Debates between Lord McNally and Baroness Stowell of Beeston during the 2019-2024 Parliament

Tue 14th Nov 2023
Tue 2nd May 2023
Online Safety Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage: Part 2

King’s Speech

Debate between Lord McNally and Baroness Stowell of Beeston
Tuesday 14th November 2023

(8 months, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally (LD)
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My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, although I shall not try to match his skills as a barista. I was very interested but slightly disappointed in the speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell—not that it was not, as always, a well-informed and pertinent speech, but I had hoped that she would speak about the Media Bill. We cannot fill in everything, I know, but I put it to her that both her experience in her committee and her past experience will make her a powerful influence in this House in getting the Media Bill right; I look forward to working with her on that Bill.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I did welcome the Media Bill. I did not want to go into detail because there is not time to talk about every Bill that is relevant to the work of the committee, but I can assure him that I will definitely play a part in the passage of that Bill.

Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally (LD)
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I never doubted it. One thing that has come up already is that these chances do not come along every day. I was on the 2003 media Bill, which has been mentioned, 20 years ago. No matter how eager Ministers may be later to tweet their handiwork, government business managers are not enthusiastic about giving more time to a matter that they think Parliament has got done and dusted, so we have to get this Media Bill right.

I am particularly interested in making sure that our public service broadcasters are well provided for—as the Minister said—in that Bill. We are very lucky in that little cluster of public service broadcasters which play such an important role. In a way, ITV retains many of its old regional strengths from its federation origins. Although it was not always realised at the time, Channel 4 gave an immense boost to our independent production; thank goodness we saved Channel 4 from privatisation.

For me, the BBC has always been the iron pole around which we build the credibility of our public service broadcasting. One thing that could be done, even at this late stage in the Parliament, is to end the endless war against the BBC from the Conservative Benches. It is a national asset. I always think of a comment by one of the great titans of American broadcasting when Reagan was deregulating public service broadcasting in the United States: “We will only know what we have lost once it’s gone.” That is one of the things that still motivate me to come to this House: the determination that we pass on to the next generation a BBC that is, as it is today, the envy of the world.

The other factor in the media section is the repeal of Section 40. I am pleased to see the noble Lord, Lord Black, in his place. I am quite sure that he has the same speech that he has been delivering for 20 years, but it is none the worse for repetition. We will come to that. I draw noble Lords’ attention to the letter sent today to Members from the Press Recognition Panel, which sets out the facts about Section 40. It is interesting that the politicians and the newspapers that have reported on the repeal of Section 40 have all presented it as a draconian issue whereby the winner has to pay both sides in a loss. They always omit to say that this would never apply if only our press would follow what was promised in Leveson and go through a proper media regulator. That offer is still on the table.

If the noble Lord, Lord Black, who has influence in these areas, can exert some of it, it is still possible to implement Leveson in full. That would provide a much healthier approach. We should not be waiting for princes of the blood royal and those enemies of the people, the judges, to regulate our press. That regulation should come from an industry confident enough to set up a proper regulator. On the repeal of Section 40, and if the Minister wants the background, I was the Minister in the Lords at that time. The Foreign Secretary will tell him what a double-dealing stab in the back it was by the Conservatives once they were free of the moderating hand of the Liberal Democrats and free to abandon Section 40.

The only other thing I will mention is that as a lifetime football lover and vice-president of St Albans City Football Club—a declaration of interest—I think this is a chance to get our national game into good order. I look forward to the words of my noble friend Lord Addington. Before him came David Mellor, Tracey Crouch and now the Fair Game campaign—all encouragement for us to get it right.

Online Safety Bill

Debate between Lord McNally and Baroness Stowell of Beeston
Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally (LD)
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My Lords, as a former Deputy Leader of this House, if I were sitting on the Front Bench, I would have more gumption than to try to start a debate only 10 minutes before closing time. But I realise that the wheels grind on—perhaps things are no longer as flexible as they were in my day—so noble Lords will get my speech. The noble Lord, Lord Grade, who is at his post—it is very encouraging to see the chair of Ofcom listening to this debate—and I share a love of music hall. He will remember Eric Morecambe saying that one slot was like the last slot at the Glasgow Empire on a Friday night. That is how I feel now.

A number of references have been made to those who served on the Joint Committee and what an important factor it has been in their thinking. I have said on many occasions that one of the most fulfilling times of my parliamentary life was serving on the Joint Committee for the Communications Act 2003. The interesting thing was that we had no real idea of what was coming down the track as far as the internet was concerned, but we did set up Ofcom. At that time, a lot of the pundits and observers were saying, “Murdoch’s lawyers will have these government regulators for breakfast”. Well, they did not. Ofcom has turned into a regulator for which—at some stages this has slightly worried me—for almost any problem facing the Government, they say, “We’ll give it to Ofcom”. It has certainly proved that it can regulate across a vast area and with great skill. I have every confidence that the noble Lord, Lord Grade, will take that forward.

Perhaps it is to do with the generation I come from, but I do not have this fear of regulation or government intervention. In some ways, the story of my life is that of government intervention. If I am anybody’s child, I am Attlee’s child—not just because of the reforms of the Labour Party, but the reforms of the coalition Government, the Butler Education Act and the bringing in of the welfare state. So I am not afraid of government and Parliament taking responsibility in addressing real dangers.

In bringing forward this amendment, along with my colleague the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, who cannot be here today, I am referring to legislation that is 20 years old. That is a warning to newcomers; it could be another 20 years before parliamentary time is found for a Bill of this complexity, so we want to be sure that we get its scope right.

The Minister said recently that the Bill is primarily a child safety Bill, but it did not start off that way. Five years ago, the online harms White Paper was seen as a pathfinder and trailblazer for broader legislation. Before we accept the argument that the Bill is now narrowed down to more specific terms, we should think about whether there are other areas that still need to be covered.

These amendments are in the same spirit as those in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Stowell, Lady Bull, and Lady Featherstone. We seek to reinstate an adult risk assessment duty because we fear that the change in title signals a reduction in scope and a retreat from the protections which earlier versions of the Bill intended to provide.

It was in this spirit, and to enable us to get ahead of the game, that in 2016 I proposed a Private Member’s Bill on this subject: the Online Harms Reduction Regulator (Report) Bill, which asked Ofcom to publish, in advance of the anticipated legislation, assessments of what action was needed to reduce harm to users and wider society from social networks. I think we can all agree that, if that work had been done in advance of the main legislation, such evidence would be very useful now.

I am well aware that there are those who, in the cause of some absolute concepts of freedom, believe that to seek to broaden the scope of the Bill takes us into the realms of the nanny state. But part of the social contract which enables us to survive in this increasingly complex world is that the ordinary citizen, who is busy struggling with the day-to-day challenges of normal life, does trust his Government and Parliament to keep an anticipatory weather eye on what is coming down the track and what dangers lie therein for the ordinary citizen.

When there have been game-changing advances in technology in the past, it has often taken a long time for societies to adapt and adjust. The noble Lord, Lord Moylan, referred to the invention of the printing press. That caused the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution and around 300 years of war, so we have to be careful how we handle these technological changes. Instagram was founded in 2010, and the iPhone 4 was released then too. One eminent social psychologist wrote:

“The arrival of smartphones rewired social life.”

It is not surprising that liberal democracies, with their essentially 18th-century construct of democracy, struggle to keep up.

The record of big tech in the last 20 years has, yes, been an amazing leap in access to information. However, that quantum leap has come with a social cost in almost every aspect of our lives. Nevertheless, I refuse to accept the premise that these technologies are too global and too powerful in their operation for them not to come within the reach of any single jurisdiction or the rule of law. I am more impressed by efforts by big tech companies to identify and deal with real harms than I am by threats to quit this or that jurisdiction if they do not get the light-touch regulation they want so as to be able to profit maximise.

We know by their actions that some companies and individuals simply do not care about their social responsibilities or the impact of what they sell and how they sell it on individuals and society as a whole. That is why the social contract in our liberal democracies means a central role for Parliament and government in bringing order and accountability into what would otherwise become a jungle. That is why, over the last 200 years, Parliament has protected its citizens from the bad behaviour of employers, banks, loan sharks, dodgy salesmen, insanitary food, danger at work and so on. In this new age, we know that companies large and small, British and foreign, can, through negligence, indifference or malice, drive innocent people into harmful situations. The risks that people face are complex and interlocking; they cannot be reduced to a simple list, as the Government seek to do in Clause 12.

When I sat on the pre-legislative committee in 2003, we could be forgiven for not fully anticipating the tsunami of change that the internet, the world wide web and the iPhone were about to bring to our societies. That legislation did, as I said, establish Ofcom with a responsibility to promote media literacy, which it has only belatedly begun to take seriously. We now have no excuse for inaction or for drawing up legislation so narrowly that it fails to deal with the wide risks that might befall adults in the synthetic world of social media.

We have tabled our amendments not because they will solve every problem or avert every danger but because they would be a step in the right direction and so make this a better Bill.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for namechecking me and the amendments I have tabled with the support of the noble Baronesses, Lady Featherstone and Lady Bull, although I regret to inform him that they are not in this group. I understand where the confusion has come from. They were originally in this group, but as it developed I felt that my amendments were no longer in the right place. They are now in the freedom of expression group, which we will get to next week. What he has just said has helped, because the amendments I am bringing forward are not similar to the ones he has tabled. They have a very different purpose. I will not pre-empt the debate we will have when we get to freedom of expression, but I think it is only proper that I make that clear. I am very grateful to the noble Lord for the trail.