Clause 207 - Commencement and transitional provision

Online Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 12:30 pm ar 15 Rhagfyr 2022.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Amendment made: 60, in clause 207, page 173, line 15, leave out “to” and insert “and”.—(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)

Labour welcomes clause 207, which outlines the commencement and transitional provisions for the Bill to effectively come into existence. The Minister knows that Labour is concerned about the delays that have repeatedly held up the Bill’s progress, and I need not convince him of the urgent need for it to pass. I think contributions in Committee plus those from colleagues across the House as the Bill has progressed speak for themselves. The Government have repeatedly claimed they are committed to keeping children safe online, but have repeatedly failed to bring forward this legislation. We must now see commitments from the Minister that the Bill, once enacted, will make a difference right away.

Labour has specific concerns shared with stakeholders, from the Age Verification Providers Association to the Internet Watch Foundation, the NSPCC and many more, about the road map going forward. Ofcom’s plan for enforcement already states that it will not begin enforcement on harm to children from user-to-user content under part 3 of the Bill before 2025. Delays to the Bill as well as Ofcom’s somewhat delayed enforcement plans mean that we are concerned that little will change in the immediate future or even in the short term. I know the Minister will stand up and say that if the platforms want to do the right thing, there is nothing stopping them from doing so immediately, but as we have seen, they need convincing to take action when it counts, so I am not convinced that platforms will do the right thing.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Llafur, Warrington North

If the Government’s argument is that there is nothing to stop platforms taking such actions early, why are we discussing the Bill at all? Platforms have had many years to implement such changes, and the very reason we need this Bill is that they have not been.

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

Exactly. My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point that goes to the heart of why we are here in the first place. If the platforms were not motivated by commercial interest and we could trust them to do the right thing on keeping children safe and reducing harm on their platforms, we would not require this legislation in the first place. But sadly, we are where we are, which is why it is even more imperative that we get on with the job, that Ofcom is given the tools to act swiftly and tries to reduce the limit of when they come into effect and that this legislation is enacted so that it actually makes a lasting difference.

Ofcom has already been responsible for regulating video-sharing platforms for two years, yet still, despite being in year 3, it is only asking websites to provide a plan as to how they will be compliant. That means the reality is that we can expect little on child protection before 2027-28, which creates a massive gap compared with public expectations of when the Bill will be passed. We raised these concerns last time, and I felt little assurance from the Minister in post last time, so I am wondering whether the current Minister can improve on his predecessor by ensuring a short timeline for when exactly the Bill can be implemented and Ofcom can act.

We all understand the need for the Bill, which my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North just pointed out. That is why we have been supportive in Committee and throughout the passage of the Bill. But the measures that the Bill introduces must come into force as soon as is reasonably possible. Put simply, the industry is ready and users want to be protected online and are ready too. It is just the Government, sadly, and the regulator that would be potentially holding up implementation of the legislation.

The Minister has failed to concede on any of the issues that we have raised in Committee, despite being sympathetic and supportive. His predecessor was also incredibly supportive and sympathetic on everything we raised in Committee, yet failed to take into account a single amendment or issue that we raised. I therefore make a plea to this Minister to at least see the need to press matters and the timescale that is needed here. We have not sought to formally amend this clause, so I seek the Minister’s assurance that this legislation will be dealt with swiftly. I urge him to work with Labour, SNP colleagues and colleagues across the House to ensure that the legislation and the provisions in it are enacted and that there are no further unnecessary delays.

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

Our intention is absolutely to get this regime operational as soon as possible after Royal Assent. We have to get to Royal Assent first, so I am looking forward to working with all parties in the other House to get the legislation to that point. After that, we have to ensure that the necessary preparations are completed effectively and that service providers understand exactly what is expected of them. To answer the point made by the hon. Member for Warrington North about service providers, the key difference from what happened in the years that led to this legislation being necessary is that they now will know exactly what is expected of them—and it is literally being expected of them, with legislation and with penalties coming down the line. They should not be needing to wait for the day one switch-on. They can be testing and working through things to ensure that the system does work on day one, but they can do that months earlier.

The legislation does require some activity that can be carried out only after Royal Assent, such as public consultation or laying of secondary legislation. The secondary legislation is important. We could have put more stuff in primary legislation, but that would belie the fact that we are trying to make this as flexible as possible, for the reasons that we have talked about. It is so that we do not have to keep coming back time and again for fear of this being out of date almost before we get to implementation in the first place.

However, we are doing things at the moment. Since November 2020, Ofcom has begun regulation of harmful content online through the video-sharing platform regulatory regime. In December 2020, Government published interim codes of practice on terrorist content and activity and sexual exploitation and abuse online. Those will help to bridge the gap until the regulator becomes operational. In June 2021, we published “safety by design” guidance, and information on a one-stop-shop for companies on protecting children online. In July 2021, we published the first Government online media literacy strategy. We do encourage stakeholders, users and families to engage with and help to promote that wealth of material to minimise online harms and the threat of misinformation and disinformation. But clearly, we all want this measure to be on the statute book and implemented as soon as possible. We have talked a lot about child protection, and that is the core of what we are trying to do here.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 207, as amended, accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.