Profile: Chris Philp, charged with the nightmarish task of seeing the Online Safety Bill through the Commons

15 Apr

You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. This, however, is the task to which Chris Philp will from next Tuesday have to apply himself as he strives to see the Online Safety Bill through the Commons.

It is expected to be the most amended Bill in history, for everyone who has had anything to do with the legislation admits that it is in an unsatisfactory state, with terms like “a bloody nightmare” often used.

The Online Safety Bill sets out to regulate the internet. This means anyone who has ever been annoyed by something which happened to them online has views about what it should ban or at least ameliorate, which in turn means virtually every MP and peer.

John Whittingdale, a former Culture Secretary, told ConHome it is quite wrong that only one day, Tuesday, has been allowed for the Second Reading, and observed that it really needs two.

Whittingdale pointed out that on Tuesday there are likely to be statements on Ukraine, Downing Street parties and energy, which means those who want to speak on “this hugely important and hideously complicated Bill will get about 30 seconds each”.

At the heart of the legislation is an unresolved struggle between free speech – the right, under the law, to publish whatever one wishes on the internet – and the proposal to remove “legal but harmful” content.

As the Bill goes through its Committee stage, Philp will be charged with the task of deciding which amendments the Government intends to accept, and which it opposes.

This will require a grasp of the detail, which he is universally agreed to possess, just as he did in his previous ministerial post at the Home Office, which included the vexed question of cross-Channel migration.

It will also, however, require the ability under pressure to shape incompatible elements into a coherent whole which can command parliamentary and public confidence, and here one simply does not know how he will get on.

His officials find he masters his brief with almost miraculous speed, but is deficient in social skills, and is not the kind of person who says at the end of an arduous day,  or to whom one might oneself feel able to say, “Shall we go for a drink?”

If Philp succeeds, he be marked out as a rising star. If he fails, and antagonises parliamentarians as he fails, the role of scapegoat awaits him, even though the whole venture was set in motion four years ago by Theresa May, along with various other pious aspirations which are easier said than done, such as the Net Zero target and the ban on conversion therapy.

When Nadine Dorries, since 15th September 2021 Culture Secretary, and her sidekick Philp, appointed the next day Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Tech and the Digital Economy, appeared in November before the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill, the following exchange took place:

The Chair, Damian Collins: “Thank you very much. You say that you have been looking at progressing the Bill since you were appointed as Secretary of State. By that, would it be fair to assume that, as far as you and the department are concerned, the Bill as published in draft form earlier this year is not the Government’s final word on the legislation?”

Nadine Dorries: “No, it is not the Government’s final word. It is not my final word. I have been pushing on a number of areas, which I hope to be able to highlight this morning. It is not the final word because of the work that you have been undertaking. I want to reassure you that we are awaiting your recommendations as soon as possible, and we will be looking at them very seriously indeed. At the risk of saying too much, I want to reassure you that they will be very carefully and very seriously looked at. I see this as very much a joint effort on behalf of all of us.”

So the Government is open, or claims it is open, to being pushed around: an additional incentive for both the Commons and the Lords to try to push Philp around.

Insiders say the legislation is already festooned like a Christmas tree: “Nadine keeps hanging more and more things on it.”

Dorries says this is “the most important piece of legislation to pass through Parliament” in her 17 years in the House, and “has to be watertight”:

“In my previous role as Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention for two years, I made a point of meeting with the parents of children who had lost their lives, had taken their own lives. I cannot put into words how devastating it is to sit down with parents of children who have taken their own lives needlessly. It was not that they went online and looked for the means to do so, but because algorithms took them in that direction, whether it was to pro-anorexia sites, suicide chatrooms or self-harm sites.”

This is one of the harms which the giant tech companies will be required to take reasonable steps to prevent. So Philp has got to produce a Bill which will not only stand up to parliamentary scrutiny, but to the world’s top lawyers, employed by Facebook and Google.

One danger is that the big tech companies, which will be liable under the Act to fines of up to ten per cent of their global turnover, will err on the side of caution, and will censor anything which might conceivably cause harm. To some extent, this is already happening.

It is easy enough to agree that children should not be encouraged, by algorithms which guide them to the wrong sites, to commit suicide.

But what about adults who wish to discuss climate change, or the best way to treat a mysterious new virus which has just emerged in China? “Legal but harmful” could result in the censorship of various ideas which are regarded with horror in Silicon Valley, but which in Britain we wish to be free to discuss.

Are Mark Zuckerberg and Nick Clegg to be the arbiters of thought in Sheffield and Swansea?

OFCOM will be given the task of implementing the Act. It will draw up a code of practice, which the tech companies will have a duty either to follow, or to show they have matched. “The point of bite is at the duty level,” Philp told the joint committee.

“We must also remember that we have given OFCOM teeth, some may say fangs,” Dorries added.

Dorries and Philp stand shoulder to shoulder. When John Nicolson (SNP, Ochil and South Perthshire) tried to rough up Dorries, Philp asked: “Are these questions designed to scrutinise the Bill or personally to attack the Secretary of State?”

And Dorries soon afterwards said of Philp: “I know he is very keen to give you the technical answer. I am so glad he is here.”

But to the condundrums posed by the Bill, there will not be technical answers.

Nor will Philp be able, as has been his inclination in his career so far, simply to follow with ostentatious fidelity the party line.

There is, as yet, no party line. On the one side are MPs like David Davis and Steve Baker who are vigilant defenders of free speech.

On the other are figures like Dorries who voice the desire of parents everywhere, and especially in seats captured from Labour in 2019, to have their children protected from perverts and pornographers, and their grandmothers from online fraudsters.

And there are other powerful interests which Philp will be under pressure to accommodate. Many Remainer MPs are obsessed with disinformation, to which they attribute their defeat in the 2016 referendum. The Home Office is keen, for reasons of national security, to end encrypted messaging.

British newspapers want to take revenge on the Californian tech giants which have stolen their advertising revenues.

In an attempt to conciliate the newspaper industry, the Bill includes special protections for journalism, a term which is hard to define in the age of the citizen journalist.

Nor is the Daily Mail easy to conciliate on a long-term basis. Last month Philp wrote a piece for it in which he said:

Social media sites currently operate under no one’s rules but their own.

This has led to an online world where teenagers’ lives can be ruined by cyberbullying, suicide is encouraged, vulnerable people are radicalised by terrorists, kids are exposed to pornography and racist bile is shared without consequence.

What’s worse – a lot of this vile stuff is actively promoted to huge audiences via algorithms simply because it makes social media firms more money.

The case for regulation couldn’t be clearer: We have a moral duty to make big tech take action and clean up the internet once and for all. As a father, nothing could be more important to me…

Trusted news sites such as MailOnline will be exempt from the Bill’s provisions, including its reader comment sections which inspire such lively debate.

Ofcom will hold tech giants to account with tough powers to issue multi-billion-pound fines and block them in the UK.

I cannot be alone (the style is infectious) in finding something repugnant in a Government minister, or even a regulator devised and perhaps leant upon by the minister, deciding which news sites are “trusted”.

Where do questions of good taste and manners end, and the “harms” which the Bill is supposed to avert begin? That is an impossible border to draw, especially as it is fluid.

Boris Johnson became Prime Minister in part because of his genius for saying and writing things which were in poor taste, and for which the prigs wished to condemn him, but which most fair-minded people could see ought in a free society to be allowed.

How is Philp to make sense of that kind of provocation, and that kind of toleration? It is a matter more of instinct than of legal definition. The Bill is in danger of setting out to define the indefinable.

When the Daily Mail is angry with Philp, as assuredly it will be one day, it will turn him over. He will have arrived as a politician when that newspaper denounces him on its front page as an enemy of freedom.

Philp, born in 1976, was educated at St Olave’s Grammar School, in Orpington in Kent. He read physics at University College, Oxford, became a successful businessman, in 2006 took a council seat off the supposedly impregnable Camden Labour Party, but at the 2010 general election fell 42 votes short of defeating Glenda Jackson, the Labour incumbent, in Hampstead and Kilburn.

He had worked immensely hard to win the seat, but took defeat with good grace, and in 2015 was returned for Croydon South, after which he said in his maiden speech:

“People in Croydon South believe that hard work and enterprise are the best ways of combating poverty and promoting prosperity. Businesses such as the Wing Yip Chinese supermarket on Purley Way and BSW Heating in Kenley are the lifeblood not just of our economy but of our society. I share those values. Over the past 15 years, I have set up and run my own businesses in this country and overseas. I set up my first business when I was 24. I started by driving the delivery van myself, and eventually floated that company on the stock market. My grandfather also drove a delivery van and he grew up in Peckham. I think he would be very proud, if he were still with us, to see his grandson speaking on the Floor of the House today.”

All good stuff, but one detects a kind of compelled agreement which will not be available as he sets out to pilot the Online Safety Bill through the Commons.

Snap guide to this session’s Government legislation 4) The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

11 Jul

The Bills announced in each session’s Queen’s Speech are the fulcrum of the Parliamentary year.  But they are easily lost sight of, separately and wholly, as the political cycle moves – and a mass of other news and events crowd them out.

So during the coming months, ConservativeHome will run a brief guide, on most Sunday mornings, to each Bill from this year’s Speech: what it is, whether it’s new, its main strengths and weaknesses – and whether it’s expected sooner or later.

1. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

What it is

As well as police, crime, sentencing and the courts, this Bill covers aspects of prisons: the rehabilitation of offenders and secure 16 to 19 academies. Plus “the removal, storage and disposal of vehicles”.

There are twelve parts to this groaning beast of a Bill, and the best-known section of these is the third – which covers “public order and authorised encampments”, and would give the police greater powers in relation to restricting public meetings and protests.  The “Kill the Bill” protests have been a response to it.

Responsible department

The Ministry of Justice – and the Bill has already worked it way through the Commons, gaining Third Reading recently.  There have been claims that the protests have delayed the Bill’s progress.

The sponsoring department isn’t the Home Office, and thus the combative Priti Patel, but the Ministry of Justice, and the more emollient Robert Buckland.  However, Victoria Atkins and Chris Philp, Home Office Ministers both, took the Bill through Commons committee.

Carried over or a new Bill?

New.

Expected when?

Sooner rather than later in the Commons with Lords amendments.

Arguments for

There is an individual case for each of the twelve parts of the Bill, but Ministers clearly intend it to send the broad message that the Government is tough on crime.  Right at the start of its briefing on the measures, the Home Office (not the Ministry of Justice) declares that the Bill will “back our police” and “introduce tougher sentencing”.

If you itch to crack down on unauthorised encampments and non-violent but disruptive protests, or want to see longer prison sentences and more searches of people convicted of knife offences, this is the Bill for you.  Its third main purpose is “to improve the efficiency of the court and tribunal system by modernising existing court processes”.

Arguments against

One of the main charges against the Bill is that it deliberately wraps up the contentious with the uncontentious – or, to view it from another angle, elements that most MPs support with others that some don’t.  This case was put on this site earlier this year by Steve Baker and Dominic Grieve, and found echoes even in a largely supportive article by Richard Gibbs.

So if, for example, you view the public order provisions in Part Three of the Bill as draconian, but back the plans to reduce custodial remand for children set out in parts eight and nine, you have a dilemma at Second Reading and, still more, at Third Reading – by which time opportunities to amend it in the House concerned have been exhausted.

Politics

Part of the purpose of rolling these different elements into a single Bill has undoubtedly been to put the Opposition on the spot.  Labour was thus faced with the forced choice familiar to oppositions, and plumped to oppose Bill both at Second and Third Reading in the Commons.

“Given chance after chance, Labour voted last night against tougher sentences for not just violent offenders, but also burglars, drug dealers, sex offenders, dangerous drivers and vandals,” Robert Buckland tweeted in the aftermath of the Third Reading vote.  There will be plenty more where that came from.

Controversy rating: 9/10

If the Opposition didn’t like it in the Commons, it will like it even less in the more rarefied atmosphere of the Lords.  And protesters will hate it no less intensely than before.  The average voter may have clocked the protests but won’t be aware of the Bill.  If it leads to better policing, less crime, speedier courts and better sentencing, he will be pleasantly surprised.

Roger Gough: The number of asylum seeking children in Kent has forced us to threaten the Government with legal action

21 Jun

Cllr Roger Gough is the Leader of Kent County Council

Asylum seekers arriving on Kent’s shores. A council unable to meet its statutory duties. The same, Conservative council reportedly considering legal action against the government.

What is going on?

It starts with geography. As the closest and most direct link to the continent, Kent has consistently experienced large-scale arrivals of asylum seekers since around the turn of the millennium. In the last eighteen months, truck and train routes – which often meant asylum seekers making their claims elsewhere in the country – have been closed off or much reduced. It is small boat crossings through the short straits between France and the Kent coast, much more rarely seen before 2020, which have become the predominant route into the UK.

Most of those who arrive on Kent’s shores are dispersed across the country, but unaccompanied under 18s – Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children (UASC) – come into the care of Kent County Council (KCC) under the Children Act.

In 2015, 2020, and now again in 2021, UASC have arrived in especially large numbers. The Government’s National Transfer Scheme (NTS – of which more later) Protocol stipulates that no council should have more UASC in its care than 0.07 per cent of its child population. For Kent, that equates to 231 UASC. The current number in KCC’s care is 429. So far this year, over 300 have arrived and come into our care, up substantially on the same time last year.

Whatever the arguments about immigration in its various forms, KCC has no role in decision-making about it. Our role is to discharge our duties to those who come into our care, something that we have sought to do humanely and efficiently over many years, and we take pride in that record.

What starts as an immigration issue, rapidly becomes caught up in children’s services legislation. In 2018, for example, councils’ obligations to Care Leavers (young people over the age of 18 who have been in council care) were extended from the age of 21 to 25. This was a policy clearly not designed with UASC in mind but in Kent we have almost 1,100 Care Leavers of UASC background – a majority of those who use that service.

Last year’s increase in Government funding rates addressed the immediate burden on the Kent Council Taxpayer; however, this is not now an argument about money.

What this is about is the delivery of safe and effective services, not only to those of asylum-seeking backgrounds, but to all the young people in our care. With large-scale UASC arrivals, social worker caseloads rise to critical levels and placements have increasingly to be made outside the county, with safeguarding and supervision inevitably more challenging as social workers try to cover an ever more geographically disparate group of young people.

To put it another way, forget for a moment that the 115 young people who came into KCC’s care in May were asylum seekers. What council could take over 100 adolescents into its care each month for months on end without its services being affected?

And to what degree should any council, even one of the biggest in the country, shoulder the effects of what is a national and international issue?

That principle was recognised after the first of our recent crises in 2015. The Immigration Act 2016 established the National Transfer Scheme (NTS) with the aim of ensuring that councils across the country shared in responsibility for UASC. After the experience of Kent in 2015, the mood among policymakers, both national and local, was: never again.

Except that, by 2020, here we were again. Despite the Immigration Act giving the Home Secretary power to require, if necessary, local authorities to take UASC (‘mandation’), the Government disregarded Kent’s objections for a voluntary scheme. Within two years, placements under the voluntary NTS had first slowed and then stopped altogether.

Then, in a few short months in the spring and summer of 2020, hundreds of UASC arrived in Kent. By mid-August, its services overwhelmed, KCC reluctantly had to suspend its statutory duties and cease taking UASC into our care. This continued until, with numbers reduced, it was possible to resume in early December.

After this, the Home Office, working with us and with other local authorities, successfully placed hundreds of UASC across the country. Around half of the children’s services authorities in the country have accepted at least some UASC from Kent. However, half have not and by the early months of this year, the numbers being placed were once more slowing – and were rapidly overtaken by the big upswing in arrivals from the spring. And so, last Monday, for the second time in just under a year, Kent County Council once more suspended taking UASC into its care. Here we are again. Again.

The Government conducted a review and consultation on the NTS last autumn and revealed its proposals earlier this month. It proposes a regional rota system and has added to financial support to encourage local authorities to take part. But it is – still – a voluntary scheme.

The issue of these dangerous cross-channel journeys must itself be addressed, and that is rightly a government priority. But in any case I believe that we will only break this cycle of crises when there is a robust NTS sustainable over the long term. There is nothing in the experience of the last five years that suggests that a voluntary scheme can deliver this. KCC has twice had to suspend delivery of its legal responsibilities because its service was overwhelmed.

In our view, this could have been prevented by the use of provisions already on the statute book that have not been put into effect, and are still not set to do so. That is the basis of our differences with government, and of the Letter Before Claim that we presented to the Home Office earlier this month.

We have worked closely with the Government over the last year, and in some areas we have made progress. I appreciate the serious engagement of Ministers – especially Chris Philp, the Immigration Compliance Minister – in this. But in Kent, as in other areas with ports of entry, we need a resolution that will stick and that will last. We don’t yet have it.