Subject: On Line Safety Bill Second Reading Friday December 6th 2013
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Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB):
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 ubuntu – “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu: a person is a person because of other people.” It is worth pondering on that thought in a debate that is reflecting on virtual worlds where screens may often take the place of people or 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 and that 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 27 November and is about a hearing at Newport Crown Court:
“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 there 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.