Suzanne Webb – 2022 Speech on the Online Safety Bill

The speech made by Suzanne Webb, the Conservative MP for Stourbridge, in the House of Commons on 5 December 2022.

This is the first time I have been able to speak in the Chamber for some time, due to a certain role I had that prevented me from speaking in here. It is an absolute honour and privilege, on my first outing in some time, to have the opportunity to speak specifically to new clause 53, which is Zach’s law. I am delighted and thrilled that the Government are supporting Zach’s law. I have supported it for more than two years, together with my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Dean Russell). We heard during the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill how those who suffer from epilepsy were sent flashing images on social media by vile trolls. Zach Eagling, whom the law is named after, also has cerebral palsy, and he was one of those people. He was sent flashing images after he took part in a charity walk around his garden. He was only nine years of age.

Zach is inspirational. He is selflessly making a massive difference, and the new clause is world-leading. It is down to Zach, his mum, the UK Epilepsy Society, and of course the Government, that I am able to stand here to talk about new clause 53. I believe that the UK Epilepsy Society is the only charity in the world to change the law on any policy area, and that is new clause 53, which is pretty ground-breaking. I say thank you to Zach and the Epilepsy Society, who ensured that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Watford stepped up and played our part in that.

Being on the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill was an absolute privilege, with the excellent chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins). People have been talking about the Bill’s accompanying Committee, which is an incredibly good thing. In the Joint Committee we talked about this: we should follow the Bill through all its stages, and also once it is on the statute books, to ensure that it keeps up with those tech companies. The Joint Committee was brought together by being focused on a skill set, and on bringing together the right skills. I am a technological luddite, but I brought my skills and understanding of audit and governance. My hon. Friend the Member for Watford brought technology and all his experience from his previous day job. As a result we had a better Bill by having a mix of experience and sharing our expertise.

This Bill is truly world leading. New clause 53 is one small part of that, but it will make a huge difference to thousands of lives including, I believe, 600,000 who suffer from epilepsy. The simple reality is that the big tech companies can do better and need to step up. I have always said that we do not actually need the Bill or these amendments; we need the tech companies to do what they are supposed to do, and go out and regulate their consumer product. I have always strongly believed that.

During my time on the Committee I learned that we must follow the money—that is what it is all about for the tech companies. We have been listening to horrific stories from grieving parents, some of whom I met briefly, and from those who suffered at the hands of racism, abuse, threats—the list is endless. The tech companies could stop that now. They do not need the Bill to do it and they should do the right thing. We should not have to get the Bill on to the statute books to enforce what those companies should be doing in the first place. We keep saying that this issue has been going on for five years. The tech companies know that this has been talked about for five years, so why are they not doing something? For me the Bill is for all those grieving families who have lost their beautiful children, those who have been at the mercy of keyboard warriors, and those who have received harm or lost their lives because the tech companies have not, but could have, done better. This is about accountability. Where are the tech companies?

I wish to touch briefly on bereaved parents whose children have been at the mercy of technology and content. Many families have spent years and years still unable to understand their child’s death. We must consider imposing transparency on the tech companies. Those families cannot get their children back, but they are working hard to ensure that others do not lose theirs. Data should be given to coroners in the event of the death of a child to understand the circumstances. This is important to ensure there is a swift and humane process for the coroner to access information where there is reason to suspect that it has impacted on a child’s death.

In conclusion, a huge hurrah that we have new clause 53, and I thank the Government for this ground-breaking Bill. An even bigger hurrah to Zach, Zach’s mum, and the brilliant Epilepsy Society, and, of course, to Zach’s law, which is new clause 53.