Online Safety Bill
I am delighted that legislation has been introduced to help make the UK the safest place in the world to go online.
It is only right that the largest and most popular social media sites (Category 1 services) play their part in protecting adults and children online. As such, the Online Safety Bill requires Category 1 services to act on content that is lawful but still harmful, such as abuse that falls below the threshold of a criminal offence, encouragement of self-harm and mis/disinformation.
The Government will set out in regulations which content is deemed legal but harmful and these will be subject to Parliamentary approval. Furthermore, prior to making any regulations the Secretary of State must consult Ofcom, the independent regulator.
Category 1 platforms will need to state explicitly in their terms and conditions how they will address these legal harms and Ofcom will hold them to account.
I note that you have raised concerns about freedom of speech, however the Bill strengthens people’s rights to express themselves freely online and ensures social media companies are not removing legal free speech. For the first time, users will have the right to appeal if they feel their post has been taken down unfairly. Furthermore, the Bill also puts requirements on social media firms to protect journalism and democratic political debate on their platforms. News content will be completely exempt from any regulation under the Bill.
The internet is now an integral part of everyday life across the UK. It can be a great force for good but equally can be misused, leading to harmful outcomes. We cannot ignore the very real harms which people face online every day.
I am delighted that the Queen’s Speech included a commitment to ensure internet safely for all, especially for children. The Online Safety Bill will introduce ground-breaking laws to protect children online and tackle some of the worst abuses on social media, including racist hate crimes. These measures will prioritise online safety while enshrining free speech, ensuring necessary online protections do not lead to unnecessary censorship.
In addition to those already mentioned, Digital Secretary Nadine Dorries has announced extra priority illegal offences to be written on the face of the Bill. Naming these offences on the face of the Bill removes the need for them to be set out in secondary legislation, allowing faster enforcement action against tech firms which fail to remove the named illegal content.
These offences include, but are not limited to, revenge porn, hate crime, fraud, weapons offences, the promotion or facilitation of suicide, people smuggling, and incitement to and threats of violence.
The proposals will also make companies more responsible for their users’ safety online. In line with the full Government response to the Online Harms White Paper consultation, the Bill will place duties of care on companies. A recent strengthening of the proposed legislation will further ensure that firms are not only forced to remove harmful content that has been reported to them, but must be proactive in preventing people being exposed in the first place.
Ofcom, the UK’s independent communications regulator, will receive the functions and powers to oversee the regulatory regime. Ofcom will set clear safety standards, backed up by mandatory reporting requirements and strong enforcement powers to deal with non-compliance. These powers include issuing fines of up to 10 per cent of annual worldwide turnover to non-compliant sites or blocking them from being accessible in the UK.
Having engaged with the Law Commission on harmful online communications, the Government has acted on recommendations from the Commission's subsequent report. New provisions include the introduction of a harm-based communications offence and an offence for when a person sends a communication they know to be false with the intention to inflict harm. Furthermore, I welcome the Government's decision to create a new cyberflashing offence with perpetrators facing up to two years behind bars. It is my understanding that the Government is also considering the report’s recommendations for specific offences to be created relating to epilepsy trolling.
I would like to reassure you that the Government is committed to the success and sustainability of the UK’s public broadcasting system, of which Channel 4 is an integral part.
Channel 4 has been hugely successful over the years in delivering the aims set out at its creation in 1982, including supporting the independent production sector in the UK, delivering diverse and risk taking content, and contributing to the wider public goals of public service broadcasting. However, since 1982, the TV landscape has changed beyond recognition.
As you might be aware, Channel 4 is entirely commercially funded, but it has been publicly owned since it began broadcasting. The main reason it was set up as a publicly owned, commercially run station was to provide greater choice. Today though, audiences can now watch what they want, whenever they want, how they want, across a range of internet enabled personal devices. The independent production sector has also grown enormously so that it now supplies content to a wide range of broadcasters and streaming services.
The Culture Secretary, after careful consideration and public consultation, has decided that Government ownership is holding Channel 4 back from competing against streaming sites such as Netflix and Amazon. Whilst the view that a change of ownership will give Channel 4 the freedom to be successful as a public service broadcaster long into the future, given current events my preference would be to delay this debate and legislation until a less busy parliamentary time. I understand further details will be set out in a White Paper in due course and I look forward to reading them.
I am encouraged that the Culture Secretary has also been clear that she will seek to use the proceeds of the sale to level up the creative sector. By investing money into independent production and creative skills in priority parts of the country, this will deliver a creative dividend for all. You may be interested to learn that the UK made more films than Hollywood in the last quarter of 2021 and with many more studios opening in the UK, delivering funding will be key.
Protecting Children from Online Porn
I would like to reassure you that my commitment to protecting children online is unwavering. While going online can be hugely beneficial for children, who use the internet for connecting with peers, accessing educational resources and for entertainment, I completely agree that it is vital that children are protected from accessing inappropriate, harmful content, including online pornography.
As you might be aware, the Government announced in October 2019 that it would not commence the age verification provisions of Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017. While I appreciate your frustration with this decision, I must point out that the Draft Online Safety Bill will be able to go further than the Digital Economy Act’s focus on online pornography on commercial adult sites. It will be able to protect children from a broader range of harmful content and activity, across a wider range of sites.
Under the proposals, companies are expected to use age assurance or age verification technologies to prevent children from accessing services which pose the highest risk of harm, such as online pornography. This will capture both the most visited pornography sites and pornography on social media. These measures will therefore bring into scope more online pornography currently accessible to children than would have been covered by the narrower scope of the Digital Economy Act.
I am, however, heartened that the Government recognises that concerns have been raised about protecting children from online pornography on services which do not currently fall within the scope of the Bill. This was also raised by the Joint Committee on the draft Online Safety Bill. I am encouraged that the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has said that the Government will consider the recommendations of the Joint Committee before the Bill is brought forward to Parliament. Please be assured that more amends are expected before this becomes law, and I will be following this matter closely.
I recognise that gambling is for many people an enjoyable pastime, but equally that for many people it can become a serious problem. While we all want a healthy gambling industry that makes an important contribution to the economy, we must also do everything we can to protect those that use it from harm.
Operators providing gambling facilities to customers in Great Britain must be licensed by the Gambling Commission and comply with the conditions of their operating licences. In recent years, the Gambling Commission has also introduced a number of licence conditions specifically in relation to online gambling to ensure the protection of children and vulnerable people. In 2019, the Gambling Commission introduced new age and identity verification rules to ensure operators verify customers’ age and identity details quickly and robustly. Furthermore, in 2020, the Government and Commission
strengthened these protections further, including a ban on credit card gambling, making participation in the self-exclusion scheme GAMSTOP mandatory for online operators, as well as issuing new guidance for operators to address the potential for some customers to be at heightened risk during the Covid-19 pandemic. For further information on GAMSTOP, please search:
I am delighted that the Government recognises that it is increasingly apparent that the Gambling Act 2005 is an analogue law in a digital age. The review of the Gambling Act 2005 was launched in December 2020 with the publication of a wide-ranging Call for Evidence. This review is examining online restrictions, marketing and the powers of the Gambling Commission. Furthermore, specifically in regard to online gambling, protections for online gamblers like stake and spend limits, advertising and promotional offers and whether extra protections for young adults are needed are also being explored. I understand that the Government aims to publish a White Paper setting out any conclusions and consulting on next steps in the coming months.
The BBC must ensure that controversial subjects are treated with due accuracy and due impartiality in news or other content dealing with public policy or matters of political or industrial controversy. The BBC’s Charter embeds the core principle of impartiality in the BBC’s overall mission and enshrines the principle of editorial independence for the BBC’s Director-General. I hope this will make sure the BBC remains a trusted provider of high-quality news for audiences in the UK and abroad.
The current Charter also introduced a complaints system for when viewers believe the BBC is not performing at the level of expectation set for it. In the first instance the BBC handles the complaint. Where a complainant is unsatisfied with the response, or where the BBC fails to respond in a timely manner, the complainant is now able to complain to Ofcom, which has a proven record as an independent media regulator. This provides for independent regulatory oversight of editorial matters and means that the BBC will continue to be held to the high editorial standards that the public expects.
In the first instance, your complaint should be made to the BBC. More information on how to do this is available here: www.bbc.co.uk/complaints.
I share the concerns regarding this incident, and I would like to offer my deepest sympathies for those who have been affected. The Government appointed Malcolm Sheehan QC as an independent expert to lead a review of the regulation of the Football Index gambling product, which follows the Gambling Commission's decision to suspend the operator's licence while it carries out its own investigation.
I have been informed that Mr Sheehan’s report, which has now been published, was completed in such a way to avoid prejudicing a number of ongoing processes and investigations into BetIndex Ltd. (Football Index's operator). Given the legally sensitive nature of this particular situation, and the possibility of prejudicing any future legal proceedings, I am not in a position to discuss the actions of BetIndex. I do, however, understand that the report identified areas where the Gambling Commission could have been more effective in responding to the challenges raised by the novel product from its licensing to eventual collapse, including in early scrutiny, speed of decision-making and action, and escalation of issues when barriers arose.
The report has also raised some important questions for the Government’s ongoing Review of the Gambling Act 2005 which is already taking a comprehensive and evidence-led look at gambling in this country, including a close examination of the Gambling Commission’s powers and resources. I therefore welcome the fact that the Government has confirmed that the Review will consider whether the Commission should require gambling companies to do more to demonstrate their ability to cover liabilities arising from long term bets, especially if they make up a large proportion of their business.
I would like to reassure constituents that this Government is committed to the success and sustainability of the UK’s public broadcasting system, of which Channel 4 is an integral part.
Channel 4 has been hugely successful over the years in delivering the aims set out at its creation in 1982, including supporting the independent production sector in the UK, delivering diverse and risk-taking content, and contributing to the wider public goals of public service broadcasting. However, since 1982, the TV landscape has changed beyond recognition.
Channel 4 is entirely commercially funded, but it has been publicly owned since it began broadcasting. The main reason it was set up as a publicly owned, commercially run station was to provide greater choice. Today though, audiences can now watch what they want, whenever they want, how they want, across a range of internet-enabled personal devices. The independent production sector has also grown enormously so that it now supplies content to a wide range of broadcasters and streaming services.
That is why I believe it is crucial that a future ownership model (whereby Channel 4 keeps its public service remit) is considered to ensure more content, more jobs, and a more sustainable future for the broadcaster. To achieve this, it will require access to capital, and a strengthened ability to invest in its services, which is not available under public ownership.
I warmly welcome that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has recently held a public consultation on the future ownership of Channel 4 as part of the Government’s review of public service broadcasting. The consultation considered both the ownership and remit of Channel 4, ensuring its future success and sustainability. I understand that the Department is currently analysing the feedback it has received and will respond in due course. For further information on the consultation, please search:
I have also been assured that the review will come ahead of the broadcasting white paper, due to be published in the autumn. The white paper will consider the future of the country’s broadcasting landscape with the aim of making sure it serves listeners and viewers on all platforms and across the entire UK.
Regulation of the Press
The majority of national newspapers are members of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), the independent regulator for most of the newspaper and magazine industry in the UK. IPSO has made continued improvements over the years by incorporating steps recommended by the Leveson Inquiry. This was confirmed in Sir Joseph Pilling’s 2016 review, which found IPSO had made important achievements in demonstrating it was an independent and effective regulator.
In the years since the Leveson Inquiry, many publishers have introduced comprehensive guidance on topics including accuracy and harassment. Where participating publishers fall short of their legal standards, IPSO offers support to victims of libel, slander or malicious falsehood in the form of low-cost arbitration, which offers quick access to fair and independent redress. IPSO can also take action against publishers that do not comply with the Editors’ Code of Practice, as it has done on many occasions.
In 2018 the Government announced that it would not bring forward Part 2 of the Leveson Inquiry. I have been assured that the original inquiry and subsequent police investigations were comprehensive, with more than 300 people coming forward to give evidence resulting in the conviction of over 40 people during three major investigations. In addition, the media landscape has changed significantly since Part 1 of the inquiry. Reopening the inquiry would be terribly costly, and I firmly believe that it is no longer appropriate, proportionate, or in the public interest to do so. There have been extensive reforms to police practices, as well as significant changes to press self-regulation.
Privacy and the Press
I believe that a vibrant, open and free press which holds the powerful to account is vital to our democracy. Balanced against this, it is not unreasonable to expect the press to act with understanding in relation to sensitive personal stories. Press freedom comes with a responsibility to ensure it is not abused.
Following the publication of the Leveson Inquiry in 2012, we have seen great improvements in press regulation with the formation of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) and Impress, which have the power to hold publications to account, including ordering prominent corrections. Both regulators are independent of the Government and enforce Codes of Practice, which include provisions on privacy and intrusion. They both operate free complaints handling systems and low-cost arbitration schemes.
Around 95% of national newspapers are now overseen by IPSO, and members are required to follow the Editors’ Code, which requires journalists to respect people’s right to privacy, stop approaches when asked to do so and to ensure reports are accurate.
I know that some people feel that the Government should intervene to limit the press in the interests of personal privacy, but I am satisfied that there has been such sufficient progress made since 2012 that this is not necessary. I am assured that in cases relating to privacy, the individuals affected can complain to IPSO, who will investigate vigorously and sanction the publication in question if appropriate.
These are unprecedented times, and as such I believe that the Government has taken the necessary actions to reduce the spread of Covid-19. While I recognise that this has had a major impact on those who rely on local cinema, I am delighted that the Chancellor has introduced a major package of support for businesses and individuals, including artists and other self-employed people.
I warmly welcome the rescue package that has been announced to help Britain’s globally renowned arts, culture and heritage industries weather the impact of Covid-19. Originally worth £1.57billion, the Chancellor has recently announced that the fund will receive an additional £300million. Thousands of organisations across a range of sectors including independent cinema will be able to access emergency grants and loans. The money, which represents the biggest ever one-off investment in UK culture, will provide a lifeline to vital cultural and heritage organisations across the country hit hard by the pandemic and will also benefit those who work in the sector.
The establishment of Cultural Renewal Taskforce, which is made up of experts from the creative, tech and sporting worlds, is also welcome for local cinemas. The Taskforce is led by the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and is working on how to help the cultural and leisure sectors of our economy bounce back.
Lockdown Restrictions for Golf in England
This period is incredibly challenging for us all, and I thank everyone for their efforts in complying with the restrictions imposed over the last few months. While it is regrettable that further measures need to come into force, the simple reason for this is that a rapid rise in infections, hospital admissions and case rates across the country means our hospitals are now under more pressure than at any other point throughout the pandemic.
The reason behind the restrictions surrounding golf in England are based around unavoidable interactions in public spaces such as the clubhouse and carpark. The Prime Minister has said that, ‘as was the case last spring, our emergence from the lockdown cocoon will be not a big bang but a gradual unwrapping’. As golf is a primarily an outdoors and naturally socially distanced activity, I would anticipate it to be in one of the first categories to have restrictions eased.
Support the BBC
The BBC is operationally, editorially and managerially independent of Government. Quite rightly, there is no provision for the Government to intervene in the corporation's day-to-day operations. I do support and cherish the BBC, it is unique in the way it operates and is funded and provides tax payers and the world with some truly outstanding content.
The BBC Charter, which came into force in January 2017, created a new unitary board for the BBC which is collectively responsible for ensuring that the BBC acts in the public interest and meets its wider Charter obligations. It therefore has overall responsibility for governance of the BBC. Along with other duties, it measures the BBC’s performance, including in relation to programmes, services and standards. It is also required to investigate issues relating to excessive management layers and overall staffing levels, which could deliver significant further efficiency savings.
In an age of fake news and self-reinforcing algorithms, the need for genuine impartiality is greater than ever. I therefore welcome the fact that the Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, has set out ensuring impartiality as one of the key tests for the BBC as part of the remit of the recently announced Public Service Broadcasting Advisory Panel. The need for impartiality also extends to BBC reporters’ statements on social media, and I am pleased that the BBC has launched a review into how the corporation can maintain impartiality on these platforms.
Thank you for contacting me about your broadband.
Upon election I made it one of my main priorities to address broadband issues in North Devon.
We have had some good news recently from both Openreach and Airband where they are now starting to install Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) to some areas. While I welcome this, I recognise that this only addresses a small number of constituents and it is only a start.
I welcome the commitments that this Government has made but it is action we want to see, and I want to assure you that there is still a lot more to do and I intend to continue the fight.
In the meantime, there are several things that you can do to help improve your current connection.
You could request an upgrade through your current broadband provider or look to a non-traditional supplier such as a satellite broadband provider https://www.which.co.uk/reviews/broadband-deals/article/what-is-broadband/what-is-satellite-broadband or you could look to a 4G or a wireless provider such as Airband who have a contract with Connecting Devon and Somerset across North Devon. Last year Airband identified over 3,000 properties across North Devon that they had already upgraded that could access a wireless system that had not yet done so. You can check on your availability here https://www.connectingdevonandsomerset.co.uk/
You may have a reasonable service but still have problems. If there is significant loss of signal within your home, this could be addressed through the purchase of Wi-Fi extenders/boosters. It may also help to upgrade your router from an ADSL to be either ADSL2 or ADSL2+ compatible. There is a lot of advice here from Ofcom that may be of some use:
Long term I want all of North Devon to have FTTP and one of the ways that we can start achieving this is through Community Fibre Partnerships (CFPs).
I am delighted that the Kings Nympton CFP is moving forward and I want to encourage other parishes and communities to do the same. I will soon be producing a ‘How to’ guide for Parish Clerks across North Devon with the help of Openreach and with the guidance of those involved with the Kings Nympton project.
We should not underestimate the problems that we have in upgrading everyone. Even if we did have all the money needed to make these upgrades there are not enough engineers to enable this to happen any time soon. Openreach have been one of the biggest Engineering Apprenticeship providers in the UK over the last few years and have made significant investments in skills right here in North Devon. They have been preparing, and while it may seem like we have been waiting for a long time for promised Government investments to be realised, we are now, hopefully, ready to take action.
Support for Local Newspapers
I know that Ministers share your desire to help independent publications through this period of hardship and they are in regular dialogue with publishers to ensure that the Government response to the challenges they are facing is as effective as possible.
A variety of support has been made available to local newspapers. Importantly, this includes the designating of journalists and ancillary staff as 'key workers', meaning they have been able to keep working and have access to childcare and education for their families.
A major coronavirus public information campaign has been launched, through which Ministers have sought to maximise advertising opportunities for news outlets. Worth up to £35 million in advertising revenue, this campaign brings together over 600 national, regional and local titles across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to reach 49 million people a month. As with any media planning approach, titles have been selected on their ability to engage with audiences and to ensure value for money, reach and targeting efficacy. It is my understanding that the vast majority of titles involved are local papers and additional titles have been selected in order to further reach priority audiences including BAME and older men.
The Chancellor also brought forward the zero rating of VAT on all e-publications to the 1st May - seven months ahead of schedule. The Government expects the tax relief to be passed on to consumers in the form of reduced prices, and publishers should benefit from increased sales. Independent publishers may also benefit from several measures included in an unprecedented business support package, such as the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme, Job Retention Scheme, Bounce Back Loans, VAT deferrals, and coverage of statutory sick pay costs.
The internet has become an integral part of our lives. Whilst being online can be a hugely positive experience for children, we have to be alive to the dangers. I believe it is vital that we do all we can to protect our children from the negative impacts the online world can have, so that we make the UK the safest place in the world to be online.
I know the Government fully recognises the importance of tackling online harms, including harmful content to children on the Internet. That is why the Online Harms White Paper, jointly published by the Home Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in April 2019, sets out plans for world-leading legislation in this area.
As championed by the NSPCC, the Bill will establish a new duty of care on companies towards their users, which will be overseen by an independent regulator. This will make companies take more responsibility for the safety of their users and tackle harm caused by content or activity on their services. The regulator will have a suite of powers to take effective enforcement action against companies that have breached their statutory duty of care. The regulator will take a risk-based approach, prioritising action to tackle activity or content where there is the greatest evidence or threat of harm, or where children or other vulnerable users are at risk.
I also welcome that, as set out in the Online Harms White Paper, the Government will be developing an online media literacy strategy. This strategy will lead to a coordinated and strategic approach to online media literacy education and awareness for children, young people and adults. Online media and digital literacy can equip users with the skills they need to spot dangers online, critically appraise information and take steps to keep themselves and others safe online.