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Online Safety Bill To Be Watered Down, Rishi Sunak Signals "Golden Era" With China Is Over

Online Safety Bill To Be Watered Down, Rishi Sunak Signals 'Golden Era' With China Is Over

Rishi Sunak has signalled the end of a "golden era" with China (Alamy)

5 min read

Ministers have risked a major battle with MPs over the Online Safety Bill as they dumped plans to ban "legal but harmful" content in a bid to win Commons support from free speech advocates.

Detail of the bill to regulate "legal but harmful" content online is now likely to be removed as ministers attempt to push the long-awaited legislation through the Commons. 

The Online Safety Bill aims to bring in tougher rules around what can be posted on the internet. While the Bill will seek to make content promoting self-harm illegal, the "legal but harmful" clause would focus on content and algorithms encouraging behaviours such as eating disorders, for example.

Speaking on Tuesday, Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan, said the clause would have created "very concerning" impacts around free speech and claimed it was delaying the bill from being passed in the Commons.

"There were unintended consequences associated with it. It was really the anchor preventing this bill from getting off the ground," she told Sky News.

"It was a creation of a quasi-legal category between legal and illegal, that is not what the government should be doing, it was confusing. It would create a different set of rules online to offline in the legal sphere."

Donelan's predecessor as culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, has strongly criticised attempts to remove the clause. Dorries recently told The House that Conservative MPs would put up a "massive fight" over the decision to water down the bill ahead of a Commons vote next week.

Labour said the move amounted to a "major weakening" of the legislation, while the Samaritans charity said it was a "hugely backwards step" and claimed the government had "snatched defeat from the jaws of victory".

But Donelan insisted the government was committed to tackling online harms, saying that social media firms would now be forced to take action to protect users, including new requirements to ban children under the age of 13 from accessing their sites or face large fines.

She insisted the government would continue to legislate to make some forms of content illegal, including the promotion of self harm, following pressure from campaigners.

"Personally, I think if we all agree that stuff should be illegal let's make it illegal," she said. "That is what we have done with this bill now. For the first time ever the promotion of self-harm will be made illegal and that is something we have added to this bill."

Prime minister says " golden era" with China is over

China president Xi Jinping
Rishi Sunak said President Xi Jinping's country should be treated with "robust pragmatism" (Alamy)

Rishi Sunak has used his first foreign policy speech since entering Downing Street to say the "golden era" between the UK and China was over.

Speaking on Monday evening, Sunak said he believed the efforts to reform China by opening up trade and cultural links had been "naive" and said the country should be treated with "robust pragmatism".

Sunak has come under pressure from some Conservative MPs to take a hardline approach to China, including cutting off relations with the country.

But he insisted critics should drop their "Cold War rhetoric" because the UK could not "simply ignore China's significance in world affairs".

Speaking to PoliticsHome ahead of the speech, Conservative MP Alicia Kearns, who chairs the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, welcomed the tougher language, but insisted Sunak should immediately take actions to back up his stance.

"Is there any depth to it? That is the question," she said.

"I think those in Parliament who are calling for us to cut off relations with China, or suggesting that we can somehow afford to isolate them entirely from our system, that’s just not pragmatic, it’s not realistic," she added.

"We do need to cooperate with China on some issues, we need to contest on some issues and challenge them too."

Sunak also made reference to the crackdown by Chinese authorities following protests in the country, including the arrest and assault of a BBC journalist while covering a demonstration in Shanghai on Sunday.

"We recognise China poses a systemic challenge to our values and interests, a challenge that grows more acute as it moves towards even greater authoritarianism," he said.

But his comments were described as "thin as gruel" by shadow foreign secretary David Lammy, who accused the government of "flip-flopping its rhetoric on China".

Further hints of an onshore wind climbdown from the government 

wind farm in northern ireland
The government may ditch its plans to ban new onshore wind farms (Alamy)

The government's plans to continue a de facto ban on new onshore wind farms looks set to be dumped after Donelan gave the strongest indication yet that ministers could bow to Tory rebels.

Around 30 Conservatives, including former prime ministers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, are expected to back an amendment to the Levelling Up Bill which would allow projects to go ahead in areas where there is community consent.

Speaking on Tuesday, Donelan said the government was "listening" to Conservative MPs over the plans, adding she was "sure" that Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove would make a fresh announcement in the coming days.

"I agree with the Prime Minister on this. He has always said that when it comes to green energy and it comes to tackling climate change we have got to take people with us, we have got to take communities with us, that is how we really progress this agenda," she said.

"Those were his words at COP and that is the sentiment that he shares now.

She added: "The government is listening to colleagues around this amendment and I am sure that there will be some announcements made by the Levelling Up Secretary in the days to come."

Speaking to GB News, she made further suggestions of a U-turn over the ban. 

"There are tweaks sometimes made to bills, sometimes people stand their amendment down because they haven’t realised the other elements of the legislation," she said. 

"It's all part of the legislative process."

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