NSPCC criticises delays to ‘crucial’ Online Safety Bill
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Over 13,000 online child sex offences could have been recorded since July 2022, the date when the bill was originally due to be brought before MPs, research suggests.
The NSPCC has urged the government to end delays around the Online Safety Bill, drawing attention to the thousands of offences that are taking place while the legislation remains in limbo.
The Online Safety Bill has been presented by the government as a ground-breaking law that will protect the privacy and safety of children in the digital sphere. Former culture secretary Nadine Dorries said it will make the UK “the safest place in the world for our children to go online”.
The legislation was due to be discussed in Parliament today (1 November), but has been pushed back once again following the latest leadership crisis in the Conservative Party that saw Rishi Sunak become the new Prime Minister of the UK.
The political turmoil also led the junior minister responsible for delivering the legislation, Damian Collins, to leave his post last week. Since then, no new date has been set for the legislation's return to Parliament.
For every day the bill is delayed, the NSPCC estimates that more than 100 grooming and other such crimes could have been recorded. The organisation also revealed there has been a 35 per cent rise in Childline counselling sessions about online grooming in the last six months.
“The scale of online child abuse and continued inaction from tech firms to tackle damaging suicide and self-harm content being targeted at children should be a wake-up call to the Prime Minister to make passing the Online Safety Bill his mission," said NSPCC chief executive Sir Peter Wanless.
“There is overwhelming public consensus for the crucial legislation to be bought back as a priority and with strengthened protections for children, so they are systemically and comprehensively safe from harm and abuse for years to come.”
The NSPCC cited Home Office police data for its analysis, based on the total number of online child abuse cases recorded in England and Wales in 2021/22.
The charity has also presented a petition to Sunak that it says has been signed by 50,000 people calling for the passing of the bill. The petition is accompanied by a letter from an online grooming victim who says the Prime Minister has “the power to stop this happening to other young people”.
"Unregulated online spaces meant my abuser could use several platforms to groom, abuse and manipulate me without ever having to leave his home," they wrote.
"Sadly, too many children are still going through the same thing I did. They are still not safe from grooming and sexual abuse online. But you can change this."
In response, a Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport spokesperson said: "Protecting children and stamping out illegal activity online is a top priority for the government and we will bring the Online Safety Bill back to parliament as soon as possible."
The current culture secretary, Michelle Donelan, has insisted the bill is her top priority, but has not yet set a date to bring it before MPs.
“Each day this crucial legislation is delayed is another day imagery of children being sexually abused spreads further online. This is the reality,” said Susie Hargreaves, the chief executive of the Internet Watch Foundation.
Labour’s Lucy Powell, the shadow secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS), condemned the delay. “It is disgraceful that one of the first acts of Rishi Sunak’s government is to, yet again, pull the Online Safety Bill.
“In the wake of Molly Russell’s inquest, the need for urgent regulation has never been clearer, yet, unbelievably, this government can’t decide if it wants to keep children safe online. This bill must not be the victim of another grubby, backroom deal by the new PM."
The bill is set to require tech giants like Facebook and Google to protect users from harmful content for the first time, with penalties for breaching the new rules including fines of up to 10 per cent of their annual turnover.
Under the current draft of the bill, published last year, senior executives of online platforms could end up in prison if they do not act on illegal content published on their sites. To avoid this, social media companies will be required to double down on content monitoring and impose stricter age-verification processes.
However, the legislation has faced criticism, as the Institute of Economic Affairs has warned the bill could hand the Secretary of State and Ofcom “unprecedented powers to define and limit speech, with limited parliamentary or judicial oversight”. Moreover, in a poll conducted by BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, some 46 per cent of IT experts surveyed said the bill was not workable, with only 14 per cent believing the legislation was ‘fit for purpose’.
During her short time as Prime Minister, Liz Truss said the Online Safety Bill would continue its progress through Parliament, but that it would not be passed in its current form. Sunak, however, has not yet stated his position with regard to the legislation.
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