Seven months ago, I presented the Ministry of Justice with a 300-page report of the Independent Review I had led for them into the deaths of young people in prison. Published formally at the beginning of July, there is still no sign of the government’s response.
The problem of course, is not going away. In the first nine months of 2015, there were 69 self-inflicted deaths in prisons, twelve of which were young people under 24. Every single one of those deaths represents a failure by the British State to protect the people concerned. A failure that is all the greater because the same criticisms of the prison authorities occur time and time again.
My Review examined 87 cases in detail. Many of the young people’s problems and vulnerabilities, including mental health issues, had been evident from an early age. So why did so many of them end up in custody?
Billy Spiller was 21 when he died in prison in November 2011. His mother told us: “Throughout Billy’s life I tried to get proper care and support for him but the doors were shut in my face. From the moment he was sentenced to imprisonment, I knew that they wouldn’t be able to look after him. They should have diverted him from the courts or made sure that everybody in prison had training to deal with him.”
And then there was the case of Nicholas Saunders – 18 when he died in April 2011. His pre-sentence review had recommended a community disposal but the sentencing judge decided prison was the best option for him. The documents however, describing his vulnerability and a previous suicide attempt were not transferred when he was moved from HMP Woodhill to HMYOI Stoke Heath. Six weeks later, he was found hanging in his cell from a ligature attached to a light fitting. There had been a similar suicide from a light-fitting at the same establishment just a few years earlier.
Or the even earlier case of Joseph Scholes, 16 when he died in 2002. Joseph had a long history of vulnerability, repeatedly told staff he would kill himself and was never seen by a psychiatrist. When he did make a noose from a bed-sheet and hang himself from the bars of his cell, he left a message for his mother and father telling them he couldn’t cope and that “I tried telling them and they just don’t fucking listen”.
Let nobody be under any illusions, prisons and young offender institutions are grimenvironments, bleak and demoralizing to the spirit. The experience of being there is not conducive to rehabilitation. It is made much worse however, when coupled with the impoverished prison regimes caused by staff shortages – a situation that can only get worse with likely budget cuts. There also needs to be a fundamental shift in the philosophy of prison. The punishment imposed by the Court is the deprivation of liberty – once in prison, the primary purpose should be rehabilitation.
But the central message of my Review was that much more needs to be done to support young adults not only after they come into contact with the criminal justice system, but also before they get into trouble. Their problems are often evident from a young age – yet their difficulties are not addressed early enough or effectively enough.
The government’s Troubled Families Programme concentrates the efforts of all public agencies to resolve the problems of families which, if left unresolved, are a drain on the State’s resources. Why not adopt a similar approach to the needs of ‘Troubled Adolescents’?
Why not reinvest and redirect resources to the health and welfare system to resolve the issues creating the problems for the troubled child or adolescent before they ever enter the criminal justice systems? Or maybe invest in effective alternatives to custody if they do get into trouble? It will be money well-spent and will reduce the numbers in prison, enabling better support and rehabilitative efforts for those who do become prisoners.
Prison is a hugely expensive intervention whose so-called benefits are questionable. It has a relatively low impact on crime and rates of re-offending are high particularly among young adults. As the Prime Minister, Chancellor, Lord Chancellor and their colleagues wrestle with the upcoming Comprehensive Spending Review, you would have thought the solution was obvious: invest early in young people, and resolve their problems so they don’t get into trouble.
Delaying action until the resource position is easier is not an option. It would mean young people continue to die unnecessarily in our prisons. It will also mean we continue to waste countless millions of pounds in failing to rehabilitate those who could be rehabilitated, in locking them up when a non-prison option would be more appropriate, and in failing to intervene early on to prevent them from entering the criminal justice system.
Those tragic cases considered by our Review deserve as their memorial for somebody to listens. This time it must be different. We owe them no less.
I posted the following earlier today on the Labour Lords site:
A 15 year old girl is alone in her bedroom. She is on her smartphone messaging her friends. Like most nights she is chatting online to one particular boy. He says he is 17. He says he is in love with her. The chat becomes sexual. He tells her she is special. He coaxes her into sending her a picture of herself – naked. Only later does she discover that he is not 17 but 44 years old and that he is a sexual predator.
ChildLine say such cases are not uncommon. In Scotland, the man would have committed a crime and could be charged. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland his actions are not illegal. NSPCC have been campaigning on this issue: you can sign their e-petition here (http://e-activist.com/ea-action/action?ea.client.id=1884&ea.campaign.id=32450&ea) and last week I proposed a new Clause in the Serious Crime Bill that would close this loophole.
The government resisted my amendment saying it wasn’t necessary, despite the fact that last year there was a 168% increase in contacts to ChildLine about online sexual abuse. Ministers argued that there were other laws that already exist and the new clause isn’t necessary. The trouble is that the other laws they mentioned don’t in fact deal with the problem.
The Sexual Offences Act 2003 only covers situations where it can be proved that the adult intends to meet the child, but often there is no intention to meet and all the perpetrator wants is a naked picture of the child.
Then there’s the Mobile Communications Act and intent to cause distress or anxiety. But that is the opposite of what the perpetrators want – they are grooming the child by flattering them and making them feel special so as to gain their trust.
Likewise, the Communications Act 2003, where the perpetrator only commits a crime if it is “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”. But his messages will often not be obscene or offensive, as he is trying to elicit a sexual message in return and he doesn’t want to frighten or disgust the child.
Finally, they suggested the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. But harassment involves alarming or distressing the recipient and again that is not how a predator grooming a child will behave.
The reality is that the current laws in this area are fragmented and confused. Most of the legislation covering this predates the widespread use of the internet, social networking, instant messaging and smartphones with high definition cameras. So tomorrow, at Third Reading of the Bill, I will try again.
I hope that Ministers will look at the laws they say cover the examples I have given and realise that they are wrong. My amendment is a simple one and makes it a crime for an adult to send a sexual message to a child or send a communication to a child intended to elicit a response with sexual content. As the NSPCC says, the existing laws are flawed and exchanging sexual messages with a child should always be illegal.
Shaz is 15 years old. This is how she tells her story: “When I was 12, I went on a family holiday to Bangladesh. As soon as I got out there were marriage proposals from my cousins. I started starving myself and was brought back. I couldn’t tell anyone. My brother said I was going to marry my cousin from Bangladesh if I didn’t he would kill me.” Shaz’s brother was only two years older than her, and was born and brought up in this country. Today forced marriage becomes a criminal offence. This is welcome and is the culmination of a long campaign by many organisations – including (declaration of interest) the Freedom Charity, whose Board I chair. Forcing someone to marry against their will is abhorrent, and is also widely regarded as a violation of internationally recognised human rights standards. Indeed, Article 16.2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: ‘Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.’ Under the previous Labour government, the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act was passed, enabling victims to apply for court orders for their protection. It became apparent however, that more was needed; which is why we were happy to support criminalisation being included in the Coalition’s Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill during the last parliamentary session. Labour Peers successfully strengthened the measure as far as the principle of consent for people with learning difficulties was concerned, recognising that for some a forced marriage may take place without violence or threats. The big task remains education. We need to make sure that those at risk understand they have a choice. We need families and communities to understand that forcing someone into a marriage against their will is not just wrong. It is now illegal. Shaz was lucky. She tells how in January of last year: “I was at school when Aneeta from Freedom visited, we all leant about forced marriage. I knew then I could get help. Freedom got me out. Now I live with my Foster Mum and Dad.” We are now approaching the long summer school holidays – a time when young girls often disappear on long family holidays and are forced into marriages overseas. It is even more important therefore to get the message across that forced marriage is wrong. That is why I, along with Labour colleagues and many others around the country, are marking the criminalisation of forced marriage by being photographed on Monday holding a Twitter-friendly sign saying #FREEDOM2CHOOSE.
Earlier today, Peers debated Policing for a Better Britain, the product of two years work by a group chaired by the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Lord John Stevens. The report is a Royal Commission in all but name – and was commissioned by Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper, rather than the government. It is the most thorough appraisal of policing for over 50 years, and its detailed recommendations need to be taken seriously if the service is to meet the challenges of today.
The diagnosis is that the police are grappling with deep social transformation, including a global economic downturn, ever-quickening flows of migration, widening inequalities, constitutional uncertainty and the impact of new social media. Overall, crime levels have been declining for the last 15 years (despite some suggestions that violent crime and burglary are increasing again). But there are new types and modes of crime to contend with: e-crime and cyber-enabled crime, the widespread trafficking of people and goods, and also terrorism – both international and domestic. And all at a time when trust in the police is under threat.
We need now to return to the fundamental principles of British policing: the concept that the police are a civilian service operating with the consent of those they serve; that their effectiveness is measured not by the number of arrests but by the absence of crime; and that underlying it all is the idea that they are accountable for the actions they take.
Lord Stevens’ concludes that the police must have a social purpose that combines catching offenders with work to prevent crime and maintain order in our communities; that they should listen to what the public say while meeting the needs of the most vulnerable in society; and above all be rooted in local communities.
Faced with the budgetary cut-backs of the last three years and ministerial insistence that the police’s only objective is to fight crime, the report warns: “there is a danger of the police being forced to retreat to a discredited model of reactive policing.” It also bemoans the steady dismantling by the Coalition of local community policing – built up and supported by the last Labour government. In London alone, for example, 300 sergeants have been lost from Safer Neighbourhood Teams over the past two years.
The sight of beat police, whom the community knows, fosters reassurance, promotes feelings of well-being and security, and builds public trust. And that itself enables the sort of relationship where people feel confident enough to confide their concerns and pass on the raw material of the intelligence that local police must rely on to do their work.
All of this needs to be coupled with increased professionalism (Stevens suggests the concept of ‘the chartered police officer’) and greater accountability, with a proper independent body to monitor standards and investigate complaints. Locally, there needs to be a much greater role for elected councils in setting priorities. At force-wide level, the report is scathing about the defects in governance resulting from the ill thought out changes that led to the election of Police and Crime Commissioners on a 15% turn-out.
What the Stevens Commission has done is provide a formidable body of evidence to support some coherent reforms to make British policing fit for the 21st Century whilst retaining the core principles that still make British policing the envy of the world. All we need now is a government that is interested in genuine improvements to take this forward, rather than one that takes delight in sniping at Chief Constables and undermining police morale.
Two issues today highlight the way this Conservative-led LibDem-supported Coalition Government operates.
Fees of up to £1200 to bring an employment tribunal case are being introduced today. This is allegedly intended to prevent so-called vexatious claims from being brought. The reality is that for the first time since employment tribunals were introduced in the 1960s there will be charges imposed to deter those who have been badly treated or exploited by their employers. The fees discriminate against the weak and the low paid.
Less important, but symptomatic of the way this Government pays lip-service to engagement and consultation are a series of consultation exercises launched in the last few days with closing dates for response at the end of August or in the first week of September. Good practice would be that consultations should be open for up to three months – five weeks over the peak holiday period is designed to stifle responses. The consultations cover such matters as pensions fro retained firefighters, the housing transfer manual, and various notices under the Gas and Electricity Acts (and yes, I don’t know what these are about, but they are no doubt complicated and take time to understand their implications).
I am not surprised by the Tories, but I hope the LibDems are ashamed of themselves.
Today’s guilty pleas at the Old Bailey are a timely reminder that the homegrown terrorist threat has not gone away. Three men (Richard Dart, Jahangir Alom and Imran Mahmood) had been charged with:
“engaging in preparation for acts of terrorism by travelling to Pakistan for training between July 2010 and July 2012 and by “advising and counselling” acts of terrorism by providing information about how to go to the country for the same purpose.”
It is notable that Dart (a white convert to Islam who moved from Dorset to London) had been employed for a short period as a security guard for the BBC and that Alom (whose wife has already been sentenced for terrorist offences) is a former Police Community Support Officer. Both had therefore been – for a period at least – in security-related occupations.
The three convictions involved travel to Pakistan for training in terrorist techniques but as NBC News has recently reported:
“A new al-Qaida “guidebook” for extremists aims to incite homegrown “lone wolves” into carrying out small-scale terrorist attacks …. using materials as easily obtainable as motor or cooking oil, sugar and matches to trigger massive traffic accidents, devastating fires and deadly explosions.
Titled the “Lone Mujahid Pocketbook” and published by in the spring edition of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula’s “Inspire” online propaganda magazine, the guidebook uses a breezy style that borrows from social media speak and rap lyrics to encourage Islamic extremists in the West to commit acts of violence.
“R U dreamin’ of wagin’ jihadi attacks against kuffar?” is asks, using a derogatory Arabic term for non-Muslims. “Have u been lookin’ 4 a way to join the mujahideen in frontlines, but you haven’t found any? Well there’s no need to travel abroad, coz the frontline has come to you.”
Among other things, it offers detailed instructions for torching parked cars, causing vehicular accidents by pouring motor oil on highway curves, starting forest fires, “making a bomb in the kitchen of your Mom” and using a pickup truck with blades welded on the front “as a mowing machine, not to mow grass but (to) mow down the enemies of Allah.””
So the threat has not gone away and the current tactic involves self-trained (and possibly self-radicalised) lone wolf type activists.
Nicholas Watt in today’s Guardian has a fascinating insight into the dilemma facing David Cameron as he contemplates what he will say in his long-awaited speech on Europe or whether he can put it off yet again:
“Over the Christmas break William Hague dusted off a sacred text that has served as the lodestar for British Eurosceptics over the last quarter of a century: Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech of 1988.
The foreign secretary thought that in preparation for David Cameron’s most important speech on Europe later this month, it would be wise to remind himself how Thatcher memorably set herself against a “European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels”.
As officials and ministers chewed over Thatcher’s speech they reached a rather startling conclusion. Were Cameron to deliver such a “pinko and pro-European” speech, in the words of one source, at least 25 anti-EU Conservative MPs would walk out of the party.
Eurosceptics often forget that Thatcher balanced her warnings of the dangers of a European super-state with a staunch defence of Britain’s place at the heart of the EU. “Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European community,” she said. “Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the community.””
The real problem for Cameron is that there is now such a gap between what any sensible British Prime Minister might say about the country’s relationship with our European allies and partners and what the backbenchers on whom he has to rely believe. In practice, the gulf is unbridgeable. A fantasy that is rooted in a century-old vision of the United Kingdom as a world power straddling the Atlantic with a political and economic empire stretching round the globe is frankly incompatible with the realities of the twenty-first century.
It would be tempting to sit back and watch the fireworks as the Tory (and Coalition) meltdown unfolds, but the consequences for the country’s future are really too serious for that.
This morning the Children’s Commissioner published her shocking report “I thought I was the only one. The only one in the world.” on child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups. This authoritative and well-researched document reports that it had identified 2,409 children as having been identified as victims of sexual exploitation by gangs or groups.
And what has been the Government’s response?
To welcome the report and promise action?
Instead, anonymous government spokesmen briefed the media to say that the report was “over-emotional” and “sensationalist”
I raised this in Question Time in the House of Lords this afternoon. The Minister’s response was hardly effusive: the report was “useful to have”.
Here is the exchange:
“Lord Harris of Haringey:
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, has referred to the Children’s Commissioner’s report which came out today, in particular the dreadful findings about how many children in care have been sexually abused. Will the Minister tell the House the Government’s stance about that report, given that, apparently, people speaking on behalf of the Government to both the BBC Radio 4 “Today” programme and the Sun said that the report was overemotional and were trying to undermine its conclusions?
Lord Hill of Oareford:
The Government’s stance is that the report from the deputy Children’s Commissioner is helpful for the Government to have. We will reflect on the findings that it makes in terms of its recommendations and its estimates about the extent of the problem. I think I am right in saying that the report recognises that making any precise estimate is by nature very difficult, but the more information we have the better. Even before this report, the Government have been seeking to improve the systems for getting accurate reporting from various local agencies and authorities to make sure that we have as accurate a picture as possible to make sure that we do not underestimate or overestimate the problem. Everyone is very aware of the salience of this issue and the important issues that that report gives rise to.”
Almost as though the Government are frightened of the issue.
Last Friday there was a debate in the House of Lords on the Second Reading of a Private Members Bill introduced by Baroness Howe of Idlicote on Online Safety with particular emphasis on the protection of children. The Bill would have the effect of requiring internet safety providers ansd mobile phone operators to provide an internet service without access to pornography (although adult subscribers would be able to opt in to receive adult material).
The Bill was welcomed by virtually every speaker from all parts of the House (although reservations were expressed by one Conservative and one LibDem peer). The Minister (Viscount Younger of Leckie), however, declined to say whether the Government supported the principle of the Bill (ie of protecting children from adult content online) and said that such matters were the responsibility of parents, even though many parents are far less technologically adept than their children.
A flavour of the Minister’s equivocation is given by these exchanges from the closing section of his speech:
“Viscount Younger of Leckie: I realise that many questions have come out of this interesting debate. If I have not been able to answer any, particularly on age verification, I will certainly make it a point to reply to noble Lords.
Baroness Thornton: The Minister mentioned age verification, and he prayed in aid the totally inadequate self-regulatory proposals that have been proven not to work. They are not working and we have an increasing problem. Will the Minister confirm that both the Byron report and the Bailey report recommended the use of age verification to block adult content on the internet?
Viscount Younger of Leckie: I can give the briefest of answers in the time available on age verification. It is an important issue. However, I would make a distinction between age verification in terms of the gambling sites, which the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, mentioned. My understanding is that with gambling sites there is a clear distinction at the age of 18. Material for the over-18s is pin-protected. Taking our view that parents would in effect be in control, parents would want to set a range of controls appropriate for their children, which may be different for a five year-old and a 15 year-old.
Lord Harris of Haringey: I am sorry because I realise the Minister is trying to close his remarks. But I am trying to understand the answer that he has just given my noble friend. Is he in essence saying that the Government are disregarding the recommendations from those two reports because the age verification used for gambling sites kicks in only at 18? The point is that they are saying that age verification is an important mechanism. We have the evidence from the gambling sites that age verification is possible and can work. Why is it not possible to put the two things together and introduce age verification structures that may kick in at younger ages?
Viscount Younger of Leckie: I note the noble Lord’s comment but the issue of age verification is more complicated than at first it appears. We need more time to discuss this. The best thing for me to do is to get back to the noble Lord and other noble Lords who have raised this particular issue with some answers.
Technology changes rapidly and legislation does not. Industry is better placed than legislators to design the simple and effective tools that parents want, keeping pace with technology and the way that their children access the internet. But there is a role for government in setting an expectation, bringing the right people together and always pushing for more and better-
Lord Maginnis of Drumglass: I am sorry to intervene again, but it is necessary. Everything that the Minister appears to be telling us is unsatisfactory. If it is not possible for legislators to set standards, how will a mishmash of providers across the entire community come up with anything that is consistent and reliable? Will he at least tell us that?
Viscount Younger of Leckie: I can reassure the noble Lord that it is in their interests to bring themselves up to scratch in order to be able to produce online safety for children. I know that this will not be a satisfactory answer for him, but our view is that it is the responsibility of parents, ultimately, to take this forward.
Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, why does the Minister say that it is in the interests of online suppliers to do this? It costs them money, they are in a highly competitive market and I suspect that a large number of them make money on the basis that they know perfectly well what some of their users want to access online and they simply want to increase the number of users. Why is it in their interests to introduce this without some form of regulation in the background?
Baroness Thornton: I am sorry, but before the noble Viscount sits down, I asked very specifically at least twice during my remarks whether the Government support the Bill in principle. The Minister has not answered that question. It is very important. It does not necessarily mean that the Minister wants the Bill, as it stands, to go forward, but the principle behind the Bill, that of protecting children from adult content online, seems obvious and I would really like to hear from the Government that that is the case. I do not wish to be rude to the Minister, but I wonder whether his speech was drafted in California or Whitehall.
This morning I have signed a letter sent by Baroness Howe to the Prime Minister seeking urgent clarification of the Government’s position. The letter says:
“We are writing to express concern about the Government’s policy on child internet safety following Friday’s debate on the Online Safety Bill in the House of Lords.
Just last month OFCOM published research highlighting the problems parents face in setting up their own filtering arrangements without government assistance, demonstrating what we already know, namely that parental controls are perceived to be “a fairly complex area, and… choosing and installing them would therefore require a considerable investment of time and effort”.
In this context, we feel that the approach suggested by the Minister – who appeared to suggest that putting in place appropriate protections is a matter for parents who should be better educated – is less than helpful.
We were particularly concerned that the Minister dismissed an opt-in system, as if the Government had always been opposed to it. This is troubling for two reasons. First, the opt-in model provides parents with the greatest level of assistance with filtering, whilst not in any way taking their decision-making responsibility away. It actually empowers them. Second, the opt-in model has just been presented by the Government (further to your very welcome intervention after the publication of the Perry Report) as one of three options that it is considering for promoting child safety on-line in its summer Parental Internet Controls Consultation, to which it has yet to make a formal response. This is particularly unfortunate not least because many parents engaged with the consultation believing opt-in to be a genuine option.
As the Government has yet to publish its response to the Parental Internet Controls Consultation, the good news is that there is still scope for the position presented on Friday to be reassessed in light of consultation submissions and indeed arguments made during the Second Reading debate.
We would urge you to do this and would be grateful for the opportunity for a meeting with you to discuss this matter further.
In closing a positive note from the Minister’s response is that he did not seem very sure about rejecting age-verification and said he would write to Peers. The truth is that without age-verification any form on online protection will be very weak. That age-verification is possible is clearly demonstrated by the regulatory frameworks surrounding online gambling and the sale of alcohol online which were stressed during the debate. Age-verification must be central to whatever regulatory framework the Government adopts.
We remain deeply concerned about this issue, as we know you are, and want to work with you to secure the most robust regulatory framework for our children. They deserve it.”
The letter is signed by three Labour, one Conservative, one LibDem and five independent/crossbench peers.
My speech in the debate was as folows:
“My Lords, the whole House is enormously grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, for bringing forward this timely and important Bill today. The degree of support that it seems to be finding from all quarters of your Lordships’ House is encouraging. Indeed, it is encouraging to see the range of speakers that we have today. That fact alone should send a very clear message to the Government that they should no longer be dithering on these issues but moving to try to find some solutions. There is also a very clear message to the internet service providers that they, too, need to put their house in order and start to find the most appropriate technical solutions to these problems.
The only note of dissent so far has been from the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. He seemed to make the point that the Bill would place too much of an onus on internet service providers, that this was not what they were good at, and that responsibility should essentially rest with parents. I hope that I have not misrepresented his argument too greatly. That is the standard defence that is heard in these arguments in all aspects: that the internet service providers are the mere conduit or the mere pipeline by which this stuff gets into people’s homes and that somehow, because they are merely the provider of the pipe, they are not responsible for anything that flows through it. To argue that they therefore have no responsibility is rather like saying that water companies have no responsibility for purifying the water that they deliver, because their main purpose-the thing that they are good at-is providing pipes. Actually, they are not that good at that either, given the level of leaks. We do not accept that argument. We say that there is a responsibility on the providers of the pipeline to ensure that the water is pure and safe. That is essentially what the Bill is about.
Let us be clear. In this country, access to pornography is controlled offline. Therefore, there are limitations but they are not total limitations. However, it is made more difficult to access pornography in printed form, on DVD or whatever else. This legislation, should it be passed, will enable us to adjust to the fact that society increasingly exists online. It levels the playing field. It brings what is happening on the internet to the level of everything else, whether it is the top shelf of the newsagent or the age clarification which exists for cinema or DVD material.
We also know that Parliament has already legislated on the principle of age verification. The Gambling Act requires robust age verification. We have already tested this and Parliament has been through these arguments. As my noble friend Lady Dean said, the world did not end because age verification was required in that area-actually, she was applying it to another area, but the principle is that the world did not end. Age verification can be done and it now needs to be applied more generally. The solutions are available and workable. A number of sites notionally have an age restriction but the reality is that those restrictions are laughably weak. However, mechanisms are available that can make those age restrictions work. We should be encouraging that and this Bill is a step towards enabling that to happen.
The other change that has happened in recent years, which we have to accept, is that most children now spend much of their lives online. Most of their social transactions are mediated through internet-enabled mobile phones. The days when I recall one of my sons spending about three hours on the phone to arrange where he and his mates would meet no longer apply. Now, it is all done through the internet-through social media networks and so on. Ofcom’s survey in 2011 found that the average time spent online by five to 15 year-olds was 90 minutes per day. However, I suspect that that statistic is already out of date. It is probable that most five year-olds do not spend that amount of time online but that therefore means that the figure for slightly older age groups is much higher. The same survey found that many-in this instance, I think it was 41%-had been disturbed by something that they had found online and that a quarter had received unsolicited explicit material online.
That was a survey of a year ago. This is an area where things move rapidly and I suspect that we need to have in place legislation that is able to respond to these changes. Those figures will already be out of date. Even I was surprised to learn that 37% of three to four year-olds use the internet, but we have all heard stories of, and perhaps even seen, toddlers whose reaction to a picture in a printed book is to try to expand it with their fingers to make the image get larger. Again, I suspect we are simply not keeping up with the trends.
The reality, which again was found by the Ofcom survey, is that parents know less about the internet than their children do. I recall that when I was part of the sub-committee of the Science and Technology Committee that looked at personal internet security, we were told repeatedly of parents who could not quite manage the parental control software and so got their children to install it for them. That is hardly going to induce this sort of control and maybe they were not quite the responsible parents whom we are looking for, but that is the reality. The children are ahead of their parents in all this, so you have to make it easier for the parent who wants to be responsible. In my view, this is what this Bill is about: opt-in control through ISPs will limit unsolicited and inappropriate material getting into the home.
There is also a sort of golden age view, rather like the image of the family sitting around the dining table in their front room listening to the Home Service, which we were all brought up with in the 1950s. If it ever really was a golden age, the day of the concept of the computer being somewhere in the main room of the home, so that access to the internet is mediated through that process, has long passed. There are now so many internet-enabled devices in most homes that such access is not confined to one room where there may be adequate supervision.
Most children, as has already been said, will have internet-enabled mobile phones but most of the game machines that they use in their bedrooms are also now internet-enabled. There are Xboxes and Game Boys, and all these things are internet-enabled. Not all of them can receive images or material but that is the direction of travel. Children play games on them with people all over the world whom they do not know. That raises all sorts of interesting and wider child protection questions but it demonstrates why we have to be able to control the pipeline that delivers what comes into the home. It is not just about the main computer; it is about all the internet material that comes into the home, which is mediated through the channel of the internet service providers. However responsible parents may be, they can simply no longer actively monitor all the material that their children are accessing, even if such total monitoring would be wholly desirable.
There is of course a collective responsibility in all this. In that inquiry into personal internet security, we used the road safety analogy. We said that responsibility for safety on the roads was accepted and that there was: a personal responsibility as to how you were a road user, whether you were a driver or a pedestrian; a responsibility on the manufacturers of cars to make their cars more safe; a responsibility on local authorities to ensure that roads were well lit; and a responsibility to have roads that were well maintained. All that was with a view to delivering safety. We need to take that same approach to these sorts of issues.
Frankly, children need to be educated about internet safety at the same time as they receive road safety advice. We should be looking at them doing it at that young an age. Parents need to be enabled to be responsible through the measures contained in this Bill by being able to decide, in terms of the material that can come into the home, not to opt in to pornographic material. ISPs and equipment manufacturers need to make it easier for parents, and site owners need to have robust age verification.
This Bill is not a total solution to the problems of online safety but it is a step in the right direction, making it easier for everyone to play their part in securing online safety. I sincerely hope that the Government are going to be supportive and, if not, I hope that they are going to tell us how they will move forward on these issues.”
There was a fairly surreal discussion in the House of Lords this afternoon following the Government statement on the resignation of the Director General of the BBC. This reflects the wider political and media preoccupation with the inner workings of the BBC and not the very serious allegations of child abuse that lay beneath the two questionable editorial decisions by those in charge of the BBC Newsnight programme.
The depths were plumbed by Lord Pearson of Rannoch, former Leader of UKIP, who seemed to think that the central issue was that “a large majority” of the members of the BBC Trust are “climate change enthusiasts” and that “the BBC remains blindly Europhile …. as exemplified by its chairman, who has a large EU pension which he could lose if he went against what the European Commission regards as the interests of the European communities.”
It took a Bishop to reinject some sanity into the discussion:
My Lords, I am very grateful that in the initial Statement the Minister said that we must continue to recognise the needs of those who have been abused. He spoke of the BBC facing a series of crises. Those who were abused face a far more serious series of crises. Will he stress again that the primary concern at this point needs to be the protection of children and young people? Will he also stress the continuing desire of us all to encourage those who have suffered abuse to come forward so we can change the culture of how we deal with such issues?
But that didn’t stop Lord Stoddart of Swindon from trying to bring the debate back to the people selected as BBC Trustees and lobbying for his UKIP mate, Lord Pearson, to be appointed:
Does the noble Lord agree that the selection pool for the BBC Trust is very narrow? Would it not be as well that that pool should be widened so that a perhaps more critical attitude could be taken of the operations of the BBC? Perhaps one of the new candidates could be the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch.
My Lords, the right reverend Prelate has rightly reminded the House that the people we should be most concerned about in all of this are those who were the victims of abuse. Can the Minister comment on whether the Government feel that the frenzy around the existential crisis of the BBC is not really a distraction from concerns that there was very real abuse in children’s homes in north Wales and elsewhere; that there was an individual who, because of his celebrity, was able to abuse children all over the country; and that we are in danger of being deflected, which of course plays into the hands of those who would rather cover up what happened and the names of those who were ultimately responsible?