clear that action is needed swiftly, well before the next general election, if we are to stop that unacceptable impact on our democracy.
Let us look at the evidence before us. Elected women MPs already report that the levels of online abuse and treatment from the media that they experience would have stopped them putting themselves forward for selection if they had known the extent to which it would affect them and their family lives, according to research from the Fawcett Society, which might help to account for why women’s tenure as Members of Parliament is significantly shorter than that of male Members. Unfortunately, the abuse is not limited to them. Family members, children and often staff members are also subjected to harassment, and it puts women off standing in the first place.
In its Equal Power project, the Fawcett Society found that almost 70% of respondents cited abuse or harassment as a reason for not pursuing a career in politics. The evidence is really clear. Although the rise in abuse impacts all candidates, the increase in hate and abuse towards women over the past three general elections was almost double that experienced by men, according to data from the Constitution Unit at University College London. The University of Sheffield’s research has shown that rising abuse against women MPs has persisted during the pandemic. The role of online media in delivering that abuse is significant.
The Minister will no doubt say that what is illegal offline is illegal online, so the police can and do take action on threats to murder, rape, sexually assault and stalk. There have been many cases of online abuse involving female MPs and many convictions in the past 12 months. There is no definitive figure, however, on the number of reports, the number of cases taken forward, and the number of convictions. If Parliament is to take its equality duties seriously, it should closely monitor that, and commission research on why male and female elected Members are treated so differently on social media to ensure that measures are in place to deal with it.
This is not just a UK problem. In 2016, a study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union found that 82% of women politicians surveyed in 39 countries had experienced some form of psychological violence. Indeed, 44% had received death threats, or threats of rape, beatings or abduction, and 65% had been subject to sexist remarks. In our year of hosting the G7, let us use this opportunity to draw nations together to voice our solidarity with women across the globe by pledging our support for democratically elected women, and to advocate laws and support that stop the abuse worldwide.
Gone are the days when we did not know what to do about online abuse. We know. We need to have clear laws and the Government must not only promptly bring forward the legislation to introduce the new electoral sanction on intimidation, but use the online harms Bill to recognise the harm faced by women and elected representatives when they deal with social media.
Research by the think-tank Compassion in Politics found that more than one in four people is put off posting on social media because of dreadful abuse. We cannot have an open and honest pluralistic political debate online in an atmosphere in which people are scared to speak up. I hope the Government will also look to tackle anonymous social media accounts in the online harms Bill. I support the idea of giving people the opportunity to create verified accounts by supplying a piece of personal identification, and also of having the ability to filter out unverified accounts. Does the Minister agree that we need to change the culture from the police recommendation that victims move offline, and move to social media platforms banning abusers, with sanctions to incentivise social media platforms to act quickly when abuse actually happens?
The House of Commons itself has a role as an entity to play in this issue. Online abuse must be treated as workplace harassment, a safety hazard by the House of Commons authorities, who should provide training and support—not only to MPs but to our constituency staff, who often have to deal with this abuse on a daily basis—so that we can all feel safer, more prepared and better able to protect ourselves. Political parties have a role, particularly when it comes to candidates. My right hon. Friend Amanda Milling has already made significant changes in the support provided by the Conservative party. The House of Commons has a duty to protect our democracy and should routinely collect and analyse data that breaks down why we fail to have a fully representative Parliament, including the impact of online abuse on female MPs.
I want the Government to think about how we fund the programmes to tackle online abuse. According to the Office for National Statistics, the new digital services tax of 2% on tech giants such as Facebook, Google and Twitter raised £29 million in the first month of operation alone. Let us take the polluter pays principle and use the money yielded from that to provide the sort of support against online abuse that women and girls need more generally, but that is also needed to protect democratically elected women both at local and national level.
Sixteen months ago, we celebrated record numbers of women being elected to Parliament and we still celebrate and encourage more women to stand for election. All the main parties agree that a 50:50 Parliament would be a better place, but the facts speak loudly. The Fawcett Society’s Equal Power project found that almost 60% of women surveyed said they were unlikely to stand as an MP and 44% were unlikely to stand as a councillor. Nearly a year on from that, those numbers have risen to 74% and 62%, respectively. This is a worrying state of affairs, particularly when we see that 69% of respondents cited abuse or harassment as the key reason for not pursuing a career in politics. Online abuse is a significant part of that. This is a barrier that has to be lifted, for the strength of our democracy. It is in our power to tackle this. Parliament, Government and parties have to work together to do just that.
Thank you, Mr Paisley. I pay tribute to my near neighbour, my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller for leading this important debate today.
The Women and Equalities Committee has recently launched an inquiry into the cultures underpinning male violence against women and, sadly, I see the online abuse of female parliamentarians as part of that same culture. Trolling might lead somewhere, and the reality is that none of us either in this debate today or in Parliament more widely knows which of our online trolls might turn into a stalker or who, indeed, might in due course turn into somebody who attends our office, our surgery, our home and threatens us physically. This week’s troll could be next week’s attacker. While I will always glibly say that the solution to the online abuse that we receive as female parliamentarians is simply to use the block and the mute button, the reality is that we cannot do that in every case and, in so doing, we might miss the person who is a physical threat to us .
I was pleased to hear my right hon. Friend talk about diversity, but I regret that she stopped short at one point. We know that female parliamentarians are more abused than their male counterparts, but we also know that black female MPs receive the most abuse of all, and that Ms Abbott receives more abuse than every other parliamentarian put together. That is a stark reminder that there is still in our country an undercurrent of misogyny and racism. We also know—my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke was right to point it out—that those who have disabilities and are LGBTQ also face more abuse. We have to stamp out these awful discriminatory, bullying, harassing tactics for good.
I do not pretend that the block and the mute button are the solution—they are not. They may be part of it on an individual level, but we need effective legislation. I am pleased to see the Minister in her place, but I have grave concerns that the online harms Bill will not do the job. We know that it aims to crack down on the illegal, which is good, and prevent young people from accessing harmful content on the internet, but we will have to be explicit about what we are trying to achieve when it comes to stopping the abuse that we all receive on a daily basis.
There is real merit in stamping out anonymity. I think that is one of the massive challenges that we face. People are emboldened when they can hide their true identity. We know they are also emboldened when they are behind a screen. While I do not wish today’s debate to turn into a whinge-fest of who has the worst story, the thing that struck me about two of my most prolific online abusers was that the day I met them in the street, they stared at the pavement and shuffled past. Of course, that is what we know about bullies—at heart, they are also cowards. If they cannot hide behind anonymity, it will stamp out their cowardice because they will have to reveal who they are and I do not believe they are brave enough to do so.
The problem exists across the globe. I remember meeting female parliamentarians from Jordan who experienced exactly the same as we do in the UK. We have to learn from what is being done internationally and work as a global community to stand up for our democracy. We have to stand up for those women who are brave enough to enter public life, but make sure that the legislation is there to protect them and keep them safe from this sort of abuse.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I applaud Mrs Miller for introducing this debate and once again drawing attention to this important matter. I know she has spoken and written extensively on this subject and we are all grateful for that.
While the debate is focused on elected representatives, perhaps we should again recognise that women across public life are being bombarded by abuse on a daily basis, whether they are journalists, police officers or politicians. On International Women’s Day when speaking about cracking the various glass ceilings, my party leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, said:
“The biggest obstacle to being a woman in public life today is the constant stream of commentary on your appearance, the hourly trolling, and monthly idiot who makes a ‘this is what I’d like to do to you today’ threat. … What concerns me more is the growing evidence of online lynch mobs controlled by dark forces who are unleashed on female public figures like a pack of lions to do as much damage as they can to the public figure and the cause that they represent.”
Such lynch mobs exist to spread misinformation and destabilise their opponents. Their existence is to be condemned, and those who sponsor the mass trolling of women in public office must be exposed and condemned.
Such mobs are able to exist only because social media platforms permit anonymous accounts. I join others in calling for verified accounts, whereby users can interact incognito if they need to, but the platform knows their true identity. Although we have redress through defamation actions in Northern Ireland, we must first identify the troll. Then it is slow and very costly, and the threshold for success is high.
Finally, online abuse directed at females is serious, because in my experience it is like an addiction. The addict needs a monthly fix, then a weekly fix, and eventually an hourly fix. Sadly, as the abuse gets more regular, it also gets more poisonous. We need to send a stern message to those poisoning the public space that they cannot abuse with impunity.
I thank my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller for securing this really important debate.
How free do we think online speech is at the moment, when posting something on Twitter results in comments such as:
“I’ll beat you like a ginger stepchild” or
“I hope that you have the worst Christmas, you Tory-supporting”—effing—“freak”?
Those are the experiences of my friend Charlotte, who is standing for the council. How often has a woman not posted a thought or view because they cannot be bothered to, or cannot, deal with the fallout? And what greater impediment to their freedoms than dealing with rape threats and death threats, just because they either want a job or have a job?
When Annabel Tall stood in Bath, she received trolling about her son. They said that he looked like he was in the Hitler Youth. Another candidate, standing for the first time in May this year, describes the posts she receives as “eye-wateringly cruel”. She removed herself from Twitter. She is a strong and fantastic military veteran. She is exactly what we need in our local authorities, and exactly what we hope to have in Parliament in the future, if she continues.
Nothing naffs me off more than seeing people with #BeKind or #MentalHealthMatters in their titles who then go on to give people the worst, most vicious attacks just because they do not agree or they are feeling morally superior on that particular day. It absolutely has to stop. People are not applying for these jobs. We heard the figures from my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke. We have to get those women into Parliament and into our local authorities.
Whenever I visit schools in my constituency, I leave so inspired. The young women from Stroud High, Thomas Keble, Rednock, Maidenhill and Marling—they are fabulous. It is not just because all of us here know that, in local authorities and in Parliament, we can make real changes to our communities and our country; it is because those women are already campaigners. They are already leading the way on so many important issues. They teach me things and they inspire. It is no longer that we want them here; we need their voices here and we need them here, so we have to make changes.
I am very supportive of the proposals that many Members have put forward today. To be honest, I think the Government should be looking at everything, and I really applaud what they are doing. The Minister and I have had lots of conversations about this issue and the online harms Bill. While I do not want to see that Bill dressed up like a Christmas tree so that it falls down, because what it is trying to achieve is too important, it can do more.
One area that I have spoken about on a number occasions is anonymity, and I support the previous comments about that. I suggest that we should look at verification. I was very disappointed that there was no meaningful consultation on the impact of anonymous abuse accounts or the options to tackle them in the online harms consultations. That is something that should be rectified, however the simple steps that I suggest would not mean banning anonymous accounts or people losing their sassy username—they can be Princess Whatsherchops if they so want to.
In my view, we should do three things. First, we should give all social media users the option to verify their identity. Secondly, we should make it easy for everyone to see whether or not a user has chosen to verify their identity—we have already done that with Twitter’s blue ticks, so we know it can happen. Finally, we can give users the option to block interaction with unverified users if that is what they want to do.
This is not about blocking, but about choice and the future of our country and our democracy. We need those women in Parliament and in our local authorities, and do not want them to be put off.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate Mrs Miller on being a continual champion of women in Parliament and on bringing this extremely important debate to Westminster Hall today.
This debate is timely, of course, because we currently have our elections in the Scottish Parliament, and only recently a survey undertaken by Holyrood magazine found that nine out of 10 female MSPs had feared for their safety. These are absolutely catastrophic figures, and I believe that things are only getting worse, so many fine prospective female candidates are likely to be put off entering public life, as we have heard today.
I would also like to draw the Minister’s attention to the importance of intersectionality in these matters, particularly with religion. Unfortunately, as a practising Christian and an individual with a Jewish family history, I can speak from personal experience regarding this abuse. Personal abuse and attacks often focus not just on my being a woman, but on those very aspects of my being and religion.
Since 2015, I have received numerous death threats online, like many others who have spoken today. Unfortunately, and unacceptably, this has even extended to death threats towards members of my family. After conscience votes, I have openly been targeted for abuse and harassment. In relation to antisemitism, I recently received an email from an individual citing themselves as SS, saying that Jews are witches and calling for extermination of the Jews as a mandate of the United Nations.
However, this does not just happen online, unfortunately. What I want to emphasise—I hope that the Minister can recognise this, because we are working on the online harms Bill collectively in Parliament—is that online abuse is very much a gateway for some individuals, whose behaviour escalates to direct harm. Online abuse has changed our culture and, with the anonymity that has been spoken about, is now almost considered acceptable, because there are no consequences. People continue, become emboldened, and, for a significant proportion of individuals, it is very much a gateway to behaviour that escalates towards direct harm.
For example, I await the sentencing next month of an individual who harassed me and my staff via emails, then acted aggressively in person at my surgery. During the 2019 election, my election leaflets were posted back through my door to me covered in swastikas. In fact, it was being investigated by the police at the same time that the local newspaper editor wished to run a story on where election candidates lived, and I had to raise fears for my family’s safety once again.
Over the last parliamentary term, I have really prioritised my role as vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on religion in the media. I would ask the Minister to look at the excellent report published just last week by the APPG. At its launch, I was also heartened that Alison Phillips, editor of Mirror Group Newspapers—the first female editor of such a large corporate newsgroup—will be taking forward training for journalists on diversity and religious inclusion.
We can agree that today it is horrendous. Being a woman in politics carries a risk of violence, and often direct threat to the woman and her family. It puts too many excellent candidates off. Would I recommend a career in politics to my daughters at this point in time? Not a chance. I do hope, however, that the dire risks are fully addressed and that the Minister can listen to the many poignant experiences of the individuals speaking today and take action, because online abuse is that gateway to actual harm.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller for securing the debate.
Since my election in December 2019, I have seen horrific abuse of colleagues of both genders, but I have been especially disturbed by the nature of the abuse targeted at my female colleagues. We need to separate the standard political online abuse from the sort of messages that are aimed specifically at women, typically involving threats of sexual violence or insults about their physical appearance, or questioning whether they should be in politics at all because they may want to have children or because of their other family circumstances.
Sadly, it is not just in the UK that female representative face such abuse. A quick bit of internet research shows the extent of abuse faced by female colleagues around the world. I spent a thoroughly depressing evening reading all about it in numerous articles from Canada, Kenya, Finland, the USA, India, Chile and Japan—every single country that I could think of. A study by the National University of Ireland in Galway last year found that 96% of female politicians in the Republic of Ireland had faced online abuse. Shockingly, 40% of those interviewed reported being threatened with sexual violence as part of that abuse.
Study after study shows that such abuse puts decent, community-minded people off politics. I speak to those people regularly. If I meet a fantastic community activist, I will ask them why they do not think about standing as a councillor or Member of Parliament. The abuse is raised as one of the main reasons that they do not step forward. I have faced abuse. I am sure that we all have our little mantras that we repeat. In order for someone to upset me I have to respect their opinion, which wipes out a lot of the abuse, but we all have bad days when we are exhausted and it is difficult to brush it off. Sadly, many women leave politics, and cite the abuse that they have received as the reason.
Another result of the abuse is that it makes politicians more distant from the people we represent. Many people are leaving social media platforms. Social media should and could be a brilliant way to keep people informed and engaged with their community, but I fear that without further action we will have less engaged politicians. What more can social media providers do? I do not support a blanket ban on anonymity. Online anonymity is sometimes very valuable, if someone is seeking help for a highly sensitive matter or is a victim of domestic abuse.
However, perhaps we need better tailoring of regulations, filters and the ability to block, as my hon. Friend Siobhan Baillie referred to. That could go with the blue tick. Perhaps people interacting with verified accounts could have a filter button, to turn them on and off. Perhaps lowering the temperature for public figures will improve the internet for all users, because nobody should face the sort of abuse that we all face very regularly.
This debate should send a message from all parties in Parliament to our colleagues around the world and to those involved, and wanting to get involved, in politics. It was lovely that recently Carolyn Harris was defended from all corners of the House when faced with a horrific episode of abuse. When all of us call abuse out, especially when it is to Opposition colleagues, that sends a powerful message that we will not tolerate it. We can all do our bit to defend our colleagues in every corner of politics.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairship, Mr Paisley, for the first time. I echo everyone else’s words in thanking Mrs Miller for all that she does in this area.
“surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”—[Official Report,
I owe a lot to Jo, from a place on the leadership scheme set up in her name following her tragic murder to the courage to attempt to follow in her footsteps just a few months later. The least I can do is remember her words, and I have done so every single day—a phrase to remember before walking into a room or attending an event, which has never failed me, from the times I have talked with Brexit-voting constituents who share my frustration at the reality to meetings with Conservative parish councillors who share my love of the Kent countryside and also want to protect our green spaces. It is not difficult. We all share something and can empathise with others’ stories or their lived experiences.
Against that approach the futility of online abuse is brought into sharp relief. What a moronic and infinitely stupid waste of energy it is for someone to use their precious time to indulge in the equivalent of playground bullying on a keyboard, because they shot to fame on a reality game show or consider themselves an intellectually superior media commentator who is always right. They would be better off challenging themselves to live with Jo’s words ringing in their ears, rather than having the baying roar and constant applause of their echo chamber confirming their absolute correctness over and over again in the gladiatorial arena and narcissistic hall of mirrors that is social media.
In 2015, I met Frances Scott, the founder of 50:50 Parliament, and we became firm friends. I became the first 50:50 ambassador to the electors, as an MP. I have hosted, chaired and spoken at many great events where we ask women to stand for public elected office, but this year, for the first time, I hesitated before accepting a place on a panel. I was not completely sure that I wanted anyone to go through what everyone speaking here today goes through in the form of online abuse every day. I was not sure how honest I could be about what it takes to be bombarded with vitriol, sexism and plain spite. Spite is undoubtedly the driver of many comments not remotely related to political issues—as are basic old-fashioned sexism or racism, even when they are disguised and restyled as factional left-wing politics for the many.
Sexism online tries to close off female mouths, attempts to no-platform us, and quickly resorts to jibes about dumb blondes or skin colour. Online abuse is not simply nasty name calling. It has grown spikes and evolved into self-indulgent wordy blogs written by those who feel compelled to opine, even libellously, on personal aspects of our lives that have nothing at all to do with the work that we carry out daily. At first that may seem too ridiculous to bother with, but when it is shared by blue-tick bully boys and we have to stop our families reading it, it becomes altogether more sinister.
I urge online platforms, political parties and trolls alike to do better, clean up their platforms and membership lists and start to support women in political life, so that the experiences heard about in the debate will be a thing of the past.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller for securing this incredibly important debate.
As we have heard, social media is getting out of hand, and it is intimidating. It was fine when Facebook and Twitter started—just 17 years ago for Facebook and two years later for Twitter. I mention them as they are the most popular platforms, and have been useful for engagement in discussion—but no longer. Like others, I have come off Twitter. There was no point in looking at comments designed to hurt one personally rather than deal with politics.
I know that Twitter brought in measures to help, but I shall not be returning as a public figure for the foreseeable future. I have learned to hide abusive comments on Facebook and will continue to do so until people write in a polite and considerate way. As the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, my right hon. Friend Caroline Nokes, has said, we would not be that rude in person, so why do it online? We are all open to criticism, and we accept that others do not agree with our view, but there are ways of putting it.
My concern is that what is happening puts people, and especially women, off entering public life. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke has already mentioned, the Fawcett Society sent some figures this week stating that the number of women unlikely to stand as an MP has risen to 74% from 59% in 2019, and in relation to standing as a councillor it has risen to 62% from 44%, with 69% citing abuse or harassment from the public or other parties as a reason for not pursuing a career in politics. That is appalling. If it stays on that trajectory, we will not have any women who want to stand and we will go back to the days of men dominating the corridors of power, just as we were beginning to make inroads with female representation, even if it is only at 34%.
If a woman raises her head above the parapet, it triggers even more abuse, so many of us wonder whether it is worth talking about a controversial topic. That is stultifying discussion, especially given that the diversity of a woman’s perspective is often helpful. The online harms Bill will help, but we need more recognition that online abuse is harassment that is affecting our workplace, our decision making and our wellbeing.
It is not enough to say, “Toughen up. You should expect to be tough as a public person.” I have heard that before. We are tough as politicians, but we are also human beings. Many of us have families whom we want to protect as well as ourselves, as was mentioned by Dr Cameron. It is the responsibility of everyone, not just the Government and social media companies, to call it out and say it is not acceptable. I challenge every single person to confront this unacceptable behaviour, otherwise we will have to put further consequences in place to combat it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Paisley. I thank Mrs Miller for securing the debate.
When I gave my maiden speech in the House, I made a promise to my constituents that when I saw injustice, I would turn anger into action. What is the point of our being here today if that is not our aim? I do that to the best of my ability. When I do, I often have to advise my staff not to read our emails on a subject, not to check my Twitter mentions and not to take the contents of my postbag to heart. I know that it affects my staff, not just me. We face a sewer of hateful, racist and misogynistic abuse not once in a blue moon or on an individual issue, but regularly. It is normality; it is a fact of life. You get up, you check your phone and you try not to let the hatred get to you.
In research by the Centenary Action Group and the Equal Power campaign, 69% of the women surveyed said that abuse and harassment by the public or other parties was a barrier to pursuing a political career and seeking election. Colleagues have echoed that throughout the debate. In the six weeks before the 2017 general election, Amnesty International found that black and Asian female MPs received 35% more abusive tweets than white women. Online abuse is disproportionately experienced by women from an intersectionality identity. The statistics are alarming and unacceptable. The online harms Bill is a pivotal opportunity to tackle abuse against women and girls. It must include gender-based abuse as a priority harm rather than the categorisation of separate issues.
The Labour Women’s Network, which I have worked on, supports and trains women for public office. Half of our gold standard training programmes now focus on resilience and self-care because online toxicity requires it. LWN’s campaign to defuse abuse against women in public life calls for cross-party action to stem the escalation of misogynistic abuse, especially that aimed at ethnic minority MPs and councillors. We support calls to use 10% of the digital services tax to fund measures to reduce online hate against women and girls and to support the Jo Cox Foundation’s work to improve standards in public life.
I thank organisations such as Glitch, which has been spearheading the campaign against online abuse. It was founded by Seyi Akiwowo, a graduate of the Jo Cox women in leadership scheme. Online abuse has to stop. It is time for action and not anger on this issue. It is time to legislate against the targeted abuse that women have to face. As our sisters have said throughout the history of female political action, it is time for deeds, not words.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate Mrs Miller on securing this hugely important debate.
While it is an immense privilege, as a feminist I am conscious of what it means to be the first female Member of Parliament for the constituency of Leicester East in my home city of Leicester, and the first black woman elected to represent the entire county of Leicestershire. The 2019 general election had the highest number and proportion of female MPs ever recorded, yet still only 34% of the House is female. I am incredibly proud to be part of that cohort alongside many inspiring colleagues, but we cannot be complacent. We must ensure that women, women of colour and women from disadvantaged and marginalised communities feel empowered to engage in the political system. Only 35% of local councillors in England and Wales are women.
Women face unique, unacceptable challenges in political life. I have faced horrific, violent, misogynistic and racist online abuse throughout my time in Parliament and in politics. That has intensified since becoming an MP to include death threats, trolling, threats of rape and lynching, targeted far-right hate and organised attacks from the worldwide web. My perpetrators hide behind pseudonyms, and it is even more shocking when the mainstream media embolden and give oxygen to the abuse with attacks that ridicule my politics. History tells us that it does not take long for intimidation, bullying, threats and psychological violence to lead to actual physical harm or even death. They want me to be silent, but while I genuinely fear for my safety every day, I refuse to be silenced.
In 2016, a study for the Inter-Parliamentary Union of 39 countries found that 82% of the women politicians surveyed had experienced some form of psychological violence, 44% had received threats of death, rape, lynching or abduction, and 65% had been subjected to sexist remarks.
My right hon. Friend Ms Diane Abbott has been crucial in facing down many of the problems facing women in politics since she was elected as the first black woman MP in 1987, and she is a true giant of the feminist and activist movement. We are all indebted to her. The unprecedented level of vile racist and sexist abuse she endured as shadow Home Secretary accounted for half of all online hate directed at female MPs. That shows how much work there is left to do if we are to end the twin evils of racism and misogyny.
An analysis of tweets undertaken by Amnesty International found that in the six weeks prior to the 2017 general election, women MPs in Westminster from African, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds received 35% more abusive tweets than white women MPs, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington received 46% of all abusive tweets sent in the run-up to the election.
It is vital that the barriers to women’s representation, including the threat of or experience of violence, abuse and harassment, are removed. Diversity thrives more effectively with inclusive policy making, allowing Governments to better represent the populations they serve. Social media companies and the Government must work together to root out the online abuse that plagues the online political sphere, and that disproportionately targets women. The true identity of those who use social media platforms must be known.
When we look at the gendered and racial inequalities in the UK and across the world, we know that there has been an unacceptable breakdown of our social contract. The Women’s Budget Group found that women have shouldered a shocking 86% of the burden of austerity cuts. We face three urgent crises: coronavirus, climate change and crumbling social infrastructure. Women, particularly women of colour, are at the forefront of those crises. Only radical solutions will address the systemic gendered and racial inequalities. We need women leaders with the strength and courage to recognise that our responsibility is not to mediate an unjust system but to transform it.
Online abuse stands in the way of that future. Polling shows that women are often deterred from running for office because of abuse and harassment. We cannot accept that. The time has come for the Government to work seriously with social media giants to bring this epidemic of misogynistic abuse and violence to an end.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate Mrs Miller on securing this debate.
I will quote briefly from a 23-year-old candidate who is standing in the election in Scotland:
“I think that online abuse was one of the biggest things in my mind when I was preparing to stand. I have grown up with the internet and I think I was prepared for what I was getting into, and when I thought about standing I did think that this was going to be quite tough from a social media point of view. This is something that many women will think about, and it’s not an easy decision. However, I don’t think anyone is quite prepared for the first time you get piled on with abuse on Twitter. I think of myself as being pretty resilient, but who I worry about are my friends and family, because they didn’t sign up for any of this.”
That person is Molly Nolan and, as I said, she is 23 and a candidate in the Scottish election. Colleagues might be pardoned for thinking that I am making a party political point; I am not and I want to broaden it out.
In 2016, I stood for the Scottish Parliament and was beaten fair and square by the Scottish National party candidate Gail Ross, who for the past five years has served the constituency of Caithness, Sutherland and Ross. The online abuse Gail has suffered is beyond belief. I have seen some of it and it is disgusting. At one point, somebody stole her Facebook identity, masqueraded as her online and started dealing with vulnerable constituents. Nobody like Gail deserves anything like that.
I am glad that Gail and I have stayed friends throughout all this. This morning, I asked her permission to mention her in this debate, which she gave with alacrity. That is the nature of our deep and lasting friendship. She made a point that I had not thought about before. The highlands are made up of small, scattered communities. Wick, where she lives, is one of the bigger ones but most people there know each other. What really hurt Gail and drew blood was the fact that people known to her in her community were saying and doing these dreadful things. That must be a sickening thing to live with.
My second point is brief and I will abuse my position as a Member of this place. In a former existence, I was a councillor in the highlands a long time ago. I suppose I could say that Highland Council was possibly somewhere where misogyny might thrive a bit. I remember that one lady councillor called Mrs Isobel Rhind, a superb councillor who represented Invergordon, was held back because she was female. My point is that misogyny back then has turned into online abuse today; it has been empowered and made worse. I have longed for many years to put Mrs Isobel Rhind’s name on the record in Hansard. She is probably the best councillor Invergordon ever had—there, I have said it.
Today Molly Nolan, the 23-year-old candidate for my party, soldiers on. She is coping with the abuse. Other candidates of all parties have had similar abuse and are getting on with it, but it is not easy. Gail Ross has just been appointed the communications director for Dounreay, which is new career move for her. I hope we can work together across party boundaries. I will work with Gail and use every means at my disposal to fight this fiendishly awful thing in our society. I hope we can sort it out, because if we do not, as others have said, we are just going to make life a hell of a lot worse.
I thank my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller for securing today’s debate.
More women stood in the 2019 general election than ever before, and more female MPs came through as a result. This is progress, but to keep more women coming forward, we need to do more urgently to tackle the abuse that politicians have to deal with online. Forty-nine per cent. of candidates in the 2019 election reported that they suffered some form of abuse, harassment or intimidation while campaigning—up 11% from 2017. Worryingly, female politicians face far more abuse than male ones. We also report more acts of intimidation, threats, physical violence and mental abuse. Is it any wonder that the average female MP resigning in 2019 had served a full six years less than the average resigning male MP?
At my selection to represent North Devon, I was given an article entitled “Abuse, stalkers, death threats—who’d be a female MP?”. I did not read it. Indeed, that is how so many of us deal with the abuse—we ignore it. Heaven forbid that we should choose not to, read what is written about us, which bears no resemblance to the truth, and attempt to fight back. We do our best to joke with other female colleagues about how many death threats we have received. My voodoo curse was a particularly unusual one. Although MPs have to be thick-skinned, that should not be a normal conversation.
We do our best to laugh it off, but others read the comments. A charity that I was supporting this weekend observed on my arrival how much hatred people must have to write abuse on my Twitter feed following my support of its charitable event. On moving in, my new neighbours popped their head over the wall and said how sorry they were for the dreadful comments I received on Facebook. They could not believe what people wrote. More important still, other women and girls who might aspire to follow in our footsteps read the comments and have to assess that as part of their decision to put themselves forward.
Local female candidates in North Devon have stood down, and it is pretty hard to get female candidates to stand up in the first place, but why would they want to put their friends and families through such abuse? I speak today not for myself or even for my constituents, but for women everywhere. I am speaking to ensure that our Parliament continues to better reflect the wider population. I am speaking to encourage more to be done to tackle the cowards who hide behind anonymous profiles. I am speaking out because it is the right thing to do. Although I am proud to be the first female MP for North Devon, I do not want to be the last.
The analytical mathematician in me wonders why people do it. It is unpleasant, unnecessary and upsetting. We must call it out wherever we see it. We must not let it go unchallenged. We must not accept that this is normal. As a former teacher, I say that we should call out the online abuse that we all endure as the bullying it truly is. If we want Parliament to better reflect society, retain the additional women elected in 2019 and go on to achieve a 50:50 ratio, we cannot accept that ignoring our social media feeds is the new normal.
The silent majority believes that too. I hope it will find its inner keyboard warrior and speak up, particularly for female politicians of all political persuasions, the great majority of whom work tirelessly for the people who elected them. In the words of the great Michelle Obama,
“When someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level. No, our motto is, when they go low, we go high.”
I thank Mrs Miller for this important debate.
Women are under-represented at all levels of decision making, which means that action is urgently needed from the Government and all political parties to ensure that the voices of women in all our diversity are heard. Only 34% of MPs, and only 35% of elected councillors in England and Wales, are women. Those statistics matter because when women are not equally represented in positions of power, we do not get an equal say in policy making, which inevitably leads to unequal outcomes.
It is crucial that we do all we can to remove the barriers to women’s representation in politics, including online threats and the experience of violence, abuse and harassment. Violence and abuse against women in politics, both online and offline, not only prevent women from standing for election; they drive those who have already been elected to leave politics early, as we have heard. I am pleased to see Jamie Stone contributing to this debate. It is a real shame that his is the only contribution from a male colleague, other than my hon. Friend Christian Matheson, of course.
It is a sad fact that women politicians who are black, Asian or from an ethnic minority background face an increased risk of abuse based on their race, as well as their gender. As highlighted by Amnesty International, in the six weeks prior to the 2017 general election women MPs in Westminster from those backgrounds received 35% more abusive tweets than white women MPs.
Those statistics become even more shocking when we consider that there are just 37 ethnic minority MPs in the House of Commons right now. That is just 5.7% of all MPs. Once again, the well documented disproportionate impact of the pandemic on BAME communities highlights why it is important that barriers preventing women of colour from standing for office are also broken down so that policy can be effectively influenced in this area by those with a diverse lived experience.
I hope that the Minister can share the Government’s wider strategy on the increase in online abuse and extremism due to lockdown. It is clear that the increase in online abuse is posing a real threat to democracy and equal participation. Equal Power data shows that there has been a big increase in the number of women saying that they are unlikely to put themselves forward in an election in the space of the last 18 months. In December 2019, 59% of women surveyed said that they were unlikely to stand as an MP, with 44% saying that they were unlikely to stand as councillor. That figure has risen if there were an election within the year—just a year on from the start of the pandemic—to 74% unlikely to stand as an MP and 62% unlikely to stand as a councillor.
I agree with the Centenary Action Group that the online harms Bill is an opportunity to tackle online abuse against women and girls, including elected representatives. However, there is concern that the White Paper falls short when addressing the disproportionate levels of online harm faced by women and those with protected characteristics. I hope that the Minister can agree that the online harms Bill must include gender-based abuse as a priority and recognise the compounding harm experienced by those with multiple protected characteristics rather than characterise them as separate issues. Abuse of any nature, online or offline, is unacceptable. It damages both democracy and equality.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Paisley. I was not planning to speak in this debate. It has been my preference not to speak about the online abuse that I face, because frankly I have never really wanted to give these people credence by even acknowledging it. That is my choice, which suits me. Others, as we have heard very eloquently, have chosen differently, and I say good for them. We should all deal with this nonsense in whatever way we feel is best.
I decided to speak today because I had agreed to speak in an event later this week organised by Women 5050. I felt that were I to stand up and tell them that it was all fantastic being a public representative and not mention the cesspit that is online commentary, I would be a bit dishonest and a bit of hypocrite. Just to be clear: I love my job. Let us also be clear that we know, as politicians, that we have chosen to be in public life. That brings with it an acceptance of public criticism, but that should not be an acceptance of threats or abuse.
Although it is the biggest privilege of my life to represent people in my local area and to be part of a party and movement that I believe in so strongly, and I would obviously encourage others to take that step too, it is not all sweetness and light. Maybe calling it out, at least sometimes, makes the road for the next woman coming along a little smoother.
I will dwell a little on Women 5050, whose website makes stark reading. It says:
“Today, despite making up 52% of the population, in Scotland women only make up 42% of public board members, 25% of public board chairs, 35% of MSPs”.
That is not good enough, and I am delighted by the steps that the Scottish National party has taken and is taking, whether that be on our gender-balanced Cabinet; Nicola Sturgeon, who works so hard to push on equality; the central focus on women in our Holyrood manifesto; or our gender balance in candidate selection.
Of course, the Westminster Parliament has so much further to go to achieve equality, but whether it is in Holyrood, Westminster or council chambers, or in political discussion anywhere, statistics show us that this is a real issue across the world. We have a problem with online abuse, harassment and worse. If we do not tackle it, we are going to lose out. We need to take steps now and to make our Parliaments look much more like our countries.
When Women 5050 approached me, it mentioned that my colleague Fatima Joji had been involved in its work. That settled it for me in terms of participating in its events and in the debate today. As well as being an excellent candidate in the Holyrood election—she would make an outstanding MSP—as a young black women in politics, Fatima has been subjected to even more nastiness, bile and abuse than other women in the public eye, but she persists and we are all the better for her participation and that of all the other women we have heard about today.
We have heard clearly today that our female black and minority ethnic representatives in particular experience such a lot of disgraceful abuse—it is not on. Politics is not for the fainthearted, nor should it be for robots devoid of human feelings. It is not just in Parliaments that women are disproportionately impacted by this online bile. Our council chambers and political movements are full of women who are subjected to nastiness, name-calling, lies and threats. It needs to stop. I discussed this yesterday with a woman friend who is a local councillor and the sad thing is that we spoke about it as if it was completely normal. Of course, it is normal in our experience, but it really should not be.
One of the things that can be so difficult is the nameless, faceless nature of a lot of this. Apart from the fact that abusers are clearly complete cowards hiding behind their wee avatars, it is obviously much more difficult to deal with when we have no idea who it is who feels so emboldened by their anonymity to post things that they would certainly never have the balls to say in real life to their wife or with their mum listening in or to their friendly local police officer. As we have heard, it sometimes spills off social media to other corners of the internet, or off the internet completely, which can be very concerning.
I have been actively involved in politics since 2014 and there is no doubt that there is more and worse abuse now than there was then. Rather than the terrible murder of Jo Cox being the catalyst it should have been for a reset, which was surely the only appropriate response to such an awful event, we see now that it has actually been amplified with a good dose of fake news stirred in, because plain abuse on its own is not good enough.
We sometimes know the people online who feed on hate or feel brave enough to send stuff our way would struggle with if it came back in the same direction. Sometimes, there is not a law against it, because it skirts pretty close, but it is unedifying none the less. Facebook is pretty rubbish, frankly, at dealing with it. It is not really interested in that any more than it is in dealing with the fake news. Twitter is only marginally better.
It was telling at the recent International Women’s Day debate, which was a very sombre affair in the shadow of Sarah Everard’s murder, there was a palpable scunner—I do not know how better to express that—at the online crap that every single woman in the Chamber that day, no matter our variety of political opinions, knew all about. That day it felt like we were collectively worn down.
We need to do something. I say again, I am fortunate to do the job I do. I know others say they might not have pursued their career again if they had known. I understand that, but I am delighted to be here today. I am delighted to speak, because, although it is against my better judgement in some ways, we have to stand up and say that we will not allow this to prevent women from getting into politics and making a difference. I am also delighted with the work the SNP Scottish Government are doing to try to improve fairness and political representation. It makes a difference and is very powerful.
We support the ambitions of the online harms Bill, especially when it comes to the issues that affect vulnerable people and children. We urge the UK Government to take it further and be stronger. Do not let big tech shirk away from its responsibilities. The points about the ways in which we can clean up the internet—giving people the opportunity to verify their identity and making it easier to block unverified users—are well made, although they do not come without their own challenges. Whatever the solution, not only for elected representatives but for other vulnerable people in danger of harm online, the real danger is that if we do not stand up and take steps, it will only get significantly worse.
It is always a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in today’s debate, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield), for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) and for Jarrow (Kate Osborne). I congratulate Mrs Miller on securing this debate. I pay tribute to the consistent leadership that she has shown in this House and in public over many years. I know it is appreciated by hon. Members across the House.
Let me reflect on two matters. First, the issue goes to the heart of our democracy. If hon. Members in this Chamber went on an election monitoring visit and they were outside a polling station where there was an armed militia outside preventing a section of society from either voting or getting involved in democracy, they would give a black mark against the quality of democracy in the country they were monitoring. That is exactly what is happening here—a section of our community is being prevented from full participating in our democracy.
Three years ago we remembered the 100th anniversary of universal women’s suffrage. That of course referred to women having the vote. I like to think that these days suffrage means full participation as well. If we have not got full participation, we do not have the women’s suffrage that we celebrated the 100th anniversary of. It goes to the heart of the quality of our democracy and should be a matter for us all.
I also want to reflect on something that my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow mentioned. I am a white male MP. The truth is that I do not know the half of it. I know there is a problem, but I cannot claim to know the half of it. You, Mr Paisley, and Jamie Stone might feel the same, but we do not understand the intensity, the ferocity and the incessant nature of the abuse that women and also black and minority ethnic MPs receive day after day. I lay down a challenge to male hon. Members from across the House: let us understand how incessant and ferocious the abuse is, or at least accept the fact that we do not understand it and listen to our female colleagues. Male Members understand there is an issue, but the severity, the ferocity and incessant nature of it is not understood.
We know of the benefits of the internet. During lockdown it has kept us in contact, and we have been able to continue shopping, learning and working, but we also know how dark it can be and how that corrodes society. We have heard reference to the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s 2016 survey: 39 countries found that 82% of women politicians surveyed had experienced some form of psychological violence; 44%—almost half—had received threats of death, rape, beatings or abduction; and 65% had been subjected to sexist remarks.
As we have also heard today from hon. Members, those from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background face an increased risk of abuse on the basis of their race as well as their gender, and there has been reference to the Amnesty International report and the number of tweets that women from those backgrounds have received. Behind every one of those statistics is an individual, a family or a staff member who faces the abuse, as I say, almost daily. Nobody should have to worry about their safety or their family’s safety when they come in to work, but, as we have heard today, that is the reality for women representatives.
Research indicates that Parliaments are much more likely to substantially tackle key issues such as violence and harassment against women when an increased number of female legislators are elected. However, those issues put off many women from standing to be elected. We have heard that 34% of MPs and 35% of local councillors in England and Wales are women. We all want more diversity to drive more effective and inclusive policy making. But we have also heard today about the report from the Fawcett Society on this issue that says that the number of women unlikely to stand as an MP has risen to 74% from 59% and that 69% of respondents said that abuse or harassment from the public or other parties was one of the main reasons for not pursuing a career in politics.
Selaine Saxby asked an interesting question about why people carry out this abuse. I know that the Chair of the Select Committee, Caroline Nokes, has talked about facing down bullies involved in it. The mentality behind it perplexes me, but it is something that we need to try to understand. A report from the Centre for Countering Digital Hate shows that there are people who seem to enjoy causing harm to others. That psychological trait is known as negative social potency. When those people see that their abuse has caused someone harm, that gives them the validation that they are looking for. Perhaps more worryingly, the report also talks about purposely organised online hate networks. The Centre for Countering Digital Hate found a playbook, published on a far-right website, that instructed readers to target abuse at high-profile public figures as a way to generate more publicity for their extremist ideas.
Social media platforms such as Facebook, Google, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter are now part of our daily lives. Yes, they may bring benefits, but we have allowed them to become a safe space for sexism, misogyny and racism. That cannot be the norm. Online, a person can become anyone or no one if they like, with no consequences for their actions. Increased anonymity online leads to increasingly hateful and abusive language. People online feel that they can hide behind a mask and get away with language and actions that they would not otherwise do, as the Chair of the Select Committee illustrated when she faced down some of her abusers in the street.
Tackling abuse and extremism online must mean tackling the worst parts of anonymity online. Siobhan Baillie, who is not in her place, and Jane Stevenson talked about anonymity. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East also talked about some of the benefits of anonymity—for example, for whistleblowers, victims finding online refuge, or children and minorities. There are downsides to banning anonymity, and we have to find a mechanism for exposing identity where that is necessary but protecting anonymity in those cases in which it is important.
The individuals behind online hate and abuse are of course guilty of this unacceptable behaviour, and it is the huge foreign tech giants that need to start taking responsibility for the hate that exists on their platforms. No matter how vulnerable or well informed people are, they have little control over the content, which is curated by tech platforms, allowing the spread of disinformation, sexual exploitation, fake news, extremism, hatred and other harmful content—the misogyny that we are talking about today.
The main reason why tech giants refuse properly to tackle hate on their platforms is clear. Unsurprisingly, that is driven by their financial interests. They are reluctant to spend money hiring moderators, although they accept that that is part of the solution. When Germany passed a law to fine social media companies up to €50 million for failing to take down abusive content within 24 hours of its being reported, Facebook set up the content moderation centre in Germany, its largest in the world, and hired 1,200 moderators to staff it. That proves that it is possible to tackle online hate if the companies are willing to do so. When there is a financial incentive, they will hire people to remove abusive messages more quickly.
The Government need to stop cradling foreign tech giants and instead take action on online hate, so we are awaiting the online safety Bill and we will support the Government where they take the necessary action. We do feel that it has been too slow, so I ask the Minister whether she can tell us precisely when the Bill will come to the House and when we can crack on with work to support the new legislation.
This is not just about the big tech giants. It is about individuals and their being forced to take responsibility for their actions, and their corroding our democracy, corroding the lives of women who are trying to do their best in whichever area of public life, forcing them to step away from public life, and therefore damaging our democracy. It should not take the death of a young woman on the streets for us to start talking about street harassment towards women. It should not take someone taking their own life because of the online abuse that they have received for us to start talking about online harassment and abuse. This is an issue that is happening now. The Government need to start taking urgent action to deal with it, and we will support them in that urgent action.
The Chair of the Select Committee talked in her speech about abuse that starts online and then becomes physical. It is bad enough to be bullied online and bullied out of public life. We cannot take the risk that that will go further. I therefore challenge male MPs to start taking this more seriously and to start understanding the ferocity and the level of the abuse that women face. I will work with the Minister on the online safety Bill to give maximum protection, for the sake of women everywhere and for the sake of our democracy.
Before I call the Minister, I thank every single Member who has contributed to what has been a powerful debate. These things needed to be said, and they have been very well said.
It is a great honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller on securing this incredibly important debate. I know that she has always been a passionate campaigner in this area, and she is also the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on women in Parliament, which leads such important work to protect women in Parliament—online and offline. I thank her for everything that she does in this space, and I also thank all Members who have taken part in the debate.
All the speeches were incredibly heartfelt and brave. They show the will across the House to address this pernicious and distressing issue. Sadly, this is one of those issues that bear out the words of our former friend and colleague Jo Cox in a most unpleasant way, because we
“have far more in common than that which divides us.”—[Official Report,
Is it not tragic that that is the case? It is sometimes hard to fathom how the faceless and cowardly abuse of those in the public eye has almost become part of the job description. It has become a fact of life. It has become something that almost goes with the territory. How messed up is it that we feel that way?
As many Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke, have said, the word “abuse” seems almost insufficient to describe what so many female MPs and others in the public eye experience: threats of rape, violence and death to themselves and their family members. The number of contributions to the debate highlights the scale of the problem. Of course, as my right hon. Friend Caroline Nokes, who chairs the Select Committee, said, it is always impossible to know whether such online threats will tip over into real life. That is what is most chilling.
The Government are absolutely clear that online abuse, and particularly abuse targeted at women, is utterly reprehensible and completely unacceptable. The abuse can have such a significant impact on female representation in all walks of life. It silences women from speaking out. It prevents them from sharing their experiences online. It deters them from pursuing certain roles or, in this case, from seeking election or office at every single level. It can also hasten an early departure from this job, as we have also heard.
When I quoted my friend Gail Ross, I was also thinking about her small boy. I hope he does not know what was said, but if he did, would that not put another generation off politics? They would not touch it with a barge pole.
That is such an important point, and it is actually something that I was thinking about as I was listening to the contributions to the debate. I took an almost conscious decision not to put my children on my social media, for that very reason. I do not want what I do as a job to have an impact on them. How messed up and crazy is it that we feel that we cannot share things about our lives because of the impact that it will have? Of course, that has a dramatic impact on democracy when it puts people off standing for election at every single level. That affects women and stops their voices being heard in this Chamber and in society more broadly. As other Members have said, our success as a Parliament utterly depends on our having elected figures who better reflect the communities that we represent.
I know there are organisations that have led studies on abuse targeted at women, such as Glitch, Amnesty International and the Centenary Action Group. This work has such an important role to play in strengthening our understanding of the scale and prevalence of abuse targeted at women representatives and others, and my Department has been supporting research led by the University of Sheffield that assessed online abuse during the 2019 general election campaign and the covid-19 lockdown. The findings suggested that abuse directed at MPs has increased. I think we all recognise that. From the 2017 and 2019 general elections it was clear that there are some MPs who are more affected, and that particularly includes, as Dr Cameron said, those with intersectionality. Women from minority backgrounds were particularly targeted. Bizarrely, as we have been sitting here I have noticed that a colleague in Parliament has tweeted:
“Today’s mailbag with photos and photos of beheadings that would make you sick. It’s not unusual for MPs to be dealing with racists and this stuff isn’t new to me, but today I feel exhausted.”
I think that we all feel exhausted by it, Mr Paisley.
As Kate Osborne said, the additional research shows that over the lockdown period individuals, and prominent women in particular, were still receiving high levels of abuse. It has got significantly worse. Of the 26 MPs who received sexist abuse only four were men, with women receiving high volumes of personal attacks—attacks on their credibility, and sexually explicit abuse. Although men are a greater proportion of MPs, women get much higher volumes of abuse, which is of course unacceptable. There is some support for Members in managing their online and offline security through the parliamentary channels, but of course much more needs to be done at that level.
All that only goes to underline how vital the Government’s online safety Bill is. It will protect women and all users online. We published the full Government response to the Online Harms White Paper consultation last year, outlining our fundamental commitment to taking forward a new legal duty of care that companies will have towards their users. That will mean that companies must have robust systems and processes in place to tackle illegal content, including illegal online abuse and anonymous abuse. They will need to remove content quickly, or face enforcement action from Ofcom, which will be the new regulator. Companies with the largest audience and the most high-risk features will have to address legal but harmful content for both adults and children. That will include online abuse that does not cross criminal thresholds but is still harmful for users and could leave a significant impact on victims.
Companies will also need to ensure that they have effective, accessible mechanisms through which users can report concerns about harmful content. That has always been a big issue. People do not know how to report such things. It is all very murky and needs to be much clearer. They need to be able to challenge wrongful content take-down as well, and raise concerns that a company has failed to fulfil its duty of care.
I understand clearly, and sympathise enormously with, calls for compulsory user verification for social media, which my hon. Friend Jane Stevenson raised. However, there are concerns that it would prevent legitimate users such as human rights activists or whistleblowers from protecting themselves, dissuade vulnerable users such as victims of domestic violence from seeking support, or deter young LGBT people who are not ready to come out to their friends and family from seeking the information and support they need. However, I am keen to look at imaginative and innovative ways to tackle the issue. There must be some way to square the circle. I would gently like to say that online platforms do not have to wait for legislation to move on the matter. If they want to put it right, they could start to put their houses in order now, to rebuild the trust. Surely they have a moral duty not to stand by and let such things continue to happen.
We are working at pace to prepare the Bill. It will be ready later in the year. Christian Matheson asked me about that and we want to get it out as soon as possible. It is, however, vital to get it right, and we want all parliamentarians to contribute to that important work.
I want quickly to mention our work with the Law Commission and how the criminal law will improve protection for women and users online. It is reviewing how the criminal law relates to harmful online communication and has consulted on reforms that include new ways to tackle pile-on abuse, cyber-flashing and self-harm. I know that that will be of interest to Members. The final recommendations will be published this summer and we are looking at where it would be appropriate to bring those things into law.
Finally, the Government will in due course legislate for a new electoral sanction that will help to protect women who contribute to our public life from intimidation and abuse, in person and online. That means that someone convicted of intimidating a candidate, future candidate, campaigner or elected representative will be banned from standing for or holding elected office for five years. That new sanction is just one part of the Government’s programme of work against political intimidation. We are working with partners to provide security guidance to support the elections that are coming up next month, ensuring the delivery of a safe and inclusive democratic event.
This Government are absolutely committed to protecting female representatives, both online and offline. The disproportionate abuse that women receive online, which we have heard about today, has absolutely no place in a thriving and tolerant democracy. We will do all we can to protect not only women representatives, but all users, as part of the online safety Bill. We are working at pace to deliver the new electoral sanctions and to prepare that legislation, and we will ensure that Members across both Houses can contribute to those vital pieces of work.
We normally have to rise at five to the hour, but I will give Mrs Maria Miller one minute to wind up.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for taking part in the debate. The Government need to get the law right, and we have heard from the Minister, but Parliament and the House of Commons need to play their role, too. Online abuse is an affront to our democracy, and it is a workplace safety issue. We cannot allow women to be bullied out of public life by online abuse, because that weakens our democracy. The House of Commons needs to up its game in monitoring and supporting Members and their staff, and the APPG stands ready to assist with that work.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered online abuse of elected women representatives.