1. What bills are being carried over?

1.1 Online Safety Bill

The House of Commons agreed to carry over consideration of the Online Safety Bill to the new session on 19 April 2022. The bill also had its second reading in the Commons on that day.

The bill aims to improve the regulation of potentially harmful content on the internet. It would impose new legal requirements on providers of search engines or websites allowing user-generated content (such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube) to assess and manage the risk of harm to users. It would also give Ofcom new powers, making them the online safety regulator, and would require providers of websites displaying pornographic content to ensure these are not accessed by children.

Introducing the bill on 17 March 2022, a press release from the Government stated that it marked a “milestone in the fight for a new digital age which is safer for users and holds tech giants to account”. The press release continued:

[The bill] will protect children from harmful content such as pornography and limit people’s exposure to illegal content, while protecting freedom of speech. It will require social media platforms, search engines and other apps and websites allowing people to post their own content to protect children, tackle illegal activity and uphold their stated terms and conditions.

The regulator Ofcom will have the power to fine companies failing to comply with the laws up to ten per cent of their annual global turnover, force them to improve their practices and block non-compliant sites. Today the Government is announcing that executives whose companies fail to cooperate with Ofcom’s information requests could now face prosecution or jail time within two months of the bill becoming law, instead of two years as it was previously drafted.

However, some concerns have been expressed about the bill, with debate focusing upon whether its measures go far enough or whether it will stifle freedom of expression. For example, speaking at second reading, the Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Lucy Powell, stated that although Labour saw it as an important step towards stronger regulation, there were concerns about the balance struck by the bill on “harmful” content:

I fear the Government’s current solution to the balance between free speech and regulation will please no one and takes us down an unhelpful rabbit hole. Some believe the bill will stifle free speech, with platforms over-zealously taking down legitimate political and other views. In response, the Government have put in what they consider to be protections for freedom of speech and have committed to setting out an exhaustive list of “legal but harmful” content, thus relying almost entirely on a “take down content” approach, which many will still see as Government overreach.

On the other hand, those who want harmful outcomes addressed through stronger regulation are left arguing over a yet-to-be-published list of Government-determined harmful content. This content-driven approach moves us in the wrong direction away from the “duty of care” principles the bill is supposed to enshrine. The real solution is a systems approach based on outcomes, which would not only solve the free speech question, but make the bill overall much stronger.

The bill was preceded by a 2019 consultation on online harms and a draft bill published in May 2021. The following links provide further reading and commentary:

1.2 Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill

The Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill was subject to a carry-over motion in the House of Commons on 26 January 2022. The bill had second reading on the same date and subsequently passed Commons committee stage in March 2022. However, it did not receive a date for report stage before the end of the session.

The bill would create a new regulatory scheme to help make consumer connectable products (“smart” products such as phones, TVs and security systems) more secure against cyber attacks. It would allow the Government to set industry requirements that must be followed before a device could be made available in the UK. For example, the Government has said that it intends to use the powers to place three of the original security requirements in the 2018 Code of Practice for Consumer Internet of Things (IoT) Security on a statutory footing, covering:

  • a ban on the use of default passwords;
  • a requirement for manufacturers to manage the reporting of security vulnerabilities; and
  • a requirement for consumers to be told at the point of sale the minimum period of time that the product will receive security updates.

In a factsheet published to accompany the bill, the Government explained that consumer connectable devices were vulnerable to attack and that the attacks could cause harm for consumers. It also stated that the consumer connectable product market currently “disincentivises the adoption of basic security features, since consumers overwhelmingly assume that products are already secure”. The safety measures contained in the bill were the subject of a 2020 government consultation.

The bill also contains provisions intended to accelerate the expansion of mobile, full fibre and gigabit capable networks across the UK. This would be achieved through changes to legislation (such as the Electronic Communications Code) that deal with the rights of code operators to install, maintain and use electronic communications apparatus. This follows a 2021 consultation on the proposed changes.

Many of the broadband infrastructure measures in the bill are linked to the Government’s ultra-fast broadband roll-out targets, which aim to have 85% of premises covered by 2025 and nationwide coverage by 2030. However, the Government has said that it also accepts the importance of maintaining an “appropriate balance” between public interest in better services and the rights of landowners.

Speaking at second reading, Lucy Powell said that Labour supported the bill’s underlying objectives, but felt the measures were being undertaken too late and did not go far enough. She also expressed concerns that the measures proposed in the bill would “hamper, rather than support, faster broadband and 5G roll-out”.

Further information and commentary can be found in the House of Commons Library’s briefing for the bill’s second reading.

2. What Government plans may be subject to legislation this session?

2.1 Future of broadcasting

On 28 April 2022, the Government published a white paper on the future of broadcasting. This included proposals covering TV, online and radio broadcasting.

One of the most high-profile plans set out in the white paper is the privatisation of Channel 4, which will require legislation. The Government said the move would “ensure that Channel 4 can continue to thrive and grow its impact for years to come as part of the wider public service broadcasting ecology in the UK”. The channel is currently publicly owned, but does not receive public funds. It is run as a not-for-profit corporation without shareholders and it states that most of its revenue comes from advertising. The confirmation of the Government’s plans to change the channel’s ownership follows a consultation which ran in 2021.

Reports of the plans to sell Channel 4 have been met with some criticism, with fears expressed about the possible impact on independent UK production companies and the diversity of its programming. The Shadow Culture Secretary, Lucy Powell, believed the sale would likely end up being to a foreign company, and described it as “cultural vandalism”. She predicted it would negatively impact jobs and the wider creative industries in the UK. Channel 4 stated that it was disappointed with the announcement, claiming it did not take into account the “significant public interest concerns which have been raised” and alternatives put forward by Channel 4 itself.

The Government sought to address some of these concerns in its white paper. It said it was not a decision it had taken lightly but said it needed to consider the “longer-term outlook for Channel 4 and ensure it has the best range of tools available for future success”. Discussing concerns about the impact of the change on the channel’s programming and the revenues of smaller production companies, the Government stated that it expected a new owner would continue to “deliver outcomes in line with those we see today”. The white paper continued:

The right owner for Channel 4 will be one who shares our ambition for the business and our belief in what makes it special. The government will require this new owner to adhere to ongoing commitments, similar to those Channel 4 has today, whilst allowing Channel 4 to adapt and grow, keeping its distinctive voice on our screens for years to come. This will include retaining its remit to provide distinctive, educational, innovative and experimental programming that represents the breadth of society. It will also include equivalent obligations for news and current affairs provision, to show original programmes, and to continue to make programmes outside London and across the UK. In particular, we will expect a Channel 4 under new ownership to continue working with independent production companies right across the UK. We are not trying to change the distinctive role Channel 4 plays; we are proactively giving it the best set of tools to succeed in the market context that is emerging.

The white paper added that the Government would look to use some of the proceeds of the sale to “deliver a new creative dividend for the sector”.

Regarding the BBC, the white paper said that the Government would be carrying out a review of the licence fee funding model ahead of the next charter period and would provide more detailed plans in the coming months. In the meantime, it said the TV licence would be frozen at £159 for the next two years and that it would then rise in line with inflation.

In addition, the white paper contained plans to introduce legislation in the following areas:

  • Giving Ofcom powers to draft and enforce a new video-on-demand code, similar to the broadcasting code, to ensure TV-like content will be subject to similar standards regardless of how it is accessed (for example, through Netflix). The Government hopes this will improve protection from harmful material. It also said it would work with Ofcom on legislative proposals to address the divergence in the provision of access services (such as subtitles and audio descriptions) between broadcast and on-demand services.
  • Setting out the importance of programmes broadcast in the UK’s indigenous regional and minority languages.
  • Ensuring public service broadcasters’ (PSBs) content is easily accessible to UK audiences on connected devices (eg smart TVs) and major online platforms.
  • Giving PSBs more flexibility in how they deliver their remits.
  • Allowing S4C (the free-to-air Welsh language channel) and the BBC to adapt the framework requiring the BBC to provide S4C with a specific number of hours of television programming, so that they can work together on a new agreement more reflective of the current broadcasting landscape.
  • Deregulating commercial radio (as set out in a 2017 consultation) and to continue encouraging the transition to digital radio. (Further consideration of the future of commercial radio can be found in the Government’s Digital Radio and Audio Review, which was published in October 2021.)

The white paper also stated that the Government would consult on how best to embed the importance of “distinctively British content” into the PSB quota system and would review whether the scope of the “listed events” regime, which ensures sporting events such as Wimbledon and the football World Cup are on free-to-air television, should be extended to also cover digital rights.

Further information and commentary on the future of broadcasting can be found in:

2.2 Fan-led review of football

On 26 April 2022, the Government announced that it would be following through with the recommendations of the fan-led review of football. This included a commitment to set up an independent regulator, backed by primary legislation, with powers to “licence and sanction clubs as part of its remit to tackle the most pressing issues throughout the football pyramid”. The Government stated that full details on its plans would be set out in a white paper in the summer. The Government has also published an independent research paper assessing the financial sustainability of football.

The fan-led review of football was a 2019 Conservative party manifesto commitment undertaken in 2021. The review was led by Tracey Crouch (Conservative MP for Chatham and Aylesford) and included contributions from many groups representing fans (for example, supporters’ trusts). It focused on three points of “crisis” in football: the financial pressures and governance in the sport that had led to the collapse (or near collapse) of a number of clubs (such as Bury FC); the impact of the coronavirus pandemic; and concerns over the attempts of some clubs to join a new European Super League.

The review concluded with 47 recommendations, split under 10 wider “strategic” headings. These strategic recommendations included:

  • To ensure the long-term sustainability of football, the Government should create a new independent regulator for English football (IREF), which should also oversee financial regulation.
  • New owners’ and directors’ tests for clubs should be established by IREF replacing the three existing tests and ensuring that only “good custodians” and qualified directors can run clubs.
  • A new approach to corporate governance to support a long-term sustainable future.
  • Committed equality, diversity and inclusion action plans regularly assessed by IREF.
  • Supporters should be properly consulted by their clubs on key decisions by means of a shadow board and there should be additional protection for key items of club heritage to reflect the important role of clubs in communities.
  • The Premier League should guarantee its support to the pyramid and make additional contributions to support football.
  • Women’s football should be treated with parity and given its own dedicated review.
  • The welfare of players exiting the game needs to be better protected as a matter of urgency—particularly at a young age.

In its response to the review, the Government stated that it agreed with the need for reforms, believing there was a significant risk of further financial failures and that these could cause significant economic and social costs. It also recognised the community and cultural benefits of football clubs and the emotional and social links enjoyed by fans. The Government agreed that there were three root causes for many of the problems being faced:

  • The structure and dynamics of the market create incentives for financial overreach.
  • Inadequate corporate governance often affords unchecked decision-making power.
  • Existing regulation is ineffective at addressing the problems.

Based on this, the Government stated that it endorsed all the strategic recommendations put forward by the review.

The proposed reforms have been broadly welcomed and received cross-party support. However, concerns have been raised by some, including Labour and the Football Supporters’ Association (FSA), about when the reforms will actually be implemented, with fears that the regulator may not be set up until 2024. For example, the FSA stated:

Since the Government committed to a fan-led review of football governance in its 2019 manifesto we have seen: Macclesfield Town disappear, “Project Big Picture”, the European Super League, ownership controversy at many clubs, billionaire owners sabotage Premier League reform and existential crises at Coventry United, Derby County and Oldham Athletic, amongst others.

Each day drafting white papers is another day when a club might cease to exist. Another day for a dodgy owner to get their hooks into a club. Another day for remote billionaires to try and create European Super League 2.0. The FSA urges the Government to move fast and legislate now.

In addition, although the Premier League has accepted the need for reform and stronger regulation across football, it has voiced its opposition to a statutory regulator. It stated:

We welcome the clarity from the Government about their position, and are committed to working with them during this next phase of consultation, although we will continue to maintain that it is not necessary for there to be a statutory-backed regulator.

Since the publication of the fan-led review, the Premier League and our clubs have been working at pace to understand the full impact of the review’s recommendations and design and implement policies in response to its objectives; including through reviewing our owners’ and directors’ test.

2.3 Digital competition and regulation

The Government has committed to introducing legislation on digital competition and regulation. For example, it has said it would introduce a new regulatory regime focused on the “most powerful digital firms, promoting greater competition and innovation in these markets and protecting consumers and businesses from unfair practices”.

The legislation would also place the Digital Markets Unit (DMU) on a statutory footing, giving it the powers to enforce the regime. The DMU was formed in April 2021 and is currently operating in shadow form within the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). It is tasked with the following:

  • Carrying out preparatory work to implement the statutory regime.
  • Supporting and advising government on establishing the statutory regime.
  • Evidence-gathering on digital markets.
  • Engaging stakeholders across industry, academia, other regulators and government.

The Government ran a consultation on the proposed reforms, which closed in October 2021. It has stated that it intends to publish a response to the consultation in the coming weeks and then legislation “when parliamentary time allows”.

The Government has also stated that it will publish a new digital strategy, setting out the next steps for the UK’s “pro-innovation” digital regulatory regime. In addition to the digital competition plans outlined above, additional plans could cover:

The Government also plans to introduce legislation on digital identities (defined as a virtual form of ID), with the intention of making them as “trusted and secure as official documents such as passports and driving licences”. It hopes this would reduce costs and time spent sharing official physical documents in certain scenarios, eg when buying a house. It would set up a new Office for Digital Identities and Attributes (ODIA) to govern this area and to provide “trustmarks” to certified digital identity organisations who show they have met the standards required to handle people’s data in a “safe and consistent” way. These proposals followed a 2021 consultation on digital identities.

Further information on digital regulation can be found in the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee’s December 2021 report, Digital Regulation: Joined-up and Accountable, and in the Government’s response to the report, published in March 2022.

2.4 Gambling regulation

On 8 December 2020, the Government launched a review of the Gambling Act 2005. The act has been described as “the basis for virtually all regulation of gambling in Great Britain”, covering areas including arcades, betting, casinos, gaming machines, society lotteries, and online gambling. It also provides the legal basis and functions of the Gambling Commission, which regulates the sector.

The Government said the review was in light of evidence that “too many people are still experiencing significant harm” from gambling, and that the industry had “changed enormously” since the passing of the act. In particular, the review was intended to ensure that regulation was “fit for the digital age”. It sought evidence in areas such as: online protections; advertising sponsorship and branding; the Gambling Commission’s powers and resources; consumer redress; and age limits and verification processes. The review was also a Conservative party manifesto commitment.

On 6 April 2022, the Government said a white paper outlining the conclusions would be published “in the coming weeks”.

Labour has criticised the Government for not progressing with the review’s outcome sooner. Carolyn Harris (Labour MP for Swansea East and chair of the Gambling Related Harm All-Party Parliamentary Group) has stated that “every day of delay leads to further gambling-related harm while the industry rakes in profits”.

Further information on reforming gambling regulation can be found in the following:

Cover image by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash.