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Online Safety Bill – what to expect from their Lordships – 19th April 2023

-- 3 min read --

We begin the Committee Stage of our consideration of the Online Safety Bill in the House of Lords today.

We can expect at least 10 days of debate where hundreds of amendments are proposed but none are voted on.

This is usual in the UK system where the role of the unelected second chamber is to seek to improve legislation proposed by the elected Government rather than to obstruct it altogether.

This process of improvement has several phases, with the Committee stage being one in which all aspects of a proposed law should be teased out and tested.

Members of the Lords table amendments to create a structure for this process of testing in the form or a series of challenge-response debates where Ministers have to explain why their original text is better than the proposed alternative text.

Once we have gone through this lengthy process of testing multiple aspects of the proposed new law then the Lords will typically focus in on a handful of areas where there is a broad view that changes really are necessary.

Fresh amendments will be tabled in this subset of key areas for debate in the shorter Report Stage that follows on from the Committee.

The Government may offer a ‘deal’ in some of these areas where it either tables its own amendments or makes other commitments verbally or in writing that members of the Lords agree sufficiently address their concerns.

Or Government may hold out where it really objects to a change and whip its supporters to defeat an amendment or, if the Lords does pass something objectionable, uses its majority in the Commons to reverse the change.

There is a lot of precedent and nuance in how these dynamics play out between the Government, the House of Commons, and the House of Lords, but the net result follows a general pattern of the Lords being able to secure a few targeted changes to a Bill.

These changes will be on issues that the Government feels neutral or mildly hostile towards, but are extremely unlikely to be sustained where they change the fundamentals of the Bill or where the Government really hates them (unless they lose the support of their own MPs in the House of Commons).

So, we can expect to see pretty much every concern raised by any interested party debated in the Lords over the next few weeks but the debate itself will be as far as this goes in most cases and will not lead to any actual changes to the Bill.

There will be an intense period of negotiations in late May and early June as the dust starts to settle on which issues remain unresolved and are high enough priority for enough members to be returned to in the Report Stage.

Both sides will feel the clock ticking at this point as everything really needs to be tied up by the summer break in late July to guarantee the Bill can be passed in this Parliamentary session.

Those wanting changes will ask the Government to accept their amendments to bring an end to proceedings and ensure that the final stages can be completed in an orderly and timely fashion.

The Government will push back telling Lords that ‘done is better than perfect’ and asking whether they really want to be responsible for derailing legislation they say is essential in the public interest.

We should see how far the various parties have come together in June and better understand then what the Bill’s final form is likely to be, as well as confirming whether it will be returned to the Commons to complete its passage before the summer break.

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