Rishi Sunak ‘bows to Tory rebels’ to boost online safety for children

Fifty MPs backed a change to the Online Safety Bill that would see tech bosses jailed for failures to protect minors.

16 January 2023

Rishi Sunak appears to have bowed to pressure from rebel Tory MPs to toughen up punishments for social media bosses who fail to protect children from harm online.

The Prime Minister was facing a major backbench rebellion as 50 MPs put their names to an amendment to the Online Safety Bill that would make tech chiefs criminally liable if they do not block minors from seeing damaging content on their platforms.

Michelle Donelan has effectively accepted the proposed change after talks with rebels over the weekend, according to a source close to the Culture Secretary.

Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan
Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

The source suggested Ms Donelan likes the intention of the amendment, but the wording “wasn’t quite right”. She is working with the MPs to table it in the Lords “in a more workable format”.

The agreement allows the Prime Minister to avoid an embarrassing defeat in the Commons should it be put to a vote on Tuesday during its report stage.

It marks the third time Mr Sunak has backed down in the face of uprisings on his back benches since entering No 10 in October, having ditched onshore wind farms and housing planning reforms.

Former cabinet ministers including ex-home secretary Priti Patel and former Conservative leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith are among those backing the change to the Online Safety Bill.

With Labour supporting it too, failure to find a compromise would have seen Mr Sunak on course for his first major defeat in the Commons.

The rebel amendment looks to introduce a new clause into the Online Safety Bill to “make it an offence for the provider of a user-to-service not to comply with the safety duties protecting children” which are set out in the draft law.

In its current form, the new internet safety law would require tech companies to remove illegal material from their platforms, with a particular emphasis on protecting children from seeing harmful content.

Social media platforms and other user-generated, content-based sites that break the rules would face large fines from the sector’s new regulator, Ofcom.

But the proposed law would only hold tech bosses liable for failing to give information to the watchdog.

Sir Iain said current protection offered by the draft legislation was “weak” and children needed greater safeguards against seeing “extreme pornography” and material about suicide.

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