My Lords, I am sure I have been annoying my noble friend the Minister for the last year by asking him when the Bill is coming. Today is one of those days when everything happens at once: two of my daughters are out of school because of industrial action, and I spent most of this morning arguing with them about whether they could go on the internet and how long they could spend on it. They said it was for homework, and I said that it was not and that they should read a book; you can imagine it.
There is a point to that slightly grumpy anecdote. First, I take issue with the suggestion by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, that your Lordships’ House does not engage with the next generation. More to the point, there is a fundamental tension that millions of parents up and down the country face. Our children are online a lot and sometimes we want them to be online. Do not underestimate the way that lockdown accelerated their online lives through home-schooling, necessarily—I declare my interest as a non-executive at Ofsted. Sometimes this was to their advantage, but I suspect on the whole it was probably not.
My concern is that while children should be able to get on and do their homework, we have allowed big tech to mark its own homework. The really appalling evidence that we have heard today underlines the urgency to get this Bill right.
The noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, hit the nail on the head—he usually does—about the speed and complexity of the technology; it is just so fast. Most parents that I know certainly do their best to keep their children safe. It is a bit like Sisyphus rolling the boulder up the hill; it just comes back down, because it is so much easier now for our children to be deceived, abused and bullied and to view the stuff of nightmares. When this includes pornography sites, which many others have talked about, with characters from children’s TV such as “Frozen” and “Scooby-Doo”, I do not think it is particularly dramatic to wonder what we have become as a society to allow this sort of thing to happen. I welcome the consensus that we have heard around the need to protect our children, although it tragically is too late for many. I am sorry that the process has dragged.
I will work across the House at Committee stage and beyond to make sure that the Bill is sufficiently stringent, that the scope is correct and that it is workable, because we cannot risk giving parents and young people false reassurance or weak new systems. The noble Baroness, Lady Harding, was very clear on this and I share her concerns about app stores not being in scope.
Going back to pornography, I know my noble friend the Minister takes these things extremely seriously, but I do not see how anybody can feel reassured unless the Government commit to robust age verification, as set out by my noble friend Lord Bethell.
In the time I have left, I want to address cyber flashing. I am very glad the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, did so too. I completely agree that it should be based on consent. I felt weary having to have these sorts of conversations again: about victims having to somehow prove that they are not overreacting, or if it was a bit of a laugh then it does not really matter. It makes no difference to their experience. I do not want to be presumptuous, but I think there is cross-party impetus to ensure that the new offence is based on a principle of non-consent, and I hope the Government will be prepared to listen. This is no criticism of my noble friend the Minister, who is an excellent Minister with an excellent team at DCMS, but it seems to me that these issues have been left in the “too difficult” pile for far too long and we must not miss our chance now that it is here.