This will not be news to those of you who are avid readers of China’s People’s Daily. However, an article in that paper on 4th January spelt out baldly what I have been saying for some time: Chinese interests are steadily buying up a controlling stake in Britain’s critical national infrastructure.
The article says:
“China’s investment in the United Kingdom will continue its “explosive” growth, with high-end manufacturing and infrastructure leading the way, a senior diplomat predicted.
“The UK is the most open economy, and also the most market-oriented,” in Europe, said Zhou Xiaoming, minister counselor of the Chinese embassy in the UK.
Chinese companies have been answering the call from some members of the European Union for capital.
In 2011, the UK was the third-largest EU destination for Chinese investment, following Luxembourg and France, according to the Ministry of Commerce.
China’s overseas direct investment in the UK in 2011 was $2.5 billion, it said.
But Zhou said the real figure was far more as Chinese overall investment in the UK experienced “explosive” growth.
“It is estimated that the Chinese capital that flew into the country in 2011 reached $6.5 billion,” said Zhou.”
Am I alone in thinking that any sensible nation state should be concerned that control over its critical infrastructure is steadily being bought up by another country?
There is no debate about it and the Government seems at best to be complacently ignoring it or more sinisterly tacitly encouraging the sell off.
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.
Yesterday afternoon I initiated a short debate in the Moses Room of the House of Lords on the biological threats facing the United Kingdom, specifically I was asking “Her Majesty’s Government what arrangements they have in place to protect the residents of the United Kingdom against biological threats; and what measures they are taking to promote the international regulation of biological weapons and to ensure that security standards are sufficient in laboratories engaged in biological research around the world.”
The National Risk Register has in its top tier of risks facing the UK major natural hazards, such as a flu pandemic, but also includes as a serious threat in that top tier of risks a biological attack by terrorists.
As Lord Tony Giddens pointed out later in the debate:
“There are three sets of factors which make biological threats far more menacing than they were for previous generations. The first of these … is work in scientific laboratories that is designed to unpack the basic building blocks of nature but which can have spin-offs of a dangerous kind. … Secondly, there is the disruption to or destruction of the world’s ecosystems, releasing pathogens from their normal hosts. The process is normally known as zoonosis and it is one that is fraught with implications for human beings. Thirdly, … we have globalisation which can transmit pathogens almost immediately from one side of the world to the other.”
But the other big change that I had highlighted was the speed of technological advance that has taken place in the last ten or fifteen years in respect of genetic manipulation and as I explained:
“viruses are very simple. They are simply a capsule, often with perhaps 10 or 12 genes within them. The changing of just one gene within a virus can have a very profound effect on what that virus does: how easily it is transmitted, the extent to which it can be transmitted from an animal to a human being or between humans, and the consequences for the organism that is infected.
In fact, in 2001 the Journal of Virology published a research paper that demonstrated a whole number of ways of modifying the mousepox virus. This new virus was so effective that it overwhelmed the immune system of the test mice, causing massive liver failure and eventually killing the subjects. That reaction occurred even if the mice had been vaccinated against the mousepox virus. That was a legitimate scientific experiment—an effort to control the mouse population in Australia—but it demonstrated that a quite small change in a single gene with comparatively simple techniques could have major consequences.
These techniques are becoming more straightforward and all sorts of legitimate research is taking place in these areas around the world. Some of this could have the consequence of rendering a vaccine ineffective; some of it could confer resistance to therapeutically useful antibiotics and antiviral agents in pathogenic organisms; it could increase the virulence of a pathogen, or make it easier for that pathogen to be transmitted; or it could perhaps alter the range of hosts for that pathogen. A whole number of things are now technically possible that were not easily doable 10, 15 or 20 years ago. Entirely legitimate research on genetic manipulation and modification is of course going on all over the world for entirely benign purposes.
The question that I want to pose is: how well regulated around the world is that research? How confident can we be that other countries are applying the sorts of restrictions that we would wish to see? Some pharmaceutical companies may have an interest in carrying out experiments and developing their techniques in countries where the regulatory regime is far less intense than it might be in our own country.”
Biological weapons are outlawed under the Biological Weapons Convention, which has been signed by virtually every country in the world. However, as I pointed out:
“although countries have said that they accept that they should not be developing biological weapons, the world has not set up what we might consider to be any effective system for monitoring compliance or verification. Some of the biggest and most powerful countries—the United States of America, for one—are extremely dubious about setting up any external system to monitor their own compliance and do not necessarily see the need for a supervisory body.
The US, for example, clearly has no official bioweapons capability but has constructed a huge research base, in many different centres around the United States, under the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures programme. That is undertaking, no doubt quite properly, genetic research, development and testing. However, if the United States says, “We are not happy with our compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention ever being tested by anybody else”, it is very difficult to see how that could be enforced on other countries.
Scepticism also persists about whether Russia’s offensive bioweapons capabilities have been completely dismantled. There are, I think, five Russian military bioweapons facilities which remain closed to outside inspection. Many of the officials linked to their current defensive programme are the same officials that developed Soviet offensive capabilities during the Cold War. There is a question again about how secure those facilities are, particularly as we know that regimes change and that certain parts of the world become less stable as things move forward.”
I also warned that:
“There is clearly a risk that stocks of materials developed for one purpose could be misused or fall into the hands of terrorist groups or, potentially, rogue regimes.”
And concluded as follows:
“In responding, can the Minister first say what is being done to improve supervision of these matters? Secondly, what is being done to regulate the security of scientific establishments, including those that hold stocks of pathogens? It all ends with a fundamental question. We are at risk, as a nation, from a pandemic of whatever sort and from whatever origin, whether naturally or unnaturally occurring. Are we really satisfied that our emergency and health services are able to withstand that?”
The Minister who responded was Lord Wallace of Saltaire who acknowledged that:
“This is an important subject, and both a domestic and international one. We are concerned with the potential of a terrorist attack and the very distant potential of a global state attack. … We are also concerned with the possibility of accidental release from badly secured laboratories.”
Being a LibDem Minister he could not avoid taking the opportunity to snipe at his Conservative Coalition colleagues, saying:
“This is an area of domestic and international overlap. I would not discourage noble Lords from pointing out, as we deal with the intensely emotional issue of the defence of British sovereignty from European and other interference, that this is one of many areas where you cannot have entirely different British and foreign issues. We have to have international co-operation and, as far we can, regulation.”
He did confirm that:
“The Government are deeply committed to protecting the United Kingdom from biological threats. That requires us to have strong measures at home and co-operation abroad.”
but warned that:
“There is resistance to a strong international compliance programme … it is not simply from the United States, let alone from the American pharmaceutical industry, but from a range of other countries that I will not go through. For many of them it is a question of sovereignty and, for one or two south Asian countries, of suspicion of the West. There are limits to what we can achieve and we have to work as far as we can through education, co-operation and providing assistance. I also note that we are working with our partners inside the European Union through the establishment of centres of excellence with regional centres around the world to build this level of co-operation.”
His basic message was:
“There are some real problems here … this is a very complex area.”
And he concluded - rather strangely for a Government Minister – with:
“I shall finish by saying that we need to keep on challenging our Government and even more so other governments.”
So I suppose those of us who took part in the debate were being told: keep on nagging us and maybe we (the Government) will finally take this as seriously as it deserves.
If you want to read the full debate it is here.
Seventeen years ago, I became Chair of the English National Stadium Trust (now the Wembley National Stadium Trust). The Trust made the original bid for National Lottery funding to build a new national stadium for football and rugby league and, having successfully made the case for Wembley to continue to be the site for that stadium, secured £120 million towards the rebuilding costs. One of the conditions of the Lottery grant were that eventually 1% of the turnover of the Stadium should be paid back to the public, who had bought their Lottery tickets to make that grant possible, in the form of grants to community organisations that would support a range of sports activities.
The money was only to start being made available five years after the new Stadium opened (which following a number of delays took place in the spring of 2007) and the first substantive funds were received at the end of 2012.
And this morning I chaired the meeting that decided which organisations should be the beneficiaries of the first £300,000 of grants. 37 organisations will benefit and will be receiving their cheques at a ceremony later this month at Wembley Stadium. In this initial grant round all of the organisations will be delivering community sports activities in the London Borough of Brent (for those who don’t know their geography Brent is the Borough in which the Stadium is situated). Later grant rounds will benefit the rest of London and the country as a whole.
It has been a long journey but it is difficult not to be excited about the range of organisations that have been successful.
Today’s widely welcomed statement by the Government on equal marriage contained an extraordinary admission about the Church of England (and also the Church of Wales).
The Government is proposing legislation that will enable same sex couples to get married but provides a number of exceptions to ensure that those those who do not want to conduct same-sex marriages are not required to do so. Thus, the Government says:
“First, we will write on to the face of the Bill a declaration that no religious organisation, or individual minister, can be forced to marry same-sex couples or to permit that to happen on their premises. Secondly, I will amend the Equality Act 2010 so that no discrimination claims can be brought against religious organisations or individual ministers for refusing to marry a same-sex couple or for refusing to allow their premises to be used for this purpose.
Thirdly, the legislation will make it unlawful for religious organisations or their ministers to marry same-sex couples unless the organisation has expressly opted to do so. As part of this lock, a religious organisation will have to opt in as a whole, and each individual Minister will then have to opt in too. Therefore, if a religious organisation has chosen not to conduct same-sex marriage, none of its Ministers will be able to do so. However, if an organisation has chosen to conduct same-sex marriage, individual Ministers are still under no compulsion to conduct one unless they wish to do so.”
That seems pretty comprehensive.
But the Government goes on:
“Finally, …. the legislation will explicitly state that it would be illegal for the Churches of England and Wales to marry same-sex couples.”
The only conclusion is that the Government believes that neither the Church of England nor the Church of Wales are religious organisations.
Have they told the new Archbishop?
Last night in the House of Lords (in between the debates on the Justice and Security Committee which led to the Government’s proposals on so-called secret courts being savaged) there was a debate on the regulations that set out how the Chair and members of the committee of Healthwatch England are to be appointed as a sub-committee of the Care Quality Commission.
The regulations are controversial because the subservience or apparent subservience of Healthwatch England to the Care Quality Commission undermine the independence of Healthwatch England as the national body representing patients’ interests – particularly as part of its job in the future may be to raise, on behalf of patients, questions about how the Care Quality Commission has carried out its functions.
The Minister’s response was pretty unimpressive – essentially that the initial appointments made to Healthwatch England were so good that there would never be any problems in the future.
You can read the full debate here.
My contribution was as follows:
‘Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, I am pleased to have the opportunity to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, on this Prayer. She has highlighted the weakness in the Government’s position. I am confident that the people who have set up Healthwatch England are of good will and that they intend and wish it to work; that Anna Bradley will be an excellent person as chair of Healthwatch England; that the outgoing chair of the Care Quality Commission is committed to making it work; and that the chief executive of the Care Quality Commission is committed to making it work. I even believe that Ministers in the Department of Health are committed to making it work.
The problem is that we are provided with a framework of regulation which does not guarantee that in future. One or two appointments down the road, with a new leadership of the Care Quality Commission and, perhaps, with different Ministers at the Department of Health, how will those things be ensured, especially if budgets remain tight and Healthwatch England starts to be effective and makes criticisms which are difficult for Ministers-or, worse still, in this context, for the Care Quality Commission? That is when those problems may arise.
That is why, when the Bill was passing through this House, there was so much concern about the importance of independence for the Healthwatch structure. My concern is that, given that the legislation has passed, this is a wasted opportunity to make it stronger.
One of the lessons that is expected to come from the Mid-Staffs inquiry relates to independence. The report is expected to identify the systemic failure of organisations to focus primarily on the needs of the patients of that hospital. Because each was looking at its own area, nobody was taking the step back to say, “How does this work from the point of view of patients?”. That is where Healthwatch should come in and be influential: to cut through the complicated organisational structures which the Health and Social Care Act has bequeathed to the NHS. That is why the simple issue of how it preserves its independence is so vital.
When the Bill was going through Parliament, the noble Earl held a meeting to discuss how Healthwatch England should work. He made the point that there would be valuable synergies from Healthwatch England being located within the Care Quality Commission. He did not stress, but it was clearly part of the equation, that there would also be some useful cost savings associated with that. The cost savings could be achieved in a whole variety of ways. It would be possible to have an agency agreement whereby some of the back office functions were provided by the Care Quality Commission or any of the plethora of structures that the Health and Social Care Act has bequeathed to the NHS. Similarly, because the duty of co-operation exists, you would hope that those synergies could be activated without the need for the Healthwatch organisation to be subservient to the Care Quality Commission. It would have been possible in these regulations to create a structure which, while preserving the general framework of the Act, would ensure that there was independence.
If we look at the regulations that we have before us, we see a number of flaws. First and foremost, for example, is the size of the Healthwatch England committee. Potentially, this will be a committee of as few as six members. I appreciate that in the initial instance it is larger than that, because people of goodwill are trying to make this structure work. However, in three, four or five years’ time there may not quite be the same atmosphere or there may be a feeling that the wings of Healthwatch England need to be clipped back. In any event, with six to 12 members it is going to be extremely difficult to ensure that there really is the geographical diversity that is necessary; the coverage of all the many major areas of special need that exist as far as health and social care is concerned; and proper recognition of ethnicity and gender within that. Again, the initial membership has provided a reasonable attempt to achieve that diversity, but where is the guarantee of that in the future?
I know there is a feeling that small boards work well. The noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, who is not in her place on this occasion, has talked to us glowingly about the value of having small, dynamic boards to run organisations but this is a different sort of organisation. It is supposed to be one that represents the generality of the interests of patients across the whole country and which derives its authority from what is happening in local Healthwatch organisations around the country-the 150-odd local organisations that will exist. It is therefore not appropriate to have a small board in such a case, as it is not the same sort of structure.
Then we have the rather strange arrangements for the appointment process. In the first instance, the chair of Healthwatch England has to get the approval of the chair of the Care Quality Commission before appointments can be made. The future arrangements are that the chair will make the appointments directly but let us be clear: the chair of Healthwatch England is a Secretary of State appointment and has the potential to be the poodle of the Department of Health. I have been in the position of being in charge of the organisation representing patients and I remember successive Secretaries of State, from two parties, making attacks on the organisation because we were being effective and raising issues that were uncomfortable.
Under those circumstances, can we be satisfied with a future arrangement whereby the Secretary of State solely makes the appointment of that individual, who then appoints all the other members of the Healthwatch England committee? In the initial stage, you have a double lock where the chair of the Care Quality Commission gets involved but in future you will have someone who might be appointed as a poodle or to muzzle the watchdog nature of Healthwatch England appointing individuals who are, no doubt, like-minded. That is why the arrangements are strange.
We then have the provision for suspending members, which is set out here. Presumably, the suspension is different from disqualification but the Secretary of State may dispense with the chair of Healthwatch England for a variety of reasons, which includes,
Who is going to determine what those duties should be? Essentially, we are being told that the Secretary of State will decide what he or she thinks is appropriate for Healthwatch England to be carrying out. Again, the chair then has similar powers in respect of individual members. I make a specific request of the Minister: that in his reply he spells out absolutely that it will not be appropriate for either the chair or the members of Healthwatch England to be suspended from their membership if they are pursuing their interpretation of what is in the interests of patients and their organisations, and the people that they represent.
Because of the requirement saying that the chair of Healthwatch England must be a member of the board of the Care Quality Commission, we are inevitably creating that subservient relationship. Will the chair of Healthwatch England be subjected to, in essence, the collective responsibility of the members of the board of the Care Quality Commission? There have been recent issues with the membership of that commission’s board, where the chair has taken a different view about what the role of individual members should be. That has led to conflict and serious problems.
Let us pan forward a few years: if the chair of the Care Quality Commission does not like the approach being taken by the chair of Healthwatch England, are they then able to say, “You are not fulfilling your duties as a member of the board of the Care Quality Commission because you are not abiding by the collective responsibility of that board’s members. I am therefore asking the Secretary of State to remove you from office and suspend you because you are not fulfilling your roles”? Even if that does not happen we will have, as my noble friend Lord Collins said earlier, the appearance of potential conflict of interest. Ultimately, how are the public going to have confidence in a structure where it looks to them as though the leadership of Healthwatch England is subservient to the Care Quality Commission, one of those important agencies about whose effectiveness it may have to make criticisms?
We should remind ourselves that the aim of all this is to enhance the collective voice of patients in the NHS. You will succeed in doing that only if the public at large have confidence in the structures that you have created. If you build into them the appearance of subservience and potential conflicts of interest, you are weakening that voice. That cannot in any way be in line with what either your Lordships would expect to see from this, or indeed with what I believe Ministers’ intentions to be as far as Healthwatch England is concerned.”
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?
Lloyd George famously referred to the House of Lord’s as “Mr Balfour’s poodle” because of its in-built Conservative majority. Since the exclusion by the last Labour Government of most hereditary peers from voting rights in the Lords, no Party has had a majority in the House. This has meant that the House has been properly able to hold Governments to account and challenging the House of Commons to think again about elements of legislation.
Thus, in the last eight years of the Labour Government (from 2002 to 2010), the Government was defeated in the Lords on average 44 times per year. Not really a surprise, given that at no stage did Labour hold more than 31% of the membership of the House and a combination of the other groupings (eg Tories plus LibDems or Tories plus some crossbenchers) could easily be sufficient to out-vote Labour Peers.
With the advent of the coalition in 2010, the dynamics changed somewhat as the Government comprises two Party groupings and the rate of Government defeats fell to 24 per year.
Since the General Election in 2010, the Prime Minister has appointed 122 new members of the House of Lords and there are now 760 peers (excluding 39 who are on leave of absence or the 13 who are disqualified from sitting because they are Law Lords or MEPs).
The current breakdown (as of 31st October) is 212 Conservative (28%) plus 90 LibDems (12%), making a Government total of 302 (40%). Then there are 225 (30%) Labour peers and 208 (27%) crossbenchers and others plus 25 Bishops. As the crossbenchers and others attend less regularly than the party-affiliated peers and split on issues, there is an effective Government majority over the Opposition of 70-80.
However, it appears that this preponderance of Government peers over the Opposition is not sufficient for this Prime Minister. Rumours are swirling around the House that another list of new members is about to be announced with the figure suggested ranging from 40 to 80 new members bringing the total able to sit and vote in the House of Lords to well over 800. The vast majority of these would be Conservative, although for forms sake a quarter might be LibDems with a handful given to the Labour Party.
This has constitutional, practical and financial implications.
The constitutional implications are that it risks turning the House of Lords into a rubber stamp for the Government. It would recreate the world of “Mr Balfour’s Poodle”. However, given the hybrid nature of the coalition, I suppose this would make the House of Lords a poodle crossbreed in the manner of a labradoodle, a westiepoo or a schnoodle – perhaps the correct term would be a Cameroodle.
It is also ironic that, at a time when the Conservative element of the coalition wants to gerrymander constituency boundaries so as to reduce the number of elected MPs from 650 to 600, it is proposed that the unelected House of Lords should increase in size to well over 800.
The practical implications are not insignificant. The Lords Chamber cannot accommodate the existing numbers during Question Time and major debates - and other facilities will also be overstretched.
Similarly, there are financial implications – the extra costs of allowances and travel expenses plus the administrative and support costs of the House in servicing extra members.
However, we seem to have a Government and a Prime Minister that cannot cope with disagreement and scrutiny by the House of Lords. Twice in the last ten days – rather than risk being defeated in a vote – the Government has ignominiously cancelled its business in the House.
Presumably even an average of two defeats per month (defeats that are usually successfully reversed in the House of Commons) is too much for this Government and this Prime Minister.
So what is David Cameron’s solution?
Pack the House of Lords with more Conservative cronies and place-men and place-women. A Chamber of Cameroodles.
Don’t say you haven’t been warned:
Conservative candidate for Cameroodle peerage