The Report Stage of the Online Safety Bill. The conclusion. The grand finale. Culture minister Paul Scully’s moment in the limelight.
It took some time to realise that a lot of the Bill was going back to the beginning. The ways of procedure can be beyond mortal understanding.
So, the Speaker kicked off Report by saying, in paraphrase, that the text was all over the shop, that half of it was going back to Committee for redrafting, and that those parts of particular interest to Guido would be getting the treatment. What sort of treatment we won’t know for sure until Thursday week when the Committee passes the Bill’s New Clauses back into the world.
Having spoken to the Secretary of State last week, Guido believes – wants to believe – that the “legal but harmful” theme in the Bill as concerning adults would be omitted. The Secretary of State included an Amendment to that effect. Why that couldn’t be done on the floor of the House – who knows? It looks like there are complications. Difficulties. Effective resistance. Delay means danger, that is almost certainly true.
Sceptics say: the adult “harm” element of the Bill has monstrous unintended consequences. That it provides for anyone who feels they have suffered harm by things seen on social media to demand redress. A trans activist may say that they have seen a post saying Transwomen Are Transwomen, claim that their “existence has been erased” and that they are now suicidal. The post must be taken down and the publishers punished. Whatever public good the clause might allow, it is also a charter for hysterics, paranoids and vexatious litigants.
Now we understand that the “harm” clause is not to be simply omitted. It is referred back to its Public Bill committee for 10 days for drafting, redrafting, reformatting, reinterpreting and circle-squaring.
Alex Davies-Jones, speaking for Labour, gave voice to the thoughts many harbour – that the internet should not be a wild west where, for instance, Hitler glorification and bleach-for-Covid advocates can say anything they want. It was claimed, “Everything Kanye West says is abhorrent and has no place online.” These are the extremes to which these arguments go.
Whoever Kanye West is, that everything he says is abhorrent can’t be right. That really is erasing his existence. (Ms Davies-Jones should watch that film that ends with the fallen hero crying: “Oh no! I’ve become everything I’ve ever hated!”) But her theme is strong, possibly dominant. It’s marvellous that Secretary of State Donelan has held out as far as this – there are those on her own side agitating for “legal but harmful”.
Priti Patel, perhaps in recognition of grieving families in the public gallery – families of child suicides, people whose lives had been destroyed by events – said, “Victims must be at the heart of everything we do.” This is a powerful declaration of sympathy but it can’t be right, either. We who aren’t victims have important rights as well.
Alex D-J also defended “legal but harmful” by saying it was the Law Commission who had proposed it. That they were the experts and that expert advice should be taken. There is an equal and opposite opinion – with many common law precedents – that experts can be idiots. The man on the Clapham omnibus deserves his place in the argument.
John Nicolson, in one of the afternoon’s least useful contributions, said that the better course of action would be to reconcile “legal but harmful” with the requirements of free speech. He gave no indication of how that might be done.
Julian Knight, chair of the select committee, amused the House by saying that he was going to support the Bill “because, after five years, frankly, I’ve had enough.”
There will be more, much more, possibly too much more as Gallery Guido follows the matter deep into the Public Bill committee. It’s an adventure in the genre of I’m A Sketch Writer – Get Me Out Of Here! but be assured, co-conspirators will be spared the more unusual details of the legislative process.