The draft Online Safety Bill: the view of the Joint Committee

The government’s draft Online Safety Bill has been subjected to pre-legislative scrutiny by a joint committee of MPs and peers: an unusual procedural step. Following on from publication of its report, committee chair Damian Collins outlines its key findings and recommendations.

On 14 December the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill, which I chair, published our final report on the government’s plans to ‘make the UK the safest place in the world to be online.’

Keen followers of Westminster will know that a pre-legislative, joint committee of the House of Lords and House of Commons is a rare creature, brought into existence little more than once in the duration of a four-year parliament. When there are high levels of interest in a draft bill across all parties and both chambers, such a committee can prove a useful tool to stress test its most critical clauses. Given that the Communications Act 2003, which established Ofcom, was subject to such scrutiny under the chairmanship of Lord (David) Puttnam, it is fitting that the next major reform in media regulation should have followed the same path.

For me this started in 2018, when I chaired a House of Commons inquiry into Disinformation and ‘Fake News’, followed by another in 2019 into Immersive and Addictive Technologies. These were conducted by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee and called out big tech companies for being ‘digital gangsters’ with users’ privacy and safety, and recommended that the UK set up an independent regulator to hold them to account for any harms they caused.

Fast-forward to 2021, and the government set out to do this, publishing a draft Online Safety Bill in the spring, and setting up a Joint Committee in the summer to scrutinise the proposed legislation. Composed of some of the most longstanding experts in parliament on tech policy, media regulation, civil liberties and business governance, we set straight to work. Over the last five months we have held 30 hours of public evidence sessions and read more than 200 pieces of written evidence. We have spoken with over 50 witnesses: ministers, academics, civil society campaigners, industry executives, whistleblowers, and many other parliamentarians, from the UK and abroad. After many hours of closed deliberations, we unanimously agreed on 127 recommendations.

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Should we be allowed to see MPs’ voting records?

Sites like TheyWorkForYou have led to a greater use of parliamentary voting records as a means of holding MPs to account, but it can also lead to misunderstandings about the position taken by the person voting, and to those absent due to maternity or illness being branded lazy. Ben Worthy and Cat Morgan discuss how their research has highlighted some of the problems and benefits of this additional data being made more readily available.

Watching Westminster has got a great deal easier. Since 2005, a whole array of new formal and informal disclosure tools mean we can watch, analyse and verify what MPs and peers are doing much more easily, often at the push of a button. Our Leverhulme project looks across this shifting landscape of searchable digital platforms of MPs’ expenses data, register of interests declarations, and Freedom of Information  requests.  

Most famously, at the centre of these transparency ecosystems stands TheyWorkForYou (TWFY), which monitors MPs’ voting and other activities. Created by volunteers in 2004 and run by mySociety since 2005, it allows us to see individual MPs’ (and peers’) voting records far more easily than in the past. For each MP it offers up, as the website describes, ‘a summary of their stances on important policy areas such as combating climate change or reforming the NHS’, described with phrases such as ‘generally voted for’, ‘always voted against’, and ‘never voted for’. Elsewhere it lists their full record, appearances, and declarations on the register of interests. It averages around 200,000 to 300,000 monthly visits, though this jumps amid elections or scandals.

And some MPs are not happy. A tweet by John Ashmore summarised, perhaps rather too pithily, the two reasons for their unhappiness or concern:

The first worry is that the voting data offers a distorted view. It doesn’t discriminate, for example, between certain types of votes and over-simplifies the rather complex realities. This means, as Stephen Bush recently explained, Green MP Caroline Lucas appears to have ‘voted a mixture of for and against greater regulation of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to extract shale gas’ because she opposed, and voted against, legislation she considered too weak. Some of the most controversial votes, such as the Free School Meals vote, only make sense in the light of the fact it was an Opposition Day vote, something the site doesn’t explain either. Our research has shown how the data is biased and unevenly focused on, for example, high profile or controversial MPs or particular votes. Aggregated data easily becomes a metric to measure, compare and create yardsticks for what constitutes a ‘good’ or ‘bad‘ MP, giving the illusion of objectivity and measurability.

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Riding the populist wave: the UK Conservatives and the constitution

At a recent Constitution Unit event (available in video and podcast form), Tim Bale discussed the challenges posed to mainstream conservatism by the recent rise in successful populist politicians. Here, he sets out those challenges, how conservatives have traditionally faced them, and concludes that the UK Conservative Party is so determined to ‘unite the right’ and supress support for a challenger party that it risks transmogrifying into a populist radical right party.

A few weeks ago I was diagnosed with costochondritis – a minor and surprisingly common condition involving the cartilage that joins your ribs to your sternum but which produces chest pains that make some people suffering from it worry they’re having a heart attack.

The standard treatment is to take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen. For me this presented a bit of a dilemma. Like many other people, I don’t tolerate ibuprofen: it irritates my gastrointestinal tract – something I’m wise to avoid doing because I also suffer from something called Barrett’s oesophagus, which, if you’re unlucky, can turn cancerous. So, on the assumption that the costochondritis would eventually resolve itself, and given the fact that the discomfort involved was irritating but far from overwhelming, I decided just to put up with it.

I’m sharing this bit of my recent medical history not because I particularly enjoy talking about it but because it produces a useful analogy for a question that I want to ask – namely, are politicians on the mainstream right so concerned about countering the rise of populist radical right parties that they end up proposing things that risk doing more harm to society and to the polity than if they were simply to admit that those parties are now a normal rather than a pathological feature of contemporary politics?

The background to this is the book I’ve recently co-edited with Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, called Riding the Populist Wave: Europe’s Mainstream Right in Crisis. We look at how mainstream right parties – which aren’t written about anywhere near as much as their counterparts on the left or, indeed, on the far right – have handled (or in some cases failed to handle) some of the challenges that they’ve been facing for the last three or four decades. Over that time, they’ve suffered significant electoral decline, although, as we show in the book, the extent of that decline varies not just between countries but between party families, with Christian democratic parties suffering more than conservative parties, which, in turn, have suffered more than (market) liberal parties, which have actually managed to hold pretty steady.

We argue that the difficulties they’ve faced are partly down to their having to cope with something of a double whammy.

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A woman’s place is in the House: reclaiming civility, tolerance and respect in political life

Dame Laura Cox, author of a 2018 report into the bullying and harassment of House of Commons staff, argues that the behaviour of too many parliamentarians is misogynistic and a cause of capable women MPs leaving parliament, or having to accept behaviour that would not be permitted in any other workplace. She says that this is in part an institutional problem, and calls for a more open, tolerant, respectful and conciliatory politics.

We are living currently in a very angry world. Our parliament, the central institution of our representative democracy, should be setting an example of tolerance and civility, but instead, civility and willingness to compromise seem to have faded. Political discourse generally has been impoverished by antagonism and extremism. Those more constructive qualities of reflection, cooperation, collaboration and consensus seem to have fallen by the wayside.

In addition to bitter, adversarial politics, there has been an upsurge in reports of abuse, intimidation and assault. In recent years, independent inquiries into events at Westminster – including my own report into the bullying and harassment of Commons staff – have recorded a disturbing number of acts of bullying, harassment and sexual harassment alleged by members of staff and MPs against other MPs, as well as among staff and members of the House of Lords.

The macho behaviour and posturing so frequently displayed in our political debates have disproportionately and adversely affected women in public life. The women affected are not only politicians. Women journalists, academics, campaigners and political activists have all reported instances of intimidation, abuse and even physical violence. In June 2016 a serving MP, Jo Cox, was brutally killed on the street in broad daylight.

Why has our politics become so misogynistic? There are, in my view, a number of contributing factors, including the still unacceptably low numbers of women politicians; the rules and customs of the parliament where they serve; and the resistance to change of parliament as an institution.

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