In 1215, the Magna Carta was written and signed into law by King John I of England. Although that important document did not guarantee freedom of speech, it was considered the cornerstone of liberty in England and began a tradition of civil rights in Britain that laid the foundations for our first Bill of Rights of 1689, which granted freedom of speech in Parliament.
That was the first time in history that any form of freedom of speech was codified in law. It was extremely influential throughout the western world, leading to the declaration of the rights of man in 1789—a fundamental document of the French revolution that provided for freedom of speech—and the US Bill of Rights in 1791. In 1948, the universal declaration of human rights was adopted virtually unanimously by the UN General Assembly, and urged member nations
“to promote a number of human, civil, economic, and social rights”, including freedom of expression. Under article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998,
“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression…subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society”.
Criminalising the incitement of violence or threats, for example, is widely considered a justifiable limit on freedom of expression.
What we cannot have are global tech firms, online payment services, banks and others deciding who they can censor because they do not like or are offended by the views of others. It is essential to have freedom of expression—it is essential to society—and we have to be able to express and discuss differing ideas and ideals to ensure that we have a full and therefore better understanding of the challenges we all face in this modern world.
Freedom of expression in the UK is under threat and must be protected. New clause 27 protects free speech and the exercise of free expression. It seeks to prohibit service refusal by financial service providers on grounds relating to lawful exercise of free expression by requiring providers to explain the reason for a refusal of service, allowing the Financial Conduct Authority to intervene, and creating a civil law remedy for affected customers. We should not allow a system where payment service providers or even high street banks can terminate the accounts of individuals or organisations on the basis of lawful speech if adequate notice is given. Britain has led the world for centuries on democracy and freedom of speech, and it needs to do so again against the global tech companies that want to impose their view of the world and stifle free speech.
Members may remember in early September media agitation surrounding PayPal’s decision to cancel the online payment accounts of the Daily Sceptic, the Free Speech Union and an individual’s personal accounts. Many of us here may not agree with the politics of these organisations or that individual, but it is fundamentally wrong that online payment accounts can be exited because the payment service provider or its staff do not agree with the opinions of the service user. We are not talking about hate speech, terrorism or crime—we have legislation to deal with that; we are talking about lawful speech.
The relatively recent digitalisation of financial transactions has placed an unprecedented amount of power in the hands of online payment service providers such as PayPal, as well as banks, credit companies and online platforms. UK legislation must keep pace with these rapid technological changes and financial censorship must be prevented. As we switch to an increasingly cashless society, we must put in legislation to protect people from being punished by payment processors for expressing legal, but different views, no matter our politics.
New clause 27 is designed to ensure that the regulator has the ability to ensure that financial service providers cannot withdraw or withhold service from a customer on political grounds. The battle to preserve free speech in our society is something we must all fight for. Rising political polarisation is contributing to the threat to our freedom of expression, and the alternative—placing power in the hands of the easily offended—cannot be an option. This issue has to be of grave concern to us all, whatever our politics. I am grateful to the Minister for his assurances earlier, spelling out what he is going to do and his commitment to take this matter further. There are plenty of colleagues who will hold him to that.