Safeguarding: Plea for politicians to get on with Online Safety Bill

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Thousands of online child sex offences will have been recorded during the on-going delays to the progress of the landmark Online Safety Bill, frustrated campaigners have warned this week.

The NSPCC is urging politicians to get on with finalising the legislation, which is set to put a duty of care on social media companies and others to protect their users.

It would mean any platforms that allow users to post content or interact with one another – namely social media companies – would have to put measures in place to prevent and disrupt child abuse on their sites and protect children from harm.

The Bill was part of the 2019 Conservative manifesto and culture secretary Michelle Donelan has said it is her “number one priority”.

However, the Bill’s progress was delayed over the summer and has been further pushed back following the Liz Truss debacle and subsequent appointment of Rishi Sunak.

The Bill is at its report stage in the House of Commons and is awaiting its third reading before being sent to the House of Lords for consideration. It was last discussed in Parliament on July 12. It was due back on November 1, but this has been pushed back again.

Currently, no date has been agreed as yet for the return of the Bill to the House of Commons, although when challenged on this issue during prime minister's questions on Wednesday (November 9), Rishi Sunak said the Bill would be brought back "in due course".

The NSPCC has estimated that during the period of delay this summer more than 13,000 online child sex offences will have been recorded by police – based on the fact that an average of 116 sexual grooming and obscene publication offences are recorded every day by police in England and Wales.

And so the latest delay will have seen hundreds more offences. At the same time, the NSPCC has warned that Childline counselling sessions about online grooming have risen by 35% in the last six months (April to September) compared to the previous year.

Under the Bill, parents and children must be able to report harmful content or activity and platforms will be “required to take appropriate action in response”.

Platforms will also have a duty to report any child sexual exploitation and abuse content that they encounter to the National Crime Agency and support any subsequent police investigations.

A factsheet on the Bill from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport states: “Those platforms which fail to protect people will need to answer to the regulator and could face fines of up to ten per cent of their revenues or, in the most serious cases, being blocked.

“All companies (covered by the Bill) will need to tackle illegal content on their services. They will also need to assess whether their site is likely to be accessed by children, and if so, protect children from harmful and inappropriate content such as that showing pornography or violence.”

Earlier this term, SecEd reported on a sharp increase in the number of children being groomed and coerced into creating “self-generated” abuse imagery.

In the first half of 2022, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) received reports of almost 78,000 webpages of child abuse imagery including “self-generated” content – an increase on the same period in 2021. Of these, more than 56,000 contained images of 11 to 13-year-olds, while a worrying spike in imagery showing children estimated to be aged 7 to 10 has continued. In the first half of 2020, there were 4,300 webpages featuring this age group, rising to almost 12,000 last year and now to almost 20,000 in 2022.

The NSPCC’s call comes after the inquest into the death of Molly Russell found that social media use was a contributory factor in the 14-year-old’s suicide in 2017.

The coroner concluded that Molly “died from an act of self-harm while suffering from depression and the negative effects of online content”. The NSPCC said this week that it is “concerned that social media remains awash with dangerous material like that which contributed to the tragic death of Molly Russell”.

NSPCC chief executive, Sir Peter Wanless, added: “It will be incredibly frustrating for survivors of online child abuse and families up and down the country to see this vital legislation delayed yet again.

“The scale of online child abuse and continued inaction from tech firms to tackle damaging suicide and self-harm content being targeted at children should be a wake-up call to the prime minister to make passing the Online Safety Bill his mission.

“There is overwhelming public consensus for the crucial legislation to be bought back as a priority and with strengthened protections for children, so they are systemically and comprehensively safe from harm and abuse for years to come.”

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