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Children: Commercialisation

Volume 725: debated on Thursday 10 February 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to meet the aim stated in their equality strategy to tackle the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood.

My Lords, parents are rightly worried about children being pressured into growing up too quickly. The Government have made a commitment to protect children from excessive commercialisation and premature sexualisation, and have asked Mr Reg Bailey, chief executive of the Mothers’ Union, to conduct an independent review and make a full report with recommendations in May 2011.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that response, and for the report from Reg Bailey that is to come. I am particularly concerned that an overemphasis simply on sexualisation, as we have seen in a number of recent television programmes, will hide the challenge to commercialisation more generally. Will the Minister tell us whether Her Majesty's Government will follow the recommendation made by the European Parliament to ensure that children are protected from behavioural advertising on the internet, all forms of new media, and mobile phone technology?

My Lords, it is absolutely the case that, alongside the focus on the early sexualisation of children, the Bailey review will look at commercialisation as well. For the European Parliament, as noble Lords will know, the question of regulating the internet and how one controls it is extremely complicated because, although one can take action in one nation state, the nature of the internet means that a host can move to a different jurisdiction and still provide material of the sort of which all noble Lords, I am sure, would disapprove. UKCCIS, the body that was set up following recommendations by Professor Tanya Byron, is looking at these issues and the Government will take those fully into account in considering how to take forward recommendations that are made to us.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that as well as children and young people being protected from the pressures of commercial organisations and the internet, young people also need to develop the skills to resist the pressures of commercialisation and sexualisation? Is this not a good argument for including personal, social and health education in the curriculum?

As the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, will know, the department is carrying out an internal review of PSHE. Perhaps I could speak to her afterwards to work out how I might be able to make sure that my officials can benefit from her expertise in this area. I agree entirely that PSHE is an important area in this regard. One needs to give children as much advice and help as one can. More generally, it seems to me that we have got into an odd situation in society where we have been treating adults a bit too much like children and children a bit too much like adults. The more we can redress that balance, the more we will be able to find a way to tackle some of these pressures on children, in particular to grow up too quickly.

My Lords, I recently heard a child say, “Mummy, I’m having so much fun I never want to grow up”. Does the Minister agree that if all of our children felt happy, self-confident, cared for and safe, they would not want to grow up too soon?

I agree with my noble friend in that regard. There is also the point in all this that government can play a role but that parents can also play an extremely important role. It is important that parents themselves assert the boundaries within which they want their own children to grow up. We had a very good debate last week, initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, about parenting and early years. One theme that emerged from that was the obvious importance not only of parents demonstrating love towards their children but of boundaries, authority and the framework within which they can grow up.

My Lords, following what the Minister has said about boundaries, should the Government perhaps highlight the importance of some degree of control by parents over what children watch on the internet, particularly with chatrooms? There is a particular danger in allowing children to have a computer with internet access in their bedrooms, so that no one can see what they are actually watching. As the Minister will know, the real danger is of grooming in chatrooms.

It is absolutely the case that there are some systems and filters that enable parents to try to control the flow of some of that material. The Government have been working with the BSI for kitemarked products, so that parents can have confidence that they will work. I agree that the internet and the laptop in the bedroom pose dangers. There is a big generational issue in that parents, by and large—certainly, of my generation—are not fully equipped to know what is going on in the same way that children are. Children are much savvier. The difficulty is in how one keeps up with the pace of technological change and enforces it. There is no simple way of enforcing this. Parents have to know what their children are up to and do what they can to give them guidance.

My Lords, in the investigation that is to take place and which my noble friend described, could he ensure that the abuse of tiny babies, which seems to be reported frighteningly frequently these days, is also looked at under this heading?

That issue is being addressed separately, not as part of this review. I agree that it is important, and the Government, led by my honourable friend Tim Loughton, are looking into those issues.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that while it is obviously important that we protect our children and give them as much information and help as we can, we must also try to avoid giving them the message that everyone is a threat? Among the many things that we have to warn them about, we should also teach them to trust people.

I agree entirely; that was part of my earlier point about treating adults like children and children like adults. Part of what one can do around vetting and barring and making it easier for adults to become involved as volunteers is not to start from the standpoint that they are all potential abusers of children. That is an extremely important part of it. I agree with the noble Baroness.

Does the Minister agree that the market for children’s spending is so lucrative that the media cannot be relied upon to police themselves and that the Government may well have to intervene further on the content of adverts and programmes on television before the 9 pm watershed?

These are important issues, and the Bailey review will look across the piece at all of them, as they are connected. As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, will know, the Government’s basic approach is to prefer, as a first step, to operate through agreement and self-regulation, but I entirely accept that if that does not work there is always a statutory step as a back-up. All those options are open to Mr Bailey to recommend to the Government.