Online Abuse Debate

I was fortunate to be able to speak in the debate this evening on online abuse.  This is an issue on which I have been focused for some time, ever since the NSPCC asked me to host an event here in Parliament to highlight the issue of online harm.  In that case, the event was particularly focused on children but as mentioned in the debate the problem is equally applicable to adults.  I concluded my speech with the following:

Three hundred and eighty-six people in my constituency signed the petition that led to this debate.  I ask the Minister to confirm clearly that the Government will, as a matter of urgency, build on the good work already commenced to protect children online, expanding it to encompass the protection of other targeted groups, in particular the disabled.  Also, as mentioned previously, will appropriate funding be provided?  There is no point having a policy, a law or a rule that does not have the support of funding, whether for the police or for other agencies, including the platform providers, to enable them to continue to operate their secure reporting mechanisms, such as the police’s True Vision website.  This is an issue that has to be addressed throughout the United Kingdom.  It is intolerable, we are aware of it, and self-policing and self-regulation have not worked over the past decade; it is time for firm, robust regulation that will be adhered to by the platform providers.

 

 

5.19 pm

Bill Grant

 

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. My thanks to the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) and the Petitions Committee for securing this important debate.

 

Social media has its pros and cons. It permits persons who may not be so mobile to stay in touch and therefore prevents social isolation, giving access to a wider world though, sadly, not necessarily a safer or kinder one. Others may use social media to seek support and/or friendship, frequently from those in similar circumstances to themselves. That commonality could be disability, illness, bereavement, historic abuse and so on, and many will have positive experiences and move on.

 

Unfortunately, however, those are already potentially at-risk groups, and some people will inevitably encounter those who wickedly seek to exploit them when they are at their lowest ebb. Indeed, social media may create further social isolation for those who fall foul of unscrupulous users. It can be heartbreaking for a victim, who might become withdrawn and fearful over time. A sad indictment of our so-called progressive society is that online trolls—people who seek to gain personal gratification by berating and belittling others—seem to have free rein to do so unabated. There is little in the way of up-to-date and robust regulation to minimise if not eradicate such inhumanity—which is indeed what it is—and at times criminality.

 

A recent Petitions Committee report recognised a need for Government and social media companies to consult disabled users proactively, and for those companies ​to be more proactive about accepting responsibility—which they find very difficult—for facilitating such fractious and foul material being aired on their sites. The Government were required to acknowledge a need to enhance legal protections with a review of the justice system to ensure that disabled persons are not being disadvantaged. I welcome such progress and the publication of the Government’s White Paper on online harms, which contains positive and progressive proposals to appoint an independent regulator to draft and enforce stringent new standards, guidance and code of practice to cover dealing with hateful and offensive content online; and to introduce a mandatory duty of care to be adhered to by technology companies, including social media platforms.

 

I understand that the existing action plan for tackling hate crime will also be revisited and refreshed to ensure that it adequately addresses the totally unacceptable abusive behaviour online, behaviour which knows no bounds and, regrettably, has been experienced by those of different ages, genders—including a number of female MPs—races and religions. Indeed, every walk of life can be affected by the tentacles of online abuse. Now, the focus of those misguided, shameful and wicked individuals is to target those with disabilities, people who already do not feel valued or protected by the law.

 

Three hundred and eighty-six people in my constituency signed the petition that led to this debate. I ask the Minister to confirm clearly that the Government will, as a matter of urgency, build on the good work already commenced to protect children online, expanding it to encompass the protection of other targeted groups, in particular the disabled. Also, as mentioned previously, will appropriate funding be provided? There is no point having a policy, a law or a rule that does not have the support of funding, whether for the police or for other agencies, including the platform providers, to enable them to continue to operate their secure reporting mechanisms, such as the police’s True Vision website. This is an issue that has to be addressed throughout the United Kingdom. It is intolerable, we are aware of it, and self-policing and self-regulation have not worked over the past decade; it is time for firm, robust regulation that will be adhered to by the platform providers.