The Lords has proved its worth with the Online Safety Act
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House of Lords' expertise has ensured that good intentions have been translated into good law
The House of Lords is often dismissed as a Chamber full of peers without experience of the real world. And yet when the Online Safety Bill, which cleared its parliamentary stages in September, returned to the Commons for its final stage, the MPs who spoke were generous in recognising the myriad of improvements peers had made to this groundbreaking, tech-focused legislation.
I recently spoke at an event on how women and girls would now be specifically protected under the bill. This was just one of many issues that were raised by peers, including: ensuring bereaved parents have greater access to data about what their children were seeing online; safeguarding animal welfare; regulating small but risky platforms; greater regulation of online pornography and app stores; and regulating not just harmful content but also functionalities and design.
Effective joint working between members of both Houses, coupled with the fact that, in the Lords, all amendments are debated and are not subject to timetabling motions, helped to ensure the necessary issues were fully discussed.
We rose to the challenge set by Lord Stevenson, who said at the end of the second reading: “I suggest that we try to work together on getting the best bill we can... avoiding the war-of-attrition approach that so often bedevils the work we do here.”
Lord Parkinson tells me he “knew before we started that this one would be different”, adding that the pre-legislative scrutiny given by the joint committee meant “the debates we had when the bill came to the Lords were focused, well informed, and quickly got to the heart of key issues which peers felt needed extra attention”.
Lord Parkinson also maintains: “We certainly benefited from having so many former members of that committee – as well as former ministers who had worked on earlier incarnations of the bill – informing our debates. Where we disagreed, we knew where each other was coming from, and the areas where we might be able to find compromise.”
It was a wall of focused expert sound and collegiate working across all boundaries
He highlights the input of colleagues from across the House who “brought fresh perspectives, often spending many hours outside the Chamber to bring forward ideas which represented the considered thoughts of many others” and has expressed his gratitude to everyone who took part “for the spirit in which they went about it”, concluding that “we have a better bill for it”.
One of the problems facing a bill seeking to regulate online platforms and modern technology is that developments are moving so fast the law will struggle to keep up to date.
But as Baroness Kidron, who has been campaigning on matters covered in the bill for many years, tells me: “The Lords were early adopters on the digital issue with successive communications committee inquiries that looked at children, advertising, threats to democracy… each time building a case and making relationships with experts and NGOs with deep expertise.”
Baroness Kidron says she was “privileged to sit on a number of these including – finally – the pre-legislative committee of both Houses chaired by Damian Collins. That committee was unanimous in its recommendations and, when you look at the many changes to the bill during parliamentary passage, almost all are mirrored in the committee report. This laid an extraordinary spirit of cross-party consensus.”
The crossbench peer adds: “I commend the charities and NGOs who provided such [a] positive environment for the bill, the bereaved families for online safety which made it a moral issue as much as a political one, and the work of more than six ex-ministers and secretaries of state. In the end, it was a wall of focused expert sound and collegiate working across all boundaries.”
As Lord Cormack said in a recent edition of The House: “This really was a case of a House of expertise and experience translating good intentions into good law.”
Now that it has received its Royal Assent, I am confident that, with the Online Safety Act, the Lords proved its worth as a modern revising Chamber.
Baroness Morgan of Cotes is Conservative peer and former culture secretary
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