Clause 56 - Regulations under sections 54 and 55

Online Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 4:15 pm ar 13 Rhagfyr 2022.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Amendments made: 42, in clause 56, page 54, line 40, leave out subsection (3).

This amendment is consequential on Amendment 41 (removal of clause 55).

Amendment 43, in clause 56, page 54, line 46, leave out “or 55”.

This amendment is consequential on Amendment 41 (removal of clause 55).

Amendment 44, in clause 56, page 55, line 8, leave out “or 55”.

This amendment is consequential on Amendment 41 (removal of clause 55).

Amendment 45, in clause 56, page 55, line 9, leave out

“or adults are to children or adults”

and insert “are to children”.—(Paul Scully.)

This amendment is consequential on Amendment 41 (removal of clause 55).

Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Minister (Tech, Gambling and the Digital Economy)

As we know, the clause makes provision in relation to the making of regulations designating primary and priority content that is harmful to children, and priority content that is harmful to adults. The Secretary of State may specify a description of content in regulations only if they consider that there is a material risk of significant harm to an appreciable number of children or adults in the United Kingdom presented by user-generated or search content of that description, and must consult Ofcom before making such regulations.

In the last Bill Committee, Labour raised concerns that there were no duties that required the Secretary of State to consult others, including expert stakeholders, ahead of making these regulations. That decision cannot be for one person alone. When it comes to managing harmful content, unlike illegal content, we can all agree that it is about implementing systems that prevent people from encountering it, rather than removing it entirely.

Photo of Sarah Owen Sarah Owen Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

The fact that we are here again to discuss what one Secretary of State wanted to put into law, and which another is now seeking to remove before the law has even been introduced, suggests that my hon. Friend’s point about protection and making sure that there are adequate measures within which the Secretary of State must operate is absolutely valid.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Minister (Tech, Gambling and the Digital Economy)

I completely agree: we are now on our third Secretary of State, our third Minister and our third Prime Minister since we began considering this iteration of the Bill. It is vital that this does not come down to one person’s ideological beliefs. We have spoken at length about this issue; the hon. Member for Don Valley has spoken about his concerns that Parliament should be sovereign, and should make these decisions. It should not be for one individual or one stakeholder to make these determinations.

We also have issues with the Government’s chosen toggle approach—we see that as problematic. We have debated it at length, but our concerns regarding clause 56 are about the lack of consultation that the Secretary of State of the day, whoever that may be and whatever political party they belong to, will be forced to make before making widespread changes to a regime. I am afraid that those concerns still exist, and are not just held by us, but by stakeholders and by Members of all political persuasions across the House. However, since our proposed amendment was voted down in the previous Bill Committee, nothing has changed. I will spare colleagues from once again hearing my pleas about the importance of consultation when it comes to determining all things related to online safety, but while Labour Members do not formally oppose the clause, we hope that the Minister will address our widespread concerns about the powers of the Secretary of State in his remarks.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I appreciate the hon. Lady’s remarks. We have tried to ensure that the Bill is proportionate, inasmuch as the Secretary of State can designate content if there is material risk of significant harm to an appreciable number of children in the United Kingdom. The Bill also requires the Secretary of State to consult Ofcom before making regulations on the priority categories of harm.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Llafur, Warrington North

I appreciate that this point has been made about the same wording earlier today, but I really feel that the ambiguity of “appreciable number” is something that could do with being ironed out. The ambiguity and vagueness of that wording make it very difficult to enforce the provision. Does the Minister agree that “appreciable number” is too vague to be of real use in legislation such as this?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The different platforms, approaches and conditions will necessitate different numbers; it would be hard to pin a number down. The wording is vague and wide-ranging because it is trying to capture any number of scenarios, many as yet unknown. However, the regulations designating priority harms will be made under the draft affirmative resolution procedure.

Photo of Sarah Owen Sarah Owen Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

On that point, which we discussed earlier—my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North discussed it—I am struggling to understand what is an acceptable level of harm, and what is the acceptable number of people to be harmed, before a platform has to act.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

It totally depends on the scenario. It is very difficult for me to stand here now and give a wide number of examples, but the Secretary of State will be reacting to a given situation, rather than trying to predict them.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Minister (Tech, Gambling and the Digital Economy)

The Minister has just outlined exactly what our concerns are. He is unable to give an exact number, figure or issue, but that is what the Secretary of State will have to do, without having to consult any stakeholders regarding that issue. There are many eyes on us around the world, with other legislatures looking at us and following suit, so we want the Bill to be world-leading. Many Governments across the world may deem that homosexuality, for example, is of harm to children. Because this piece of legislation creates precedent, a Secretary of State in such a Government could determine that any platform in that country should take down all that content. Does the Minister not see our concerns in that scenario?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I was about to come on to the fact that the Secretary of State would be required to consult Ofcom before making regulations on the priority categories of harm. Indeed Ofcom, just like the Secretary of State, speaks to and engages with a number of stakeholders on this issue to gain a deeper understanding. Regulations designating priority harms would be made under the draft affirmative resolution procedure, but there is also provision for the Secretary of State to use the made affirmative resolution procedure in urgent scenarios, and this would be an urgent scenario. It is about getting the balance right.

Following amendments 42 to 45, the definition of priority harmful content to adults and the power for the Secretary of State to designate categories of priority harmful content to adults have been removed. These amendments update clause 56 to reflect the removal of the adult safety duties and the concept of legal but harmful content from the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 56, as amended, accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.