Online Safety Bill: Bishop of Gloucester stresses importance of tackling violence against women and girls online and offline

On 16th May 2023, the House of Lords debated the Online Safety Bill in committee. The Bishop of Gloucester spoke in support of amendments that would target violence against women and girls by requiring OFCOM to issue a code of practice relating to this:

The Lord Bishop of Gloucester: My Lords, I have added my name to Amendments 97 and 304, and I wholeheartedly agree with all that the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, said by means of her excellent introduction. I look forward to hearing what the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, has to say as she continues to bring her wisdom to the Bill.

Let me say from the outset, if it has not been said strongly enough already, that violence against women and girls is an abomination. If we allow a culture of intimidation and misogyny to exist online, it will spill over to offline experiences. According to research by Refuge, almost one in five domestic abuse survivors who experienced abuse or harassment from their partner or former partner via social media said they felt afraid of being attacked or being subjected to physical violence as a result. Some 15% felt that their physical safety was more at risk, and 5% felt more at risk of so-called honour-based violence. Shockingly, according to Amnesty International, 41% of women who experienced online abuse or harassment said that these experiences made them feel that their physical safety was threatened.

Throughout all our debates, I hesitate to differentiate between the real and virtual worlds, because that is simply not how we live our lives. Interactions online are informed by face-to-face interactions, and vice versa. To think otherwise is to misunderstand the lived experience of the majority—particularly, dare I say, the younger generations. As Anglican Bishop for HM Prisons, I recognise the complexity of people’s lives and the need to tackle attitudes underpinning behaviours. Tackling the root causes of offending should always be a priority; there is potential for much harm later down the line if we ignore warning signs of hatred and misogyny. Research conducted by Refuge found that one in three women has experienced online abuse or harassment perpetrated on social media or another online platform at some point in their lives. That figure rises to almost two in three, or 62%, among young women. This must change.

We did some important work in your Lordships’ House during the passage of the Domestic Abuse Act to ensure that all people, including women and girls, are safe on our streets and in their homes. As has been said, introducing a code of practice as outlined will help the Government meet their aim of making the UK the safest place in the world to be online, and it will align with the Government’s wider priority to tackle violence against women and girls as a strategic policing requirement. Other strategic policing requirements, including terrorism and child sexual exploitation, have online codes of practice, so surely it follows that there should be one for VAWG to ensure that the Bill aligns with the Government’s position elsewhere and that there is not a gap left online.

I know the Government care deeply about tackling violence against women and girls, and I believe they have listened to some concerns raised by the sector. The inclusion of the domestic abuse and victims’ commissioners as statutory consultees is welcomed, as is the Government’s amendment to recognise controlling and coercive behaviour as a priority offence. However, without this code of conduct, the Bill will fail to address duties of care in relation to preventing domestic abuse and violence against women and girls in a holistic and encompassing way. The onus should not be on women and girls to remove themselves from online spaces; we have seen plenty of that in physical spaces over the years. Women and girls must be free to appropriately express themselves online and offline without fear of harassment. We must do all we can to prevent expressions of misogyny from transforming into violent actions.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Baroness Merron (Lab): The requirement in Amendment 97 that there should be an Ofcom code of practice is recognition that many aspects of online violence disproportionately affect women and girls. I think we always need to come back to that point, because nothing in this debate has taken me away from that very clear and fundamental point. Let us remind ourselves that the online face of violence against women and girls includes—this is not a full list—cyberflashing, abusive pile-ons, incel gangs and cyberstalking, to name but a few. Again, we are not starting from a very simple point; we are talking about an evolving online face of violence against women and girls, and the Bill needs to keep pace.

I associate myself with the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, and other noble Lords in thanking and appreciating the groups and individuals who have already done the work, and who have—if I might use the term—an oven-ready code of practice available to the Minister, should he wish to avail himself of it. I share the comments about the lack of logic. If violence against women and girls is part of the strategic policing requirement, and the Home Secretary says that dealing with violence against women and girls is a priority, why is this not part of a joined-up government approach? That is what we should now be seeing in the Bill. I am sure the Minister will want to address that question.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester rightly said that abuse is abuse. Whether it is online or offline, it makes no difference. The positive emphasis should be that women and girls should be able to express themselves online as they should be able to offline. Again, that is a basic underlying point of these amendments.

Baroness Morgan of Coates (Con): There is no time to run through all the brilliant contributions that have been made. I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester for her support. She made the point that, these days, for most people, there is no online/offline distinction. To answer one of the points made, we sometimes see violence or abuse that starts online and then translates into the offline world. Teachers in particular are saying that this is the sort of misogyny they are seeing in classrooms.

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