Baroness Stowell of Beeston debates involving the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport during the 2019 Parliament

Wed 28th Feb 2024
Wed 17th Jan 2024
Wed 6th Sep 2023
Wed 19th Jul 2023
Wed 12th Jul 2023
Mon 10th Jul 2023
Online Safety Bill
Lords Chamber

Report stage: Part 1
Thu 6th Jul 2023
Online Safety Bill
Lords Chamber

Report stage: Part 2

Media Bill

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Excerpts
Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Foster. I will come to my noble friend Lord Forsyth’s amendment and the important issue it raises in a moment. First, I congratulate my noble friend the Minister on his efficient opening speech. I welcome this long-awaited Media Bill. The Communications and Digital Committee that I have the privilege of chairing has been calling for many of its measures for several years.

The Bill is in good shape, and I would not advocate for any substantial amendments. However, there are still questions about the consequences of its changes and how well the public service broadcasters are currently responding to their strategic challenges. As my noble friend the Minister said, my committee’s current inquiry is about the future of news and how the news industry is responding to strategic challenges, such as falling audience trust, impartiality in a world of evolving social divides and the impacts of tech platforms on news media business models. These are big challenges which are unlikely to solve themselves. I am sure that many of the points that are made today will also come up in our session with the public service broadcasters next week.

PSBs must serve all audiences across the United Kingdom with high-quality programming. The changes to the public service remit for TV are understandable and I hope they will provide the direction and flexibility to deliver the remit more efficiently. But such changes must not become an excuse for cutting back content that is more difficult to produce or addresses an area of market failure—the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, gave a powerful illustration of some of those genres. As our inquiry on the future of the BBC emphasised, PSBs fulfil a vital function in providing valuable content that would otherwise disappear, particularly as they face growing competition from international streaming giants. Although I am content with the changes, for Ofcom to be effective in ensuring the public interest is best served through them, the broadcasters must provide clarity on how they will interpret their responsibilities, including what they will not do, as well as what they must.

The prominence provisions to ensure content is properly carried and easy to find on various devices, including audio devices, are also crucial to the future of PSBs. I am particularly pleased that the measures for radio and smart speakers were included in the Bill; the world is changing fast, connected devices are becoming increasingly ubiquitous, and our regulations need to keep pace.

Radio is an area where there are legitimate concerns about the BBC’s proposals to spin out new digital stations from Radios 1, 2 and 3 that will compete with existing similar offerings from commercial stations. It comes at the same time as the BBC appears to be transitioning away from local radio to local websites, which struggling local news industry representatives say is impossible to compete with. Moreover, BBC local radio, at its best, is the ultimate example of distinctiveness in a crowded marketplace. These changes underscore the need—as called for by my committee—for the BBC to set out a refreshed strategic purpose and clarify what changes are necessary for it to continue delivering for all audiences so this can be used to inform decisions about its future funding.

More broadly, making changes to help our broadcasting sector thrive involves striking a balance. The structural changes in the market pose a growing challenge to all UK providers, and we should not be shy about championing and supporting things that make the UK’s broadcasting sector distinctive and internationally valued. The Bill has done a good job here; but, equally, it must not mean that PSB status can be taken for granted. The PSBs must continue to demonstrate the value of what they provide, and that includes doing a better job of serving all audiences across the country and showing that they are responding to people’s concerns, particularly around impartiality in news and other genres. There is more to do here, and we should continue to press for improvements because these organisations and institutions exist for the benefit of everyone.

Finally, I want to state my personal support for Clause 50 of the Bill, which repeals Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act.

I will turn at this point to my noble friend Lord Forsyth’s amendment and the matter of independent media. We are all aware of the issues around foreign Governments owning print or broadcast media. Personally, I agree with my noble friend: I have no problem with foreign businesses owning UK media; they are a large reason why we have a thriving media environment that is financially independent of government. But I do have principled concerns about ownership by foreign Governments or outfits under significant government control. That is materially different, and raises big questions about foreign policy, editorial independence and the relationship between an outlet’s owners and its coverage.

We need to have confidence in our media. Having foreign Governments own such a critical and sensitive part of our nation is not only unnecessary and troubling; if it was allowed to happen, it would completely undermine public confidence in our free press. At the moment, there are no automatic measures to prevent this, which does not seem right. My noble friend Lord Forsyth has argued that this Bill is the right vehicle to do something about this. In principle, I agree and I had assumed the same, but like my noble friend I have also had extensive discussions with the Public Bill Office, which has also advised me that such an amendment would be out of scope. I certainly look forward to my noble friend continuing his discussions with the Public Bill Office.

Instead, I have tabled an amendment to the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill. That amendment states that foreign Governments should not be allowed to buy our news media organisations unless the Secretary of State and relevant regulators have agreed the proposal and it has been confirmed by Parliament by the affirmative procedure. In other words, it cannot happen unless Parliament says so. That amendment, which I have tabled and has been co-signed by my noble friend Lord Forsyth and the noble Lords, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen and Lord Anderson of Ipswich, is a serious one, and I expect the Government to take it seriously. To that end, I ask my noble friend the Minister and his colleagues to meet me and my co-signatories as soon as possible, because it is due for debate on Report in less than two weeks, on Monday 11 March.

As to this Bill, I am very pleased it has made it this far. I support it and urge all colleagues to support its speedy passage through Parliament.

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Lord Inglewood Portrait Lord Inglewood (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I am delighted to follow the previous speakers, who have been advocating for more emphasis and importance to be ascribed to Welsh and Scottish television. As a Cumbrian, we do not have any regional dialect television, but I live in hope.

I am also delighted to support the Bill, and simultaneously slightly depressed because we heard from a number of speakers that the previous Bill covering this was 20 years ago. Well, I was the Minister sitting where the Minister sits now on the Bill before that. On that occasion, I told your Lordships, who I do not think really believed me, that we were on the cusp of a revolution. We are now dealing with the effects of much of that revolutionary change. Everything has morphed and evolved, and all the hardware that we were talking about are now forms of computer.

There is a single universe of multiplicity, variables and variations behind the subject that we are discussing. It began with the moving image. I am glad to say that radio is now increasing its prominence, and I would never have guessed at the popularity of podcasts, with some of them so important to people who work in the Palace of Westminster.

Then, as now, there was a vigorous debate about public service broadcasting, and in an era of almost limitless quantities of information, it is just as important —arguably more important—given the volume of material that is available and washing around in the digital space. At the centre of it, a core of curated and moderate material is very important.

It is equally important that it is not from a single monopoly supplier, and it must be from independent organisations that are free from either domestic or foreign political control. I entirely agree with the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, about the control of newspapers by foreign Governments or their fronts. I assume that he would agree that, were that to go ahead, the Government would deserve to lose the next general election.

These matters underpin our civic society and freedoms and rightly sit at the heart of the Bill and our discussions. Since much of this is, in one way or another, paid for by all of us, it follows that access should be free to the user and made simple, and the material should be didactic and give some pleasure as well.

I feel like I am the Grinch at Christmas, but we are in a world where excessive prominence is given to sport. I enjoy sport and it has an important place in our society, but it seems all politicians go weak at the knees at the mention of it. There are a range of things behind paywalls that matter to people, and we need to recognise that. A system where people can come together over subjects that they value is part of the project’s raison d’être; we must recognise there are other things beyond sport.

When we look at the media from the perspective of this Chamber—and the noble Lord, Lord Mendoza, made this point—we sometimes forget that media is big global business, and that we must, as a nation, have our share of it, and the policies surrounding our media must support this and our media’s contribution to our national prosperity and global influence. This depends on having trained and skilled entrants into the industry, and we must recognise that, first, we have a good record in this country and, secondly, it is expensive, but it will be even more so if we do not get it right. Equally, we must make sure that the working capital of the media industry is not killed off by public parsimony, greed or confiscatory taxation. Outcomes are capable of being measured not only in strict financial terms.

In some ways, the digital world is a kind of Wild West, but it is neither the public bar nor simply a private domain. Private matters can go viral, and private point-to-point communication can become as publicly available as deliberately broadcast material. In this country, we have a limited jurisdiction over the interface between the virtual and territorial worlds, and we must find ways of dealing with often difficult, ever-changing problems for lawmakers, Governments and regulators.

Some of the problems with the material that we are dealing with and the extent of it—we have recently discussed in this House digital markets, this Bill, data protection and artificial intelligence—occur within the context of Brexit repatriating to this country a significant amount of regulation that was previously dealt with at European level, which is an unnoticed aspect of this. The effect is that all these things are connected, are complicated, move quickly and are always changing, and I agree with the noble Lords, Lord Russell and Lord Mendoza, that one of the great challenges we face as a nation in this sector is how can we properly legislate in a timely manner in a fast-changing world.

What is clear from the Bill is that much of this will be done by secondary legislation, but there is considerable dissatisfaction, which is entirely legitimate, with the way Parliament handles these things. Setting aside general constitutional principles, I wonder whether our system of scrutinising secondary legislation is doing this properly on a technical level for the individuals and commercial sectors affected. I also wonder—and I do not know if they will thank me for suggesting it, and I rank it no higher than a suggestion—whether, on a rolling basis, the Communications and Digital Committee could have a standing role in examining the substance of these things. I can see that the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, in front of me is sceptical about that.

Finally, I turn to Clause 50. I chaired a local newspaper group for 10 years and one of the characteristics of the newspaper industry, based on its traditions of investigative journalism that this House has always endorsed, is the great suspicion of the Government of the day. I am surprised by the apparent nonchalance of the national press about what looks like an attempt in the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill to corrupt our legal system. The changes in this Bill will proceed; on the other hand, there is hard and soft law, and if the abuses that undoubtedly took place are going to be kept under control in future, it is important that the soft law—if that is the way we are going—deals with the problem. The difficulty is there is not sufficiently wide public confidence in the self-regulatory system that is in place. There still are abuses from the national newspapers, although not what we saw previously, but the confidence is not there, and they need to look at themselves to see if they think they can improve their standing in the wider world, which underpins their acceptability and long-term sustainability. Maybe a bit of blood on the carpet will help.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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I am grateful to the noble Lord, and I say to my noble friend on the Front Bench that we are still on an advisory speaking time. The noble Lord made a very important point about parliamentary oversight of the powers delegated or devolved to regulators through various pieces of legislation that have gone through Parliament in the last few months. The solution is to expand our existing Select Committee capacity to manage that and not to try and manage it through our existing capacity, because we do not have the relevant resources and we need more. I have tabled an amendment to the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill precisely to meet that objective, and I urge the noble Lord to support it when it is debated in a couple of weeks’ time.

Lord Inglewood Portrait Lord Inglewood (Non-Afl)
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I was delighted to hear what the noble Baroness said. My remarks were clearly justified because they elicited that remark from her and got her on her feet to tell us all about it.

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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If I may, I will point the noble Lord to the answers we have given which set out some of the timelines; there are different timelines under the different Acts and the work that Ofcom and the Competition and Markets Authority do. I will set them out, rather than try to give them off the top of my head, but I have answered questions from this Dispatch Box before and will continue to do that and through Written Questions where possible.

I pointed my noble friend Lord Forsyth to the Enterprise Act and the National Security and Investment Act, which cover the actions available to the Secretary of State, including where she has concerns about media freedom and freedom of expression. As my noble friend indicated, his lively discussions with the Public Bill Office and his resorting to this regret amendment reflect that this is not a matter for this Bill, but, as the contribution from our noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston showed, she has had more success with tabling an amendment to the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill. I would certainly encourage them both to continue their conversations with my noble friends Lord Camrose and Lord Offord of Garvel.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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I am grateful for what my noble friend has just said, but am I to take it from what he said to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, that the DCMS is not going to engage in this matter at all? Am I to direct my questions to the noble Lords who are responsible for the DMCC Bill?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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As it falls to my noble friends Lord Camrose and Lord Offord to take that Bill through, it will be more fruitful to have the discussions with them—they will be having them on behalf of the whole Government. But, as my noble friend will appreciate, because my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has a quasi-judicial role, she is limited in what she can say, and so it limits what we can say. I am very happy to continue to answer questions on the process while my noble friends continue their discussions with my noble friends who are answering for the Government on the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill. I look forward to the discussions with my noble friend Lord Forsyth, who I hope will not press his regret amendment this evening. With that, I beg to move.

Telegraph Media Group: Proposed Sale to RedBird IMI

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Excerpts
Wednesday 31st January 2024

(2 months, 1 week ago)

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay) (Con)
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I am grateful to the noble Lord for his questions and welcome him to the ranks of Telegraph and Spectator readers—I hope he will enjoy what he sees in their pages. He will understand that the Secretary of State is acting in a quasi-judicial capacity following the provisions laid out in the Enterprise Act 2002. She is considering whether mergers raise media public interest concerns. She has issued public interest intervention notices, reflecting the concerns that she continues to have that there may be public interest considerations in this case: the

“accurate presentation of news; and … free expression of opinion”

as set out in Section 58 of the Enterprise Act, which are relevant to this planned acquisition. I hope the noble Lord will understand that, as she is acting in a quasi-judicial capacity, it is essential that she does not take into account, and that there be no perception that she has taken or is taking into account, any political or presentational considerations. I therefore find myself in the same position as my honourable friend Julia Lopez in another place yesterday in being limited in what I can say while that quasi-judicial process unfurls.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, alluded to, the strength of feeling against this deal in the House of Commons yesterday was widespread and from all quarters of that place, and I would be surprised if there was much support in this House for the deal going ahead. Notwithstanding what my noble friend said about the Secretary of State acting in a quasi-judicial capacity in considering this matter, could he none the less give us an indication of how soon the Secretary of State can reach her decision? It seems to most people that the reasons for objecting to this deal are fundamental and points of principle, not necessarily points of technicality, and it should not require a great deal of time for her to reach her decision.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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The public interest intervention notices which the Secretary of State issued trigger the requirement for the Competition and Markets Authority to report to her on jurisdictional and competition matters and for Ofcom to report to her on the specified media public interest considerations. She has asked them to submit their reports by 9 am on 11 March 2024.

BBC: Funding

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Excerpts
Wednesday 17th January 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

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Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, the convention in this House is to shout “Stowell”, but I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Vaizey for his support. The Communications and Digital Committee published a report on BBC future funding 18 months ago, in which we found that the status quo is not an option. Decisions about how to fund the BBC in the future are becoming increasingly urgent. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that, for this review to be meaningful, it is important that the BBC itself sets out its proposals for its role in the next 10 to 15 years and how it will change to fulfil that role? What is happening to meet that need as part of the Government’s efforts?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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My noble friend and the other members of the committee she chairs do valuable work in scrutinising and adding to the thinking for both the BBC and the Government. The BBC is obviously independent, and it is for it to decide how to take forward the recommendations that the committee makes. However, we would like to understand the BBC’s perspectives and make sure that they are clearly understood and factored into the review and, ultimately, any decisions on the BBC’s funding model. We look forward to working closely with the BBC and my noble friend and her committee as we do that.

Royal Albert Hall Bill [HL]

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Excerpts
Thursday 19th October 2023

(5 months, 3 weeks ago)

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Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, and I echo his remarks about my noble friend Lord Harrington and the way he introduced this Second Reading debate. Like the noble Viscount and my noble friend, I too am a great admirer of the Royal Albert Hall in terms of its importance as a cultural and national institution. It has formed part of my own past too; in fact, only the second time I visited London was to go to the Royal Albert Hall as a teenager, so it is something of which I too have fond memories.

I also recognise, as my noble friend made clear, that he is one of the minority group of five appointed trustees and not one of the 18 majority seat-holders. So I reassure him that my criticisms are not directed at him—but I will have a question or two for him as a member of the hall’s trustee board.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Hodgson for ensuring that the debate is happening today and for his tireless pursuit of addressing the current shortcomings of governance at the Royal Albert Hall. I look forward to his and other speeches today, and any proposed remedies that they may wish to suggest that we look at during later stages.

I am not an opponent of the Bill, as I think my noble friend is categorising those of us speaking today, but it takes some audacity for the trustees of the Royal Albert Hall to submit a Bill requesting more decision-making powers without addressing their unacceptable conflicts of interest policy. To be clear, as the noble Viscount said, the fundamental problem with the Royal Albert Hall’s governance regime is that, contrary to standard charity law, its trustees can benefit privately from the decisions that they make about how the hall is run. Noble Lords familiar with charity law will spot immediately that this flies in the face of standard legal practice, which prevents private benefit for trustees. While the Royal Albert Hall’s set-up is perfectly legal, it is none the less unique.

To be fair, a combination of previous Acts of Parliament and the hall’s historic constitution does not render the situation illegal. But in today’s modern world—where public trust in institutions is low and expectations of accountability high; boxes and seats at the Royal Albert Hall are bought and sold for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pounds; and trustees of a charity can sell their tickets for concerts at prices at least 10 times their face value—the situation at the Royal Albert Hall seems, to me at least, to be completely unacceptable.

I remind your Lordships that I chaired the Charity Commission from March 2018 to February 2021, but I have no interest to declare and no ongoing involvement in this case, so I speak today in a purely personal capacity. I will come back later to the general practice of private seat-holders and ticket sales at the hall, as there is some connection to some of the general points I want to make, but I must emphasise that what private seat-holders at the Royal Albert Hall do with their own private property is their business and not mine—I well understand that. My concern and focus are on the trustees of a charity, not those who are not responsible for the charity itself, and my concern is that the board of trustees has failed to modernise the hall’s governance to protect its interests and reputation as a charity.

The Charity Commission was engaged in this matter long before I was appointed its chair. At the time of my arrival in post, the then Attorney-General had recently given permission for the regulator to refer the matter to the charity tribunal to clarify some legal questions about its charitable status. That was necessary because the hall had resisted dealing with the trustees’ conflicts of interest. As my noble friend said, they have an existing policy; it would be unfair to say that there is no policy. There is a policy—it exists and is there for anybody to read on its website—but it is a policy, in the minds of the Charity Commission, that is inadequate for the conflicts that exist by virtue of their dual interest. Unfortunately, it seems that, threatened with a judicial review, the Attorney-General withdrew permission and requested that the Charity Commission revise the questions and resubmit its application for the Attorney-General’s approval again.

While that was ongoing, I held several meetings with the then president and his successor to see whether we could resolve the matter without referral to the courts. Originally, the Charity Commission proposed changing the composition of the board so that the majority of trustees were not seat-holders and to introduce a regime so that decisions that might benefit trustees could be made by a quorum of non-seat-holders. Unfortunately, that was rejected. Failing to get the hall’s agreement to that, the Charity Commission proposed a new formulation of members—but that too was rejected. The board of trustees has even, as I understand it, resisted making any internal changes to guarantee that seat-holding trustees cannot sell seat tickets for anything other than face value or via the hall’s ticket office during their time sitting on the board. These are simple, straightforward measures that, I think, most people would expect as reasonable of trustees responsible for a charity.

When it comes to the benefits that private seat-holders who are trustees gain during their time on the board, the annual report of the Royal Albert Hall does not even declare how many seats the trustees or their close family members own or the income that they have derived from them. Ultimately, referring the case to the tribunal seemed to be the only way to find a resolution; but, as noble Lords have already heard, successive Attorney-Generals dodged the decision until, eventually, one of them rejected the Charity Commission’s request.

The hall has always maintained that what it wanted was a new Act of Parliament to modernise its governance and that there were outstanding issues that needed to be addressed. That is clear, as my noble friend has laid out, in the Bill that it has put forward, but the Bill fails to address the fundamental flaw in its model and any of the issues that have been of concern to the Charity Commission for the last 13 years.

As I said, it is important not to conflate the private property rights of seat-holders with the responsibility of the charity’s trustees, but that is what the trustees’ failure to act is doing. Increasingly, artists are objecting to the sale of tickets to their concerts at inflated prices. The hall argues that there is a difference between sale and resale because of their private property rights, but that kind of argument does not wash with fans when the effect on their pockets between resale and sale is the same. It is also worth reminding ourselves that the BBC Proms, the world’s largest classical music festival, is funded by licence fee payers. Yet that does not deter the sale of seats at massively inflated prices and for all we know—we do not know—some of those inflated tickets may be being sold by seat-holding trustees. We just do not know.

Retaining charitable status is clearly important to the hall’s trustees. Losing it was a big concern if the matter of this conflict got as far as a tribunal. It is also worth reminding ourselves, as my noble friend said at the start, that the Royal Albert Hall has not always been a charity, but if that is what it wants to remain, the hall’s trustees need to make some choices. Now is the time for them to modernise their governance and bring it in line with the rest of those charities on the register. I think it is as simple as that.

Just before I close, I have two questions. I ask my noble friend the Minister whether the Government set out any expectations of the hall in terms of modernising its governance at the time of its £20 million recovery loan during Covid. If they did not take that opportunity then, could he explain why not? Could my noble friend Lord Harrington tell us when the board last discussed how to deal with the conflict of interests of its seat-holding trustees and why it chose not to put that in the Bill? Also, has there been any recent discussion about what internal changes trustees could make to their own policies to bring them in line—something as straightforward as saying that for the period that somebody sits on the board, they must resist, or be refused the option of, selling their tickets for anything other than at face value via the ticket office? Clearly, the procedure for this private Bill makes amendments difficult, but I very much hope that as it proceeds to its later stages, that is something we are able to secure.

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Lord Harrington of Watford Portrait Lord Harrington of Watford (Con)
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My Lords, I have never been in a debate where I have been complimented so much at the beginning of everyone’s speech and then had almost everything I said disagreed with afterwards. I thank noble Lords for their contributions. The noble Baroness, Lady Fraser, referred to the people who spoke as “gadflies”—I believe that was the expression. With due deference to my noble friend Lord Hodgson, Robin Hodgson and his merry men comes to mind, although I do not think he would quite articulate this Bill in terms of taking from the rich and giving to the poor. I will leave that for him to consider.

In all seriousness, the core point, as far as I can tell, is that the hall’s perspective of the conflict point—which has been brought up by nearly all speakers—is that the existing arrangements with the majority of what would be perceived as conflicted trustees are not really enough for a charity to progress itself in a charitable manner.

My noble friend Lady Stowell asked me when the conflict rules were last changed—that was in 2022—and what discussions there have been about conflicts. There is an independent conflicts committee, none of whose members are trustees. That meets routinely after every council meeting, so there is a process. I accept the argument that it may not be enough and that it does not deal with conflicts properly. That argument can be made, but it is not taken lightly.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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Just to clarify, that conflicts committee meets after the decisions have been made by members who are conflicted.

Lord Harrington of Watford Portrait Lord Harrington of Watford (Con)
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Other than the fact that ongoing conflicts are discussed—it is not the conflicts that have come out in that council meeting, it is future conflicts. However, I accept there is an argument. I would argue, of course, that it is nothing whatever to do with the Bill. It is an argument, and it was very well articulated by other noble Lords.

I was impressed, as ever, by my noble friend Lord Hodgson’s and other noble Lords’ screenshots—I do not know how to do them—and technical knowledge, and by my noble friend’s serious point about tickets for Ed Sheeran and others going for large amounts of money. However, that implies that the people who own those seats have done something wrong by selling them. They own them and they are selling the seats that belong to them on the market, however crazy the market might be. I am pleased to see present Sharon Hodgson, the chairman of the APPG on such matters. She and I have discussed viagogo, for example, but I do not believe that that issue is relevant because those people own those seats.

Online Safety Bill

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Excerpts
Lord Rooker Portrait Lord Rooker (Lab)
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I am very surprised that the Minister’s speech did not accede to the recommendations from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, published last week, in the report we made after we were forced to meet during the Recess because of the Government’s failure with this Bill. From his private office, we want answers to what is set out in paragraphs 6 and 7:

“We urge the Minister to take the opportunity during the remaining stages of the Bill”—


which is today—

“to explain to the House”—

I will not read out the rest because it is quite clear. There are two issues—Henry VIII powers and skeleton legislation—and we require the Minister to accede to this report from a committee of the House.

I think that every member of the committee was present at the meeting on 29 August, the day after the bank holiday. We were forced to do that because the Government published amendments to Clauses 216 and 217 on 5 July, but they did not provide a delegated powers memorandum until 17 July, the date they were debated in this House. That prevented a committee of the House being able to report to the House on the issue of delegated powers. We are not interested in policy; all we are looking at is the delegated powers. We agreed that one of us would be here—as it is not a policy issue—to seek that the Minister responds to the recommendations of this committee of the House. I am very surprised that he has not done that.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, I am very concerned to hear the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. I certainly look forward to hearing what the Minister says in reply. I confess that I was not aware of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Powers Committee’s report to which he referred, and I wish to make myself familiar with it. I hope that he gets a suitable response from the Minister when he comes to wind up.

I am very grateful to the Minister for the amendments he tabled to Clause 44—Amendments 1 and 2. As he said, they ensure that there is transparency in the way that the Secretary of State exercises her power to issue a direction to Ofcom over its codes of practice. I remind the House—I will not detain your Lordships for very long—that the Communications and Digital Select Committee, which I have the privilege to chair, was concerned with the original Clause 39 for three main reasons: first, as it stood, the Bill handed the Secretary of State unprecedented powers to direct the regulator on pretty much anything; secondly, those directions could be made without Parliament knowing; and, thirdly, the process of direction could involve a form of ping-pong between government and regulator that could go on indefinitely.

However, over the course of the Bill’s passage, and as a result of our debates, I am pleased to say that, taken as a package, the various amendments tabled by the Government—not just today but at earlier stages, including on Report—mean that our concerns have been met. The areas where the Secretary of State can issue a direction now follow the precedent set by the Communications Act 2003, and the test for issuing them is much higher. As of today, via these amendments, the directions must be published and laid before Parliament. That is critical and is what we asked for on Report. Also, via these amendments, if the Secretary of State has good reason not to publish—namely, if it could present a risk to national security—she will still be required to inform Parliament that the direction has been made and of the reasons for not publishing. Once the code is finalised and laid before Parliament for approval, Ofcom must publish what has changed as a result of the directions. I would have liked to have seen a further amendment limiting the number of exchanges, so that there is no danger of infinite ping-pong between government and regulator, but I am satisfied that, taken together, these amendments make the likelihood of that much lower, and the transparency we have achieved means that Parliament can intervene.

Finally, at the moment, the platforms and social media companies have a huge amount of unaccountable power. As I have said many times, for me, the Bill is about ensuring greater accountability to the public, but that cannot be achieved by simply shifting power from the platforms to a regulator. Proper accountability to the public means ensuring a proper balance of power between the corporations, the regulator, government and Parliament. The changes we have made to the Bill ensure the balance is now much better between government and the regulator. Where I still think we have work to do is on parliamentary oversight of the regulator, in which so much power is being invested. Parliamentary oversight is not a matter for legislation, but it is something we will need to return to. In the meantime, I once again thank the Minister and his officials for their engagement and for the amendments that have been made.

Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Portrait Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick (Lab)
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My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for his engagement and for the amendments he has tabled at various stages throughout the passage of the Bill.

Amendment 15 provides a definition:

““age assurance” means age verification or age estimation”.

When the Minister winds up, could he provide details of the framework or timetable for its implementation? While we all respect that implementation must be delivered quickly, age verification provisions will be worthless unless there is swift enforcement action against those who transgress the Bill’s provisions. Will the Minister comment on enforcement and an implementation framework with direct reference to Amendment 15?

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Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, I shall ask my noble friend the Minister a question about encryption but, before I do, I will briefly make a couple of other points. First, I echo all the tributes paid around the House to those involved in this legislation. It is no secret that I would have preferred the Bill to be about only child safety, so I particularly congratulate the Government, and the various Members who focused their efforts in that area, on what has been achieved via the Bill.

That said, the Government should still consider other non-legislative measures, such as banning smartphones in schools and government guidance for parents on things such as the best age at which to allow their children to have their own smartphones. These may not be points for DCMS, but they are worth highlighting at this point, as the Bill leaves us, soon to become legislation.

As I said on Report, I remain concerned about the reintroduction of some protections for adults, in lieu of “legal but harmful”, without any corresponding amendments to reinforce to Ofcom that freedom of expression must be the top priority for adults. We now have to leave it to Ofcom and see what happens. I know that the current leadership is deeply conscious of its responsibilities.

On encryption, I was pleased to hear what my noble friend said when he responded to the debate at Third Reading. If he is saying that the technology not existing means that Clause 122 cannot be deployed, as it were, by Ofcom, does that mean that the oversight measures that currently exist would not be deployed? As my noble friend will recall, one of the areas that we were still concerned about in the context of encryption was that what was in the Bill did not mirror what exists for RIPA. I am not sure whether that means that, because Clause 122 has been parked, our oversight concerns have been parked too. It would be helpful if the Minister could clarify that.

In the meantime, in the absence of Clause 122, it is worth us all reinforcing again that we want the tech firms to co-operate fully with law enforcement, either because a user has alerted them to illegal activity or when law enforcement suspects criminal behaviour and seeks their help. In that latter context, it would be helpful to understand what the Minister has said and to know what oversight that might involve. I congratulate my noble friend on this marathon Bill, and I am sorry to have delayed its passing.

Lord Allan of Hallam Portrait Lord Allan of Hallam (LD)
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My Lords, I will make a short contribution so that I do not disappoint the noble Lord, Lord Moylan; I will make a few direct and crunchy comments. First, I thank colleagues who participated in the debate for giving me a hearing, especially when I raised concerns about their proposals. It has been a constructive process, where we have been, as the Minister said, kicking the tyres, which is healthy in a legislature. It is better to do it now than to find faults when something has already become law.

I am in the unusual position of having worked on problems comparable to those we are now placing on Ofcom’s desk. I have enormous empathy for it and the hard work we are giving it. I do not think we should underestimate just how difficult this job is.

I want to thank the Minister for the additional clarification of how Ofcom will give orders to services that provide private communications. Following on from what the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, said, I think this is a challenging area. We want Ofcom to give orders where this is easy—for example, to an unencrypted service hosting child sexual abuse material. The technology can be deployed today and is uncontroversial, so it is important that we do not forget that.

I heard the Minister say that we do not want Ofcom to move so fast that it breaks encryption. It should be moving but it should be careful. Those are the fears that have been expressed outside: on the day that this becomes law, Ofcom will issue orders to services providing encrypted communications that they will not be able to accept and therefore they will leave the UK. I think I heard from the Minister today that this is not what we want Ofcom to do. At the same time, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell said, we are not expecting Ofcom to ease off; any online service should be doing everything technically possible and feasible to deal with abhorrent material.

I humbly offer three pieces of advice to Ofcom as we pass the baton to it. This is based on having made a lot of mistakes in the past. If I had been given this advice, I might have done a better job in my previous incarnation. First, you cannot overconsult; Ofcom should engage with all interested parties, including those who have talked to us throughout the process of the Bill. It should engage with them until it is sick of engaging with them and then it should engage some more. In particular, Ofcom should try to bring together diverse groups, so I hope it gets into a room the kind of organisations that would be cheering on the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, as well as those that would be cheering on the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. If Ofcom can bring them into the room, it has a chance of making some progress with its regulations.

Secondly, be transparent. The more information that Ofcom provides about what it is doing, the less space it will leave for people to make up things about what it is doing. I said this in the previous debate about the access request but it applies across the piece. We are starting to see some of this in the press. We are here saying that it is great that we now have a government regulator—independent but part of the UK state—overseeing online services. As soon as that happens, we will start to see the counterreaction of people being incredibly suspicious that part of the UK state is now overseeing their activity online. The best way to combat that is for Ofcom to be as transparent as possible.

Thirdly, explain the trade-offs you are making. This legislation necessarily involves trade-offs. I heard it again in the Minister’s opening remarks: we have indulged in a certain amount of cakeism. We love freedom of expression but we want the platforms to get rid of all the bad stuff. The rubber is going to hit the road once Ofcom has the powers and, in many cases, it will have to decide between one person’s freedom of expression and another’s harm. My advice is not to pretend that you can make both sides happy; you are going to disappoint someone. Be honest and frank about the trade-offs you have made. The legislation has lots of unresolved trade-offs in it because we are giving lots of conflicting instructions. As politicians, we can ride that out, but when Ofcom gets this and has to make real decisions, my advice would be to explain the trade-offs and be comfortable with the fact that some people will be unhappy. That is the only way it will manage to maintain confidence in the system. With that, I am pleased that the Bill has got to this stage and I have a huge amount of confidence in Ofcom to take this and make a success of it.

Online Safety Bill

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Excerpts
Lord Hope of Craighead Portrait Lord Hope of Craighead (CB)
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My Lords, I offer my support to the amendment. I spent some time arguing in the retained EU law Bill for increased parliamentary scrutiny. My various amendments did not succeed but at the end of the day—on the final day of ping-pong—the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, gave certain assurances based on what is in Schedule 5 to that Act, as it now is, involving scrutiny through committees. So the basic scheme which my noble kinsman has proposed is one which has a certain amount of precedent—although it is not an exact precedent; what might have been the “Callanan rule” is still open to reconstruction as the “Parkinson rule”. I support the amendment in principle.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, as the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson and Lord Clement-Jones, have already said, the Communications and Digital Select Committee did indeed recommend a new Joint Committee of both Houses to look specifically at the various different aspects of Ofcom’s implementation of what will be the Online Safety Act and ongoing regulation of digital matters. It is something I still have a lot of sympathy for. However, there has not been much appetite for such a Joint Committee at the other end of the Corridor. I do not necessarily think we should give up on that, and I will come back to that in a moment, but in place of that, I am not keen on what is proposed in Amendment 239, because my fear about how that is laid out is that it introduces something that appears a bit too burdensome and probably introduces too much delay in implementation.

To return to the bigger question, I think that we as parliamentarians need to reflect on our oversight of regulators, to which we are delegating significant new powers and requiring them to adopt a much more principles-based approach to regulation to cope with the fast pace of change in the technological world. We have to reflect on whether our current set-up is adequate for the way in which that is changing. What I have in mind is very much a strategic level of oversight, rather than scrutinising operational decisions, although, notwithstanding what the noble Lord has said, something specific in terms of implementation of the Bill and other new legislation is an area I would certainly wish to explore further.

The other aspect of this is making sure that our regulators keep pace too, not just with technology, and apply the new powers we give them in a way which meets our original intentions, but with the new political dynamics. Earlier today in your Lordships’ Chamber, there was a Question about how banks are dealing with political issues, and that raises questions about how the FCA is regulating the banking community. We must not forget that the Bill is about regulating content, and that makes it ever more sensitive. We need to keep reminding ourselves about this; it is very new and very different.

As has been acknowledged, there will continue to be a role for the Communications and Digital Select Committee, which I have the great privilege of chairing, in overseeing Ofcom. My noble friend Lord Grade and Dame Melanie Dawes appeared before us only a week ago. There is a role for the SIT Committee in the Commons; there is also probably some kind of ongoing role for the DCMS Select Committee in the Commons too, I am not sure. In a way, the fractured nature of that oversight makes it all the more critical that we join up a bit more. So I will take it upon myself to give this more thought and speak to the respective chairs of those committees in the other place, but I think that at some point we will need to consider, in some other fora, the way in which we are overseeing the work of regulators.

At some point, I think we will need to address the specific recommendations in the pre-legislative committee’s report, which were very much in line with what my own committee thought was right for the future of digital regulatory oversight, but on this occasion, I will not be supporting the specifics of Amendment 239.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, very briefly, I was pleased to see this, in whatever form it takes, because as we finish off the Bill, one thing that has come up consistently is that some of us have raised problems of potential unintended consequences, such as whether age gating will lead to a huge invasion of the privacy of adults rather than just narrowly protecting children, or whether the powers given to Ofcom will turn it into the most important and powerful regulator in the country, if not in Europe. In a highly complex Bill, is it possible for us to keep our eye on it a bit more than just by whingeing on the sidelines?

The noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, makes a very important point about the issue in relation to the FCA and banking. Nobody intended that to be the outcome of PEPs, for example, and nobody intended when they suggested encouraging banks to have values such as ESG or EDI—equality, diversity and inclusion—that that would lead to ordinary citizens of this country being threatened with having their banking turned off. It is too late to then retrospectively say, “That wasn’t what we ever intended”.

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Baroness Harding of Winscombe Portrait Baroness Harding of Winscombe (Con)
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My Lords, I promise to speak very briefly. I welcome the Government’s amendments. I particularly welcome that they appear to mirror partly some of the safeguards that are embedded in the Investigatory Powers Act 2016.

I have one question for my noble friend the Minister about the wording, “a skilled person”. I am worried that “a skilled person” is a very vague term. I have been taken all through the course of this Bill by the comparison with the Investigatory Powers Act and the need to think carefully about how we balance the importance of privacy with the imperative of protecting our children and being able to track down the most evil and wicked perpetrators online. That is very similar to the debates that we had here several years ago on the Investigatory Powers Act.

The IPA created the Technical Advisory Board. It is not a decision-making body. Its purpose is to advise the Investigatory Powers Commissioner and judicial commissioners on the impact of changing technology and the development of techniques to use investigatory powers while maintaining privacy. It is an expert panel constituted to advise the regulator—in this case, the judicial commissioner—specifically on technology interventions that must balance this really difficult trade-off between privacy and child protection. Why have we not followed the same recipe? Rather than having a skilled person, why would we not have a technology advisory panel of a similar standing where it is clear to all who the members are. Those members would be required to produce a regular report. It might not need to be as regular as the IPA one, but it would just take what the Government have already laid one step further towards institutionalising the independent check that is really important if these Ofcom powers were ever to be used.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, I added my name to some amendments on this issue in Committee. I have not done so on Report, not least because I have been so occupied with other things and have not had the time to focus on this. However, I remain concerned about this part of the Bill. I am sympathetic to my noble friend Lord Moylan’s Amendment 255, but listening to this debate and studying all the amendments in this group, I am a little confused and so have some simple questions.

First, I heard my noble friend the Minister say that the Government have no intention to require the platforms to carry out general monitoring, but is that now specific in any of the amendments that he has tabled? Regarding the amendments which would bring further safeguards around the oversight of Ofcom’s use of this power, like my noble friend Lady Harding, I have always been concerned that the oversight approach should be in line with that for the Investigatory Powers Act and could never understand why it was not in the original version of the Bill. Like her, I am pleased that the Government have tabled some amendments, but I am not yet convinced that they go far enough.

That leads me to the amendments that have been tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson and Lord Clement-Jones, and particularly that in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam. As his noble friend Lord Clement-Jones has added his name to it, perhaps he could answer my question when he gets up. Would the safeguards that are outlined there—the introduction of the Information Commissioner—meet the concerns of the big tech companies? Do we know whether it would meet their needs and therefore lead them not to feel it necessary to withdraw their services from the UK? I am keen to understand that.

There is another thing that might be of benefit for anyone listening to this debate who is not steeped in the detail of this Bill, and I look to any of those winding up to answer it—including my noble friend the Minister. Is this an end to end-to-end encryption? Is that what is happening in this Bill? Or is this about ensuring that what is already permissible in terms of the authorities being able to use their powers to go after suspected criminals is somehow codified in this Bill to make sure it has proper safeguards around it? That is still not clear. It would be very helpful to get that clarity from my noble friend, or others.

Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell. My noble friend has spoken very cogently to Amendment 258ZA, and I say in answer to the question posed by the noble Baroness that I do not think this is designed to make big tech companies content. What it is designed to do is bring this out into the open and make it contestable; to see whether or not privacy is being invaded in these circumstances. To that extent it airs the issues and goes quite a long way towards allaying the concerns of those 80 organisations that we have heard from.

I am not going to repeat all the arguments of my noble friend, but many noble Lords, not least on the opposite Benches, have taken us through some of the potential security and privacy concerns which were also raised by my noble friends, and other reasons for us on these Benches putting forward these amendments. We recognise those concerns and indeed we recognise concerns on both sides. We have all received briefs from the NSPCC and the IWF, but I do not believe that essentially what is being proposed here in our amendments, or indeed by the amendments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, are designed in any way to prevent Ofcom doing its duty in relation to child sexual abuse and exploitation material in private messaging. We believe that review by the ICO to ensure that there is no invasion of privacy is a very useful mechanism.

We have all tried to find solutions and the Minister has put forward his stab at this with the skilled persons report. The trouble is, that does not go far enough, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, said. Effectively, Ofcom can choose the skilled person and what the skilled person is asked to advise on. It is not necessarily comprehensive and that is essentially the major flaw.

As regards the amendments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, it is interesting that the Equality and Human Rights Commission itself said:

“We are concerned by the extent and seriousness of CSEA content being shared online. But these proposed measures may be a disproportionate infringement on millions of individuals’ right to privacy where those individuals are not suspected of any wrongdoing”.


It goes on to say:

“We recommend that Ofcom should be required to apply to an independent judicial commissioner—as is the case for mass surveillance under the Investigatory Powers Act”.


I am sure that is the reason why the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, put forward his amendments; if he put them to a vote, we would follow and support. Otherwise, we will put our own amendments to the House.

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I am grateful to noble Lords for their further scrutiny of this important but complex area, and for the engagement that we have had in the days running up to it as well. We know how child sexual exploitation and abuse offenders sadly exploit private channels, and the great danger that this poses, and we know how crucial these channels are for secure communication. That is why, where necessary and proportionate, and where all the safeguards are met, it is right that Ofcom can require companies to take all technically feasible measures to remove this vile and illegal content.

The government amendments in this group will go further to ensure that a notice is well informed and targeted and does not unduly restrict users’ rights. Privacy and safety are not mutually exclusive—we can and must have both. The safety of our children depends on it.

I make it clear again that the Bill does not require companies to break or weaken end-to-end encryption on their services. Ofcom can require the use of technology on an end-to-end encrypted service only when it is technically feasible and has been assessed as meeting minimum standards of accuracy. When deciding whether to issue a notice, Ofcom will engage in continual dialogue with the company and identify reasonable, technically feasible solutions to the issues identified. As I said in opening, it is right that we require technology companies to use their considerable resources and expertise to develop the best possible protections to keep children safe in encrypted environments. They are well placed to innovate to find solutions that protect both the privacy of users and the safety of children.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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Just to be clear, am I right to understand my noble friend as saying that there is currently no technology that would be technically acceptable for tech companies to do what is being asked of them? Did he say that tech companies should be looking to develop the technology to do what may be required of them but that it is not currently available to them?

Lord Moylan Portrait Lord Moylan (Con)
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For clarification, if the answer to that is that the technology does not exist—which I believe is correct, although there are various snake oil salespeople out there claiming that it does, as the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, said—my noble friend seems to be saying that the providers and services should develop it. This seems rather circular, as the Bill says that they must adopt an approved technology, which suggests a technology that has been imposed on them. What if they cannot and still get such a notice? Is it possible that these powers will never be capable of being used, especially if they do not co-operate?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay) (Con)
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My Lords, the amendments in this group consider regulatory accountability and the roles of Ofcom, the Government and Parliament in overseeing the new framework. The proposals include altering the powers of the Secretary of State to direct Ofcom, issue guidance to Ofcom and set strategic priorities. Ofcom’s operational independence is key to the success of this framework, but the regime must ensure that there is an appropriate level of accountability to government. Parliament will also have important functions, in particular scrutinising and approving the codes of practice which set out how platforms can comply with their duties and providing oversight of the Government’s powers.

I heard the strength of feeling expressed in Committee that the Bill’s existing provisions did not get this balance quite right and have tabled amendments to address this. Amendments 129, 134 to 138, 142, 143, 146 and 147 make three important changes to the power for the Secretary of State to direct Ofcom to modify a draft code of practice. First, these amendments replace the public policy wording in Clause 39(1)(a) with a more defined list of reasons for which the Secretary of State can make a direction. This list comprises: national security, public safety, public health and the UK’s international obligations. This is similar to the list set out in a Written Ministerial Statement made last July but omits “economic policy” and “burden to business”.

This closely aligns the reasons in the Bill with the existing power in Section 5 of the Communications Act 2003. The power is limited to those areas genuinely beyond Ofcom’s remit as a regulator and where the Secretary of State might have access to information or expertise that the regulator does not. Secondly, the amendments clarify that the power will be used only for exceptional reasons. As noble Lords know, this has always been our intent and the changes we are tabling today put this beyond doubt. Thirdly, the amendments increase the transparency regarding the use of the power by requiring the Secretary of State to publish details of a direction at the time the power is used. This will ensure that Parliament has advance sight of modifications to a code and I hope will address concerns that several directions could be made on a single code before Parliament became aware.

This group also considers Amendments 131 to 133, which create an 18-month statutory deadline for Ofcom to submit draft codes of practice to the Secretary of State to be laid in Parliament relating to illegal content, safety duties protecting children and other cross-cutting duties. These amendments sit alongside Amendment 230, which we debated on Monday and which introduced the same deadline for Ofcom’s guidance on Part 5 of the regime.

I am particularly grateful to my noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston, with whom I have had the opportunity to discuss these amendments in some detail as they follow up points that she and the members of her committee gave particular attention to. I beg to move.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, I will speak to the amendments in this group in my name: Amendments 139, 140, 144 and 145. I thank the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson and Lord Clement-Jones, and the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, for signing those amendments and for their continued support on this group. I am also grateful to my noble friend the Minister and his team for engaging with me on the issue of Secretary of State powers. He has devoted a lot of time and energy to this, which is reflected in the wide- ranging group of amendments tabled by him.

Before I go any further, it is worth emphasising that the underlying concern here is making sure that we have confidence, through this new regulation regime, that the Bill strikes the right balance of power between government, Parliament, the regulator and big tech firms. The committee that I chair—the Communications and Digital Select Committee of your Lordships’ House—has most focused on that in our consideration of the Bill. I should say also that the amendments I have brought forward in my name very much have the support of the committee as well.

These amendments relate to Clause 39, which is where the main issue lies in the context of Secretary of State powers, and we have three broad concerns. First, as it stood, the Bill handed the Secretary of State unprecedented powers to direct the regulator on pretty much anything. Secondly, these powers allowed the Government to conduct an infinite form of ping-pong with the regulator, enabling the Government to prevail in a dispute. Thirdly, this ping-pong could take place in private with no possibility of parliamentary oversight or being able to intervene, as would be appropriate in the event of a breakdown in the relationship between executive and regulator.

This matters because the Online Safety Bill creates a novel form for regulating the internet and what we can or cannot see online, in particular political speech, and it applies to the future. It is one thing for the current Government, who I support, to say that they would never use the powers in this way. That is great but, as we know, current Governments cannot speak for whoever is in power in the generations to come, so it is important that we get this right.

As my noble friend said, he has brought forward amendments to Clause 39 that help to address this. I support him in and commend him for that. The original laundry list of powers to direct Ofcom has been shortened and now follows the precedent set out in the Communications Act 2003. The government amendments also say that the Secretary of State must now publish their directions to Ofcom, which will improve transparency, and once the code is agreed Ofcom will publish changes so that Parliament can see what changes have been made and why. These are all very welcome and, as I say, they go a long way to addressing some of our concerns, but two critical issues remain.

First, the Government retain an opt-out, which means that they do not have to publish their directions if the Secretary of State believes that doing so would risk

“national security or public safety”,

or international relations. However, those points are now the precise grounds on which the Secretary of State may issue a direction and, if history is any guide, there is a real risk that we will never hear about the directions because the Government have decided that they are a security issue.

My Amendments 139 and 140 would require the Secretary of State to at least notify Parliament of the fact that a direction has been issued and what broad topic it relates to. That would not require any details to be published, so it does not compromise security, but it does give assurance that infinite, secretive ping-pong is not happening behind the scenes. My noble friend spoke so quickly at the beginning that I was not quite sure whether he signalled anything, but I hope that he may be able to respond enthusiastically to Amendments 139 and 140.

Secondly, the Government still have powers for infinite ping-pong. I appreciate that the Government have reservations about capping the number of exchanges between the Secretary of State and Ofcom, but they must also recognise the concern that they appear to be preparing the ground for any future Government to reject infinitely the regulator’s proposals and therefore prevail in a dispute about a politically contentious topic. My Amendments 144 and 145 would clarify that the Government will have a legally binding expectation that they will use no more than the bare minimum number of directions to achieve the intent set out in their first direction.

The Government might think that adding this to the Bill is superfluous, but it is necessary in order to give Parliament and the public confidence about the balance of power in this regime. If Parliament felt that the Secretary of State was acting inappropriately, we would have sufficient grounds to intervene. As I said, the Government acknowledged in our discussions the policy substance of these concerns, and as we heard from my noble friend the Minister in introducing this group, there is an understanding on this. For his part, there is perhaps a belief that what they have done goes far enough. I urge him to reconsider Amendments 144 and 145, and I hope that, when he responds to the debate on this group, he can say something about not only Amendments 139 and 140 but the other two amendments that will give me some grounds for comfort.

Lord Moylan Portrait Lord Moylan (Con)
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My Lords, I realise that I am something of a fish out of water in this House, as I was in Committee, on the Bill, which is fundamentally flawed in a number of respects, including its approach to governance, which we are discussing today. Having said that, I am generally sympathetic to the amendments proposed by my noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston. If we are to have a flawed approach, her amendments would improve it somewhat.

However, my approach is rather different and is based on the fairly simple but important principle that we live in a free democracy. If we are to introduce a new legislative measure such as this Bill, which has far- reaching powers of censorship taking us back 70 or 80 years in terms of the freedom of expression we have been able to develop since the 1950s and 1960s— to the days of Lady Chatterleys Lover and the Lord Chamberlain, in equivalent terms, as far as the internet and the online world are concerned—then decisions of such a far-reaching character affecting our lives should be taken by somebody who is democratically accountable.

My approach is utterly different from that which my noble friend on the Front Bench has proposed. He has proposed amendments which limit yet further the Secretary of State’s power to give directions to Ofcom, but the Secretary of State is the only party in that relationship who has a democratic accountability. We are transferring huge powers to a completely unaccountable regulator, and today my noble friend proposes transferring, in effect, even more powers to that unaccountable regulator.

To go back to a point that was discussed in Committee and earlier on Report, if Ofcom takes certain decisions which make it impossible for Wikipedia to operate its current model, such that it has to close down at least its minority language websites—my noble friend said that the Government have no say over that and no idea what Ofcom will do—to whom do members of the public protest? To whom do they offer their objections? There is no point writing to the Secretary of State because, as my noble friend told us, they will not have had any say in the matter and we in this House will have forsworn the opportunity, which I modestly proposed, to take those powers here. There is no point writing to their MP, because all their MP can do is badger the Secretary of State. It is a completely unaccountable structure that is completely indefensible in a modern democratic society. So I object to the amendments proposed by my noble friend, particularly Amendments 136 and 137.

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Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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I am grateful to my noble friend for his constructive response to my Amendments 139 and 140. I am sure he will do me the honour of allowing me to see the Government’s reversioning of my amendments before they are laid so that we can be confident at Third Reading that they are absolutely in line with expectations.

Could I press my noble friend a little further on Amendments 144 and 145? As I understood what he said, the objection from within government is to the language in the amendments I have tabled—although as my noble friend Lady Harding said, they are incredibly modest in their nature.

I was not sure whether my noble friend was saying in his defence against accepting them that issuing a direction would have to be exceptional, and that that led to a need to clarify that this would be ongoing. Would each time there is a ping or a pong be exceptional? Forgive me, because it starts to sound a bit ridiculous when we get into this amount of detail, but it seems to me that the “exceptional” issue kicks in at the point where you issue the direction. Once you engage in a dialogue, “exceptional” is no longer really the issue. It is an odd defence against trying to limit the number of times you allow that dialogue to continue. Bearing in mind that he is willing to look again at Amendments 139 and 140, I wonder whether, between now and Third Reading, he would at least ask parliamentary counsel to look again at the language in my original amendment.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I am certainly happy to commit to showing my noble friend the tidying up we think necessary of the two amendments I said we are happy to accept ahead of Third Reading. On the others, as I said, the code could be delayed repeatedly only if the Secretary of State showed that there remained exceptional reasons once it had been modified, and that high bar would need to be met each time. So we do not agree with her Amendments 14 and 145 because of concerns about the drafting of my noble friend’s current amendment and because the government amendments we have brought forward cater for the scenario about which she is concerned. Her amendments would place a constraint on the Secretary of State not to give more directions than are necessary to achieve the objectives set out in the original direction, but they would not achieve the intent I think my noble friend has. The Bill does not require the direction to have a particular objective. Directions are made because the Secretary of State believes that modifications are necessary for exceptional reasons, and the direction must set out the reasons why the Secretary of State believes that a draft should be modified.

Through the amendments the Government have laid today, the direction would have to be for exceptional reasons relating to a narrower list and Parliament would be made aware each time a direction was made. Parliament would also have increased scrutiny in cases where a direction had been made under Clause 39(1)(a), because of the affirmative procedure. However, I am very happy to keep talking to my noble friend, as we will be on the other amendments, so we can carry on our conversation then if she wishes.

Let me say a bit about the amendments tabled by my noble friend Lord Moylan. His Amendment 218 would require the draft statement of strategic priorities laid before Parliament to be approved by resolution of each House. As we discussed in Committee, the statement of strategic priorities is necessary because future technological changes are likely to shape harms online, and the Government must have an avenue through which to state their strategic priorities in relation to these emerging technologies.

The Bill already requires the Secretary of State to consult Ofcom and other appropriate persons when preparing a statement. This provides an opportunity for consideration and scrutiny of a draft statement, including, for example, by committees of Parliament. This process, combined with the negative procedure, provides an appropriate level of scrutiny and is in line with comparable existing arrangements in the Communications Act in relation to telecommunications, the management of radio spectrum and postal services.

My noble friend’s other amendments would place additional requirements on the Secretary of State’s power to issue non-binding guidance to Ofcom about the exercise of its online safety functions. The guidance document itself does not create any statutory requirements —Ofcom is required only to have regard to the guidance —and on that basis, we do not agree that it is necessary to subject it to parliamentary approval as a piece of secondary legislation. As my noble friend Lady Harding of Winscombe pointed out, we do not require that in numerous other areas of the economy, and we do not think it necessary here.

Let me reassure my noble friend Lord Moylan on the many ways in which Parliament will be able to scrutinise the work of Ofcom. Like most other regulators, it is accountable to Parliament in how it exercises its functions. The Secretary of State is required to present its annual report and accounts before both Houses. Ministers from the devolved Administrations must also lay a copy of the report before their respective Parliament or Assembly. Ofcom’s officers can be required to appear before Select Committees to answer questions about its work; indeed, its chairman and chief executive appeared before your Lordships’ Communications and Digital Committee just yesterday. Parliament will also have a role in approving a number of aspects of the regulatory framework through its scrutiny of both primary and secondary legislation.

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Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I am completely opposed to Amendments 159 and 160, but the noble Lords, Lord Faulks and Lord Black, and the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, have explained the issues perfectly. I am fully in agreement with what they said. I spoke at length in Committee on that very topic. This is a debate we will undoubtedly come back to in the media Bill. I, for one, am extremely disappointed that the Labour Party has said that it will not repeal Section 40. I am sure that these issues will get an airing elsewhere. As this is a speech-limiting piece of legislation, as was admitted earlier this week, I do not want any more speech limiting. I certainly do not want it to be a media freedom-limiting piece of legislation on top of that.

I want to talk mainly about the other amendments, Amendments 158 and 161, but approach them from a completely different angle from the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam. What is the thinking behind saying that the only people who can clip content from recognised news publishers are the news publishers? The Minister mentioned in passing that there might be a problem of editing them, but it has become common practice these days for members of the public to clip from recognised news publishers and make comments. Is that not going to be allowed? That was the bit that completely confused me. It is too prescriptive; I can see all sorts of people getting caught by that.

The point that the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam, made about what constitutes a recognised news publisher is where the issue gets quite difficult. The point was made about the “wrong” organisations, but I want to know who decides what is right and wrong. We might all nod along when it comes to Infowars and RT, but there are lots of organisations that would potentially fail that test. My concern is that they would not be able to appeal when they are legitimate news organisations, even if not to everybody’s taste. Because I think that we already have too much speech limiting in the Bill, I do not want any more. This is important.

When it comes to talking about the “wrong” organisations, I noticed that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, referred to people who went to Rupert Murdoch’s parties. I declare my interests here: I have never been invited or been to a Rupert Murdoch party—although do feel free, I say, if he is watching—but I have read about them in newspapers. For some people in this Chamber, the “wrong” kind of news organisation is, for example, the Times or one with the wrong kind of owner. The idea that we will all agree or know which news publishers are the “wrong” kind is not clear, and I do not think that the test is going to sort it out.

Will the Minister explain what organisations can do if they fail the recognised news publisher test to appeal and say, “We are legitimate and should be allowed”? Why is there this idea that a member of the public cannot clip a recognised news publisher’s content without falling foul? Why would they not be given some exemption? I genuinely do not understand that.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, I shall speak very briefly. I feel a responsibility to speak, having spoken in Committee on a similar group of amendments when the noble Lords, Lord Lipsey and Lord McNally, were not available. I spoke against their amendments then and would do so again. I align myself with the comments of my noble friend Lord Black, the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, and the noble Viscount, Lord Colville. As the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, just said, they gave a comprehensive justification for that position. I have no intention of repeating it, or indeed repeating my arguments in Committee, but I think it is worth stating my position.

Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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My Lords, we have heard some very well-rehearsed lines during the debate today, with the usual protagonists. Nevertheless, the truth of the matter is that the Press Recognition Panel is as frustrated as many of us on these Benches and other Benches at the failure to implement a post-Leveson scheme of press regulation. Despite many efforts, it has never been fully put into effect.

I do not think I need to repeat a great deal of what has been said today. For instance, the record of IPSO, which the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, talked about, has been very well tracked by Hacked Off. This is not a proposal for state regulation—which is so often, if you like, the canard placed on it.

If not this Bill, which Bill? The media Bill is not going to tackle issues such as this, as my noble friend Lord McNally said. As the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, has pointed out, this Bill has been a series of conversations —extremely fruitful conversations—but in this particular direction it has borne no fruit at all.

I must admit that, throughout my looking at the draft Bill and continuing to look through its various versions, this opt-out for news publishers has remained a puzzle. The below-the-line opt-out for the mainstream news media always strikes me as strange, because there is no qualification that there should be any curation of that below-the-line, user-generated content. That is peculiar, and it is rather like somebody in the last chance saloon being rewarded with a bouquet. It seems a rather extraordinary provision.

My noble friend Lord Allan rightly pointed to some of the dangers in the new provisions, and indeed in the provisions generally, for these services. I hope the Minister has at least some answers to give to the questions he raised. Progress on this and the scheme that the PRP was set up to oversee, which is still not in place, remain a source of great division across the parties and within them. There is still hope; it may be that under a different Government we would see a different result.

Online Safety Bill

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Excerpts
Lord Allan of Hallam Portrait Lord Allan of Hallam (LD)
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That point is well made. In support of that, if the public space treated me in a discriminatory way, I would expect to have redress, but I do not think I have a right in every public space to say everything I like in the classic Article 8 sense. My right vis-à-vis the state is much broader than my right vis-à-vis any public space that I am operating in where norms apply as well as my basic legal rights. Again, to take the pub example, if I went in and made a racist speech, I may well be thrown out of the pub even though it is sub-criminal and the police are never called; they do not need to be as the space itself organises it.

I am making the point that terms of service are about managing these privately managed public services, and it would be a mistake to equate them entirely with our right to speak or the point at which the state can step in and censor us. I understand the point about state interference but it cuts both ways: both the state interfering in excessively censoring what we can say but also the state potentially interfering in the management of what is, after all, a private space. To refer back to the US first amendment tradition, a lot of that was about freedom of religion and precisely about enabling heterodoxy. The US did not want an orthodoxy in which one set of rules applied everywhere to everybody. Rather, it wanted people to have the right to dissent, including in ways that were exclusive. You could create your own religious sect and you could not be told not to have those beliefs.

Rolling that power over to the online world, online services, as long as they are non-discriminatory, can have quite different characters. Some will be very restrictive of speech like a restrictive religious sect; some will be very open and catholic, with a small “c”, in the sense of permitting a broad range of speech. I worry about some of the amendments in case there is a suggestion that Ofcom would start to tell a heterodox community of online services that there is an orthodox way to run their terms of service; I would rather allow this to be a more diverse environment.

Having expressed some concerns, I am though very sympathetic to Amendment 162 on Section 5 of the Public Order Act. I have tried in our debates to bring some real experience to this. There are two major concerns about the inclusion of the Public Order Act in the Bill. One is a lack of understanding of what that means. If you look at the face of the language that has been quoted at us, and go back to that small service that does not have a bunch of lawyers on tap, it reads as though it is stopping any kind of abusive content. Maybe you will google it, as I did earlier, and get a little thing back from the West Yorkshire Police. I googled: “Is it illegal to swear in the street?”. West Yorkshire Police said, “Yes, it is”. So if you are sitting somewhere googling to find out what this Public Order Act thing means, you mind end up thinking, “Crikey, for UK users, I have to stop them swearing”. There is a real risk of misinterpretation.

The second risk is that of people deliberately gaming the system; again, I have a real-life example from working in one of the platforms. I had people from United Kingdom law enforcement asking us to remove content that was about demonstrations by far-right groups. They were groups I fundamentally disagree with, but their demonstrations did not appear to be illegal. The grounds cited were that, if you allow this content to go ahead and the demonstration happens, there will be a Public Order Act offence. Once you get that on official notepaper, you have to be quite robust to say, “No, I disagree”, which we did on occasion.

I think there will be other services that receive Public Order Act letters from people who seem official and they will be tempted to take down content that is entirely legal. The critical thing here is that that content will often be political. In other parts of the Bill, we are saying that we should protect political speech, yet we have a loophole here that risks that.

I am sure the Minister will not concede these amendments, but I hope he will concede that it is important that platforms are given guidance so that they do not think that somebody getting upset about a political demonstration is sufficient grounds to remove the content as a Public Order Act offence. If you are a local police officer it is much better to get rid of that EDL demonstration, so you write to the platform and it makes your life easier, but I do not think that would be great from a speech point of view.

Finally, I turn to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, on Amendment 188 about the ECHR Article 8 exemption. As I read it, if your terms of service are not consistent with ECHR Article 8—and I do not think they will be for most platforms—you then get an exemption from all the other duties around appeals and enforcing them correctly. It is probably a probing amendment but it is a curious way of framing it; it essentially says that, if you are more restrictive, you get more freedom in terms of the Ofcom relationship. I am just curious about the detail of that amendment.

It is important that we have this debate and understand this relationship between the state, platforms and terms of service. I for one am persuaded that the general framework of the Bill makes sense; there are necessary and proportionate restrictions. I am strongly of the view that platforms should be allowed to be heterodox in their terms of service. Ofcom’s job is very much to make sure that they are done correctly but not to interfere with the content of those terms of service beyond that which is illegal. I am persuaded that we need to be extraordinarily careful about including Public Order Act offences; that particular amendment needs a good hearing.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, I have said several times when we have been debating this Bill—and I will probably say it again when we get to the group about powers—that, for me, the point of the Online Safety Bill is to address the absence of accountability for the extraordinary power that the platforms and search engines have over what we see online and, indeed, how we live and engage with each other online. Through this Bill, much greater responsibility for child safety will be placed on the platforms. That is a good thing; I have been very supportive of the measures to ensure that there are strong protections for children online.

The platforms will also have responsibility, though, for some measures to help adults protect themselves. We must not forget that, the more responsibility that platforms have to protect, the more power we could inadvertently give them to influence what is an acceptable opinion to hold, or to shape society to such an extent that they can even start to influence what we believe to be right or wrong—we are talking about that significant amount of power.

I was of the camp that was pleased when the Government removed the legal but harmful aspects of the Bill, because for me they represented a serious risk to freedom of expression. As I just described, I felt that they risked too much inadvertent power, as it were, going to the platforms. But, with the Government having done that, we have seen through the passage of the Bill some push-back, which is perfectly legitimate and understandable—I am not criticising anyone—from those who were concerned about that move. In response to that, the Government amended the Bill to provide assurances and clarifications on things like the user-empowerment tools. As I said, I do not have any problem; although I might not necessarily support some of the specific measures that were brought forward, I am okay with that as a matter of principle.

However, as was explained by my noble friend Lord Moylan and the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, there has not been a similar willingness from the Government to reassure those who remain concerned about the platforms’ power over freedom of expression. We have to bear in mind that some people’s concerns in this quarter remained even when the legal but harmful change was made—that is, the removal of legal but harmful was a positive step, but it did not go far enough for some people with concerns about freedom of expression.

I am sympathetic to the feeling behind this group, which was expressed by my noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Fox. I am sympathetic to many of the amendments. As the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam, pointed out, specifically Amendment 162 in relation to the Public Order Act seems worthy of further consideration by the Government. But the amendments in the group that caught my attention place a specific duty on Ofcom in regard to freedom of expression when drawing up or amending codes of practice or other guidance—these amendments are in my noble friend Lord Moylan’s name. When I looked at them, I did not think that they undermined anything else that the Government brought forward through the amendments to the Bill, as he said, but I thought that they would go a long way towards enforcing the importance of freedom of expression as part of this regulatory framework—one that we expect Ofcom to attach serious importance to.

I take on board what the noble Lord, Lord Allan, said about the framework of this legislation being primarily about safeguarding and protection. The purpose of the Bill is not to enhance freedom of expression, but, throughout its passage, that has none the less always been a concern. It is right that the Government seek to balance these two competing fundamental principles. I ask whether more can be done—my noble friend pointed to the recommendations of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and how they reinforce some of what he proposed. I would like to think that my noble friend the Minister could give some greater thought to this.

As was said, it is to the Government’s credit how much they have moved on the Bill during its passage, particularly between Committee and Report. That was quite contrary to the sense that I think a lot of us felt during the early stages of our debates. It would be a shame if, once the Bill leaves the House, it is felt that the balance is not as fine—let me put it like that—as some people feel it needs to be. I just wanted to express some support and ask my noble friend the Minister to give this proper and serious consideration.

Creative Industries (Communications and Digital Committee Report)

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Excerpts
Friday 7th July 2023

(9 months, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber
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Moved by
Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston
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That this House takes note of the Report from the Communications and Digital Committee At risk: our creative future (2nd Report, HL Paper 125).

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, it is a privilege and a pleasure to chair the Communications and Digital Committee and to introduce this debate. I am delighted that many of my fellow committee members, both current and former colleagues, will contribute to this debate on our creative industries report, published in January. I make special mention of the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, who is not here today as she is still recovering from an injury—I know that she would be here if she could. She was a strong advocate for our inquiry.

Before I go any further, I pay tribute to the excellent team that advises and supports us; indeed, it deserves a huge amount of credit not just for its hard work but for the quality of our work. It is led by our exceptional committee clerk Dan Schlappa, and we are also ably and professionally supported by our policy analyst Emily Bailey Page, Owen Williams from the Press Office, Rita Cohen—one of the best and most reliable administrators I have ever come across—and Soham Karwa, a second year PhD student temporarily on attachment to the committee from Imperial College. On the committee itself, we are lucky to have such a diverse array of knowledge and expertise from across the media, digital and creative sectors. I thank all members for their dedication and contribution to our collective effort.

Some noble Lords may remember that, as part of our inquiry, we took evidence from Ai-Da, the robot artist. The House will be pleased to know that she is not here today to accompany proceedings, but the release of ChatGPT in the time since we had to reboot her during her evidence shows just how fast technology is moving and why we need a coherent strategy to ensure that the creative sector keeps pace and can thrive in the modern world.

This debate is timely, coming shortly after the publication by the Government of the Creative Industries Sector Vision, which my committee has been calling for. I was pleased to see that it recognised and directly addressed many of the key concerns we raised in our report, which I will come to later.

First, let me clarify what we are talking about and why it matters. The creative industries are an economic powerhouse, generating £108 billion a year and employing over 2.3 million people. Between 2011 and 2019, job growth in the creative industries was three times that in the UK overall. This job market offers a range of rewarding roles, with many vocational entry routes. Clusters of creative businesses are located across the country, which supports levelling up. Creative sector businesses are addressing net-zero challenges by driving innovation in concept design and material sciences.

Much of the growth potential lies in areas that combine technology with creativity, and the UK has particular strengths here. Our gaming market is worth £7 billion alone, and our animation market is world-renowned. A record £5.6 billion was spent on film and high-end television production in the UK in 2021. The number of UK firms working on immersive technologies rose by over 80% between 2016 and 2021.

The UK has long been regarded as a global leader in both the privately funded and the publicly funded creative sectors, and rightly so. But international competition is hotting up. In the last 10 years, the global value of exports of creative services has more than doubled to reach $1.1 trillion. Countries across the world are seeking a greater slice of this lucrative industry. Let me explain how. Many of the things that made the UK successful—like fiscal incentives, public arts programmes, centres of excellence and high-end production centres—are being copied and improved on by Governments abroad. At the same time, small UK businesses are selling up and, with them, valuable intellectual property is moving overseas.

UK experts are being left out of leading international research collaborations, which leaves us less influential and less engaged at the cutting edge of innovation. Huge American tech giants are dominating the emerging market in virtual and augmented reality, and they are reaping huge dividends from all of the consumer data that this generates. Also, technological advances and disruption risk shifting people out of the creative workforce and, in the process, reducing the vibrancy and creative spark on which so much of our economic success depends. In short, we face mounting challenges and cannot take the continued success of our creative industries for granted.

When we published our report, we had major concerns about how seriously the Government were taking this sector and the challenges it faces. Political attention had waned in recent years, I regret to say. The sector scarcely featured in the Chancellor’s 2022 Autumn Statement and was not among his key growth industries. International summits were being skipped by Ministers, and industry experts had started to speak openly about the UK’s decline in a fast-moving and highly competitive global market.

We also had concerns about what seemed to be an incoherent policy landscape holding the sector back. UKRI, the national funding agency for investing in research and innovation, was proposing to cut the creative industries clusters programme, which had delivered unprecedented success and return on investment. The Intellectual Property Office was proposing a new text and data mining regime that would undercut creative sector business models. To be blunt, Whitehall was blindly favouring new technology at the expense of creative IP. Efforts to tackle skills were not aligned with industry needs, and support for organisations receiving public funding placed too little emphasis on the innovation, cross-sector collaboration and sustainability that are key to ensuring the arts sector’s long-term success.

It is vital to stress that championing the creative industries is not a matter of special pleading. There is a serious and well-evidenced business case for the sector to sit at the heart of the UK’s future growth plans.

Perhaps I may at this point direct a comment to the creative sector itself. The emphasis from some who work within it on how it is “special” and should not be dirtied by talk of money, efficiencies and the value it adds to the economy has not always helped its cause and I would argue to those who maintain that position that it does need to change.

Given the importance of the sector, I was very pleased to see the new sector vision, which is a collaboration between government and the creative industries and sets out plans and commitments to help the creative sector fulfil its potential. While, of course, it is not perfect, it addresses some of the core issues we raised.

First, the new level of political attention is notable. The Chancellor has now included the creative industries in the UK’s priority economic growth areas. The sector vision has a foreword from the Prime Minister. These changes matter, and industry will be paying attention. I believe this recognition at the very top of government has not happened by accident.

Second is the new £50 million of funding being provided to continue the creative clusters programme. This will build on the hugely successful previous round of clusters, which exceeded expectations and provided a proven model for stimulating innovation and generating significant returns on investment. I must emphasise, however, that while this investment is welcome, UKRI and the Government must ensure that the value generated by previous clusters is not lost; they must be supported to transition to a long-term, sustainable footing. One practice that we saw quite commonly across the policy areas relevant to the creative industries was what I might describe as a bit of “initiative-itis”: instead of sticking with what is proven to have worked, trying to reinvent things and start again from scratch.

The additional £75 million investment in the CoSTAR programme to boost R&D is also welcome, and speaks to the fact that the nexus between technology and creativity is a core UK strength that we should double down on.

Thirdly, the Government’s commitment to dropping the proposed text and data mining regime is crucial. I understand that the Intellectual Property Office is now working on a new voluntary code. My committee will keep a close eye on how that develops, because creative businesses, whether they are in the music industry, publishers, artists—all of them—remain very concerned about getting this right. As we emphasised in our report, developing AI is important—indeed, we have announced today that our next inquiry is on AI—but it should not be pursued at all costs. Otherwise, we will find that things we value and make us distinctive as a country gradually disappear in the name of efficiency and technological progress.

The previous proposals, which have now been scratched, threw creative sector businesses under the bus, and needlessly so. The trade-off does not need to happen in this way: many sectors marry technology and creativity very well, and generate huge profits in the process, without undermining IP and business models. A fair deal that promotes innovation and supports the creative sector is possible, and we look forward to seeing the IPO’s plans in due course.

Fourthly, the Government have committed to using a data-driven approach to mapping skills requirements in the sector, which will make use of the new Unit for Future Skills. This too is vital. There are thousands of training courses and initiatives, yet far too many employers say that skills shortages are getting worse and that the Government do not have a good enough plan to address this. The first step is to set out exactly where the most acute shortages are. The Government must ensure that this then informs policy decisions around the development of apprenticeships and T-levels, and the provision, funding and advertisement of lifelong learning courses.

On the subject of skills, I will reiterate the committee’s recommendation that innovative ideas, such as the flexi-job apprenticeship, should be scaled up to address a pressing problem: namely, that apprenticeships should be an excellent route into the sector, but many of them are poorly suited to the industry’s work practices and SME-dominated set-up. The Government have committed to ministerial round tables to discuss creative apprenticeships and say that they will “improve” the flexi-job model. I would be grateful for further clarification from my noble friend about what specific changes and improvements are planned, and the timeline for delivering them.

Fifthly, we called for better support for SMEs to boost growth. I was pleased to see that the Create Growth Programme is receiving a funding uplift. It will be important to review the most successful outcomes of this programme and help scale learnings more widely across the country. There are other welcome commitments around delivering national plans for cultural and music education, joining up the creative sector with public health, and awareness of how the sector relates to environmental targets.

I cannot claim that the sector vision addresses all the committee’s concerns. The UK’s definition of R&D for tax relief, for example, is an outlier compared with other OECD countries. It remains overly restrictive and excludes a large proportion of work in the creative sector. As one business owner told us, it can mean that technical staff are able to claim R&D relief but the key creative contributors working on the same project cannot. As a result, the whole team’s ability to innovate is limited by the number of creatives the company can afford to employ.

I appreciate of course that we cannot distribute endless tax cuts, but we can double down on our strengths and at least explore further options for stimulating more innovation. I reiterate the committee’s call for the Government to look at this issue more seriously by expanding the definition of R&D. A limited pilot could be a good start.

I would also welcome more clarity on what is happening with careers guidance. The committee’s inquiry heard evidence that guidance is patchy and needed significant improvements. This is vital to getting young people into the right courses and jobs, and filling extensive skills gaps. The sector vision refers to “inspiring creative careers guidance”, but does not say much about what that actually means. Perhaps it will be addressed in the forthcoming education plans; I would certainly welcome clarification from my noble friend if he can give that today.

Finally, we also need a solid plan for dealing with technological disruption. Technologies are moving at breakneck speed—to state the obvious. We cannot simply wish them away or pretend that they will not have significant disruption, particularly for people who have roles with insecure contracts and work in areas of the creative industries that are more exposed. The Government are not there to back up everyone’s business models, but they can create the conditions and planning to help UK businesses prepare and adapt. Supporting businesses and freelancers to be more resilient, dynamic and flexible will stand them in good stead to manage the looming changes facing the sector.

Other countries will doubtless be looking at this, and the UK must not be left behind. I look forward to seeing the Government’s response to the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre’s report on working practices and hope that it will address, in further detail, concerns about helping businesses and freelancers understand and manage the impacts of technological disruption.

This sector vision is very much the start, not the end, of a process. We must not be lulled into a false sense of security: publishing a plan does not mean that it will automatically be successful, or indeed that other countries will not similarly publish ambitious plans which see the UK fall behind. Continued high-level political commitment will remain crucial. As I said at the beginning, our creative industries are critically important to our national life and economy. They help us to unite and generate our collective pride in being British and to promote the best of British around the world. They do not deserve special treatment or exceptions from the basic demands placed on all businesses and organisations which are necessary for their survival, but we need to make sure that the right policy frameworks are in place and that we take them seriously. In the end, their continued success will be down to the creative industries themselves and the very many talented people who work within them.

There is much more ground that I could cover, but I am sure that it will be picked up by other noble Lords in the debate, which I look forward to hearing. I beg to move.

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Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for that very comprehensive response to this debate, which has covered a huge amount of ground. I join my noble friend Lord Vaizey in paying great compliments to him as a tremendous Arts Minister. I do not know whether he is as good or better than the last Arts Minister—who is also with us in the Chamber today—but we are very grateful to have him in that post. I am also very grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate today, for the very generous comments that have been made in my direction, to the committee as a whole and to those who support us in our work.

I will offer some concluding comments. It is probably worth me saying something which I did not say at the beginning, which is that the underlying premise of our inquiry was about identifying the risks and opportunities of technology as it impacted on the creative industries. Even with that framework, there was clearly a huge amount of ground to cover.

The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, expressed an interest in my comments about how some of the creative industry leaders or high-profile figures might change if they are to be taken more seriously. One of the things I would say in response to that is that through doing this inquiry, I now really believe and understand the economic value of the creative sector. I have always known it was important, but I did not see it in those terms before. That has shifted my whole perspective on it. It might be worth sharing that when I was a teenager and had just moved to London, I went back home and told my dad I had met somebody who described themselves as “a creative” when I asked them what they did for a living. My dad’s response was, “Well, that sounds like a good excuse for doing nothing”. Now he was a brilliant painter and decorator—the best in the area—but he was also somebody who was good at art and is quite creative. The reason why I think this is important is that there has always been something of a separation in the way people perceive creativity: as something which is important but not necessarily a powerful driving force of our economy.

Technology has now given the creative industries the opportunity to show that they are part of the economic powerhouse, as has already been said. Our report calls for the creative industries to grasp that opportunity, and to make sure that they are not overpowered by technology or deprioritised because of it. We have seen and discussed this threat today, in particular in the context of IP. They should not be afraid to use it and grasp it. Those parts of the creative industries whose underlying purpose may not be commercial should use the overall commercial opportunity of the sector that they are a part of as a way of capitalising on their importance and contributing to something that is bigger than themselves.

One of the main areas of policy that was raised in the course of everybody’s contributions was skills and education. I again urge the Government and the creative industries, when they look at and consider this topic, to work even harder at gaining some mutual understanding in this area. As has been commented on, our report refers to what we described as:

“Lazy rhetoric about ‘low value’ arts courses”,


which risks deterring people from pursuing an education and career in the creative sector. The point we were trying to make is that, although we share the Government’s concern about some degree courses not representing value for money or value to anybody specifically, they should not, in highlighting them, group everything in that category.

It is important for the creative industries to be grown-up and realistic in the way they talk about that too. It was compelling to hear one of our witnesses during our inquiry, Seetha Kumar from ScreenSkills, make the point that a lot of people go to university to study skills and get degrees when that was not the best way for them to get into the creative industries. There were much better routes to do that, and that organisation wanted to create and support more of those opportunities. It was refreshing to hear somebody from the creative industries say that honestly in the course of our evidence.

As has been said, it is important that the sector vision identifies the fusion of creative and STEM skills as an important part of the future. There has to be a lot more collaboration and understanding by the Government as to what is needed from the creative sector. I also urge the creative sector to get better at being specific about what it needs and wants to see changed. If it can be specific, the Government will have a much better opportunity to respond to those needs.

Overall, the debate has shown the importance that all of us collectively attach to our creative industries. Long may they continue. We want to see them thrive and for everybody to have a good opportunity to be a part of them.

Motion agreed.

Online Safety Bill

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Excerpts
Lord Bishop of Oxford Portrait The Lord Bishop of Oxford
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My Lords, I broadly support all the amendments in this group but I will focus on the three amendments in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Russell, and others; I am grateful for their clear exposition of why these amendments are important. I draw particular attention to Amendment 281A and its helpful list of functions that are considered to be harmful and to encourage addiction.

There is a very important dimension to this Bill, whose object, as we have now established, is to encourage safety by design. An important aspect of it is cleaning up, and setting right, 20 years or more of tech development that has not been safe by design and has in fact been found to be harmful by way of design. As the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, just said, in many conversations and in talking to people about the Bill, one of the hardest things to communicate and get across is that this is about not only content but functionality. Amendment 281A provides a useful summary of the things that we know about in terms of the functions that cause harm. I add my voice to those encouraging the Minister and the Government to take careful note of it and to capture this list in the text of the Bill in some way so that this clean-up operation can be about not only content for the future but functionality and can underline the objectives that we have set for the Bill this afternoon.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, I start by saying amen—not to the right reverend Prelate but to my noble friend Lady Harding. She said that we should not assume that, just because charities exist, they are all doing good; as a former chair of the Charity Commission, I can say that that is very true.

The sponsors of Amendments 281 to 281B have made some powerful arguments in support of them. They are not why I decided to speak briefly on this group but, none the less, they made some strong points.

I come back to Amendments 28 to 30. Like others, I do not have a particular preference for which of the solutions is proposed to address this problem but I have been very much persuaded by the various correspondence that I have received—I am sure that other noble Lords have received such correspondence—which often uses Wikipedia as the example to illustrate the problem.

However, I take on board what my noble friend said: there is a danger of identifying one organisation and getting so constrained by it that we do not address the fundamental problems that the Bill is about, which is making sure that there is a way of appropriately excluding organisations that should not be subject to these various regulations because they are not designed for them. I am open to the best way of doing that.

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Lord Allan of Hallam Portrait Lord Allan of Hallam (LD)
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On the noble Baroness’s point, that is why I intervened in the debate: so that we are all clear. We are not saying that, for priority content, it is an amber light and not a red light. We are not saying, “Just remove all this stuff”; it would be a wrong response to the Bill to say, “It’s a fictional character being slaughtered so remove it”, because now we have removed “Twilight”, “Watership Down” and whatever else. We are saying, “Think very carefully”. If it is one of those circumstances where this is causing harm—they exist; we cannot pretend that they do not—it should be removed. However, the default should not be to remove everything on this list; that is the point I am really trying to make.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, our debate on this group is on the topic of priority harms to children. It is not one that I have engaged in so I tread carefully. One reason why I have not engaged in this debate is because I have left it to people who know far more about it than I do; I have concentrated on other parts of the Bill.

In the context of this debate, one thing has come up on which I feel moved to make a short contribution: misinformation and disinformation content. There was an exchange between my noble friend Lady Harding and the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, on this issue. Because I have not engaged on the topic of priority harms, I genuinely do not have a position on what should and should not be featured. I would not want anybody to take what I say as support for or opposition to any of these amendments. However, it is important for us to acknowledge that, as much as misinformation and disinformation are critical issues—particularly for children and young people because, as the right reverend Prelate said, the truth matters—we cannot, in my view, ignore the fact that misinformation and disinformation have become quite political concepts. They get used in a way where people often define things that they do not agree with as misinformation—that is, opinions are becoming categorised as misinformation.

We are now putting this in legislation and it is having an impact on content, so it is important, too, that we do not just dismiss that kind of concern as not relevant because it is real. That is all I wanted to say.

Lord Russell of Liverpool Portrait Lord Russell of Liverpool (CB)
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My Lords, I will speak briefly as I know that we are waiting for a Statement.

If you talk to colleagues who know a great deal about the harm that is happening and the way in which platforms operate, as well as to colleagues who talk directly to the platforms, one thing that you commonly hear from them is a phrase that often recurs when they talk to senior people about some of the problems here: “I never thought of that before”. That is whether it is about favourites on Snapchat, which cause grief in friendship groups, about the fact that, when somebody leaves a WhatsApp group, it flags up who that person is—who wants to be seen as the person who took the decision to leave?—or about the fact that a child is recommended to other children even if the company does not know whether they are remotely similar.

If you are 13, you are introduced as a boy to Andrew Tate; if you are a girl, you might be introduced to a set of girls who may or may not share anorexia content, but they dog-whistle and blog. The companies are not deliberately orchestrating these outcomes—it is the way they are designed that is causing those consequences—but, at the moment, they take no responsibility for what is happening. We need to reflect on that.

I turn briefly to a meeting that the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, and I were at yesterday afternoon, which leads neatly on to some of the comments the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, made, a few moments ago about the far right. The meeting was convened by Luke Pollard MP and was on the strange world known as the manosphere, which is the world of incels—involuntary celibates. As your Lordships may be aware, on various occasions, certain individuals who identify as that have committed murder and other crimes. It is a very strange world.