Labour vows to hand ‘weak’ Rishi Sunak first defeat over Online Safety Bill

Exclusive: PM failed to ‘read the room’ over criminal penalities for social media giants, says shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell – as Labour plans to vote with Tory rebels

Adam Forrest
Political Correspondent
Monday 16 January 2023 08:44 GMT
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Related: Parents slam slow pace of the UK’s Online Safety Bill

Keir Starmer’s Labour party has vowed to hand “weak” Rishi Sunak his first Commons defeat if the prime minister does not agree to toughen up his Online Safety Bill.

Shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell told The Independent that Mr Sunak had failed to “read the room” by only threatening fines – rather than criminal liability – for social media bosses if they fail to protect children from damaging content.

Ms Powell said Labour will back an amendment signed by almost 50 Tory MPs to ensure social media company directors face up to two years in jail if they fail to obey new restrictions.

Labour support from the growing rebellion means Mr Sunak could be heading for his first parliamentary defeat – although culture secretary Michelle Donelan has said she is “not ruling out” changes before Tuesday’s crucial vote.

Ms Powell said giving criminal liability was needed to “make those who are responsible for running these platforms sit up and take notice – because they might not otherwise”.

The Labour frontbencher said the Tory rebellion “gives us a real opportunity to change the bill”, adding: “A lot of MPs are trying to do the right thing. It may be [the government] concedes, but as things stand there’s a very strong chance of the rebel amendment passing.”

The latest Tory revolt follows U-turns from Mr Sunak over mandatory housebuilding targets and a ban on onshore wind farms, which saw the PM accept rebel amendments signed by a few dozen of his backbenchers.

One of the Tory MPs leading the rebellion over criminal liability in the Online Safety Bill said the government had reached out to rebels over the weekend aimed at avoiding an embarrassing defeat in the Commons.

Miriam Cates MP said it remains a red line for rebels – including Priti Patel and Iain Duncan Smith – that directors of social media firms face the threat of prosecution if young people see harmful material online.

Revealing that the amendment she drafted with Bill Cash had now been backed by 48 Tory MPs, Ms Cates told GB News: “We just believe that without that threat of personal liability, we just will not see the change that is necessary.”

She added: “The government is keen to work with us. But we are very clear that there has to be this threat of personal criminal liability for directors in order to bring the change that we need.”

The former leader urged Mr Sunak to help ensure social media bosses “face punishment”. Speaking to LBC, Sir Iain said: “It is time we all co-ordinated together and made sure they don’t get away with this very lax system of actually protecting children.”

It follows criticism over the Sunak government’s decision last month to “water down” the bill by ditching a plan to ban material judged “legal but harmful” over the free speech concerns.

Ms Powell said Mr Sunak was “out of touch” with feeling in his own party. “The irony is they thought they were watering it down to appease backbenchers, but they hadn’t read the room. There was a lot of disquiet about the watering down from the right of the party.”

The Labour frontbencher said the Sunak government was “incredibly weak”, adding: “I think many on their own side feel they’re ungovernable, to some degree. On this, there’s weakness and real out-of-touchness.”

Culture secretary Michelle Donelan ‘not ruling out’ changes to bill

Ms Powell said the repeated “weakening” of the bill meant Labour would look to introduce a tougher new laws as a matter of priority if the party wins the general election.

Labour would attempt to come up with something closer to the bill’s original form, and give a media regulator the power to demand social media companies open up on the algorithms used to promote hateful material.

“The engagement algorithms, the very business model that rewards controversy, rewards counterfactual views, rewards hate … that needs that regulation,” said Ms Powell.

She added: “As drafted [in the current bill], all the regulators will be able to do is hold a platform to account for their own terms and conditions. We can give a regulator the powers to direct terms and conditions, and more powers of transparency over business models.”

The Labour frontbencher also accused the government of a “total waste of time and money” over the planned privatisation of Channel 4, reverse by the Sunak government earlier this month.

Estimating that the whole process of planning to sell off the broadcaster, then reversing the move, cost £2m, Ms Powell said: “It’s a good outcome – but it’s an outcome that was obvious from the start. It was hard to find anyone who thought it was a good idea.”

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