On 1st February 2023, the Bishop of Manchester spoke in a debate on the Online Safety Bill in its second reading, encouraging the government to introduce a duty to cooperate for regulators, and highlighting issues of child protection:
The Lord Bishop of Manchester: My Lords, that is not an easy speech to follow, but I begin by declaring my interest as a Church Commissioner, as set out in the register. We have substantial holdings in many of the big tech companies. I am also vice-chair of the Church of England Ethical Investment Advisory Group. I commend the attention of noble Lords to our recent report on big tech that was published last September. There, we set out five core principles that we believe should guide our investment in and engagement with big tech companies: flourishing as persons, flourishing in relationships, standing with the marginalised, caring for creation and serving the common good. If we apply those principles to our scrutiny of this Bill, we will not only improve lives but save lives.
I will focus my remaining remarks on three areas. First, as the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, and the noble Lord, Lord McNally, have noted, the powers granted to the Secretary of State to direct Ofcom on its codes of practice and provide tactical and strategic guidance put Ofcom’s independence at risk. While I recognise that the Government have sought to address these concerns, more is required—Clauses 39 and 157 are not fit for purpose in their present form. We also need clear safeguards and parliamentary scrutiny for Secretary of State powers in the Bill that will allow them to direct Ofcom to direct companies in whatever we mean by “special circumstances”. Maintaining Ofcom’s autonomy in decision-making is critical to preserving freedom of expression more broadly. While the pace of technological innovation sometimes requires very timely response, the Bill places far too much power in the hands of the Secretary of State.
Secondly, while the Bill encompasses activity within the remit of regulators beyond Ofcom, it is largely silent on formal co-operation. I encourage the Government to introduce a general duty to co-operate with other regulators to ensure a good and effective enforcement of the various regulatory regimes. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm whether the Government will commit to looking at this once more.
Finally, I turn, as others have done, to the protection of children. The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, has just spoken powerfully. Can we really claim that this Bill serves to mitigate the harm that children face online when consultation of children has so far been lacking? I welcome the Minister’s remarks about the Children’s Commissioner in this regard, but we can and should go further. In particular, we should centre our decisions on promoting children’s well-being rather than on simply minimising harm. My right reverend friend the Bishop of Durham regrets that he is unable to be in his place today. I know he plans to raise these questions as the Bill progresses.
Related to this, we must ensure that any activity online through which children are groomed for criminal exploitation is monitored. A reporting mechanism should be brought in so that such information is shared with the police. My right reverend friend the Bishop of Derby is unable to speak today, but as vice- chair of the Children’s Society, she will follow these issues closely.
This Bill has arrived with us so late and so overcrowded that I had begun to think it was being managed by my good friends at Avanti trains. However, here at last it is. I look forward to working with noble Lords to improve this important and welcome legislation. It is my hope that, as we continue to scrutinise and improve the Bill, we will move ever closer to fulfilling those five core principles I set out: flourishing as persons, flourishing in relationships, standing with the marginalised, caring for creation and serving the common good.
Extracts from the speeches that followed:
Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con): The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester asked about regulatory co-operation, and we recognise the importance of that. Ofcom has existing and strong relationships with other regulators, such as the ICO and the CMA, which has been supported and strengthened by the establishment of the Digital Regulation Cooperation Forum in 2020. We have used the Bill to strengthen Ofcom’s ability to work closely with, and to disclose information to, other regulatory bodies. Clause 104 ensures that Ofcom can do that, and the Bill also requires Ofcom to consult the Information Commissioner.
I do not want to go on at undue length—I am mindful of the fact that we will have detailed debates on all these issues and many more in Committee—but I wish to conclude by reiterating my thanks to all noble Lords, including the many who were not able to speak today but to whom I have already spoken outside the Chamber. They all continue to engage constructively with this legislation to ensure that it meets our shared objectives of protecting children and giving people a safe experience online. I look forward to working with noble Lords in that continued spirit.
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