Archbishop leads debate on freedom of speech

“When people are too scared to express their genuinely held and legally protected beliefs, that is very dangerous for democracy.”

On 10th December 2021 in the House of Lords the Archbishop of Canterbury held a debate on freedom of speech. His opening and closing remarks are below, and the full debate including the contributions of Peers and the Opposition and Government response, can be read in Hansard, here.

Moved by The Archbishop of Canterbury: That this House takes note of contemporary challenges to freedom of speech, and the role of public, private and civil society sectors in upholding freedom of speech.

The Archbishop of Canterbury: My Lords, I am most grateful to the Leader of the House, the usual channels, all noble Lords who have taken the trouble to be here today and, especially, the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, for answering on behalf of the Government in order that we may have this debate. It is a return to an Advent tradition, interrupted in recent years by elections and pandemics. Should your Lordships worry that I am infectious in some way, I have been tested to the limits of testing. I have my granddaughter’s cold, for which I would like to record my grateful thanks.

We on these Benches have our critics—I have a large number—but for all our present failings you would be hard-pressed to find a more disastrous move by the Lords spiritual than when, in 1831, 21 of them lined up behind the Duke of Wellington and opposed the Great Reform Bill. Had they voted the other way, it would have passed. The people, denied their rights, responded with riots, and bishops were particularly targeted, some with violence. In Bristol, the Bishop’s Palace was burned down. A dead cat was thrown at my predecessor Archbishop Howley, narrowly missing him but striking his chaplain in the face. “Be glad it wasn’t a live one,” Howley is reported to have responded.

I start with this dive into the past because it illustrates a present point. The grey area between, on the one hand, peaceful protest and reasoned criticism and, on the other, incitement to hatred or to violence is one that we are still trying to navigate today. The Church of England knows about that. I must start by suggesting that our society should never follow our historical example of coercion, Test Acts and punishment. There is still a prison at Lambeth Palace at the top of the Lollards’ Tower, with room for eight people. It was used for the Lollards—I have a little list.

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Bishop of Oxford on freedom of speech and online safety

“search engines free of advertising, social networking freed from the blind pursuit of profit, messaging services which do not mine our data—and all protecting the rights of the child? Perhaps the Government might be willing to explore this kind of radical intervention—social media in public service—in this vital area”

On 10th December 2021 the Bishop of Oxford spoke in a House of Lords debate led by the Archbishop of Canterbury on contemporary challenges to freedom of speech and the role of the public, private and third sectors in upholding it:

The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, it is a great privilege and honour, as always, to follow the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, one of my distinguished predecessors. I am grateful for this timely debate and to the most reverend Primate for his very comprehensive introduction. In a few days’ time, as we have heard, the scrutiny committee of both Houses will publish its report on the online safety legislation: a potentially vital web of provisions to prevent harm to individuals and, I hope, to society.

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Queen’s Speech – Bishop of Oxford welcomes online safety bill plans

On 18th May 2021 the Bishop of Oxford spoke during the fourth day of debate in the House of Lords on the Queen’s Speech, focusing on proposals to legislate for online safety.


My Lords, it is a privilege to take part in this debate, to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and to welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Fullbrook—I thank her for her maiden speech. I warmly welcome the online safety Bill, referenced in the most gracious Address. I declare my interest as a board member for the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation.

It is my view that the online safety Bill represents a major step forward in preventing harm to children, vulnerable adults and our wider society. The Bill places a robust duty of care on content-sharing platforms and creates a major new regulator by extending the remit of Ofcom. Those designing the Bill have listened carefully and have risen to the challenge of scoping a regulatory framework for new and rapidly changing technologies. The internet is used by over 90% of adults in the United Kingdom. There are many benefits to that use, as we have seen during the pandemic, but also great potential for harm. As the memorandum from DCMS indicates very clearly, this landmark regulation will end the era of self-regulation. The Bill is likely to prove a key benchmark, not only for the United Kingdom, but for governments around the world.

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Bishop of Oxford welcomes Government plans to tackle online harms

Continue reading “Bishop of Oxford welcomes Government plans to tackle online harms”

Bishop of Oxford asks Government about age ratings for content on streaming platforms

On 8th December the Bishop of Oxford asked a question of Government during exchanges in the House of Lords on age ratings for streaming platforms:
The Lord Bishop of Oxford [V] : My Lords, I thank the Minister for her answer. What will the Government do if other platforms do not follow the Netflix example? According to the BBFC, over 90% of parents said that age-related guidance was helpful, and there is no doubt that voluntary action may be more forthcoming if platforms are very clear that the UK Government expect content consumed here in the UK to be properly signposted with BBFC symbols and content advice. How else do the Government plan to ensure that only age-appropriate content is accessible to young and vulnerable viewers?

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Bishop of St Albans asks about rural broadband rollout

On 16th November 2020 the Bishop of St Albans received a written answer to a question on gigabit-capable rural broadband:

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Answer by Lord Agnew of Oulton on 3 November (HL9493), whether the commitment to provide gigabit-capable broadband nationwide will be rolled out equitably between rural and urban communities. [HL10103] Continue reading “Bishop of St Albans asks about rural broadband rollout”

Bishop of St Albans asks about funding for fibre broadband

On 3rd November 2020 the Bishop of St Albans received a written answer to a question on fibre broadband:

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the announcement that the long-term spending review will be replaced by a one-year spending review, whether plans to service the UK with fibre broadband by 2025 will be included as a multi-year capital allocation priority infrastructure project. [HL9493] Continue reading “Bishop of St Albans asks about funding for fibre broadband”

Bishop of Oxford calls on Government to publish reforms to prevent “predatory and harmful treatment” by Amazon of consumers and third-party sellers

On 12th October 2020 Lord Leigh of Hurley asked the Government “what steps they are planning to take (1) to protect third party sellers from the dominance of Amazon, and (2) to ensure that Amazon does not benefit from passing on the costs of the Digital Services Tax to sellers.” The Bishop of Oxford asked a further question:

The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, the Minister will be aware that last week the United States Congress published a 449-page report, after reviewing millions ​of documents and taking testimony from hundreds of witnesses, including Amazon’s CEO. The report concluded that

“the totality of the evidence produced during this investigation demonstrates the pressing need for legislative action and reform.”

Does she agree with or dispute the findings of the report? How soon will the Government introduce their own draft reforms to stop these predatory and harmful treatments of third-party sellers and consumers? Continue reading “Bishop of Oxford calls on Government to publish reforms to prevent “predatory and harmful treatment” by Amazon of consumers and third-party sellers”

Bishop of Oxford calls for household access to digital connection to be treated equally to other household utilities

On 5th October 2020 Baroness McDonagh asked the Government “what assessment they have made of the impact on primary and secondary school students’ ability to learn for those students (1) who have digital connectivity, and (2) who do not have such connectivity, when learning from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.” The Bishop of Oxford asked a follow up question:

The Lord Bishop of Oxford [V]: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer and for what the Government have already done. Before the pandemic, 23% of children in socioeconomic groups D and E lacked home broadband and access to laptops, et cetera. Does the Minister agree that we now need to measure data poverty and its effects more carefully? Will the Government commit to legislating for household digital access to be treated as a utility on an equal footing with the right to access for water and heat—a change supported by the general public? Continue reading “Bishop of Oxford calls for household access to digital connection to be treated equally to other household utilities”

Archbishop asks Government about preventing use of digital platforms for incitement to hatred and violence

On 16th July 2020 Lord Holmes of Richmond asked the Government “what assessment they have made of the impact of digital platforms on the functioning of democracy.” The Archbishop of Canterbury, Most Revd Justin Welby, asked a follow-up question:

The Archbishop of Canterbury [V]:  My Lords, I declare an interest in that certain funds across the Church of England and the Anglican Communion hold shares in social media companies, and vast numbers of churches and Anglicans, including me, use platforms for the promotion of the Church’s work. The Minister will be aware that, although social media has immense power for good, some social media platforms are used to incite hatred, stirring up social disruption and even extreme violence in some parts of the world, as I have recently heard from bishops in the DRC. What steps are Her Majesty’s Government looking at to motivate and encourage responsibility to be taken by such platforms to prevent their use in everything from hate speech to genocide? Continue reading “Archbishop asks Government about preventing use of digital platforms for incitement to hatred and violence”

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