Nick calls for more action to tackle online bullying of young people

Nick Herbert

I welcome this debate and am grateful to the Petitions Committee for ensuring that it happened. I endorse a great deal of what the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), the Chair of the Committee, said. I know that she and her fellow Committee members have pursued this issue with great diligence on behalf of the petitioners.

My interest in the matter is that Katie Price, who organised the petition, is a constituent of mine, as is Katie’s mother, Amy, who is watching the debate from the Public Gallery. I have just met Katie and Amy again, having had a number of discussions with them about what motivated them to bring the issue to public attention. The terrible online bullying of Katie’s disabled son, Harvey, and the effect it had on him and on Katie and her family, made her determined to raise the profile of the issue. She was told that, as a public figure, she should expect to take the rough with the smooth, that she should have a thicker skin, that she had asked for trouble through many of the things she had said, and that she therefore had no justification for raising the issue. That seems to miss the point entirely. Whether someone is a public figure, or members of their family are public figures, and whether they have been brought into the public eye by accident or design, it is never justifiable to bully a young person. It is especially unjustifiable to bully a young disabled person who cannot answer back and might be particularly vulnerable to such bullying.

This issue is so important because it draws attention to a new form of bullying and a new means of enabling bullying. Bullying has been around as long as the human race, but it has been enabled, amplified and in many ways made a great deal worse by social media. We all recognise that the law, and the way we deal with the issue, has not kept up with the growth of the problem in our society in recent years. As recently as two decades ago we simply would not have been talking about this as an issue. Online bullying has exploded because of the prevalence of social media. There is a common recognition that we must do something about it; the real question is what?

There are four areas that we must look at, accepting that the problem is very great indeed—we do not need to discuss whether it is or not. The Law Commission has said that

in 2017 28% of UK internet users were on the receiving end of trolling, harassment or cyberbullying.”

That is a huge proportion of the population. The question is: how can we deal with it, particularly when it does not cross the line between activity that is clearly criminal and activity that is sub-criminal but nevertheless needs to be dealt with?

Although the Law Commission’s November 2018 report stated that

we do not consider there to be major gaps in the current state of the criminal law concerning abusive and offensive online communications,”

it then gave the very important caveat that

there is considerable scope to improve the criminal law in this area”.

It made a number of recommendations on how offences, particularly those relating to grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false communication, should be tightened up. I hope that the Minister will explain how the Government intend to respond to those recommendations.

The Law Commission noted that there are several practical and cultural barriers to enforcement. That is the second issue. The first is whether the law itself is adequate. Even if the law is correctly framed to deal with online abuse—as I have said, there are areas where it needs improving—the real question is whether it is being effectively enforced. There is little doubt that the law enforcement authorities have struggled with how to deal with the huge explosion of social media. The Law Commission noted:

the sheer scale of abusive and offensive communications, and the limited resources…a persistent cultural tolerance of online abuse”—

I will come to that—the need to balance protecting individuals from harm and freedom of expression; technical barriers that make it difficult to prove the identity of perpetrators; and jurisdictional issues in a highly globalised world. Those are all reasons why it might be hard to enforce the law, but that does not mean that we should not make greater efforts to do so.

I want to raise the question of whether the police are adequately structured, and whether the resources are sufficiently following the need for them to deal with this activity. There is no doubt that crime is changing—this is a very good example of that. The police always need more resources, and I am aware that the Government have recently been increasing police resources, but does the current structure of policing make it easy for individual forces to deal with issues such as online crime? Would this kind of crime be better dealt with through some kind of collaborative police activity, or even some radically new police organisation at national level? Is it an example of a kind of crime that should make us look again at the structure of policing, even while we maintain individual police forces across the country for other forms of volume crime? It is worth looking at that, because I think there is a capability issue in relation to how the police deal with these problems, as well as a resources issue.

The second point, therefore, is that we must enforce the existing law more effectively, and it must be enforced just as much online as it is offline. The police and prosecutors often have difficult decisions to make about where the line should be drawn and when it is in the public interest to prosecute. They must make those decisions after having investigated these crimes properly. We cannot have a general absence of investigation simply because the issues are so great that the police feel unable to deal with them.

The third area where we need more action is the responsibility of social media companies to police their own platforms. That is clearly today’s zeitgeist. Gone are the days when those companies could simply say that they are merely publishing platforms and that they do not have the ability or the responsibility to deal with offensive conduct. They do. Although much of the focus is on material that poses a serious threat to the public—it is quite proper that social media companies are under enormous pressure to deal with that—they should also not tolerate hateful content any more than a conventional publisher would in their organs.

We are entitled to expect social media companies to do more to deal with the persistent trolling of people and to ensure that reports of such activity are investigated effectively. We must face down those who say that there should be free speech in this area, that we should all have broad shoulders, and that it is not the role of social media companies to act as police officers. Actually, they do have a responsibility in this area. We cannot allow the world wide web to be some kind of wild west where anything goes. The way these platforms are being used is doing great harm, particularly to young people’s mental health and happiness.

Those who are making money out of these immensely popular social platforms—we all use them, and they do bring a lot of pleasure and happiness to millions of people—must also recognise the ways in which they can be abused. They must take action to deal with that. The action they take must address conduct that is not just criminal and dangerous, but hateful. They have a responsibility to act, big though the problem is. The Government’s online harms White Paper is a step in the right direction. I reject those who say that it represents too much interference in free speech. It is about ensuring that the companies behave like responsible publishers and in a way that we would expect newspapers to behave.

The fourth area—I will conclude on this—is talked about less. It relates to civil society itself and our responsibility to encourage a discourse that is civil, respectful and not hateful. All those who lead in society, not least Members of Parliament, must say that there are ways of speaking to people that are no more acceptable simply because it is in an online discussion than they would be if it were a face-to-face discussion. We appear to be living in an angrier society, in which it is acceptable to abuse people, and in which licence is taken with a lot of angry outbursts on social media. It may be true that public figures should have broader shoulders, but when such comments spill over into bullying, particularly of younger people, they should not be tolerated.

We must take action collectively; we cannot just leave it to law enforcement. We cannot just toughen up the law and demand more of law enforcement agencies and social media companies. Those things must happen, but we also have a responsibility in society to take a step back and say, “Actually, some of the ways in which we are discussing issues has gone too far; it is too angry and hateful, and language should be moderated.” People who use excessive language and do not behave in a civilised way should be called out. If we ourselves are not behaving in that way, we cannot call out those who are doing that.

Those are the four areas where action is needed. Action in one area will not be sufficient. This really is not just about changing the law, important though some changes will be. It is not just about law enforcement; it is also about the responsibility of the social media companies and society at large. We will tackle this problem only by acting across the board. Let us not lose sight of the importance of dealing with it.

I pay tribute to Katie for having the courage to raise the issue, for facing down those who have criticised her for doing so, and for securing the Petition Committee’s investigation and report into online abuse. I hope that she keeps going and recognises that she is making progress. Her concern is, although we talk a lot, what progress will be made? That is a legitimate question for any member of the public to ask. We have these debates, but what will actually happen as a consequence?

I will finish by quoting words from Katie’s petition, which are powerful and speak for themselves:

Help me to hammer home worldwide that bullying is unacceptable whether it’s face to face or in an online space.”

Surely we can all agree with that.

Liam Byrne

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I, too, congratulate Katie Price and her family on bringing forward the petition. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for an outstanding speech to introduce the debate. It was brilliant because it was based on a thorough analysis of the petition. It is good to see the Petitions Committee working in exactly the way that it should.

I do not want to say too much, because our position on how to tackle this problem has been rehearsed with the Minister a number of times over the last year and a half, but there are three or four things that I want to put on the record. First, it is worth remembering that the scale of abuse is staggering. Three quarters of people with learning disabilities and autism say that they have been victims of hate crime. That is a comprehensive failure as a society and a country to keep our neighbours safe. God knows what sacrifices we have made over the last 50 or 60 years in the defence of democracy and free speech. We live in a country where some of our neighbours are hounded out of those privileges; we have to look at ourselves and conclude that we have so much more to do.

The policing environment for online hate is failing comprehensively. There is a very old concept in policing known as keeping the Queen’s peace. Online, the Queen’s peace is simply not observed. I disagree slightly with the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) because it is simply inconceivable ever to expect a police force to police this waterfront. Some time ago, people started producing memes of what goes up online every 60 seconds. As far back as 2017, the statistics were half a million tweets, 500 hours of video and 3.3 million Facebook posts. There is no way any police force on earth will police that waterfront and keep it safe and sound to protect and preserve the Queen’s peace throughout that space. Therefore, we have to put the onus back on some of the most profitable companies on earth.

In the last reported quarter, Facebook made something like £5 billion of net earnings. That means that in the course of this debate, it will have made more than £3 million of profit. It is one of the biggest and most valuable companies on earth, yet it gets away with supporting—not orchestrating or colluding in, but certainly enabling—the abuse of fellow citizens of our society. The time has to come when we say to the wealthiest titans on earth, “Enough is enough.”

Nick Herbert

I was quite clear that action needed to be taken across the board, and that social media companies had to accept responsibility. I did not say or seek to imply that the police could police the range of abusive comments across social media. Where they trespass into the criminal, law enforcement agencies do have a responsibility to act, and we need to ensure that they are capable of doing so.

Liam Byrne

I am grateful for that because I believe we are on the same page. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the police forces in this country will need to be radically reconfigured. The time when a police constable might turn up to a burglary and advise how to target harden the home should be about to go, because the cyber-security of the property and the family in question will often be much more important. At the moment, however, in Birmingham we cannot get police to investigate even violent abuses because there are no police—they have been cut in the west midlands to the smallest number since the force was created in 1974. That is a debate for another day.

The Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries (Margot James)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate the Petitions Committee on its impressive work. I thank the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for her speech and for leading that work on the Committee’s report. I assure her that the Government take this issue extremely seriously. I echo her thanks and congratulations to Katie Price and her family on the crusading work they have done. They should never have had to do it in the first place, but they were courageous enough to confront these awful issues on behalf of her son, Harvey.

I have been very affected by the things I have heard in the debate. I had heard some of them before, but some of the content of the debate was new to me, and it is all very shocking. The purpose of the debate has been to look at the effect of horrendous abuse on people with disabilities. Although, obviously, it has not been confined to people with disabilities, until this petition and the Committee’s report, there had not been enough exposure of the true extent of the abuse of people with disabilities.

The hon. Lady alluded to the advice to go offline, which seems to have been handed out to many people with disabilities who have been abused online. That is outrageous advice. No, they should not go offline. She made clear the tremendous benefits that the internet has brought people with disabilities. They should be free to access those benefits, and to come and go online like everybody else, without fear of harassment, abuse or intimidation. It is the internet that has to change, not the experience of people with disabilities.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) has done an excellent job representing the Price family, who are his constituents. He is quite right that this awful abuse and bullying has been with us since the dawn of humanity, but unfortunately, since the dawn of the internet, which is a recent phenomenon, it has been amplified and made far worse. The 24/7 nature of the internet, and the speed and ease with which images and abusive content can be replicated around the world at the touch of a button, have made the phenomenon of abuse—we are here to talk particularly about the abuse of people with disabilities—far worse. I quite agree that social media platforms should operate a policy of zero tolerance of hate speech, and I will come on to the steps that we are taking through the online harms White Paper to ensure that they do that.