Priti secures key change to Online Safety Bill
Witham MP Priti Patel has worked with fellow MPs and campaigners to secure an important change to the Online Safety Bill currently making its way through Parliament. The Bill, which brings in new laws to tackle online harms, will now be improved with a new measure to make senior managers of tech firms criminally liable for failures to protect children from harmful content. Priti had been making robust representations to ministers to make the change and they have confirmed that the Government will include this new law in the Bill. Priti, who spoke in the House of Commons to support the introduction of new criminal sanctions for tech bosses who fail to meet their duties to protect children, said:
“For too long children have been put at risk of harm, exploitation and abuse from online platforms failing to take robust action to protect them. I have been campaigning with charities, the victims and families of those affected by online harms and colleagues in Parliament to get the law changed and to make sure that senior managers can be held to account and prosecuted for serious failings. I welcome the Government committing to making this change in the law, which will improve protections for children and press for much-needed cultural change in the way online platforms act.”
Copy or Priti’s speak in the House of Commons, 17 January 2023, Official Report, Columns 279-280:
Priti Patel (Witham) (Con)
I rise to speak to new clause 2 on the offence of failing to comply with a relevant duty. I pay tribute to my right hon. and hon. Friends who have championed new clause 2 to strengthen protections for children by introducing criminal liability for senior managers.
We have discussed this issue already in this Chamber. I thank charities and campaigners such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children for raising awareness and for being constructive and assiduous. I also thank the families who, through voicing their own pain and suffering, have given impetus to this issue. I thank those on the Front Bench; it is fair to say that I have had constructive dialogue with the Minister and the Secretary of State. They listened to our concerns and accepted that this issue had to be addressed.
As we debate this new clause and other aspects of the Bill, we should begin as we did last time by thinking of those who face tragedy and distress as a result of accessing inappropriate content online. Children and vulnerable people have been failed by tech companies and regulation. We have the duty and responsibility to step up and tighten the law, and protect children from online harms, exploitation and inappropriate content. That must be at the heart and centre of a lot of the legislation—not just this Bill but going forward. Throughout the various debates, and at Committee stage, we have touched on the fact that technology is evolving and changing constantly. With that, we must keep on building upon insights.
New clause 2 does simple and straightforward things. It makes senior managers liable and open to being prosecuted for failing to proactively promote and support the safety duties in clause 11. As it stands, the Bill’s criminal liability provisions fall short of what is expected or required. Criminal liability for failing to comply with an information notice from Ofcom is welcome. Ofcom has a very important role to play—I do not need to emphasise that any more. But the Bill does not go far enough, and Ministers have recognised that. We must ensure that all the flaws and failings are sanctionable and that the laws are changed in the right way. It not just about the laws for the Government Department leading the Bill; it cuts across other Government Departments. We have touched on that many times before.
More than 80% of the public agree that senior tech managers should be held legally responsible, to prevent harm to children on social media. That is a statement of the obvious, as we have seen such abhorrent and appalling harms take place. Around two thirds want managers to be prosecuted when failures result in serious harm. But harm can happen prior to an information notice being issued by Ofcom—again, we have discussed that.
The public need assurances that these companies will have the frameworks and safeguards to act responsibly and be held to account so that children and vulnerable individuals are protected. That means meaningful actions, not warm words. We should have proactivity when developing the software, algorithms and technology to be responsive. We must ensure that measures are put in place to hold people to account, and that sanctions cover company law, accountability, health and safety and other areas. Ireland has been mentioned throughout the passage of this Bill. That is important. My colleagues who will speak shortly have also touched on similar provisions.
It is right that we put these measures in the Bill for the serious failures to protect children. This is a topical issue. In fact, a number of colleagues met tech companies and techUK yesterday, as did I. We have an opportunity to raise the bar in the United Kingdom so that technology investment still comes forward and the sector continues to grow and flourish in the right way and for the right reasons. We want to see that.
Jamie Stone (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD)
The issues of evolving technology and holding people to account are hugely important. May I make the general point that digital education could underpin all those safeguards? The teaching of digital literacy should be conducted in parallel with all the other good efforts made across our schools.
The hon. Member is absolutely right, and I do not think anyone in the House would disagree with that. We have to carry on learning in life, and that links to technology and other issues. That applies to all of us across the board, and we need people in positions of authority to ensure that the right kind of information is shared, to protect our young people.
I look forward to hearing from the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), who has been so good in engaging on this issue, and I thank him for the proactive way in which he has spent time with all of us. Will we see the Government’s amendment prior to the Bill going to the other place for its Second Reading there? It is vital for all colleagues who support new clause 2 to have clear assurances that the provisions we support, which could have passed through this House, will not be diluted in the other place by Ministers. Furthermore—we should discuss this today—what steps are the Government and Ofcom taking to secure the agreement of tech companies to work to ensure that senior managers are committed and proactive in meeting their duties under clause 11?
I recognise that a lot of things will flow through secondary legislation, but on top of that, engagement with tech companies is vital, so that they can prepare, be ready and know what duties will be upon them. We also need to know what further guidance and regulation will come forward to secure the delivery of clause 11 duties and hold tech companies to account.
In the interests of time, I will shorten my remarks. I trust and hope that Ministers will give those details. It is important to give those assurances before the Bill moves to the House of Lords. We need to know that those protections will not be diluted. This is such a sensitive issue. We have come a long way, and that is thanks to colleagues on both sides of the House. It is important that we get the right outcomes, because all of us want to make sure that children are protected from the dreadful harms that we have seen online.