John Whittingdale – 2022 Speech on the Future of the UK

The speech made by John Whittingdale, the Conservative MP for Maldon, in the House of Commons on 16 May 2022.

It is a pleasure to speak in support of this Queen’s Speech. It is tempting to respond to a number of the points made by the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson), whose speech sounded remarkably like a bid for the leadership of the Labour party. However, given the lack of time, I want to concentrate on just four Bills, all of which emanate from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and all of which I had a small hand in part of the preparation of.

The first is a carry-over—the Online Safety Bill. I welcome this opportunity to speak on it because I had only five minutes do so on Second Reading, although I will have rather less this time. I reiterate that the Bill is tremendously important and will protect our young people as they grow up. It is pioneering legislation to introduce some regulation of online activity.

We also have an ambition in this country to be the technological leaders of the world, so I remain concerned that the Bill is very vague in a lot of aspects. Since Second Reading, I have had meetings with mid-sized platforms such as Pinterest, Reddit, Eventbrite and Tripadvisor, all of which are committed to this country but concerned that, while they want to comply with the provisions of the Bill, it is not clear to them what those provisions are going to undertake. I again say to the Government that what is important is to protect people who are at risk, not necessarily just regulate every large platform because of their reach.

Matt Rodda (Reading East) (Lab)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Whittingdale

No, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, as I am under a lot of pressure to keep this short.

The second Bill is the media Bill, which is vital for the future of public service broadcasting in this country. A lot of attention will be given to the provisions on Channel 4, which I welcome, although it is important that we debate those and discuss the model that Channel 4 should operate in future. The Bill contains other important provisions. The prominence of public service broadcasters has been argued for by ITV, Channel 4 and the BBC for many years, and it is essential if we are to protect public service broadcasters and ensure that they are visible in a world where competing channels are increasing in number almost every week.

In support of commercial public service broadcasters, I welcome the absence from the Queen’s Speech of a Bill to introduce advertising bans for HFSS—high in fat, salt or sugar—foods before 9 pm. I support the Government’s wish to reduce obesity, but I firmly believe that an advertising ban would have no effect on that and, at the same time, would massively affect commercial broadcasters.

I regret the absence from the Bill of provisions for radio prominence. This was an important part of the outcome of the digital radio and audio review. The Government accepted the recommendations from that but they seem to have dropped out of the Bill. I hope that we might try to correct that during its passage.

I look forward to the inclusion in the Bill of the repeal of section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which is a sword of Damocles hanging over a free press allowing a future Government to impose punitive costs unless they sign up to the Government’s version of regulation. The removal of that was in the Conservative manifesto and I very much hope that we will fulfil that manifesto commitment in that Bill.

The third Bill is the digital markets and competition Bill, which, if anything, is even more important to the freedom of the press. At the moment, the press are at a disadvantage in their negotiations with the big platforms such as Facebook and Google, which take their content and decide how much, if anything, they are going to pay for it. The digital markets unit is being established to address that, but it needs to be put on a statutory basis; it needs to be underpinned by law. I therefore welcome the provision in the Queen’s Speech for a draft Bill but hope the Government will move forward to implement that legislation as soon as possible.

Finally, I turn to a Bill I again played some role in: the data Bill. One of the great opportunities from Britain taking back control of its own laws is our ability to write our own data protection laws. Of course we want to ensure that people’s privacy is protected, but at the same time the existing rules have acted as a disincentive. They are overburdensome and not properly understood by large numbers of small firms in particular. This is a real opportunity to have a modern data protection regime which others across the world will admire and follow.

On that basis, I am delighted to support the Queen’s Speech.