Technology

Penny Mordaunt confirms Online Safety Bill will return to Parliament next month

More than four years in the making, the Online Safety Bill in its current form would require social media and other platforms to protect their users.

The Online Safety Bill has made a comeback on the Government’s legislative programme, with its remaining stages due to be provisionally debated on Monday, December 5.

Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt outlined the forthcoming parliamentary business in the House of Commons, which finally included a date for the bumper piece of legislation.

More than four years in the making, the Online Safety Bill in its current form would require social media and other platforms to protect their users from harmful content, with large fines and the threat of having their site blocked if they were found to breach the new rules, which will be overseen by Ofcom.

The Bill was put on hold during the Tory leadership race in the summer for the new Prime Minister to take on, and then was repeatedly pushed back under Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak.

After Ms Mordaunt made her announcement, Labour questioned whether the Bill will have its third reading on Monday, December 5, or risks running into the end of the session.

Shadow Commons leader Thangam Debbonaire said: “It (Online Safety Bill) was first mooted a decade ago. It’s been four years since they promised it. In that time, online crime has exploded, child sexual abuse online has become rife, scams proliferated.”

Ms Debbonaire also told MPs the Government might “in a bizarre move” send the Bill back to committee stage “in order to try and remove a crucial section that deals with the legal but harmful content”.

She added: “Now, the Bill was designed to deal with legal but harmful content and self harm and suicide and racist content. So why is the Government trying to take this out now? If the Bill doesn’t come back soon, it risks falling entirely, it will run into the end of the session. The Leader knows there’s no option to carry over in those circumstances. So, will we have third reading on Monday 5? Will it come back to the Commons in time to finish remaining stages before the end of Parliament? Will she guarantee there will be enough time?

Thangam Debbonaire
Thangam Debbonaire (House of Commons/PA)

“If the party opposite can’t fill their legislative programme effectively, they could make way for one who can. Does she want to swap places?”

Ms Debbonaire also criticised the Government for pulling day two of the remaining stages of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, which was scheduled for next Monday, telling the Commons: “The Leader’s business statement is testament to her Prime Minister’s poor judgment and weak leadership.”

She went on: “Pulling Monday’s votes on their flagship Levelling Up Bill marks just the latest stage of the Tories’ long-running psychodrama.

“In one corner, the Prime Minister desperately trying to find at least some manifesto commitments he can still deliver on, and in the other corner, 50 of his own MPs threatening to back an amendment against their government’s own Bill. Complete shambles.

“Government running from their own backbenchers, leaving a levelling-up agenda in tatters, and more importantly, the British people with a broken housing market.”

Responding to Labour, Ms Mordaunt said: “With regard to other legislation – the Levelling Up Bill and the Online Safety Bill – I will be announcing those in the usual way.

“They will still be making progress through the House. I hope members opposite will support these important Bills.”

Commenting on the Online Safety Bill returning to the Commons next month, Hannah Ruschen, senior child safety online Policy Officer at the NSPCC, said: “Seeing the Online Safety Bill return to Parliament will be a huge relief to families and all those impacted by harm and abuse online. We must now see the Bill pass without any further delay.

“It’s crucial that any changes to the legislation do not let tech firms off the hook or undermine Government promises to strengthen its protections for children.”

Susie Hargreaves, chief executive of the Internet Watch Foundation, also welcomed the news, saying: “We’ve seen that the threats facing people, particularly children, online are not going away, and we know strong and unequivocal action will be needed if the UK is to realise its aim of being the safest place in the world to be online.

“Now, we need to see lawmakers pull together with a common aim. Police, charities, and big tech businesses are all doing a phenomenal amount of work, and a clear direction from Government will be a welcome boost.

“The Internet Watch Foundation stands ready to be part of the regulatory solution to the spread of online child sexual abuse material. We look forward to further clarity and to working with MPs to make sure children are protected.”