Lords Diary: Baroness Morgan of Cotes
Although I joined the House of Lords in early 2020, I have only now completed an almost normal parliamentary year. However, I still have to firmly remind myself not to refer to fellow peers as 'honourable members'.
I’m often asked if I miss the Commons. When the person asking is a sitting MP, and I say I don’t miss the constituency inbox, they usually nod with a rather haunted look in their eyes. An MP’s inbox is a direct window into public opinion. It is fascinating, but the content can also be very demanding and pretty brutal.
There is no doubt the Commons has a very special place at the heart of national life. There is nothing quite like the atmosphere on the green benches when a tricky statement or debate is about to start. Will the minister get through it? Will someone ask a killer question?
But I have discovered that the essential service of the House of Lords is in the quality of scrutiny their lordships give to each bill, and the enthusiasm and expertise with which they enter oral questions and debates. Being part of a select group to have answered questions at the despatch box of both the Commons and the Lords I can say with confidence that the latter asks the tougher questions – particularly because it is ill-advised for any Lords minister to fall back on partisan political references. The Lords is full of both former ministers and renowned experts in their field – they know when a question has not been answered!
I am waiting for the Online Safety Bill to make its way to the Lords. The bill is important to me because I know too many good people who are put off, or who have left, a career in public life because of the grim toll social media abuse takes on those who serve. As culture secretary I made the decision that Ofcom should take on the role of regulator. I know there will be lots of vigorous debate about the merits and challenges of the bill when it reaches us. But it is undeniable that there is too much seriously harmful content, which would not be allowed to proliferate unchecked in the offline world.
It is ill-advised for any Lords minister to fall back on partisan political references
One such harm, although it seems it won’t be covered by the Online Safety Bill as currently drafted, is the recommendation by algorithms on the websites of some retailers to serve up harmful suggested extra purchases. This happens, for example, if a search is conducted on material related to suicide. After several rejections I finally managed to secure an oral question to ask Department for Culture, Media and Sport minister, Lord Parkinson, about this. Although we didn’t get a commitment to examine this in the context of the bill the minister did confirm he was speaking to health ministers and that those drafting regulations around advertising are aware of this harmful content. Useful to bear in mind, as I’m working with others on potential Lords amendments to the Online Safety Bill.
Another example of harmful content which has proliferated thanks to the internet are online scams and frauds. Fraud accounts for 42 per cent of all crime against individuals and is now the most commonly experienced crime in England and Wales. I defy anyone reading this article to say they have not received a scam text message or phone call or even been taken in by a fraudulent investment advertisement or romance scam. I am privileged to be chairing the current Lords inquiry into the Fraud Act 2006 and Digital Fraud Committee with a great group of peers. We have taken some fascinating evidence about how these scams operate, why prosecutions are so low and the alphabet soup of government departments and agencies overseeing this. I intend our November report to be practical and unambiguous about how this fraud epidemic can be ended.
Baroness Morgan of Cotes is a Conservative peer
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