My Lords, I am delighted that today we are able to proceed with the Second Reading of my Online Safety Bill. It is just over a year since we gathered here on
I put on the record my thanks to the Prime Minister for all his work on this crucial subject during the past 12 months. Having said that, there is still a long way to go and I firmly believe that the Online Safety Bill has a very important role to play in building on this very welcome progress. I will, first, highlight the key challenges that remain outstanding, explaining how these are dealt with in my Bill. I will then provide a more detailed clause-by-clause analysis. However, before doing either, I wish to make clear the Bill’s basic purpose. It is fundamentally about making provision to help parents to parent their children in the context of online safety challenges. It does this through two main provisions.
First, the Bill introduces an opt-in system that requires those selling access to the internet, be they internet service providers—ISPs—or mobile phone operators—MPOs—to provide people with an internet service that is free of adult content, but with the option of accessing such content, subject to age verification demonstrating that the person concerned is, indeed, 18 or over. This provision is to help parents make it less likely that their children will stumble across inappropriate material, either accidentally or deliberately. Secondly, the Bill also makes provision for parents to be empowered with information about all online safety challenges. This will include making them aware of how to make the most of the opt-in tool and information about online behavioural challenges that cannot be addressed by filters, such as cyberbullying and sexting. I believe that, in providing these two services, the Bill would help to make the online world safer for the children of this country.
Having defined the basic rationale for my Bill, I now address those areas where, despite all the positive developments in the past year, there is a need for significant change. The first key challenge is age verification. Noble Lords will remember the very great concern expressed by speaker after speaker during last year’s Second Reading about the fact that age verification was not mentioned once in the Government’s parental internet controls consultation. We raised this point, drawing attention to the important fact that British law already makes provision for online age verification.
In the early part of the previous decade, children’s charities were made aware of children developing gambling problems as a result of being able to gamble online. The Government expressed their concern and the industry expressed its concern, but nothing happened. It was only when the Gambling Act 2005 mandated statutory age verification that there was a change. Since the Act came into force, children’s charities have not been made aware of any children developing an online gambling problem. This provided, and continues to provide, a clear, robust example of the use of statute to deliver child protection online. The fact that it has been done in relation to online gambling proves that legislation has an important role to play in delivering online verification.
I was also very pleased that the Department for Education’s response to that consultation mentioned age verification. I was even more pleased by what the Prime Minister said when presenting his preferred solution, “default on”, in his online safety article in the Daily Mailon
“We’ve also said that providers need to work to verify the age of the person setting the controls—meaning that children can’t set up the filters themselves”.
Moreover, he made a similar point in his speech in July this year to the NSPCC. He said:
“Now, once those filters are installed it should not be the case that technically literate children can just flick the filters off at the click of the mouse without anyone knowing, and this, if you’ve got children, is absolutely vital. So, we’ve agreed with industry that those filters can only be changed by the account holder, who has to be an adult. So an adult has to be engaged in the decisions”.
This was all excellent news. The difficulty is, however, that although some parts of the internet industry have made it clear that they are willing to introduce “default on” by the end of the year, they are not prepared to back it up with robust age verification. Proper age verification, as defined by us in online gambling, takes place at the point at which a person confirms that they wish to access adult content.
The ISPs, however, have proposed an alternative approach that they have dignified with the name, “the closed-loop system”. While this name sounds reassuring, when one looks at the small print one discovers that it is anything but. Rather than age-verifying the person who elects to disable filters, the industry wants to age-verify the person in whose name the account is held. This is a problem because evidence suggests that parents often leave the set-up stage to their more technologically literate children. The industry has said that it will deal with this problem by sending the account holder an e-mail informing them if ever the filters are changed. It may come as a shock to ISPs but the truth is that customers do not read all their e-mails. Even if they get round to reading them, it could be some days after filters have been lifted. I can understand that this system will be attractive to the industry because e-mails are cheap, but it seems very Heath Robinson to me. If it is true, as the Prime Minister says, that few things are more important than our children’s safety online, then they are certainly worth more than this. In contrast to industry self-regulation, our Bill makes provision for there to be clear standards on how age verification should work and stipulates that these standards should be used to ensure that the age verification is of the person electing to disable default filters—not simply their mother or father.
My second major concern pertains to those customers who are not provided with access to the internet by the big four ISPs involved in the Prime Minister’s self-regulatory venture. The big four cover 95% of the market, but that leaves as many as 1 million households beyond this agreement. My Bill covers 100% of the market, including the 1 million households whose internet service is not provided by the big four. It also covers all the MPOs, not just those who signed up to the code of practice on mobile content. Two weeks ago, I was approached by a lady who told me that she had just bought a Tesco phone for her teenager and that she had been horrified to discover that it had no default filters in place. She was able to download anything and everything. When she went back to Tesco, it confirmed that this was deliberate but pointed out that customers can ask for filters to be turned on. This is entirely contrary to what the Prime Minister told us in his NSPCC speech in July. He said that,
“it’s great to report that all of the operators have now agreed to put adult content filters onto phones automatically. And to deactivate them you have to prove you’re over 18 and operators will continue to refine and improve those filters”.
This demonstrates so clearly why we need to adopt a legal framework rather than one that is merely self-regulatory, so that the law can be properly enforced.
Some may say that the situation I described was a one-off, but it was not. Blackberry was found to be doing exactly the same thing, even though it was a signatory to the self-regulatory code.
Finally, what I am proposing is a statutory law. In his Daily Mail article, the Prime Minister said that few things are more important this issue. If that is correct, and I certainly agree, why do we have laws covering everything under the sun but not child protection online? The subject, the Prime Minister admits, is one of the most important issues. How is it that we have laws to protect copyright, the interests of shareholders and so on, but not age-verified, “default on” online child protection?
I am of course aware that, in the current context of a Prime Minister with three small children who is personally committed to online safety, we are seeing significant political pressure placed on the industry to comply with online safety requirements. However, David Cameron will not be Prime Minister for ever. If we leave everything to self-regulation agreements, we cannot know with any confidence where we will be in five, 10 or 20 years’ time. By contrast, if we make this a matter of law, it will rest on a very much more secure foundation. If we really believe that protecting children online is important, then leaving it to voluntary agreements seems very odd.
Having set out those three concerns, I shall now briefly go through the Bill clause by clause. Clause 1 introduces an opt-in system with respect to adult content online. Both internet service providers and mobile phone operators are required by Clause 1 to provide an internet service that is free from adult content but with people being able to opt in to access such content, subject to submitting to age verification to demonstrate that they are 18 or over.
Clause 2 gives Ofcom responsibility for setting standards regarding filtering and age verification, and for reviewing the operation of the Bill when enacted. Crucially, Clause 2(5) requires Ofcom to,
“establish procedures for the handling and resolution of complaints in a timely manner about the observance of standards set under this section”.
This is to provide a mechanism for addressing concerns that those operating some websites may have about over-blocking.
Clause 3 requires manufacturers of electronic devices to provide customers with a means of filtering internet content at an age-appropriate level at the time the device is purchased. The rationale for this clause arises from the fact that, while it is very helpful to have an opt-in mechanism for a household, there is a need for a greater level of sophistication. For instance, you may be happy for a 16 year-old to download information about the Holocaust for homework purposes but you may not want your five year-old to have access to the same material. Manufacturers need to provide parents with filtering options which mean that they can cater for the needs of their children across the age spectrum.
Clause 4 requires those providing customers with access to the internet to provide them with information about online safety. Its purpose is to empower those paying for access to the internet, who ultimately are parents, by providing them with information about the key online safety issues and about how to cope with that type of thing.
Clause 5 introduces a new provision to the Bill placing a duty on the Secretary of State to make the parents of children under 18 aware of the online safety challenges.
In conclusion, we require a robust system that affords children the same legal protection online as they enjoy offline, that delivers credible age verification, that covers 100% of ISPs and MPOs, that, crucially, is based on law rather than mere voluntary agreement and that delivers proper education about online safety. This is what my Bill provides for and I strongly commend it to the House. I very much look forward to listening to what noble Lords have to say and, in particular, the reply from the Minister. I beg to move.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on bringing this Bill forward. This is an extremely important subject. Indeed, the fact that it is important is demonstrated by the extent to which the Prime Minister and the Government have become involved in seeking to bring forward effective measures. I believe that if the Bill were enacted, it would greatly enhance the provision of child safety online.
Ultimately, the Bill is designed to empower parents to protect their children in a way that is effective. It is sometimes suggested, as it was recently in an article in the Times, that pornography may not be dangerous. However, in a letter to the same newspaper on
The first component establishes the opt-in system based on robust, statutory age verification, as set out in Clauses 1 and 2. I support this fully. It has two key benefits: first, it helps parents to protect children from accidentally stumbling upon, or deliberately searching for, adult material while not preventing adults doing so; and, secondly, it ensures that all internet service providers and mobile phone operators who provide an internet service comply with the same rules and standards as a matter of law. In other words, it will ensure that no household and no child in Great Britain is left unaccounted for. All children will be protected.
The Prime Minister has succeeded in getting an agreement with the internet service providers on this matter—at least, to some extent. As I have said, that shows how important he regards the matter as being. However, the trouble with an agreement is that it is not absolutely universal and certainly not a permanent legal obligation. The illustration that the noble Baroness gave in relation to telephones shows that. We may think that everything is covered and then suddenly discover that it is not. Therefore, it is better to have an all-embracing statutory provision, such as is provided for here, with very clear workable definitions. In my view, the provisions are very straightforward and easy to read. In contradistinction to some statutes that we have the pleasure of looking at from time to time, this one is extremely straightforward.
The second aspect, which is also very important, is providing an effective method of dealing with the content of material which is not adult material in the sense of this Bill, and that is what the later provisions are intended to do. Earlier this year, the Nominet Trust produced research on the extent of cyberbullying in the United Kingdom. Its report, entitled Virtual Violence II: Progress and Challenges in the Fight against Cyberbullying, makes many significant points. It states that,
“28% of 11-to-16-year-olds have been deliberately targeted, threatened or humiliated by an individual or group through the use of mobile phones or the internet. For over a quarter of these, this experience was ongoing, meaning that the individual was continuously targeted … by the same person or group over a sustained period of time. This suggests that one-in-13 secondary-aged school children have experienced persistent and intentional cyberbullying. Given that there are approximately 4,377,780 secondary-aged children in the UK … these figures can be projected to suggest that 350,222 children may have suffered persistent and insidious bullying inflicted via technology”.
The report goes on to note:
“Purposeful recurring attacks can easily overwhelm a young person being cyberbullied, leaving them feeling anxious, tormented and increasingly marginalised”.
We know that, sadly, in some cases this has had quite serious consequences.
It is important that this matter is addressed. In that situation, the system requires some way of coping with the content. It is a content matter. Therefore, the very valuable suggestion put forward in this Bill is that it has to be tackled by education. The first part of that education is under Clause 4, which, as the noble Baroness has said, puts a duty on:
“Internet service providers and mobile telephone … operators”, who provide internet access to,
“provide prominent, easily accessible and clear information about online safety to customers”, many of whom will be parents,
“at the time the internet”, or mobile “service is purchased”. Furthermore, it puts a duty on providers to,
“make such information available for the duration of the service”.
That seems to be a very simple, practical provision.
By implementing Clause 4, the importance of online safety would be made plain to people when they subscribe to an internet or mobile phone service. It will provide parents with information that will empower them to help keep their children safe online; for instance, by enabling them to talk to their children about key online behavioural challenges, such as cyberbullying, sexting and how to stay safe while using social networks.
Clause 5 places a duty on the Secretary of State to provide a means of educating parents of children under the age of 18 about online safety. This is an important aspect because many parents find it hard to keep up with the rapid development of technology in this area. I understand that such education is made in some schools already. Therefore, a reasonable extension of that is for the Secretary of State to have a duty to make these provisions so that it will happen in all schools. It is very important to realise the need for a mechanism of that kind.
A recent study by Sonia Livingstone, the European Union expert on online safety, found that a considerable number of parents are incredibly unaware of the dangers of online adult content. The fact that something has to be done to bring this to the notice of parents and to help them to deal with it is a very important development. It should be made in law. This Bill provides a simple, straightforward and intelligible method of doing so.
My Lords, I too very much welcome this Bill brought forward by the noble Baroness. I congratulate her on her assiduous attention and determination to keep on until such a Bill is passed. We have come a long way in a year. I believe the Prime Minister’s sincerity in wanting to deal with this area. His work and that of the honourable Member Claire Perry in another place has brought this issue forward. We have an opportunity to legislate, which we need to do in regard to safety for children online.
That said, it is far more difficult and complex to do than may at first appear. Many years ago, I was chairman of a small self-regulatory body, not a statutorily regulated body. It dealt with the premium rate telephone industry at a time of burgeoning so-called adult services, including voice services, and the way in which they were abused by children having access to them. For a long time, we tried to get a code of practice with the industry. We got a code of practice, which the good boys followed and the bad ones did not. That still is the situation today as regards those online services. In the end, we regulated to provide opt-in on telephone services, which dealt with the issue. Alongside opt-in we had sanctions, which were either to shut the company down or to apply fines. Those were the days when things were much easier than they are now. We now have international services and it is difficult for a Government to regulate outside their own national boundaries.
We need a mechanism which will deal with this issue in a practical way. This Bill goes some way, but not the whole way, to deal with that. Age verification is critical and I support that proposal entirely, as I do opt-in. I gather that a number of the service providers, including BT, TalkTalk, Virgin Media and Sky, now have a code of practice where all new services will provide it. That is not the issue: all services need to be covered, which is what this Bill provides.
The Bill provides for Ofcom to be the overall regulator. Another group of services under the Mobile Broadband Group, including Telefonica—O2 in the UK—Three and Vodafone, have come together again for opt-in services but they are using the British Board of Film Classification. One might argue that that would be a better organisation to judge what is offensive on film, rather than a sound-provided service such as Ofcom. However, Ofcom has the statutory provision to do it. On balance, the Bill is right in going for Ofcom.
We are regulating for quite appalling services. I am no psychologist and I am not reaching any moral judgments here. Illegal services are illegal and are covered by law. This is about adult services that children have access to, which was never intended. We are in a society where not all parents are aware of how to shut off these services. It is the bad lads in the industry who the Government have a responsibility to bring to book. This Bill goes a long way to providing that. There will be changes in Committee, which I am sure the noble Baroness expects.
I have some concern about Clause 5, about which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, spoke strongly in favour. I am not sure that it is the responsibility of the Department for Education to deal with this issue. Surely, the law has to be decided and the services providers should carry out the law. In Committee, we will debate giving an added responsibility to the Department for Education to make sure that all citizens are aware of this, irrespective of whether they use the services. I question Clause 5 but I do not question the importance and the need to make sure that anyone who has access to these services is aware of the protections which can be switched on. I am fully in support of the two principles of opt-in and age verification.
We need to discuss the other areas, including what we are talking about opting in to. We have talked about a range of services which may not be offensive and totally adult. Will the adult age be 18 for all services or will it apply just to sex services? In Committee, we will have a very interesting debate. I congratulate the noble Baroness on persisting with this Bill and for persuading whoever she persuaded to give it time this month. At one stage, it looked like we would not get to this Bill until 2014.
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I congratulate and salute my noble friend Lady Howe on bringing forward this Bill again. I salute her particularly on its clarity and simplicity, which is a welcome relief after some of the legislation that the House has faced in recent months. I am delighted that her persistence has been matched by her refusal to be discouraged by what was, to be quite frank, a rather lacklustre and low-key response from the Government to the Bill of last year. That persistence has been rewarded by the involvement of the Prime Minister, which she mentioned, and by the initiatives that have been taken by some service providers. I have been reading with interest those from BSkyB and Mobile Broadband Group. However, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, has just said, it is not enough for some of them to take this line: all must comply if we are to get anywhere. I also thank James Tobin for his excellent and very helpful Library Note. We are lucky in the way that the Library produces these marvellous documents for us.
I want particularly to concentrate, as I did last year, on one aspect of this issue, which stems from my belief that the only raw material every country has in common is its people, and woe betide any country if it does not do everything it can to identify, nurture and develop the talents of all its people. If it does not, it will only have itself to blame if it fails. I mention this in connection with my noble friend’s comments about the importance of helping parents to parent and of empowering them so that they are aware of the tools that are available to help them develop the talents of their children. One aspect which has caused me most distress in recent years is the increasing inability of our children to communicate, either with each other or with anyone else. During the consideration in Grand Committee of the Children and Families Bill, some very chilling figures were produced showing the number of people who have speech, language and communication needs. I mention this because there is no doubt that the lifestyle where children are dumped in front of the TV, or given computer games or some other electronic means of alleged entertainment, none of which involves parental engagement, is damaging their ability to communicate, leading to the lack of a life skill. That is not helped by the fact that parents do not seem to understand the damage that is being done to a child’s development by their being exposed to all this stuff which comes to them at the flick of a switch or a button. It prevents them being ready for education when the time comes. As last year, I hope that the Minister will look seriously at this issue, not just in the terms of the Bill but of the long-term development of the talents and welfare of our children, because that is a national responsibility.
I like the simplicity and clarity of this Bill in that all the proposals in it are designed to prevent such damage and allow the short, medium and long-term development of our children to take place. I am therefore delighted that we are here today. I am only sorry that we did not process the Bill last year rather than being here and hoping that it happens now.
My Lords, it will not surprise the House to learn that I support the Bill, and I add my words of gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for her energy and persistence in bringing it forward. The Bill deals with an important aspect of child protection in relation to violent, abusive and, especially, pornographic material. In speaking mainly about pornography, I make it clear that I do not think that the issues around pornography in our society relate only to children. Indeed, I have a Motion for balloted debate which would look at the wider issues and the impact of pornography on our society. I hope that the House will have a chance to explore those rather difficult issues at some point before too long.
Only yesterday, the Financial Times revealed that around a quarter of all online searches are for pornography and that those who conduct such searches are then targeted by a host of other companies and users with related material. According to the report, more than 85% of the 5 million pornographic websites are supported by advertising. That is the wider background to the debate today. However, for us this morning, the scope is more limited and, I believe, more straightforward. We are dealing with an important aspect of child protection. The precise links between the use of pornography and child abuse are much disputed, as we have heard, but it seems that there are links, as is regularly suggested during prosecutions. Strengthening the legal protections for children in our society may well have a wider and welcome impact upon the tendency to regard pornography as in some sense just a normal and natural part of adult life. I hope that we can look at all these questions if and when my Motion comes up in the ballot.
The other fundamental issue raised by the Bill is the regulation of the internet, which is not an easy one to address, for reasons of both principle and practicality, as the noble Baroness mentioned just now. However, it is a question that cannot be avoided. I liken the impact of the electronic age to previous great social and economic revolutions such as the development of steam power or the internal combustion engine. I suspect that the impact of the internet is and will be even greater and will come upon us even faster. When, in a previous incarnation, I was a chemistry undergraduate at the University of Oxford, I remember computers in the 1970s which filled whole rooms. They needed to be fed with programs written in now extinct languages using tickertape. Ten years later, some homes had portable but still quite bulky and limited computers, and still later we saw the emergence of the internet itself. The rapidity of the development has been extraordinary and no doubt has a long way to run yet.
I have no doubt that huge benefits have flowed and are flowing from all this, but the danger in the information age is always that we do not see beyond the information itself to the higher realities of knowledge and wisdom that that abundance of information should seek to serve. How do we bring to bear on the internet the wider wisdom of society? In this particular regard, how should we seek to extend the protection of children, which is now so well established offline, to the online world? We rightly limit the retail availability of pornographic and violent material to children, and this Bill merely seeks to extend that protection online.
Noble Lords may have noticed that I have yet to use a word that occupies a prominent place in the Bill—the word “adult”. I recognise the legal reasons for the Bill referring to “adult” material, but I enter a note of regret that this is the language that has to be used. I try in my general behaviour to behave in an adult and grown-up way, no doubt with many failures and notwithstanding the hope for a certain childlikeness which should attend human beings of every age. I regret the way that our society has come to associate the word “pornographic” with the word “adult” quite so easily; I could suggest some other title or description another day. Be that as it may, I wholeheartedly support the aim of the Bill to provide a legal framework for the regulation of the internet and associated electronic media in this regard.
I do not believe that an approach based simply on self-regulation will do. All credit should go to the Prime Minister and others who have made a good start in that area, but the internet is just too powerful for that. The greater the positive benefits that flow from its power, the greater the likely dangers that emerge as well. It is simply a rule of life that things that are of positive benefit usually have a negative use attached to them somewhere. That is demonstrably the case in relation to the internet. I acknowledge the efforts that are currently being made but I do not regard voluntary self-regulation to be fully adequate, either practically or in terms of its underlying ethos. The provisions of the Bill would reinforce and undergird the self-regulation that we welcome.
When one deals with major social issues, voluntary co-operation and self-regulation are indeed greatly to be welcomed and encouraged, but the law generally has a role as well. As we have found in so many other sensitive areas of life—for example, in relation to equality and non-discrimination—changes in the law help to change public attitudes in all sorts of ways, precisely because the rule of law, which is the foundation of our society and democracy, is expressed through the specific corpus of actual laws. That does not mean that all regulatory principles should be set out in law, but the importance and significance of providing, as far as we can, a safe environment for our children leads me to support the Bill wholeheartedly. It is not a matter of freedom versus censorship. It is about championing the rule of law rather than anarchy; civil society rather than an internet version of the wild west in which anything goes.
“Any country, any society which does not care for its children is no nation at all”.
The Bill provides for a healthier society and I hope that the Government will give it a fair wind.
My Lords, I warmly welcome this Bill. It meets the challenges of online safety that parents are facing. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for all her hard work on this very important subject, and for reintroducing her Bill, with some amendments, in this Session.
Once, material on the internet could be accessed only on computers. Now, iPads, mobile phones and various portable devices mean that access can happen almost anywhere in a range of different ways. Everyday technology is becoming more mobile, more personal and more connected. It is always on—an always accessible backdrop to our lives. With this, children are becoming increasingly exposed to the full realities of the internet. Of course, a lot of material is enriching and can have a positive impact on the attitudes and daily lives of children, but a lot of it can have hugely damaging, conditioning and perverting effects.
Last year, the Deputy Children’s Commissioner for England, Sue Berelowitz, suggested that the scale of access to adult pornography among children is now so widespread that it should trigger “moral panic” among parents, schools and the Government about what should be done. I speak not only as a father and a grandfather but as an erstwhile school principal.
Sue Berelowitz revealed in a radio interview that then unpublished evidence revealed that children as young as 11 were actively “seeking out pornography” and that some boys think there are no boundaries for sex. She noted how some boys now believed they had an,
“absolute entitlement to have sex with girls, any time, any place, anywhere, with whomsoever they wished”.
That is quite terrifying. Miss Berelowitz disclosed research that showed, in one large local authority area, 100% of boys in year 9—that is, 14 year-olds—were accessing pornography. She said:
“We came across one study where they were looking at the whole cohort of year nine pupils within a large local authority in England. The findings were that 100 per cent—that is every single year nine boy—14 year olds—is accessing pornography. And about 50 per cent of the girls. The girls did not want to look at the porn—they were being made to by the boys”.
Last year’s parliamentary inquiry into online safety said that,
“the whole history of human sexual perversion is only a few clicks away. Unfortunately, our children, with their natural curiosity and superior technological skills, are finding and viewing these images”.
However, the problem is not just pornography. We also need to protect children from websites that promote violence, self-harm, suicide, anorexia and all sorts of abuse. There is such a huge supply of shocking and degrading material that is easily available to children online.
What should be done? As legislators, I firmly believe that we have a responsibility to ensure that children and young people are protected from adult content, including pornography. Article 19 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child makes it plain that every child has the right to live free from harm. It states:
“States Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child”.
Given that we very properly use the law to protect children from accessing inappropriate material in the offline world, it is quite wrong that we have not also used the law to provide equal protection to children in the online world. Children do not change when they go online, such that they require less protection. They remain exactly the same, requiring exactly the same level of protection.
It is precisely for this reason that the noble Baroness’s Bill is so important. Clause 1 places a duty on internet service providers and mobile phone operators to provide internet access free from adult content at the set-up stage, but with the option of accessing such content, subject to age verification. There are a number of points to make about this important clause.
First, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, on broadening the scope of the clause so that it covers but is not limited to pornography. It is absolutely right that this opt-in arrangement should cover websites featuring violence, self-harm, suicide and other abuses.
Secondly, as other speakers have said, I welcome the news that progress is being made on a self-regulatory basis but, given the importance of the issue, I do not think this subject should be left to self-regulation. The welfare of our children is just too important. Self-regulation may bring progress but how secure will that progress be?
The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, rightly asked what will happen if we have a different Prime Minister in 10 or 20 years. The sad thing that I must draw to your Lordships’ attention is that, today, the Prime Minister has been made to look rather foolish because of his own policy of self-regulation. On
Child Internet Safety, but Tesco does not itself meet the standards that are required. If default was a matter of law, Tesco would have had to have behaved responsibly and this would never have happened. We would have had greater security if we had placed the arrangements on a statutory foundation.
Thirdly, Clause 1(3) makes provision for robust statutory age verification. The truth is that one can use any number of online safety mechanisms, but if they are not age-verified they are pretty useless. I am extremely disturbed to hear about the industry’s proposal of a so-called “closed loop system”. I do not know what that is except that it does not age-verify at the point of electing to reject filters. That will not do. This is no time to seek to take short cuts. We are talking about child protection. If no other part of this Bill becomes law, I hope that, at the very least, the Government will embrace statutory age verification, especially since we already make provision for statutory age verification in relation to online gambling.
Fourthly and finally, we have to remember that internet service providers making up 5% of the market have not signed up to the Prime Minister’s self-regulatory solutions. That may not sound like a huge number, but let us think about the households that will not be covered. Five per cent of the market is a huge 1 million households. I am reliably informed that this will almost certainly mean that 1 million children will be unprotected, and possibly more. If that is the case and we take but 0.1% of that 1 million, that is 1,000 children each year who are in danger of being conditioned and perverted permanently—just 0.1%.
The statutory solution proposed by Clause 1 by the Bill of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, will address this problem by ensuring that all internet service providers are treated equally. Moreover, these proposals will put mobile phone operators on the same footing. They will all be under a duty to provide internet access without adult content—no ifs or buts; no exceptions—but with the option of accessing that content subject to age verification. Tesco, which should hang its head in shame, will not be able to ignore the law. Implementing a statutory solution is the only robust way in which every internet service provider and mobile phone operator can be accounted for. Only in that way will every household and therefore every child be protected. This is a Bill whose time has come. I hope that the Government will respond positively.
My Lords, I am delighted to be able to add my congratulations to my friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. She has been a doughty campaigner throughout her life on a number of causes. I remember our early involvement together when she was campaigning for what became the Equality Act and she then came to be the first deputy chairman of the commission for equality. She has served this country extremely diligently and very effectively for a very long time. I am glad to have been associated with her in a number of her endeavours. This is not the least of her services that she is performing for her country and for this House today. She has introduced with great clarity a Bill that is clearly needed.
However, I want to reflect on a number of things which give me extra cause for concern. My two sons grew up in the 1970s and early 1980s. My grandchildren have grown up—over the past 16 years in the case of the eldest of them; I have others of 14, 10 and eight—and I worry very much for them. Perhaps the worst that we could get up to when I was growing up, as I mentioned in Grand Committee the other week, was to smoke a surreptitious Woodbine behind the bike shed—it was so disgusting that I have not smoked since. Today, it is so very different. The way in which the privacy of our young people is taken advantage of and invaded is deeply disturbing. Of course, you cannot blame the young for being inquisitive and curious and for pressing buttons that might produce something that they had never really thought of or seen; yet we are seeing—I do not want to be too hyperbolic about this—the corruption of a generation of our young in the interests of amoral commercial exploitation.
That really is what we are about today—we are seeking to tackle just one aspect of this. I think of the bullying to which noble Lords have already referred, of the sexting that one reads about, and of the chilling articles that we have seen in recent days and weeks about boys as young as 11 raping girls. I think, too, of the hideous example of that ghastly man who was last week sent to jail for raping babies. What a world. We have a duty as legislators, as Members of this House, to do something to protect our young. This Bill is just a small step in the battle for protection.
I would myself go much further. In this country, we ban certain dangerous substances. I can think of no more dangerous substance than some of the things which our young people have access to on the internet. While I applaud and endorse everything that the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, has said, I would go further. I suspect, from what he said, that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester would go further. I would make the production of those dangerous substances a criminal offence, no matter by whom they were consumed. I am not one who favours censorship as such, but I think that dangerous substances have to be banned, and we are dealing with dangerous substances.
What is more, for those found guilty of purveying this filth, I would have exemplary sentences. If I may say so with affectionate respect to my friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, one of the deficiencies in the Bill is that it does not prescribe sentences. When we come to Committee, I would be inclined, if it does not impede the Bill’s progress, to suggest a few, because we are dealing with something very serious indeed.
It was the great Edmund Burke who said that all that is needed for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. I thought of that last night. I was watching a fascinating programme on Byzantium and, suddenly, there came across the screen, “Breaking news on BBC1”. My wife and I flicked over to see what had happened. We all know what had happened: the death of one of the greatest, most influential, most amazing men of the past century, to whom I am sure we will have an opportunity to pay tribute in this House at a later date. I am so grateful, as we all are, to the Lord Speaker for ensuring that there is already a book of condolence in the Royal Gallery.
If Nelson Mandela stood for anything above all others, he stood for human decency, without regard to race, colour or creed. As has already been referred to by the right reverend Prelate, the protection of children was high on his agenda. I would say to the House, paraphrasing Edmund Burke, and relating it to Nelson Mandela, that all that is needed for the triumph of depravity is that decent people do too little. He did a great deal. Perhaps his greatest achievement was to show us that it is possible to change things for the better. Now we have a duty incumbent on us to try to change things for the better.
I sometimes say that I wish the internet had never been invented, but that is like Lear crying on the heath. It is there. It can do great good; it can bring great benefit; but it can also bring great harm, pose great dangers and threaten. We must ensure that the good that it does is preserved and enhanced and that the evil that it does is curbed and destroyed. In so far as the Bill of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, attacks this problem, she deserves the unqualified, total support of all Members of this House and of another place.
I agree with everything that my noble friend has said so far, but does he believe that Clause 3, which states:
“Manufacturers of electronic devices must provide customers with a means of filtering content”, is possible in a world where fridges and motor cars are designed to download content? Would it be illegal to import such a device? Would we not sideline ourselves from the advances in devices that have nothing to do with pornography?
If my noble friend, whose recent friendship I have come to treasure, knew little more about me, he would know that I am not the best person to ask deeply technical questions. I can with honesty say to him that I do not know, but I am aware that it is possible to download so many things in so many different ways, although I am not guilty of it myself because I am incapable of it. It is clearly important that any measures we take can cope with the sort of peradventure that my noble friend suggests may be possible.
I return to where I was a moment or two ago. We have a duty upon us in this House and in the other place, but that duty also extends to the Government. We are well into the second half of this Session. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and I know—this is something I do know about—that the chances of getting the Bill on to the statute book are negligible unless it has absolute, immediate and total government endorsement. I hope that it will have that and that we will be able to expand and improve it in some of the ways that I have suggested. Most of all, I hope that there will be no more vague and general speeches, welcome as they are, from our political masters. Rather, I hope that there will be total determination to tackle this cancerous problem. I hope that that will be articulated on the Floor of this Chamber by my noble friend when he replies. I hope that such a measure will be given absolute priority in the next Queen’s Speech. I know that my noble friend cannot say what will be in the next Queen’s Speech, but he can pass on the serious and considered views of this House, so that the Prime Minister is aware that his general statements have our total support but that we urge him to translate them into legislative action, and to do so soon.
My Lords, I am pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, has reintroduced an online safety Bill. She is right to do so, and I admire her persistence.
As we know, issues of online safety change day by day. We need to be vigilant in protecting children from violent and pornographic images. As the noble Baroness said, there is still a long way to go, and she has listed some of the problems. I listened carefully to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and very much appreciated his speech. He mentioned two things with which I fundamentally agree. One is human decency; I would also call it human dignity. Human dignity is being defiled by the inappropriate influence of such things as online violence and pornography. I also agree with much of what he said about legislation.
I shall not repeat the persuasive arguments of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, who set the scene admirably, but I want to make a few points and will suggest an amendment to the Bill in Committee, to which I shall come later.
The internet, with its related components, is a wonderful tool. I would guess that most of us here have benefited from it in some way. However, like any other tool, it can be dangerous in the wrong hands and should be used with care. We are talking about child protection and, I would maintain, of education for parents but also for children to enable them to resist pressure. I shall come to that in a moment.
I am grateful to those who have forcefully expressed their concern and agitated about the issue of online safety: for example, the Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety, Reg Bailey, Claire Perry MP, Helen Goodman MP and Tanya Byron. I am also pleased that the Government have acknowledged the dangers inherent to children. There have been some developments, including a progress report in May 2013 on the Bailey review. The Prime Minister’s speech from July 2013 has been mentioned already, and it is sad that Tesco was allowed to get away with it for so long, despite the Prime Minister’s speech, given its influence on the internet.
Helen Goodman, the shadow Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, welcomed the initiatives but she criticised, as I would, the “woeful” contribution of £250,000 from the industry for the Internet Watch Foundation and the fact that internet service providers are still refusing to put filters on as a default for all customers. Their scheme means that there will not be total coverage until 2018, at the earliest, and that there is no effective age verification. I remember that when the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, introduced the Second Reading of an online safety Bill in November last year, I quoted from a book by Ed Mayo and Agnes Nairn. The same quote is worth repeating. They said that a child of 11 in Britain today may have, in their bedroom,
“a music system, TV, phone, text messaging, mobile phone, computer, instant messaging, voice over internet protocol, email, games console, DVD or VCR”, and “an MP3 player”. All these devices are seductive and can become obsessive.
I was interested in a speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, during Committee on the Children and Families Bill. As some noble Lords may know, the noble Baroness recently made a film called “InRealLife”. In making that film, she interviewed hundreds of young people and sifted through research to try to find the extent of the influence of online devices. The results are chilling and I want to give, briefly, a flavour of her concerns. She said during the debate that,
“young people need additional help to navigate a world in which the very concept and experience of growing up has changed completely”.
She also said that we should examine,
“the role of the internet and social media in sex and relationship education and in online bullying and harassment”.—[ Official Report , 11/11/13; col. GC 207.]
Yet guidance to schools on sex and relationships education has not been updated for 13 years. An amendment tabled to the Children and Families Bill by my noble friends Lady Hughes and Lady Jones, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, seeks support for updating that guidance.
I worry about statements such as that which said that government should trust teachers to deliver the education that pupils need and adjust it to the modern world, or that top-down diktats are not the way to deal with changes in the swift advance of technology. This is rather naive. The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, found in her research and interviews that teachers were crying out for a new level of information. She suggested that very soon, we shall have an entire generation that has learnt its sexual norms from hard-core pornography, friendship rules from Facebook and self-image from dubious online images. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, was absolutely right to focus on the importance of relationships.
I have just read that TalkTalk has said:
“There is no silver bullet when it comes to internet safety and TalkTalk thinks of internet safety as the road safety of our children’s generation; it requires a range of different inventions, and the use of technical tools needs to be supported by awareness raising and education for parents”, and young adults. It is also engaged with other broadband companies to ensure that there are resources for parents and children to combat the excesses. That is good, but what back-up will there be?
It will not surprise noble Lords to hear that I would suggest an amendment to this excellent little Bill to include a new clause saying that we do not just have a duty to educate parents about online safety but a duty to educate teachers and young people. I hope here to reassure my noble friend Lady Dean. In her 2008 report, Tanya Byron suggested that as well as reducing the availability of, and access to, harmful and inappropriate material, we should build children’s resilience to the material to which they may be exposed—a very important aspect of this argument—so that they have the confidence and skills to navigate the online world more safely, and to form real relationships rather than online relationships.
Ofsted, too, has recently expressed concern at the lack of teaching of these skills of resistance in personal, social and health issues in schools.
There are some resources for schools to teach about the internet but I would prefer to examine those closely to see how hard-hitting they are. The internet is hard-hitting and the response needs to be hard-hitting. It would also be useful to check on the current status of teacher training for child protection, but that is an issue for the Department for Education, and I will take it up with the department. It is not enough to leave this issue to parents; I say that sadly but we must be realistic. Society as a whole, and its legislators, must play a part if we are not to leave our children vulnerable.
My Lords, I, too, would like first to pay tribute to the iconic Nelson Mandela, who loved children and understood the value of childhood. Had he been a Member of this House, I believe that he would have supported this Bill.
I strongly support the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, who is another icon, and I congratulate her on her hard work, commitment and persistence with this Bill —which, as she indicated, is about protecting children not just from online pornography but from all inappropriate online material, including that relating to bullying, anorexia and self-harm. The Bill is not about censorship or stopping adults from accessing legal material; nor is it about child pornography, which is illegal and punishable by law. It is about making sure that the Government do everything possible to support parents and guardians in ensuring that we protect our children online. At this point I should congratulate the Government on taking such a robust stance in working with the online industry to find solutions to this plague which is spreading across the nation’s children.
I come to this issue after a lifetime of working with children, and I have seen the damage that has been done to their mental and physical well-being. I want them to be given the chance to grow up and explore their own sexuality without the global porn industry poisoning and taking over their minds. Report after report suggests a worrying and disturbing trend. This is graphically demonstrated in the documentary film “In Real Life”, made by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. A study by HealthyMind.com found that the average age of first exposure to online porn is six and that the largest group of child consumers are aged from 12 to 17.
The NSPCC’s ChildLine reports increased calls from extremely distressed children affected by the accidental or coerced viewing of pornography, sexual harassment and bullying. Interestingly, many are terrified that the police will come to their homes and arrest them for viewing porn.
Experts are reporting that more and more young boys are becoming addicted to porn, like 17 year-old Tom, who started watching hardcore at nine. His mind was so full of violent scenarios that he attempted to rape his first girlfriend. That could be our children or grandchildren. Then there was the 16 year-old so fascinated with porn that it led him to assault a five year -old because he wanted to know what it would feel like.
Equally disturbing was the report commissioned by Bedfordshire University that highlights the serious exploitation and rape of girls in gangs. It states that rape is part of daily life for hundreds, if not thousands, of girls associated with gangs. The boys carrying out these horrific assaults have grown up watching porn online and have a totally distorted and warped attitude to women and sexual relationships. Young boys are watching porn and then trying to find girls to match their fantasies. If the girls do not match then they move on to the next girl, leaving a trail of anguish, despair, self-loathing and even attempted suicide.
Schoolchildren are being affected by viewing porn and their sexual behaviour towards one another is cause for concern. Recently a mother contacted me after her five year-old daughter was sexually assaulted by a boy in her class. A report by councils last week said that the age at which children are experiencing sexual misconduct is getting younger.
Research has shown that young girls watch porn to see how they should behave sexually, believing they have to do it “porn-style” or boys will not like them. Only recently I read a report on how young girls are electing to undergo risky genital cosmetic surgery because they are concerned that they do not match up to the image that boys see on porn sites. A porn producer reported that 16 year-old girls are turning up for auditions “porn-ready”. This is all part of the increasingly dangerous culture of sexual exploitation and sexualisation of children and young people, fuelled by increasingly violent and explicit pornography that is freely available and accessible on the internet.
A child cannot legally buy alcohol, or enter a casino or a pole dancing club. To gamble online, buy national lottery products or even purchase certain goods and services via the internet, you have to register and supply personal details and age verification. No one complains about that, so why not do the same for access to online porn? There are no simple solutions or silver bullet answers to this complex and multifaceted global problem, but necessity is the mother of invention and we all need to work together to find solutions, such as filters. There is much talk about the ineffectiveness of filters, but to use that as an excuse to do nothing is wrong. Speed bumps do not stop speeding but they do slow people down. We need filters to act as online speed bumps.
In 2010, ISPs said that providing a clean feed without porn to a home network was impossible, but now they are doing just that. It is great that major ISPs are now all committed to delivering robust filters that will be pre-ticked, meaning that new customers will have to actively decide to turn them off, and I welcome this move. However, I hope that all data on the filtering activities of their customers will be treated as confidential information and stored in so far as it is needed to administer a filtering system, which I believe will go some way towards allaying the concerns of those who feel that their freedom is being infringed.
Many schools now have enhanced cyber protection systems in place that use forensic technology to scan their networks and protect against grooming, inappropriate material, bullying, and self-harm and suicide websites.
Local authorities must ensure that all schools invest in this type of technology so that children cannot get around filters, which some are doing at present.
Part of the solution is also for parents to take an active interest in what their child is being exposed to online. Some children have parents who show no interest in their well-being, while some do not have parents. Unfortunately, many parents have no idea what their children are viewing online and never explain to them that healthy sexual relationships should be about love, trust and respect. This is why sex and relationship education in schools is also important. As part of personal, social and health education, it can play a major role in a child’s development, ensuring that all children get the guidance and information that they need to progress long-term into adulthood. This does not mean showing children porn films. It means having a comprehensive age-appropriate conversation about sex and relationships.
The Sex Education Forum said that children it surveyed wanted sex and relationship education in schools. According to Mumsnet, 98% of parents want it to become statutory in schools. It is good to know that there will be a Safer Internet Day in February 2014 to educate parents about online safety for their children and for ISPs to demonstrate that they are responsible for creating a better, safer internet. That is all good news.
As I have said many times before, arguments about opt-in, censorship or freedom of expression simply are not applicable here. This pandemic crosses a sacred line. Although the internet is a wonderful and enlightening resource, it also has a dark and dangerous side. The global porn industry is grooming our children because it makes around £2,000 per second from adults, many addicted to porn since childhood. The Pandora’s box is open. We can never turn back the clock for the generation whose minds have been tainted, but we can and must put measures in place to stop this epidemic continuing. The sexualisation of children, especially by the internet, music videos and other media, is frightening, and inaction will damage society and humanity.
I am grateful to all the ISPs that are taking this problem seriously; that is very encouraging. However, it is scandalous to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, say that some mobile phone networks are hiding behind a veil of silence and the facade of self-regulation, sidestepping their responsibilities to safeguard and protect our children. They are allowing adult material to be shown by mobile phones when the Government said last year that all mobile phone operators have agreed to put adult content filters in place. Shame on those who have avoided this pledge—they know who they are. I hope that they will honour that pledge and agreement immediately. That is why I believe that we need legislation that is future-proof and fool-proof, so that all service providers old or new will know that they have a statutory duty to protect our children and they will not be given the soft option of self-regulation but must stand up to their responsibility and duties.
We all need to send out a clear message that we care about our children, their mental and spiritual happiness and their future well-being, and that we will do whatever it takes. That means that we need wholeheartedly to support this Bill, which is an important part of the solution as we move forward in trying to protect and safeguard our children. Let us press that reset button for their sake. We owe it to our children.
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Howe for introducing this much needed Online Safety Bill. She has been dogged and determined and deserves our admiration, support and thanks.
I warmly welcome the Bill’s clauses but in my remarks I shall particularly focus on the problem of children purposefully seeking out or stumbling accidentally upon inappropriate material on the internet. This crucial challenge is addressed by Clauses 1 and 2, but I shall also say a word about Clause 5 and the role of parents.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester reminded us that Nelson Mandela once said that a civilised society will always be judged on how it treats and protects its children. Mandela also proclaimed the African idea of umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu: a person is a person because of other people. It is worth pondering on that in a debate that is reflecting on virtual worlds where screens may often take the place of personal interaction. In considering how we treat our children, surely we must all be disturbed that a UNICEF report ranked the United Kingdom bottom out of 21 developed countries for child welfare. It begs the question of what sort of world we are bequeathing to our children, a point made eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, a few minutes ago.
Economists point to what they call intergenerational theft when they talk about the debts which our children will inherit as a result of our fiscal profligacy, but there is another kind of intergenerational theft. It is our failure to protect the innocence of childhood itself. The landscape of Britain is littered with the consequences. Let me give some illustrations. The British Association of Perinatal Medicine says that over the past decade there has been a 67% increase in the number of children born addicted to drugs, with one in 500 babies needing treatment for withdrawal. More than 50,000 of our children are listed on child protection registers or are the subject of child protection plans. Worldwide, 218 million children—that is one in seven—are working, and 14% of all children aged five to 17 are child labourers. Lest we think this is not an issue for us, we should recall the BBC report of Romanian children, some as young as nine, found working in freezing fields in Worcestershire. Today’s Oliver Twists are living in London and all over the world. In the past year, National Health Service hospitals treated more than 18,000 girls and 4,000 boys aged 10 to 19 after they had deliberately harmed themselves. The figure was up 11% on the previous year. Among 10 to 14 year-olds, admissions rose from 4,008 to 5,192, an increase of 30%. It is estimated that 7% to 14% of adolescents will self-harm at some point in their life. Suicide is the second most common cause of death in people aged between 15 and 24, behind accidental death.
Now, while all these ills most certainly cannot be laid at the door of the internet exclusively—as we have heard, it can be a wonderful tool—the presence of suicide sites and sites which encourage self-harm, create insecurity through cyberbullying or rob a child of innocence is not something about which we can be indifferent. The human costs are phenomenal and sometimes even fatal. Just two weeks ago, I distributed prizes at an excellent school in the north of England. It should have been a day simply to celebrate the achievements of last year’s leavers. One of the young people had composed a beautiful song to commemorate the memory of one of her year group. He had taken his own life after visiting suicide sites. Imagine the effect which that has had on his family and the school community. That his death is not an isolated example is underlined by the almost daily news reports. One recent report in the
Daily Telegraph said:
“Rising numbers of children are turning to the internet to self-harm by creating multiple social media accounts and ‘trolling’ themselves … They hurl abuse at themselves by setting up multiple cyber identities … even encouraging unwitting strangers to join in”.
Last month, the same newspaper reported the inquest into the death of Ayden Keenan-Olson, a 14 year-old boy who having told his family he thought he was gay, committed suicide after receiving physical and verbal abuse at school. The police told the inquest that Ayden had bypassed settings on his computer to research suicide on the internet. The coroner, Caroline Beasley-Murray, said
“The court regrets the influence that such sites have on young people”.
That is putting it mildly. Consider this report which supports the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, made a few moments ago. It is taken from the Times of
“A 12-year-old boy was trying to play out pornographic scenes he had watched on a school computer when he repeatedly raped his younger sister, a court heard … Issuing a warning to parents, Judge Thomas Crowther, QC, said the internet could not be used as a ‘benign babysitter’”.
The Times reported that the boy had,
“watched hardcore pornography while at school after searching for explicit websites with a classmate. He would then go home and carry out the acts on his sister”.
The same day the Times also reported that Mold Crown Court had heard a case of a 13 year-old boy who,
“had raped a young girl after becoming addicted to pornography.”
This is not the centrefold of Playboy magazine. It is a million miles from that and, as we have heard, parents often have no idea of the influences at work in their children’s lives or how to guard against them. My teenage son and his friends know a great deal more than me or most of my generation about computers and the internet, but no parent in their right mind would knowingly allow a stranger into a young child’s bedroom, free to teach their loved ones how to kill themselves, how to self-harm or how to act violently against other. We are not just talking about children viewing erotic, static images. We are talking about children viewing images of extreme violence and explicit pornography, often through videos portraying various forms of abuse.
I entirely agree with what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, said earlier in his remarks about the importance of setting out a useful first step in placing a duty on the Secretary of State to provide means of educating parents of children under the age of 18 about online safety.
However, education alone is not enough. I am encouraged that, following the Prime Minister’s important speech to the NSPCC last July, which has been referred to throughout this debate, there have been some positive developments, and it is right to welcome his personal commitment and what the Government have done thus far. However, as noble Lords on all sides of the House have said, there is much more to be done. Internet access is increasing all the time. On average, one-third of 10 year-olds spend three hours or more on computers every day. An NSPCC report published earlier this year found that 91% of all five to 15 year-olds used the internet in 2012. When looked at by age, three in four five to seven year-olds, nearly all eight to 11 year-olds and all 12 to 15 year-olds have used the internet.
As I have made clear, I believe that the internet is one of the most profound inventions in human history. It has had, and continues to have, a phenomenal impact on so many peoples’ lives across the globe, developing awareness and understanding of the world around us. I have seen it used in remote villages in Africa, helping people to leapfrog educational disadvantages. I have also seen how young people in the UK have used this knowledge to respond generously and selflessly.
However, we are all acutely aware that is another side to the story of the expansion of the internet, and that is what the Bill is concerned with. The internet represents the biggest challenge ever in bringing up children. As I have illustrated, children and young people are being increasingly exposed to negative influences. In a country where 800,000 children have no contact with their fathers—men who have abandoned the mothers of their children—there are too frequently no voices to correct, to guide, to help navigate life’s choppy waters. That is why we have a duty as legislators, often in loco parentis, to challenge influences which include deplorable sexual and racial stereotyping, and the use of obscene language—things which diminish us all, not just children.
The advertisements on many sites, often targeted at young people, are equally aggressive and awful. Many promote hedonism as a substitute for a happy life. It is not surprising that the Children’s Society says that 89% of parents think that these influences have made their children more materialistic—but who created these conditions for such nihilism and acquisitiveness in the first place? We did, and it is time that we did something about it.
The House should ask itself how we intend to act on the parliamentary inquiry which last year found that one in three children aged just 10 or under has seen sexual images online? Are we just going to allow this to gather dust? As the House would expect, the cross-party inquiry concluded that children are suffering as a result. The inquiry noted:
“Overuse of pornographic material has been shown to desensitise children and young people to violent or sexually aggressive acts, diminish sympathy for victims of sexual assault and reduce children’s own inhibitions, making them more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Moreover, a vicious circle of behaviour can develop where exposure to porn leads to early sexual involvement and an increased consumption of sexual media”.
The inquiry also maintained that the rise of internet pornography is leaving teenagers with an inability to develop normal relationships and is further increasing their susceptibility to grooming by sexual abusers—points made very well by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, and my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham in his contribution earlier today.
The leading psychologist, Dr Linda Papadopoulos, says that there is a striking link between the consumption of sexualized images and,
“a tendency to view women as objects and the acceptance of aggressive attitudes and behaviour as the norm”.
The deputy Children’s Commissioner commented in the introduction to research published in May:
“What is clear, however, is that children’s access to pornography is fundamentally different from that of previous generations because of the prevalence of these materials on the internet”.
Four out of five children aged 14 to 16 access online pornography at home, it said. That is a disturbing situation. Justine Roberts of the Mumsnet online forum gave examples of some Mumsnet users’ concerns. One parent said:
“My 6 year old searched for DISNEY FAIRIES and got HARDCORE PORN”.
“My 10 year old son has found porn on the net help, help, help”.
“My 7 year old son has just been looking at internet porn, what do I do?”.
Many parents are simply bewildered.
John Carr, one of the most prominent authorities on children and young people's use of the internet recently said:
“In recent years there has been a very dramatic increase in child pornography images made by children and then distributed online or via phones …We have an exhibitionist, celebrity-dominated culture and it’s seen as normal and cool to be a porn star”.
Psychotherapist John Woods, speaking recently on Radio 4, drew attention to the way in which viewing pornography and other harmful material can have a considerable impact on how a child views others, how they view the world around them and indeed how they view themselves. The advertising industry in the UK has in the past 12 months spent £14 billion. They would not bother to do that if they did not think that what we see and hear has an influence upon us. According to research by Ybarra and Mitchell, children exposed to pornography are far more likely to be depressed and are far more likely to be less bonded to their care givers.
Children do not simply view these images and move on. These images can cause real trauma for weeks, months or even years to come. For many children it is hard to compute what they may have seen. If the internet has no boundaries, if everything is open and accessible, many children will fail to distinguish between what is abusive and what is not, what is legal and what is not. If children are being fed images of abuse, many will invariably come to think that this is the norm.
Children should be able to enjoy their childhood and be protected from harmful and damaging online material. We do, as a society, have a duty to protect children from harm. In response to this some may say,
“I agree. This is all very concerning but we have a self-regulatory solution. We don't need this Bill”. In the aftermath of the killing in Liverpool in 1993 of the two year-old James Bulger by two 10 year-old boys who had been exposed to gratuitously violent video material, which was referred to by the judge when the trial took place, I tabled an amendment in the House of Commons, supported on all sides of that Chamber, to protect children from gratuitously violent video material. At the time, the Home Office advisers said that we did not need such a provision because self-regulation was enough. Parliament, I am glad to say, disagreed and when the Bill came to your Lordships’ House my amendment was incorporated and the law was changed.
The idea that self-regulation is an appropriate long-term tool for upholding child protection is bizarre. In the first instance, it presents us with a complete inconsistency. As a matter of law we do not allow children to buy R18 films. If a 14 year-old said that they wanted to go into a film that was full of explicit sexual and violent imagery, would you allow them? No. We rightly decided that legislators and parents have the responsibility of ensuring that children are not exposed to such material. What, then, is different about the internet? There is a flagrant inconsistency in how the law treats children offline and online. My noble friend’s Bill provides us with the opportunity to put that right.
Self-regulation also seems a very odd solution, given what the Prime Minister has said on the subject. As we have heard, in his NSPCC speech he said that there are few things more important than this. I agree. How odd, then, that we should have countless laws about everything under the sun but not in relation to one of the most important subjects: online child protection.
I am not suggesting that progress cannot be made on a self-regulatory basis. What I am questioning is whether that progress can be as good or as robust as progress on a statutory basis. We should do what we can to establish the safest, most secure approach to online safety. That approach is the statutory approach set before us in my noble friend’s simple and effective Bill. I urge the Government to give their strong support to my noble friend in all her endeavours.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for introducing a comprehensive piece of legislation that is designed to help our nation’s families. Parenting today is a challenge, particularly in the area of technology, in which our children are growing up with gadgets and devices that had not hit the high street even a few years ago. So often, children are more tech savvy than parents. Indeed, in the latest Ofcom report on children and media, around half of parents of children aged five to 15 said that they feel their child knows more about the internet than they do, and 14% of parents with children aged three to four agreed.
We need to give parents all the tools we can to help them keep their child safe regardless of their age. Now, I recognise that Clause 1 is an excellent start and would allow parents to choose not to have adult content on their child’s mobile phone, or coming into their house via their internet service provider. However, there is still the dilemma of how to ensure each child has access to what is appropriate to their age. It is no longer enough to turn the TV off when certain programmes are being shown. The plethora of electronic devices in the home today means that any content can be easily accessed at any time by the youngest members of the family.
Ofcom’s 2013 report on children’s use of media includes, for the first time, information about access to, and use of, media among children aged three to four. That shows us how things are changing. Some 28% of children aged three to four use a tablet computer at home, while 26% of 12 to 15 year-olds and 18% of eight to 11 year-olds own their own tablet computer. Ofcom says that tablets are,
“becoming the must-have device for children”, because they can access such a diverse range of content from games, films, music and the internet.
Not only have the devices used in the home changed substantially, but the places where they are used have also changed. Whereas TVs were sometimes put in bedrooms, computers were initially more likely to be in a communal space. Now, however, children aged eight to 11 access the internet mainly in their bedrooms, which is an increasing trend. The modern home is full of electronic devices, so I fully support the need for more precise filtering than simply relying on whether someone is 18 or not. Clause 3 would require manufacturers of electronic devices that can connect to the internet to have a means of filtering content at an age-appropriate level. Those last words, “age appropriate level”, make this clause different from Clause 1.
Clause 3 would allow parents to set filters for the content that is accessed by the 12% of three and four year-olds who go online using a tablet, at the same time as managing the content that their older children download. Ofcom reports that 43% of parents of five to 15 year-olds have parental controls in place on their PC, laptop or netbook. However, there is a much lower incident of parental controls on game consoles to help parents restrict their child’s access to certain age-rated games or to prevent their child going online. Of course, parental controls are available to help parents, but 13% of parents said that they did not know that they could install them on a PC or how to install them, and around 25% said the same for games consoles.
I hope that noble Lords will agree that, with such a wide age range of children accessing the wonders and dangers of the internet, we need to ensure that we are doing as much as we can to help parents have the tools in their hands that they need to ensure that their child remains safe. I hope noble Lords will join me in supporting Clause 3 and the rest of the Bill.
My Lords, I, too, thank and congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for and on her persistence in steering us in what I think we all see is the right direction. Much has been said, so I will just pick up a couple of themes and will then pursue a particular point and ask the Minister about.
Noble Lords have referred to the Prime Minister’s speeches on this area. If you read those speeches, part of their rationale is because he wants to put the family at the centre of a stable society. The family is about a web of mutual relationships—it is about mutuality, not about exploitation. That is the issue that we have to get hold of very clearly. We have heard from many noble Lords about how pornography is exploitative in every way. We have heard about its harmful effects on young people especially, about understandings of sex, how boys are led to see that sex is about having power over women, and how girls are led to see that sex is about performing in a certain kind of way. It causes very damaging ideas about body image. We heard from the noble Lord, Lord Alton, about the objectification of women and violence against women.
All those things are about not mutuality but exploitation of one human being by another. They damage the family and the fabric of society. Therefore, besides the issues about technical controls, I want us just to think for a moment about what is driving this and pushing us to try to put up the barriers. It seems that the driver, as other noble Lords have alluded to, is aggressive business that makes a great deal of money out of the pornographic industry. The Bailey report about the sexualisation of children talked about pop-ups that confront people and lead them astray while they are using the internet. It uses the term “pestering”. There is a direction in highly organised business that pesters people, enticing and pushing them into the area of exploitation.
Last night I was privileged to attend a debate on the banking industry in this House led by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury. One of the things that that debate made clear was that an industry that is vital to us and very important had gone astray in the sense of having the right kinds of moral compass and moral values. The most reverend Primate talked about the need to change the culture in that industry so that mutuality, proper standards and trust could be regained. The same applies to what is euphemistically called the entertainment industry. There is an enormous drive in it that shatters our trust that we can entrust our children—or even ourselves—to it. We have to be very careful about the language we use. We are talking about safety, which is a very soft word. We use the word “adult” for certain kinds of material. That kind of material does not make anyone adult at all. Adults are people who do mutuality, not exploitation.
That industry is about violence, cruelty and misogyny. That brings us to the classic debate that is around today between freedom on the one hand and censorship and control on the other. Some noble Lords may have noticed that Theresa May talked in a speech yesterday about the importance of freedom of speech, but said that that should not extend to giving a platform for what she called “violent extremism”. There have to be some limits. She talked about the danger of organisations, in the name of freedom of speech, giving violent extremists space for a platform. There is an analogy there that we need to think about very carefully. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, spoke very eloquently about the importance of possibly legislating and not just creating a platform of freedom for people who behave in that way. Can we learn anything from the Home Secretary’s approach to violence and extremism? That is what we are talking about in this debate: violence and extremism, and exploitation.
Therefore I invite the Minister to comment, not simply on the importance of technical controls or about simply trying to educate parents and help them in their responsibility. Do the Government have a role in this case—as they perhaps have in handling violence and extremism in other areas of the political landscape—to help us to create a frame that will make it difficult both for exploitation to trump mutuality; and for an entertainment industry, which sounds a great thing for adults, to be something that is so pernicious and undermining of not just the lives of our children, but of many adults and the relationships they are called to make?
My Lords, I will begin by thanking the noble Lord Speaker and adding my own condolences to President Mandela’s—Madiba’s—family. I recall meeting him about a decade ago now in the British Museum, when he addressed a number of parliamentarians. He mentioned in his speech the quote, “When injustice becomes the norm, or law, resistance becomes duty”. Since that time I have had that in my diary every year, and it is very appropriate in this context.
I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for tackling an issue which is at the forefront of many parents’ minds when their children access their computer. I join the noble Baroness in her acknowledgement of the Prime Minister’s leadership and commend the work of John Kerr, with numerous Members of this House over the years, and more recently, of course, Claire Perry from the other place.
We have all succumbed to the allure of the internet; it can positively enhance and fulfil our lives. However, we must recognise that, while adults may or may not have a rationale to exercise self-discipline, it is our vulnerable children and young people in their formative years who are the main prey of paedophiles and organised paedophilia. Cyberbullying, sexting, junk mail, chain mail, false advertising, online chat rooms—many such methods of communication have a potential for falsification of details which are devised to promote attention to our youth.
We all need to be educated and brought up to speed on the digital facts of life, no matter what one’s age or experience of cyberspace is. Most households now have access to a variety of devices to access the internet at any one time: tablets, computers, mobile phones and games consoles have all been mentioned. Christmas is upon us and we all know that these possessions will treble in many households. Monitoring who is accessing what at any one time could be nigh on impossible, particularly in larger families. Parents have often felt isolated when trying to monitor access by their children and young adults. Sometimes we parents can easily become complacent, particularly with rapidly changing technology, where we rely on our tech-savvy children to negotiate these gadgets and gizmos. That is why I wholly agree with the noble Baroness that only statutory law can provide credible protection.
In our country, despite child protection being taken seriously within the legislative and societal framework, we have continuously witnessed the grotesque abuse of our children, including those detailed by the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton—although I do not agree with his assessment of the role of absent fathers as one of the causes.
Many of the taboos have been broken: the new frontier of the internet has created another set of barriers where protecting our particularly vulnerable children is a more complex challenge. In the privacy of own space, many children have access to the internet; for some, it is a secret doorway through which exploiters and abusers may enter. According to NSPCC figures, 93% of all five to 15 year-olds used the internet in 2013. The proliferation of explicit images of children—graphic and grotesque—has resulted in 1 million online according to CEOP, but only 40,000 have been reported.
The statistics are extremely stark. The UKCCIS research project “EU Kids Online” surveyed 25,000 children who use the internet. The survey showed that 48% said that they found things on the internet that bothered them; 12% of 11 to 16 year-olds have received unwanted sexual images; and 29% of children in the UK have had contact with someone they had never met. The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre receives more than 600 reports of grooming every month. CEOP outlines four key threats. One is the increased number of images: it received 8,000 reports of indecent images of children being shared, featuring 70,000 images. There was a 70% increase in the number of female victims under 10 years old and a 125% increase in images of penetrative sexual activity involving a child or children or both children and adults.
According to Internet Watch Foundation statistics, 21% of UK children have been bullied; 19% of UK children aged 11 to 16 have seen one or more type of potentially harmful user-generated content; 60% said they had been asked for a sexual image or video of themselves; 40% said they had created an image or video of themselves; and 25% said they had sent an image or video of themselves to someone else. Add to those the lethal set of statistics detailed by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and it is clear that there is a lot to be done to protect our children.
In carrying out my research for this debate on Wednesday, I googled the word “sex”, although “sex and porn” is what I had intended to write. However, as soon as I pressed the word “sex”, there were visual images showing the sexual act and anal sex, and advertisements for book titles on the first page of the search results. What representations does the Minister’s department intend to make to urge those who manage search engines to refine their direct search returns now, and not wait for this legislation to come through?
We are all vulnerable to such images, young or old. In the early years of House of Lords usage of laptops, I frequently used to report to the PICT services pop-ups that would suddenly come up. I was told that I was not the only one in the House to have received them. Although things have improved enormously since then, with all our sophisticated security, generators of pornography have been able to infiltrate the internet system of Parliament, at least in the past.
The characteristics and circumstances that render some young people more vulnerable are complex, as is the comprehensive response required to prevent abuse; this was eloquently explained by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. We will not do away with abuse and sexual exploitation of children today or tomorrow, but we can strengthen our formal protection systems and our laws. I welcome this Bill and the pronouncement of the Prime Minister expressing his will that by the end of 2013 ISPs should automatically provide family-friendly filters on internet packages for all new broadband customers. He also called for search engines to take measures to block illegal content, adding to the work of CEOP and others to track down paedophiles using a single database linked to the police force, devised from the blocked content. The progress report on the Bailey Review of the Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood suggested that all these efforts should make it easier to block adult and age-restricted content on the internet, so we should not take no for an answer.
As a former social worker responsible for providing statutory protection of children, I do not see any distinction between responding to the abuse of children on the internet and that which happens elsewhere. I am confident that all social services and police have formal procedures in place to deal with these in the same vigorous ways. However, I feel strongly that social workers, teachers and NGOs, as well as parents, require significantly more training and awareness, especially in their dealings with vulnerable sections of the community, including those who have learning disabilities.
It is to be welcomed that the Government are determined to address this matter head-on. I support the key provisions of the Bill, particularly the duty of child safety placed on Ofcom; the duty of manufacturers of electronic devices to provide means of filtering content; the duty to provide information about safety online to customers on internet providers and mobile network operators; and particularly the duty placed on the Secretary of State to educate parents and children under the age of 18 about online safety.
All these are welcome steps, but we have to address the design of the malicious software itself. Therefore, I hope Ofcom will have a strong power of enforcement when internet content providers transgress the expected standards and good practice. We also have to continue to widen the reach of ChildLine and other organisations so that no communities are disadvantaged by the lack of knowledge about what is happening as result of this Bill. I am particularly concerned about the positive impact of this Bill not reaching those parents who are not computer literate or literate in English. How do the Minister and his department intend to address such groups and their learning needs, not only in terms of the duty to protect their children but how they can protect and support them in practice?
This has been a good week for the protection of children. Our PM’s leadership on this matter may have reached far beyond our shores. In the wake of criticism from the United Nations Panel on the Rights of Children over the handling of abuse cases, His Holiness Pope Francis is to set up a Vatican committee to fight the sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church and offer help to victims. This will come as a relief to many hundreds of thousands of survivors. We all have a moral duty to act now and not hide behind the old dictum of a free society—not if it infringes the rights of millions of children all over the world. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, that a criminal offence should be considered. We must not allow those who wish to harm our children to hide in the safety of an anonymous web. This Bill is a stepping stone on that path. I end by quoting Nelson Mandela, who said:
“It always seems impossible until it’s done”.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking my noble friend for bringing the Bill back for Second Reading for a second time, and for her diligence in pursuing this matter. It is a privilege to follow all the eloquent, passionate and well-informed speakers, all of whom were in favour of what my noble friend proposes, albeit they may wish to alter a couple of details here and there. I wholly support my noble friend’s Bill and hope that the Government will accept it.
I remember first hearing about this matter about 10 years ago from the child and adolescent psychotherapist Dr Peter Wilson, the founder of the mental health charity for young people, Young Minds, and a graduate of the Anna Freud Centre. He made a speech about his concerns for young people, particularly with regard to the impact of pornography on them. A few years later, about five years ago, at the Young Minds annual general meeting we heard from Dr Tanya Byron as she reported on the information she had gathered from the previous Government on children and the internet. Ten years on, although much good work seems to be taking place, we do not seem to have got much further. In fact, things seem to be getting increasingly worse. Therefore, my noble friend’s Bill is very timely. As many others have said, including my noble friend, I wish that the Bill could have been taken forward last year. Still, it is better late than never.
I thank the internet service providers for their co-operation so far and for setting aside £25 million to help children who are adversely affected by adult content material on the internet, or who are at risk of being so affected. I also thank them for the wonderful contribution that they certainly make to my family. My sister lives in Australia and, although I have not been reading them, she has been pinging e-mails to me throughout this debate. We can keep in touch, and if someone in the family is unwell we can keep in communication and support that person. Therefore, I thank the ISPs for the way in which they touch the whole of humanity in such a positive way. However, more action needs to be taken on this matter. I would like to concentrate my remarks on vulnerable young people.
I suggest that we should look at raising the age for protecting young people from 18 to 21, because children and young people develop at different rates. Those who are expert in this area often talk about “stage not age”. For example, we take extra precautions as regards vulnerable young people leaving care—precautions which last into their early adulthood—as we recognise their vulnerability which stems from the trauma that they experienced earlier in their lives. Therefore, I think that there is a very strong case for taking this forward from 18 to 21 on the precautionary principle.
I am a vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Children and Young People in Care and Leaving Care and a trustee of the child welfare charity, the Michael Sieff Foundation. I am particularly interested in young people at the edge of care and who are taken into care and care leavers. Their history is very often one of profound abuse, neglect within the family and family trauma. To give an indication of the processes that take place in these children, many of them feel a deep sense of guilt. My noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss, who is not in her place, recently attended an event at which a young child talked about her parents’ break-up. She said she was sure that her parents had separated because she did not keep her room tidy. Children take all the blame upon themselves if they are unloved by their parents, are attacked by them or if their parents split up. They often have an overwhelming sense of guilt and blame. This came up in the debate about young people feeling extremely guilty about accessing pornography on the internet and fearing that the police would come to take them away.
Another process is attention: children who have been neglected will often have an overwhelming need to gain the attention of adults. Girls and young women may access the internet to see what is available and then realise that they can gain attention through it. They may also be led into interaction with others on the internet and posting naked images of themselves. This can come back on them in a very adverse way. I am probably jumping the gun there, but because of their family experience there is a real desperate need in many of these young people for attention from anyone. Finally, the third process that comes into play is profound difficulty in making and keeping intimate relationships, because the people who they trusted most in their lives have disappointed them.
As this Bill applies to pornography and access by children to pornography, this guilt that they experience perhaps means that they feel worthless and that when they access pornography they cannot have proper relationships with others. Once they start accessing it, they feel guilty because they have seen the stuff; and then they feel worse because they access more. It can be a vicious downwards spiral. If they find it difficult to have close relationships with other people they can find a sort of false closeness in pornography. They may become increasingly engaged with and addicted to it. As they become more ensconced and as they grow up it becomes even harder for them to relate to other people, girls and women. I have mentioned the issue of attention, and girls wishing to be filmed and posting that on the internet.
There are real issues there that I hope will come to the consideration of the House when we are in Committee. I am sorry that I am going on for so long, and will conclude as soon as possible. Meg Munn MP, the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Child Protection, is producing a report, one aspect of which is looking at children who sexually harm other children. The group held a meeting this week on this matter. Dr Eileen Vizard attended that meeting; she has worked for many years at the NSPCC, treating young children who sexually harm other children. She lamented the fact that the strategy that she developed 13 years ago for treating children who had harmed other children had not been properly implemented and was not properly funded. I hope that we can look at this aspect as we go through the Bill. Perhaps the Minister will be prepared to meet some of the concerned parties and consider how we are helping children who sexually harm other children. I am sure that access to pornography on the internet is not only drawing more children into this behaviour, as we have heard, but making it harder for them to move on from it. I also hope that the internet service providers will think of providing more money for services for children who sexually harm other children; this is desperately needed because the risk is that they will become adults who sexually harm children if they are not treated at a young age.
As has been said, a society that does not care for its children is not a society at all. I again applaud my noble friend Lady Howe for bringing the Bill forward. I hope that the Minister will come forward with a sympathetic response to her concerns.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, who is doughty campaigner on this issue, on securing leave to bring forward this Bill for a second Second Reading. It has been an enjoyable and wide-ranging debate that has reached out into all areas that should be covered by this topic. I also congratulate the Government on the work they have been doing on this issue of online child protection, continuing the work started by the previous Administration—particularly, the Byron report.
It is good to note that until now and, I hope, for a long time to come, questions such as these have never split along party lines. We have all been able to maintain broad agreement about what should be the main thrust of policy. But first a word of caution: it seems to me that the latest technology is always blamed for the current moral panic. Shakespeare’s Globe is built where it is because the then powers that be were concerned that his plays would have an adverse effect on the lower orders. Penny dreadfuls, video nasties, pornography generally, the internet and gaming are all blamed for the faults that we see in society and are reflected back in whatever it is that those we care about are doing. We have to remember, as has been said already in this debate, that the internet is a wonderful tool—but it is a tool, not a person. It cannot be evil in itself, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack suggested, because those who use it make it so—if that is indeed what we think. We must not, therefore, get too excited and carried away about this. We have to reflect and act with careful consideration on the basis of evidence.
There is no causal relationship, as I understand it, between the internet and many of today’s concerns. Indeed, when we talk about this issue in language that reflects things such as the “dark internet”, epidemics, floods, negative influences, or the perversity that it encourages, you have to believe that in some senses we have already made up our minds about what we think about this. Indeed, it might be that, “We’re all doomed”, in the words of that famous phrase. The history of how we have dealt with moral panics in the past should give us some cause for hope, even though the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, which were picked up by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and others on the impact of the internet on our young people and the technologies that it reflects give us cause for concern.
My noble friend Lady Massey and others mentioned the film made by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, “InRealLife”. I should declare an interest because my then 19 year-old son had a cameo part in that film. The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, deals with the addictive nature of the net, and this issue does not get enough discussion. Many aspects of games and other internet-based materials seem to be designed around reward technology, which in turn can make young people make bad choices—or, arguably, unable to make choices. This is not something that gets picked up a lot but is a key feature of her film.
The answer to many of the problems that have been raised so far is education—indeed, that is reflected in the Bill. We on this side of the House believe that the right way to approach this issue is to help parents by empowering them and by self-regulation. I note that the Prime Minister has made it clear that were satisfactory agreements not to be forthcoming on a voluntary, self-regulatory basis, he would not hesitate to step in and legislate. Mind you, the intention is not always followed by the deed, and sometimes it can have quite unexpected consequences. I suggest that the lobbying—or gagging—Bill is a case in point. As the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, rightly said, it will be interesting to hear from the Minister whether the Government are minded to support the opportunity that this Bill provides to deliver that statutory underpinning promised by the Prime Minister.
As has been raised in this debate, there are some reservations about the exact way in which the Bill will deal with the issue that it seeks to resolve. We have talked a lot about age verification. It is true that in relation to online gambling age verification for every customer is already mandatory under the Gambling Act 2005, a measure brought in under the previous Administration. However, that was designed for different purposes, and it may be robust but it may not be sufficient for the present purpose.
As we have heard, the mobile phone networks have also been using age verification since 2005 as a mechanism for allowing their existing filters to be lifted on request. We need to be sure that a robust system of age verification is available and that it can be effective. If this is the way we are going to go, there should be absolutely no possibility of loopholes, such as exist with Tesco and BlackBerry. These are clearly scandals and should be addressed. Can the Minister explain whether any work is being done on this by his department?
The question of how filters work is basically a technical one but it raises all sorts of issues about what is caught and whether the filters will do the job required. We have a long way to go on that and I think that it will be very difficult to legislate until we have more and certain information about how they work.
Within that are embedded the questions of what exactly adult content is and what relationship that adult content should have to age and age verification. As has been said, “adult content” is a euphemism and it conceals real difficulties in defining it. I notice that the Bill has a number of different ways of approaching that, and of course it does not go down the route of obscenity, for which we are glad. However, I still have doubts about how current bodies assess the norms that are too easily prayed in aid around matters concerning adult content or, indeed, obscenity itself. When you look at the ways in which the existing bodies arrive at their conclusions—counting individual uses of swear words or staring endlessly at screens waiting for a flash of naked skin or worse—you wonder whether we are getting sensible decisions out of that system. Of course, different cultures have different norms and different language surrounding the depiction of sexual activity, which simply have to be considered when we think about this. At the bottom of this, we have to be suspicious of those who advocate censorship in the name of protecting the vulnerable. History has many lessons in this regard.
This debate is specifically about children, and rightly so, but there are concerns here about other issues. Research shows that those who are more vulnerable in real life are also more vulnerable online—those with disabilities, those in low socioeconomic groups and families who have suffered trauma. It is also worth noting that young people make more unsafe decisions and contacts late at night when they are tired. All these things paint a picture that means we could identify a much larger group of people who are at risk than simply those specified in the Bill. Should we not pause and think about how best to deal with that wider group? Perhaps the Minister would like to pick up on that point when he comes to respond.
A number of noble Lords mentioned the need for schools to have more comprehensive policies on internet use. In particular, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, referred to cyberbullying. I have recent experience of that, in that close friends of ours have a child who has experienced this sort of thing. It is absolutely devastating not only for the individual child but for her friends, her friendship group and the school. Of course, schools deal mainly only with what happens in the school and they find it difficult to bring a joined-up approach to what happens outside, yet we should be looking for a holistic approach to this.
“must provide means of educating parents of children under the age of eighteen about online safety”, but who, when and how much? Who is going to pick up the bill and is it going to be effective? These are all issues that will need to be dealt with before the Bill makes significant progress.
I am sounding slightly negative about the Bill but I do not mean to. I was struck by the words used by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby, who was reflective on some of these issues. He wanted to see movement but was also concerned that a wider debate was needed here. The balance between liberty and censorship has not featured very much in what we have been talking about.
We are obviously well intentioned towards the Bill and would like to see progress in this area, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, this is really in the hands of the Government. Taking into account the normal progress of legislation, there will not be time for the Bill to get through, so we need to hear from the Minister where exactly he wants to take this, if indeed he wants to do so. However, if the Bill is to progress, I suspect that it needs more thinking and a bit of redrafting in certain areas to make it fit for purpose and to guard against unintended consequences.
My Lords, I join in the thanks and congratulations that have been expressed to the noble Baroness for promoting this Bill. I acknowledge her continuing and important contribution to this whole cause, on which I believe we can all unite to ensure that children and young people are safe online. Having discussed these matters with the noble Baroness, I know at first hand how tenacious and committed she is, and rightly so.
When the noble Baroness promoted an earlier Bill on this matter, the Minister said that there was much agreement between the Government and the promoter. That statement is equally true today. We share a common objective to do all in our power to ensure that children and young people are as safe as possible online. What has changed since that debate is the rate of progress that has been made by the Government. The PM and the Culture Secretary have shown strong leadership in working with the industry to develop and implement child internet safety measures.
Children need to be confident users in the digital world and reap the benefits that the internet can bring, as the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, and, in a different way, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned, but we need to address the profound risks posed to children when they are online. I was particularly interested in the references to the film made by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby raised the issues of moral compass, comfort and trust, which are all part of the problem that we have to resolve. My noble friends Lord Cormack and Lady Benjamin spoke powerfully about these matters, which go way beyond this Bill and into how to ensure children and young people enjoy the child’s life that they deserve. Too often, they do not.
Research published last month highlights these risks. The NSPCC’s report, Younger Children and Social Networking Sites: A Blind Spot, found that around 50% of 11 and 12 year-olds in the UK have a profile on a social networking site—around 666,000 children—and that around one-quarter of those had had an upsetting experience on the site in the past year. One-fifth of those children experienced something upsetting every day. The noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, expanded on that with further statistics.
A report from the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England into child exploitation and gangs found that sexual violence is being carried out by children against other children as young as 11 years old. The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, referred to the report and the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, spoke about the indignity that this situation creates. The Deputy Children’s Commissioner, Sue Berelowitz, has suggested that access to pornography has helped to create the attitude that young girls are a commodity to be passed around. An article in today’s
Times about the headmaster of Uppingham School—the school I went to—refers to the mental health risks to children and young people from many of these advances, which do so much good but have these profound risks. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, gave a very good exposition of the dilemma we face with that effect on young people.
These experiences and attitudes are unacceptable and we must take, and are taking, action to counter them. That is why the Prime Minister and the Culture Secretary have taken such a strong position and are showing leadership on this issue. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby asked about this, and I do not say that just because they head up and are a key part of the Government. All sides of the House and all political parties see this as a cause in which we should unite. Whoever the Government of the day are, this is an issue not just because the Prime Minister has young children but because that is the responsible and correct position for people holding high office.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, that there is a great deal more to be done. However, particularly over the past six months, the UK has done much that sets us firmly at the leading edge internationally. I raise this not to be complacent but because it is important to hear. The respected international Family Online Safety Institute, a not-for-profit organisation whose remit is to improve internet safety globally, refers to the UK as being,
“at the forefront of online safety and best practice”.
It says that the UK,
“continues to lead the way in many areas”.
That highlights what so many other parts of the world have got to consider as well.
To develop effective measures to keep children safe online, given the phenomenal pace of change and development—change and development that I am afraid I often simply find difficult to grapple with—the Government are exploiting the skills and talents of the experts developing internet technologies, who are the very people who are going to help ensure that children and young people are safe. We believe that this is the best way to keep pace with the changes and evolving risks that children face. The UK Council for Child Internet Safety brings together representatives from industry, manufacturers, charities, academia, social media, parents’ groups and government to do just this. It is through UKCCIS and its partnership working model that voluntary and self-regulatory measures have been developed which will help to ensure that children are safer online. The importance of engaging industry is that the solutions developed can be fleet, flexible and fully responsive to the rapid rate of technological change. Holistic technological solutions are one aspect of a wider remedy which includes education and awareness for parents and children, and building children’s resilience.
In the Prime Minister’s keynote speech to the NSPCC, referred to in particular by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, he called on internet industries to step up efforts to prevent children and young people’s access to inappropriate content and to block access to illegal child abuse content. Since July, as a result of the leadership of the Prime Minister and the Culture Secretary, encouraging progress has been made, delivering in the areas that are covered in some of the Bill’s provisions.
The noble Baroness has called for default filtering of inappropriate content, requiring users to opt in with internet service providers and mobile operators. The Government share the intention behind this provision, but believe that this can be and is being secured by a non-legislative route. The majority of mobile customers are already covered by “default on” filters, and the Government are working with the mobile sector to ensure that all customers are protected in this way. Three has committed to change to “default on” in 2014 for contract customers. The issue with Tesco Mobile was rightly raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe and the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis. I have looked into this and, while I am unhappy about it, I am pleased that it has come to light. I understand that Tesco is now working to address it, with the intention that filters will be in place early next year. The situation was not satisfactory, but the problem was identified and is now being addressed by Tesco.
In November, the Prime Minister also announced that the four largest internet service providers, which together cover around 90% of the home broadband market, will, from early next year, implement family-friendly network-level parental control filters, meaning that all new customers will be prompted to make a choice about the application of filters. Importantly, filters will be preselected so that they will be applied in those homes where parents do not engage. By the end of next year, the ISPs will have contacted all of their existing customers to invite them to set the filters too.
Quite rightly, the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and the noble Lords, Lord Ramsbotham and Lord Maginnis, referred to smaller operators. The Prime Minister has asked the smaller operators that cover the remainder of homes to consider what parental control tools they can put in place. The Internet Service Providers’ Association is working with these providers to share best practice and will report progress to the Government. We need to keep that under our watch.
Giving parents the choice is important. In line with the advice of experts, the Government believe that engaging parents is the best way to ensure that children are kept safe. Some have argued that default filters can lead to parents disengaging, assuming that their work is done. Importantly, such filters do not help with cyberbullying, or grooming, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, and my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern. Parents are being provided with the tools to keep their children safe rather than being lulled into a false sense of security. I will refer shortly to plans for promoting greater awareness.
The noble Baroness also calls for an enhanced role for Ofcom to regulate the standards of filtering in line with the standards Ofcom must uphold in relation to broadcast content, and the age verification processes as set out in Clause 1. Ofcom has done an excellent job as the communications regulator and the Government understand the noble Baroness’s aims in seeking to expand its remit here. The Government’s position is that continuing to work with industry, working flexibly to address the needs of consumers, is the way to keep children safe online.
There is undoubtedly a role for Ofcom. In his speech in July, the Prime Minister asked Ofcom to report later this month on parental awareness, take-up and confidence in the tools available to help parents keep their children safe. The noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont, highlighted the need for parental awareness and having the tools required. Ofcom was also asked to report again on these in a year’s time and to report in the spring on whether the internet service providers have met their commitments to implement family-friendly network-level filters.
The Bill also requires device manufacturers to provide a means of filtering on a device at the point of purchase. Again, the Government agree with the intention behind this provision, seeking to ensure that devices purchased in the UK include device-level filters. The Government have been working with the suppliers represented on the UKCCIS to drive greater take-up of device-level filtering, with working groups led by techUK looking at expanding device-level controls for laptops, tablets and connected televisions.
It is also the case that the network-level filters that will be in place for the four largest ISPs mean that all devices in the home connected to the internet service with filters set will be covered. Moreover, as of September this year, around 90% of public wi-fi is now filtered where children are likely to be, meaning that children are less likely to access inappropriate content when away from home.
The Bill requires internet service providers and mobile operators to provide clear information on online safety to customers at the time the service is purchased, and for the duration of the service, and puts a duty on the Secretary of State to provide a means to educate parents of those under 18 on internet safety.
The Government absolutely share the noble Baroness’s view that greater education is key. The internet service providers will be making customers aware of the wealth of information they have on internet safety at the time they are invited to set filters. The Prime Minister has also asked the ISPs to take the lead across the industry to help increase parental awareness. Next spring the ISPs will be launching a large-scale, three-year campaign, with a budget of around £25 million for the first year alone, to raise parental awareness on internet safety. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, referred to this. I was most grateful for the brief that TalkTalk and Sky provided, emphasising what they propose to do. It is expected that the campaign will provide advice to parents on how to keep children safe online, make good use of filters and signpost to further sources of advice and support. Ofcom will track the impact through its reports.
Educating children in internet safety is key, as my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern and the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, have emphasised. That is why the Government have announced changes to the curriculum which from next year will see all five to 16 year-olds in maintained schools taught age-appropriate internet safety. This will include teaching children, in an age-appropriate way, how to use the internet safely and—importantly—respectfully and responsibly, so that they understand the consequences of behaving inappropriately.
On teaching, I fully understand that teachers need to be in a position to deal with this matter appropriately. Guidance is given to schools on teaching online safety and teachers are encouraged to use a range of resources, which are widely available. Given the time, I think that it would be more appropriate if I were to write to your Lordships with further information on this.
On age verification, which was raised by a number of your Lordships, the Government through UKCCIS are looking at where age-verification solutions have been used successfully—a project in Denmark, for instance —but, as my noble friend Lady Benjamin acknowledged in her powerful contribution, age verification of young people is a complex problem that requires a global solution. The Government have made grant funding available so that we can seek a robust solution with industry and voluntary sector partners.
The noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, mentioned search engines and access to pornography. Search engines have safer-search settings. For example, I understand that Google’s safe-search setting screens out sites with sexually explicit content, and safe-search can be locked on to a computer.
In the time available, I want to confirm that this is an issue on which the Government place the utmost importance. I do not see this as a government/opposition matter; it is a matter on which we should all be, and are, united. Keeping children safe online is an undoubted priority and must continue to be, whoever holds high office.
We are making encouraging strides. In October, Ernie Allen, the president of the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children, a leading global movement to protect children from exploitation, said:
“There is no question that the UK is well ahead of the rest of the world on this complex, difficult issue”.
That is in many ways because of the determination of your Lordships and others to ensure that this issue is continually on the radar screen of government and other organisations. Indeed, the honourable Claire Perry MP, whose tireless work led to the independent parliamentary inquiry into child online safety and to her becoming the Prime Minister’s adviser on these issues, said recently when she appeared before the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee that the Government had gone further than she ever thought possible, and had improved on what she had hoped for, from her report.
I hope your Lordships will accept that the Government in working with industry are seeking vigorously and ferociously to make the internet a safer place for children and young people. It is incumbent upon us all to secure continuing safety as technology advances. All that your Lordships have said I will report back to the Culture Secretary, who, together with the Prime Minister, has quite rightly been a dominant force on this issue. I say to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, that I would of course welcome any opportunity that he feels valuable to meet any organisations or people, and I in turn will take back any results of those meetings to the Culture Secretary.
Today’s debate will undoubtedly resonate with so many people. It will resonate with parents who are seeking how to wrestle with this great beneficial advance which, as I said, has profound risks. I must say that I think that the risks go beyond children and young people. There are vulnerable people of many ages to whom the internet is a great worry, but it is also of enormous benefit and has been an extraordinary revolution that I would never have begun to comprehend but a few years ago. We have the dilemma of how we deal with that benefit while seeking to stop the people who use it for ill. That is one of the great issues with which we need to wrestle.
I promise my noble friend Lord Cormack that I had included the word “determination” in my speech before he raised it. I assure your Lordships that it is the Government’s objective and determination to ensure that the research findings I mentioned earlier from the NSPCC and the Office of the Children’s Commissioner swiftly become horrors of the past.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the Minister for both the time which he has already given me and what he said today. Indeed, I am extremely grateful to everybody in the Chamber today who has given up time and for the passion and commitment of their speeches in support of the Bill. The range of experience and expertise that has been brought to the debate today is very moving.
I hope that we will make more progress than is perhaps expected with the Bill, because I strongly believe that its narrow direction is still important. Of course, I understand that there is limited time but it has given the Government the opportunity to explain just how far they are moving in the right direction. As we have heard from so many noble Lords today, there is much concern about the likely effect of pornography. We are all seeking to protect our children.
I was particularly grateful not just for the support of the two Bishops who are here but for a supportive letter from the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, who was totally behind what we are trying to achieve but who, sadly, could not be here with us today.
I just make one small point about which I remain unhappy. The Minister did not say much, if anything, about the rather weak way that age verification is being applied by the industry—the closed loop, as it is called. Perhaps he will agree to a meeting to discuss the problem of the closed loop system with other concerned people.
I put on record my thanks to a number of outside organisations and experts. John Carr, the secretary of the Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety, has of course been mentioned. He is a huge expert in this area. I also give thanks to the NSPCC, Mediawatch, Safermedia and Care, which have done a huge amount of background work in this whole area.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.