House of Lords
Thursday, 20 November 2014.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Worcester.
Kashmir: Line of Control
My Lords, we are concerned about the recent incidents that have taken place on both sides of the line of control and international border between India and Pakistan. Our long-standing position is that it is for India and Pakistan to find a lasting resolution that takes into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. It is not for the United Kingdom to prescribe a solution or to mediate in finding one.
I thank the Minister for that Answer. We know that India and Pakistan have been to war three times over Kashmir. If any of these tensions escalate into another war, now that both countries are nuclear powers, that war could well be nuclear. Hence, is it not incumbent on the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, including Great Britain, to help to de-escalate the tension across the line of control, demilitarise the Kashmir region and help to create a conducive environment for the Kashmiri people to have their right to self-determination, as we have seen given to the Scottish people in recent weeks?
My Lords, I recognise my noble friend’s family background. He was raised in the Pakistani-administered state of Kashmir, so I realise that he has long-standing experience and ties. He has also worked hard for Kashmiri charities in this country, and I admire that. It is indeed in everyone’s interest that there is peace, security and prosperity in south Asia. The UK will do all that it can to encourage India and Pakistan to take the steps necessary to strengthen their relationship. However, the pace and scope of their dialogue has to be for them to determine, not for others.
My Lords, in the light of Britain’s neutral position on this matter, what is the Government’s position on the role of British nationals of Pakistani origin fighting for the Pakistani army, and British nationals of Indian origin fighting in the Indian army?
My Lords, the position of the British Government on those who decide to take up arms overseas is determined on a case-by-case basis. Clearly, British nationals have the right to travel overseas. My noble friend asks the question against the background of the severe situation in Syria and Iraq. I hope and assume that she is not in any way trying to draw a parallel between British people who are engaged in any activities in India, Pakistan, the Indian-administered part of Kashmir or the Pakistani-administered part of Kashmir and those who are engaged in the horrific activities in Syria and Iraq.
My Lords, this week is Inter Faith Week in which we explore commonalities between our different faiths and look to knock down these false barriers of belief that divide people up in the way that was done at partition. Bearing that in mind, will the Minister agree that the partition of the subcontinent on a religious basis—a basis of false, irreconcilable religious differences—was a huge mistake?
My Lords, the agreements reached between India and Pakistan were for them to reach and not for the British Government to criticise, but the noble Lord raises serious questions about the way in which—throughout all human history—there has been strife either based on religion or for which religion has been used as a reason. He brings a very measured and reflective point to this debate today and I am grateful to him.
My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that elections are no substitute for a free, fair and impartial plebiscite as promised by the United Nations in 1948 and 1949, and therefore that the forthcoming elections in Indian-administered Kashmir would not be a substitute for that outstanding promise of the United Nations, which should be given to the people of Kashmir?
My Lords, there is a long history indeed to the dispute; that has already been drawn to our attention. Subsequent to the United Nations Security Council Resolution 47, there have been further developments. The noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, will know of the Simla Agreement which now forms, as I understand it, the basis of the negotiations between India and Pakistan. It is clear that India and Pakistan themselves have the opportunity to take peaceful measures bilaterally to resolve the issue, taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. There are elections ahead, and they have always in the past been judged by the international community to be free and fair.
My Lords, understanding that this is a very sensitive issue, will the Minister reflect that over the many decades which have passed, the British Government have frequently intervened to try to get some sense into a difficult situation, and that we should not set our face entirely against trying to play some sort of mediation role or at least some sort of role to stimulate proper development?
My Lords, the noble Lord raises an important point; there are ways in which we can assist both India and Pakistan to be more prosperous and to have a greater understanding of their role in international society. We can also discuss with both countries their attitude towards human rights—and I can say that that does go ahead. We are certainly very active in negotiations on trade matters with both countries. For example, my noble friend Lady Verma was in India only last week on just that matter, so I am grateful to the noble Lord for those points.
Arts Council: Spending Outside London
My Lords, the Government want everyone to have the opportunity to experience arts and culture wherever they live. Currently 60% of the Arts Council’s grant in aid and 70% of lottery funding is invested outside London, and the Arts Council intends to build on this further over the next three years.
I thank the noble Lord for his reply. London’s role as a cultural centre is, of course, crucial but there is an imbalance in grant in aid, which the Arts Council cannot rectify due to cuts. The disproportionate cuts to local authorities in the most disadvantaged areas affect their ability to support local arts bodies as they would like. What advice would the Minister give to those struggling arts bodies outside the M25, and does he agree with those who argue that National Lottery funding for the arts should be allocated on an equal per capita basis?
My Lords, there were some important points there. The point about London, which the noble Baroness made, is that it is currently the cultural centre and, I think, the cultural capital of the world. We must ensure that that remains the case because so much of what happens in London goes out on tour. There are many examples of touring companies based in London, probably 78% of whose activity is outside London. That is important. There are many good examples of local authorities all around the country, including Durham, Lincolnshire, Wakefield and Portsmouth, which recognise that arts and heritage are routes to economic growth.
My Lords, more than 80% of private giving to the arts goes to London-based organisations. Does the Minister agree that the Government and the Arts Council need to redouble their efforts to get more private giving to go outside London, not least because many institutions headquartered in London are deriving substantial profits from the work they do outside London?
My Lords, all these points lead to the feature on which we need to concentrate—partnership. This involves the ability for London-based institutions to tour the country and the fact that our museums are loaning all around the country. These are happening and the examples are increasing.
My Lords, does not the Minister accept that this squabble will not in any measure be resolved until we have again a proper level of public subsidy of the arts, including local authority funding in the regions and—it has to be said—in London, where small companies are struggling as much as anywhere else?
My Lords, I do not think that the arts sector feels that it should be immune to the current economic conditions. Restoring the national economy is absolutely vital to ensure that we have the funding we need for the arts. That is the important point. In fact, I think that the arts sector recognises that in the last spending review it had a positive outcome, given national conditions.
My Lords, is it not inconceivable that the Arts Council should cease to fund our great national cultural institutions, many of which are, for historical reasons, located in London? I join the Minister and other noble Lords in pressing the point about local authorities. If we are to make up the deficit of funding in the regions, surely it is important to find better scope to enable local authorities to support the arts, as well as continuing to diversify various sources of funding. Should we not congratulate the Arts Council on the extent to which it has succeeded in sustaining funding for the arts outside London?
I think that it is universally and widely accepted that the Arts Council is doing a very good job in difficult circumstances that we all acknowledge. There have been some interesting developments regarding the way in which a number of innovative councils have been looking at how to deliver services on the arts and heritage more efficiently, whether by setting up charitable trusts, creating mutuals, outsourcing or sharing services. There are many good examples of local authorities of all political compositions doing well in that.
My Lords, will the Minister have a word with his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government in respect of some of the schemes it administers for arts outside London? Recently, under one scheme it is administering, it changed the closing date for applications while the process was under way, thereby depriving hundreds of small arts groups around the country of the chance to complete their applications. That has to be unfair, and is bad administration. The Arts Council does not operate like that; this was a central government department.
My Lords, given the fact that we all agree that local authorities are major players in supporting the arts, museums, libraries and so on, what does the Minister think about the recent Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee report highlighting the Government’s ignorance of the key role of local authorities in supporting arts and culture? It said that the committee was “staggered” that the Arts Minister Ed Vaizey could not recall a single conversation with any local authority. Is this now being addressed?
My Lords, that Select Committee report was interesting. I assure your Lordships that its contents will be looked at thoroughly by DCMS Ministers. There is £720 million of local authority money—that is, taxpayers’ money—going into the arts. That is a lot of money. I know that times are difficult, but they are doing very well with that amount.
I understand what the noble Lord is saying. That is precisely why the Arts Council is looking at moving the trend to the regions and I think that that will bear fruit. I want to go back to the importance of the working partnership between institutions that we cherish in London and those outside. There is a great cross-referencing of art and material from regional museums to London and vice versa.
My Lords, to illustrate the point that my noble friend the Minister just made about that partnership between Arts Council support in London and what happens in the provinces, those of us who are lucky enough to see beamed into our local cinemas the most excellent productions from London—from the Royal Opera House and the Royal Shakespeare Company, for example—experience, at second hand but at cheaper cost, the very extensive work that is being done in London.
My Lords, I think it is so that more than 75% of cinema audiences looking at Royal Opera House productions live outside London. Those are the sorts of changes and new ideas that are making culture and the arts so much more accessible. What a great success they have been.
Afghanistan: Development Strategy Post-2014
My Lords, DfID is committed to maintaining development assistance to Afghanistan of £178 million per annum until at least 2017. Our assistance will be focused on supporting peace, security and political stability, improving lives and opportunities for women and girls, promoting economic stability, growth and jobs, and helping the state to deliver improved services.
I thank the Minister for that reply. He will know that violence against women in Afghanistan is continuing unabated. Only last weekend Mrs Shukria Barakzai, a prominent woman MP, survived a suicide attack. Will the London conference that is coming up signal a new emphasis on women’s rights and the economic empowerment of women, and will DfID also put more resources into the elimination of violence against women, which has become our national strategic priority?
The noble Earl is quite right to draw attention to the importance of the situation regarding violence against women in Afghanistan and to the importance of the London conference on Afghanistan, which will be opened by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister on 3 December. It certainly will be looking at that issue. The attempt on the life of Shukria Barakzai was awful. She was not badly hurt—just minor injuries. It is worth noting that progress is being made in relation to women. She is one of 69 women MPs.
My Lords, following on from the comment made by the noble Earl, will the Minister tell us what other plans there are for dealing with the security, protection and support of women human rights defenders, who of course have a huge role to play in the transition period in the future in Afghanistan? Does he agree with Amnesty International that a lot more could and should be done in Afghanistan on that point? For example, is the Minister able to confirm that DfID and the FCO have developed, as recommended in EU guidelines, a country-specific plan designed to improve the protection offered to human rights defenders in Afghanistan?
First, I congratulate the noble Baroness on the work that she does in this field. It is well acknowledged. She will be aware that there is a programme, which is jointly funded by Australia and the United Kingdom, dealing with violence against women. That is a very welcome development. This country should be very proud of what we do in relation to aid. We are committing, and spending, 0.7% of GNP, which is well above other nations. We should take pride in that as a Government and as a country. As I say, this issue will be addressed at the London conference: it is clearly a very important one.
Does my noble friend agree that the best thing we can do is to help build capacity and effectiveness in the parliamentary and presidential institutions in Afghanistan? To that end, will he look favourably at any programmes over the next four or five years that support the work of women in elective offices in Afghanistan? They are struggling to have their voices heard but they do have a very important role to play in the future development of their country.
My noble friend is absolutely right in that. It is of great significance that both President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah are set on a programme of democratisation in Afghanistan and improving civil institutions. It is worth noting that there are 69 women MPs in Afghanistan. Many of them will be at the London conference. It is also worth noting that there are now women in senior roles in business, public service, the police and, indeed, the army in Afghanistan. Progress is being made.
The noble and gallant Lord raises an important issue. This is about not just development but ensuring that the defence forces within Afghanistan are properly trained. There is a commitment of £70 million a year going forward towards that. We are training officers and the defence forces are now substantially Afghan led. We are not part of the defence forces as such but we send defence advisers and, as I say, people to assist with training at the defence academy there, which is run on Sandhurst lines and is known sometimes as Sandhurst in the sand. It is an important part of what we are doing out there.
My Lords, perhaps I may return to the London conference as I asked a supplementary question on it last week. Can we be assured that women will have a full role in the London conference and that the Government will take every possible step to ensure that they are able to participate by allowing them proper visa access?
I thank the noble Lord for that question. I do not think that anybody can doubt the Government’s commitment on this. There will be full participation by women. Anybody who doubts that has only to look at what the Secretary of State, my right honourable friend Justine Greening, is doing in that regard.
My noble friend is absolutely right to raise that key issue, which relates to education, antenatal care and health services for women. Substantial progress has been made. Currently, 6.7 million people are receiving education in Afghanistan, of whom 3 million are girls. Much still needs to be done but that is significant progress over the past decade.
The noble Lord raises a key point regarding the future development of Afghanistan and the seemingly intractable problem of dealing with the drugs trade. This demands a long-term solution not just in Afghanistan but on the streets of London and elsewhere in the West. Often noble Lords and others may think that Afghanistan is not a country rich in natural resources but it is worth noting that there are other sources of income. There are $2 trillion worth of minerals in Afghanistan. The challenge is to ensure that we develop that and ensure that the people of Afghanistan are the beneficiaries of it.
My noble friend is right that this is a key issue in Afghanistan. It is being addressed by the UK Government, not least in the way that the aid budget is handled. We can see that in Afghanistan with particular problems relating to the empowerment of women and to ensuring that violence against women is dealt with.
UK Economy: Tourism
My Lords, tourism is a major part of the UK economy. Deloitte estimates that it will contribute £61.1 billion directly to the economy this year, supporting nearly 1.8 million jobs. This rises to £133.6 billion and 3.15 million jobs when indirect impacts on the wider economy are included. Tourism is central to our plans for growth and we are working with the sector to achieve this.
My Lords, national tourism policy is to boost tourism in and to the regions. However, the way that air passenger duty is imposed runs counter to this. It is a flat tax, the only differential being between different classes of travel. Thus, if flying a national carrier, business class, London to Moscow return, air passenger duty represents only 2% of the total cost of the fare plus APD, whereas flying a budget carrier, London to Glasgow return, finds APD equating to 87% of the total cost. Is not this a nonsense, and will my noble friend urge his Treasury colleagues to look at the way in which APD is levied if we really want to encourage and boost regional tourism?
My Lords, obviously the first thing I must say is that matters of taxation are for the Chancellor; the Treasury continually reviews all taxation matters. I understand my noble friend’s point about percentages, but the band A rate is £13 and is going to remain that for four years. I do not think it is a considerable sum but it does, in total, contribute nearly £3 billion to the Treasury.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that tourism is particularly important in Wales and that overseas tourism brings a disproportionately greater amount of revenue to the Welsh economy? If so, will he take up the matter with VisitBritain and encourage it to turn every stone to ensure that visitors do not just come to London but reach other parts of the UK?
My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord. This is why I am very pleased that there is a new £1.5 million Visit Wales campaign, for example, to bring more German visitors to Wales. It is a great experience for them as well as for visitors from America and Ireland. Visit Wales is working with VisitBritain and all the other tourism organisations to ensure that the experiences of all Britain and Great Britain are enjoyed.
My Lords, did my noble friend read the recent article in the papers suggesting that the so-called mansion tax would be a threat to and might lead to the closure of many of the stately homes of this country, which attract an enormous number of tourists? In that context, I hasten to add that I have no interest to declare.
My Lords, the first thing to say is that rural Britain, country houses and heritage sites are an enormous draw to people visiting. The Chinese, for instance, say that one of the principal reasons that they want to come to this country is because of our countryside. I think the truth is that, if the mansion tax were implemented, very few mansions would be clobbered but a lot of smaller houses would.
My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that the growth of the working poor is a matter of great concern? Will he join me in calling on all employers in the tourism industry to commit as soon as possible to paying all employees the living wage?
My Lords, the good news about the tourism industry is that there are many flexible jobs in areas of relatively high unemployment, more jobs for women and a higher number of SMEs. This is to be welcomed but the bad news, as we have just heard, is that these are generally low-paid jobs with limited opportunities for training. They offer little, if any, chance for apprenticeships and there is increasing use of zero-hour contracts. As a result there is a rising tide of job insecurity in the sector. Does the Minister have a plan, and what precisely will it achieve?
There is very much a plan. That is precisely why the Prime Minister announced that the next phase of trail-blazers would be attributed to the tourism and hospitality sector. That is very much ongoing. The British Hospitality Association has pledged to create 300,000 jobs by 2020. Many reputable companies are running apprenticeship schemes. There is masses going on in the Government’s apprenticeship scheme and in other companies.
My Lords, language barriers can exist for individual tourists travelling outside London to the nations and to the regions of England, and there are barriers to doing things such as purchasing rail tickets cheaply. We need to ensure that people have access to appropriate foreign languages when they visit historic homes, and so on. Do the Government have any plans to look at ways in which foreign tourists who are trying to travel outside London can be assisted both in our transport systems and their destinations when their English is not at the highest level?
My Lords, it is clearly very important, through VisitBritain, VisitEngland and the other organisations, that the welcome given to visitors who do not speak English is as accommodated as possible. That is precisely why, for instance, in the China Welcome campaign many more museums are ensuring that Mandarin is part of the repertoire. I hope that will be the case throughout the country. I will discuss that point with officials.
Business of the House
Timing of Debates
Employment Rights Act 1996 (Application of Sections 75G and 75H to Adoptions from Overseas) Regulations 2014
Shared Parental Leave and Paternity and Adoption Leave (Adoptions from Overseas) Regulations 2014
Statutory Shared Parental Pay (Adoption from Overseas) Regulations 2014
Employment Rights Act 1996 (Application of Sections 75A, 75B, 75G, 75H, 80A and 80B to Parental Order Cases) Regulations 2014
Paternity, Adoption and Shared Parental Leave (Parental Order Cases) Regulations 2014
Statutory Shared Parental Pay (Parental Order Cases) Regulations 2014
Motions to Approve
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I rise to draw attention to the extreme humanitarian suffering being caused by the Azure card. A system that was designed to prevent short-term destitution has instead enforced long-term destitution on thousands of people.
We appreciate very much those voluntary organisations without which no humane response to certain needs could be found. For instance, I checked on the Whitechapel Mission in the East End of London, and last year 4,932 different people used its services; 15,712 people used the showers; and 105,136 breakfasts were served to homeless and other people. Without the voluntary sector, churches and other places, many people would be at a total loss. We thank all these organisations for the tremendous work that they do.
The Azure card—many people do not even know what it is—was introduced in November 2009. It has subjected thousands of refused asylum seekers to distress and discrimination. That need not have happened. My hope this morning is that the system can be looked at again this morning, and possibly even changed. I thank the Red Cross and Refugee Action for all their information and support.
The Azure card and Section 4 support do not allow asylum seekers to meet their basic needs and live in dignity. It creates unnecessary suffering for people who are already in desperate situations. Research found that 85% of the refugee support organisations felt that their clients were left hungry because Section 4 support is insufficient. Ninety per cent of those on Section 4 regularly miss a meal. Ninety-two per cent of the organisations surveyed felt that their clients on Section 4 support were unable to maintain good health. Just as worryingly, the organisations find that the card makes users a target for discrimination: 72% of Azure card users reported having their card refused during the past six months. Seventy per cent of clients have experienced poor treatment from shop staff, and users experience feelings of embarrassment and anxiety when using the card.
How did this situation come about? Until 1999 all asylum seekers had access to a reduced rate of social security benefits, in the form of cash. The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 introduced two new separate asylum support systems. One—Section 95 support—was for asylum seekers still in process. The other—Section 4 support—was for refused asylum seekers willing but unable to return to their country of origin. So in 1999 cash support was replaced by a voucher system.
Asylum seekers were unable to travel; they could not get from place to place because they had no cash, only vouchers. So asylum seekers in, say, Vauxhall, could not travel to, say, Whitechapel, where there is a first-class used clothing store in the Whitechapel Mission. Often the services are there, but they are inaccessible. This leads to isolation and social exclusion of already vulnerable and marginalised people. It hampers their ability to engage properly with the asylum process. With regard to their efforts to return, they cannot even travel to where they have to make their inquiries, and they have no means to pay for travel to legal representatives or health services. I hope that this can be rectified, because we know that small problems can quickly snowball into unnecessary crisis.
In response to a recent Written Question of mine, the Government indicated that as of this month, 4,395 people had been living with the Azure card for more than six months. That means that 4,395 people under the protection and care of the United Kingdom were not even getting enough to eat, and were prevented from working their way out of this poverty—a poverty unnecessarily forced upon them. In October 2013, 1,228 people had been in receipt of Section 4 support for between two and six years, while 205 had been receiving support for more than six years. Therefore, 43% of people in receipt of Section 4 support in October 2013 had been living with Azure card payments for more than two years.
We must remember that people qualify for Section 4 support only if they co-operate with voluntary return, or if they can prove that they are unable, through no fault of their own, to leave the UK. They are not refuseniks; they are not criminals; they are not absconders. These are honest people who are co-operating with the system, and we are treating them inhumanely. The message from refugee support agencies is clear: refused asylum seekers have been forced to endure destitution and discrimination at the hands of a system that need not exist. The decision to replace the old voucher system with the card, instead of simple cash, has harmed the very people the Government were trying to protect. By not abolishing the card, the Government are refusing to recognise the humanitarian crisis that it is causing.
The reality is that the Azure card has solved none of the problems it was designed to address. As with the voucher system it replaced, the Azure card stigmatises refused asylum seekers and does not provide adequately for their basic living needs. It has led to the very people we are trying to protect going hungry, and it is singling them out for discrimination. This system need not exist.
If the Government will not listen to the moral argument for abolition, perhaps they will consider the financial one. Since its inception, the Azure card has already cost the Exchequer £1.5 million to administer, with the annual costs currently estimated at £200,000. The voucher system was scrapped in 2002 because the then Home Secretary, the right honourable David Blunkett, believed it to be too slow, vulnerable to fraud and unfair to both asylum seekers and local communities. Despite this condemnation in 2002, it was reintroduced in 2005 for those on Section 4 on the basis that cash would be an incentive for them to remain in the United Kingdom. In 2007, the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights declared that the Section 4 voucher scheme to be “inhumane and inefficient”. I repeat: that was the opinion of the Joint Committee on Human Rights of this Parliament. It went on to state:
“It stigmatises refused asylum seekers and does not adequately provide for basic living needs”.
It is the same story again. There is no evidence that the voucher system encourages refused asylum seekers to leave the UK. In 2013, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee concluded:
“Section 4 is not the solution for people who have been refused asylum but cannot be returned”.
The Azure payment card was introduced in November 2009 and implemented in the UK in February 2010, when once again the voucher system was deemed not fit for purpose. As things currently stand, people on Section 4 support have no access to cash and they are not allowed to work. They receive £35.39 a week via a prepayment Azure card. Accommodation is provided under the section. We are delighted with that, but it is not of their choice. The card can be used to buy food, essential toiletries, clothing and credit for mobile phones. Single people with no dependants are not allowed to carry over more than £5 at the end of each week, or it would show that they were making a profit out of the system. In fact, because of the unjust carryover limit, from November 2009 to December 2010, the estimated amount of unspent credit recovered from the Azure card during the first year of its operation was £650,000. The total value at the moment, for 2011 to 2013, is around £100,000 every year. That is money which is unclaimed and unused. It is just like taking food from the mouths of the hungry.
The card is accepted by only a limited number of retailers who have been persuaded by the Home Office to join the scheme. They are Asda, Boots, the Co-op, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, the Early Learning Centre, Morrison’s and Mothercare. The card can also be used in charity shops which are organised by the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. There is a great difference in price when you buy food. You can buy it in a budget shop or at one of the main stores. There is a massive difference in the prices. The Daily Mirror last Monday highlighted the difference in the price of groceries that could be purchased in various supermarket chains. It cost nearly twice as much in one store to buy the same items as in another—£47.04 as against £27.84. I will not name the shops involved. Also, the card cannot be used in a street market, bargain shop or discount store. As I said, it cannot be used for travel. Refused asylum seekers who are supported under Section 4 are prohibited from accessing public transport at all but the most limited times.
I suggest that it is time to withdraw this part of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, which prohibits the provision of cash under Section 4. It causes asylum seekers to feel discriminated against and unworthy. We are trying to give people dignity. We are trying to make people feel that they belong, even though their circumstances are not our circumstances. We need to provide them with funding that will meet their basic needs and to recognise that support must often be provided for much longer than the current system has envisaged.
In 2009 the benefit was £35. It has not increased. Asylum seekers are still trying to meet their needs with the cash that they would have received in 2009. There has not been any notice taken at all of the increase in prices. I speak to my noble friend the Minister a lot about these things. Would it not be much better to give someone cash in hand that they were able to use as they wished, rather than spend £1.5 million on administering the scheme?
Can we abolish the Azure card this afternoon? If we cannot go all the way, I suggest—and I just have a wee bit of time to do it—that we must conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the Azure card programme and make a comparison between the cost of the card and the cost of the cash. We must conduct an annual audit of the impact of the Azure card on its users and report to the Home Affairs Select Committee. We must try to expand—I know this is not always easy—the network of participating retailers to include smaller budget shops, charity shops, chains and, if possible, some market stalls. I do not know how one would do it. It will need some thinking through.
We should abolish the restrictions on what can be purchased using the Azure card—although alcohol and tobacco should remain things you cannot buy with it. We should abolish the carryover limit, which prevents people saving for larger or more expensive items. At the moment, if you want to buy a winter coat, you cannot do it because you do not have enough, although you might have £5 extra you could pay towards it next week. Could we look at that?
We must provide access to simple and up-to-date information to those who handle these cards—retailers and advice agencies—to train the staff so they do not refuse people who are have a legitimate use for their card. We must translate the information so that those who speak other languages know what it is all about. If the card fails, we must provide emergency vouchers that can be used if there is a technical problem. Possibly we could have a helpline, free from both landlines and mobiles, that can be used for other systems to help people when the system goes wrong. People should be able to check the balance of their online accounts by telephone or some other way.
There is much that can be done. I am convinced in my bones, as a fair-minded Welshman, that we could do something today to make the system more humane, to make people feel this is not undermining their dignity. I look forward with great interest to the contributions in this debate.
My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord for interrupting. He has made a very cogent case, but I think we are missing one link. For whatever reason these Section 4 asylum seekers are unable to return, it is obviously not fear of persecution. That has been dealt with.
My Lords, on these occasions, I normally start my contribution with the words, “I am grateful to my noble friend for introducing his debate”. Today, I am a little confused. We often have difficulties with noble Lords tabling very wide Questions for Short Debate and then getting a lot of speakers who want to contribute. Today, my noble friend has raised a very specific issue, the Azure card, which has not attracted many speakers for a two-and-a-half-hour debate. However, it illustrates that there is always the possibility of a debate coming up in your Lordships’ House even if neither the usual channels nor the party groups would have chosen it.
Before I explain why I cannot support my noble friend’s position, despite the very skilful way in which he has laid out his stall, it may be helpful to the House if I explain what my position is on wider and more topical immigration issues. I am a supporter of free movement within the Community. I think that Jack Straw got his figures wrong when he did not place transitional controls on accession states, but I believe that he was right not to do so. We cleaned up because the best-quality immigrants came to us from the accession states. When we hit the buffers in 2008, we did not get the unemployment that we could have expected because the surplus labour tended to go home or go elsewhere. This applied particularly to the construction industry, which took some time to recover. Of course, we need better arrangements for future accessions. In particular, the controls need to stay in place until the GDP per capita of the acceding state has risen sufficiently. We also need to tighten up on benefits, because it is a principle of free movement of labour, not free movement of benefit claimants—and I think that that is the position of the party opposite. I make this point to illustrate and prove that I am not anti-immigration.
We are proud of our asylum system, and we have a great system of justice and the rule of law. We can therefore be confident that, when an asylum seeker has been refused asylum and has exhausted his or her appeal rights, he or she is not a genuine refugee, is not entitled to be here and, most importantly, is not entitled to develop a life in the UK. Briefings that I have received suggest that our better benefits system for asylum seekers does not encourage people to seek asylum here. But if that is the case, why is there such a problem at Calais, where refugees are prepared to risk their lives trying to get here? I love France; it is warmer there; the food is better; and the culture is very similar. Since most refugees come from colder climates than our own, it seems a bit odd that they would rather be here than in, say, southern France. The logic is inescapable: it is better to be a refugee in the UK than in most other European countries.
On the point raised by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, about why refugees want to stay here if it has been proven through our legal system that they are not a genuine refugee, my understanding is that we can remove refused asylum seekers only to their country of origin or, if they have travel documents, to another country. We know that, in quite a few cases, there are practical difficulties in doing that. I also believe that we cannot remove to a third country even if it welcomes migrant labour—I cannot believe that we do not offer that opportunity when it is appropriate. I rather suspect that the refused asylum seeker would have a better standard of living here, under Section 4, than in many countries of origin or in those countries which welcome or even are dependent on migrant workers. I accept that being on Section 4 support will be uncomfortable. However, the system was put in place by the previous Government. This Government have continued with these arrangements, and I believe that it is the right approach. To make the changes proposed by my noble friend would only make the problem worse, particularly with refugees taking greater personal risk to get to the EU or UK.
I urge the Minister to keep the current system, with some minor refinements. However, I suggest that she listens to one suggestion from the noble Lord, Lord Roberts: raising the rate of Section 4 support in line with inflation. I know that there has been analysis that suggests that Section 4 support is currently sufficient, but the difficulty of not making regular increases is that you end up at some point having to make a large increase at a politically inconvenient time. It is much better to have small steady increases so that we can be confident that we are providing the right level of support.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the thoughtful speech of the noble Earl, Lord Attlee. What he said about the contribution of immigrants to this country reminded me of an experience last night. I spoke to Alison Baum, who is the chief executive of Best Beginnings, at the launch of her new baby app. This is an app that pregnant mothers and mothers who have just had infants can use and gives videos of how best, for instance, to breast-feed a baby. I was introduced to her father, Professor Baum, and I heard her husband playing in a band, another Professor Baum, and she told me about her brother, another Professor Baum. I met her son who is very enthusiastic about his education and looks likely to be a further professor Baum—or perhaps not quite of that name. Her father told me about the origins of his family. When I asked him where they started to become professors, he said, “Well, we came out of middle Europe in the 1930s with no education, but in our culture we have an appetite to learn”, and that is what they did. I hope that supports what the noble Lord was saying.
I have long felt concerned about the need to moderate and manage the flow of migration in considering the pressures that exist, as migration is often in those areas where the poorest people live, where the housing is short and where there are difficulties in employment. It is a very difficult and complex issue and needs a very complex and sophisticated response.
Let me also say how grateful I am to the coalition Government for getting families out of detention once they have failed asylum. I think that is an important step forward. I have welcomed it before, but this is an appropriate time to note that as well.
I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, for raising this important debate. He does an extremely important job in continuing to raise in our minds the needs of this particularly vulnerable group of people in our country. I was also grateful for the briefing that he arranged from the Red Cross last night. I am really grateful to him for what he is doing in this area.
There is a very helpful note from the Library, from which it is worth just highlighting what the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee recommended in regard to Section 4 in October 2013. It said:
“Section 4 is not the solution”,
and it went on to say that there should be “a better way forward” for refused asylum seekers.
The Library note also highlights the points that the noble Lord has made about the numbers. The Azure card is supposed to be a short-term answer to the problem, yet the table in the note shows that more than 1,400 of these people using an Azure card have been using it for over two years and 127 have been using it for more than six years. It was very disturbing last night to see a video of a family—I think they had two daughters—who had been on it for maybe four or five years. They then won their appeal, and they were off it and back in the country again. I have many concerns about the Azure card and I support the noble Lord’s request that it should be rethought and abolished, but if that is not possible I hope that the Government will choose to moderate its usage.
I would also like to highlight briefly that, although these individuals and families may have been refused asylum, that does not mean that they do not come from a nation where some kind of Hitler has been running the country for some time; it just means that he may have been removed or have moderated his activity. Often they have had horrific experiences in the place that they have come from. Coming to this country is very difficult. Going through the asylum process itself is traumatic—repeatedly hoping for the best but often having one’s hopes dashed. They often come from dysfunctional countries. For example, I remember visiting Angola previously, to which it is probably safe to return but where people live in fear of the police. I do not want to cast aspersions on any particular country—there are many dysfunctional countries out there—but one can have a great deal of sympathy for people even if they do not fit the criteria necessary to meet an asylum claim.
I am particularly concerned about the isolation of families, to which the Azure card may contribute. A recent report sponsored by the Maternity Mental Health Alliance, produced by the London School of Economics and entitled, The Costs of Perinatal Mental Health Problems, highlighted that the annual cost to this country of not adequately treating perinatal anxiety, depression and psychosis was £8.1 billion. The cost per individual birth is £10,000—a huge cost. Most of it, the report highlights, is constituted in the way that maternal depression, anxiety and so on impact on the relationship with the infant and result in the child’s failure to thrive because of a poor bond in its earliest years with the mother. The report highlights the fact that we should think carefully about the impact of what we are doing to the families under the Section 4 arrangement.
Looking at the figures, I roughly calculate that mothers-to-be will have approximately an additional £2 per week through their pregnancy to meet their needs. I welcome the fact that, a few years ago, the Government decided that pregnant mothers needed additional support and made more available—there is an additional £250 one-off and, sorry, an additional £3 a week. However, I ask the Minister to talk to experts in the field to find out whether that is enough to meet the nutritional requirements, to buy cots, and so on. I do not know what the rationale was for the changes and I would like to know that.
I come back to the issue of isolation. Over the years, from speaking with mothers when visiting Sure Start centres, it has been impressed on me how important it is for parents’ mental health to feel that they are part of a community and are not isolated. For example, a father who had mental health issues told me that being part of a group in a Sure Start centre, meeting other parents over coffee, was important to his recovery. When I spoke to mothers in temporary accommodation—thanks to the work of Barnardo’s and its Families in Temporary Accommodation project—they were able to meet on a weekly basis but they highlighted issues of isolation. In London, there is such a shortage of housing that they may be placed in temporary accommodation a long way from their family, friends and ethnic group. Some of them had to take a number of buses to reach those friends and family. When I accompanied a health visitor on a visit to an African woman with her new-born boy who were living in a house in multiple occupation in Waltham Forest, the health visitor had just a few minutes to make an impact on this woman, who was in tears about her situation when we were there—her partner was back in Africa somewhere, she knew nobody and the only support that she received was from the local church. In that short time, the health visitor had to try to give her the right advice, listen to her concerns and encourage her to go to the local Sure Start centre to begin to make some connections there.
All these experiences, along with conversations with experts working with such mothers, highlight to me that isolation has a terrible, negative impact on perinatal mental health. Conversely, it is very helpful for such mothers’ mental health to connect them with support in that sensitive period. Even if the Azure card is as harmful as many of us think it is, if we provide mothers with the right support and they can feel a sense of solidarity, they can probably manage to survive the difficulties that might arise.
I ask the Minister why availability of transport payments on the Azure card is very limited, and whether the Government will think about extending and expanding that. I think that one can pay for mobile phone top-ups on the Azure card, but I hope that the Government might think about making the payment, particularly to mothers in the perinatal period, a bit more generous and perhaps making it easier for them to call their home countries, and friends and others in this country. Finally, I am not quite clear about the roll-over arrangements. I know that there is generally a limit of £5 per week that can be carried over to the next. Perhaps with families it works differently, but I am concerned that if a parent wants to buy a Christmas or birthday present for a child they should be able to save up over a period of time to do that. I would like clarification on that.
As I said, the Secretary of State in the other place said that this is a supposed to be a temporary arrangement, yet for many families it is far from temporary, and I am concerned about that. There are purposes for this—I see that, and I expect that the Minister will say so—but I wonder whether they justify the harm that this seems to cause.
I should also have mentioned the matter raised by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, about stigma. There are two issues here. First, a family using this card in a local shop may mean that people with whom they are acquainted get to know their status, which may be unhelpful for them and further isolate them. Secondly, there is a question about their perception of themselves. If they go into a shop and they have to produce a special card and then experience a kind of looking down the nose from others in the shop, this may reinforce their sense of difference and isolation. If they are in a vulnerable time in their lives, for instance in or shortly after pregnancy, it may also make it harder for them to reach out to people, in their community possibly, but also to other indigenous people—it may make it harder for them to make those bonds, friendships and acquaintances that are so important.
To conclude, having followed the issue of families in detention in Yarl’s Wood for many years, I would like to say one more time, in the context of the anniversary today of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, that I am grateful to the coalition Government for deciding to treat families in this particular area so much better than they were treated in the past. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, for securing this debate on a very important matter. The churches have long held, and maintained in this House, that those who have applied for asylum and who are not allowed to do paid work should be given enough financial help to maintain a decent basic standard of living for themselves and their families. Indeed, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York has more than once led delegations on this theme. Surely every person who is in this country should be treated in accordance with our values. If we wish to dissuade people from coming to this country without the legal right to be here, it is wrong to try to send a message by treating asylum applicants, even when appeal rights are exhausted, in a way unworthy of our values.
Of course, this debate is about those who have come to the end of the appeal process but, for one reason or another, cannot be removed to their home country. They may or may not hold full or partial responsibility for the impossibility of removing them; in many cases, it is not their fault at all. As we have heard, the Government provide basic accommodation and around £5 a day for a single person. As the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, has rightly drawn attention to, one of the issues is the fact that it is not possible for this to be rolled over. He drew attention to the difficulty in buying coats, but other basic essentials, such as a pair of shoes, also become impossible to purchase.
However, we are looking particularly at the issues associated with the Azure card itself. As has already been stated, one of the big problems with the Azure card is that it can be used only in certain outlets. I understand that the card system is designed to eliminate as far as possible the possibility of fraud but it is surely disproportionate to make a system so fraud-proof that it does not achieve its proper objectives.
There are other questions about the way in which the system operates so that, as has been pointed out, only certain outlets accept the card. I am not exactly sure why that is the case and I would be grateful for clarification from the Minister. It has been suggested to me that it is because the money is issued under contract by a private company which has contractual relationships with other private companies—retailers—for mutual benefit. If that is the case, I would be very concerned.
Attention has been drawn to problems that asylum seekers using Azure cards face in London. In my own diocese, the churches are very committed to working with asylum seekers and I have heard heart-rending stories from those who work with asylum seekers in Halesowen about the way in which asylum seekers are forced to walk quite some considerable distance—a matter of miles on occasions—with children simply to buy milk from one of the outlets at which the Azure card can be used, even though there is a shop next door to them.
Last weekend a large group of people from all over the country met at the Sanctuary Summit in Birmingham. Part of the communiqué from that summit reads:
“It cannot be right that people are left destitute in modern Britain, banned from working but denied support. Until they are granted protection and can work, asylum seekers should receive sufficient support to meet their essential living needs while in the UK”.
I support that statement. It is by no means clear that the Azure card system is currently succeeding in meeting what were reasonable aims.
I join the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, in asking the Minister for a review of the Azure card system. If it is not abolished, there is much scope for improving its efficiency, convenience and flexibility so that individuals and families, who are some of the most vulnerable in our midst, can retain a degree of dignity and freedom as they face the uncertainties of the future.
My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend for enabling us to debate an issue that I confess I knew relatively little about until I saw that it was to be debated today. I also pay tribute to the Library for the extensive brief that it provided for Members and for answering the questions that I asked of it yesterday afternoon, which were ready at 10.30 this morning.
Your Lordships will not need reminding that this is about failed asylum seekers. It is not about asylum seekers in general but those whose cases have been considered very carefully by the Home Office. Personally, I pay tribute to the work of the Home Office on asylum seekers. That is not an easy job, particularly with the situations that we face in the world today, and those officers who handle that work do it exceedingly well. That does not mean that there are not mistakes made on occasion but, nevertheless, the bulk of the work is done exceptionally well.
In the debate today, we are talking about just over 2,500 people who have been refused asylum and who are provided with this card. I jotted a note on the points that my noble friend made in his speech. If a card is refused at a retailer that is partaking in the scheme, that is totally wrong and I would hope very much that if there is evidence from the churches or whoever that a member of the scheme is refusing the cards, that could be taken up with senior management and sorted out. It is worth looking at the list that my noble friend quite rightly quoted, which covers probably as much as 85% of the grocery trade in the United Kingdom. It covers the leading chemist in the United Kingdom—Boots—charity shops, which are very much in high streets up and down the country, and the Salvation Army.
On the winter coat issue raised by my noble friend, I doubt that you would get a winter coat in any of our supermarkets at the sort of price that would be possible with the amount of money available on the card. Nevertheless, the charity shops are doing a wonderful job on that and have done so for years, not just for asylum seekers but for hundreds of different people. I do not think that winter coats or that sort of example are relevant.
I am concerned about the carryover that is being talked about. It is quite right that the scheme should have the discipline of having no more than a £5 carryover. If the card is not being used to its full potential by those in receipt of it, that does not suggest to me that they are on the poverty line. It might be very interesting to do a survey on why this carryover money, which is now more than £160,000, is available.
Turning to the grocery market, I do not think I have to declare an interest but, for some 20 years, I used to do the advertising for some of the major grocery chains. I had other accounts, which were major brands for sale in the grocery outlets. I am not sure how recently my noble friend has been shopping. I certainly go shopping, which I suppose is inherent in the fact that I used to be involved in that world. There is a huge amount of fierce competition in the grocery trade. No one grocer doubles the prices of another, certainly not for the basic foodstuffs. In fact, there has been next to no price inflation over the last five years on basic foodstuffs, by which I mean milk, bread and so on. Indeed, I suggest that if my noble friend talked to one of the partaking companies, he would discover that at every one of those major supermarkets, at around 5 pm that supermarket will decide that goods that are fresh but going out of date have to be cut in price. He will find that bread and fresh produce are cut to hugely low prices. If these failed asylum seekers are not aware of that, it is high time someone told them that this is what happens. I offer the opportunity to other noble Lords: I have been to see what happens on the ground, and maybe others want to do the same.
There is a point about transport, and I hope my noble friend can have a little look at it. I am not sure that everyone here will necessarily have a pensioner’s bus pass—of course not, because there is a wide spectrum of age in this House—but I certainly have one, and I am sure that many others do as well. Maybe some scheme could be organised whereby this very limited number of people could be integrated into that scheme.
With regard to vouchers, your Lordships should be aware that vouchers are all very well because they can be redeemed against certain products, but there is a terrible temptation for them to be converted into cash and for it not to be used for the essentials of life. We are all human and, even for a failed asylum seeker, that cash is likely to go on alcohol, cigarettes and possibly even the betting shop. The new card is a far better scheme than the old voucher scheme. Above all, there is one thing that we have to remember. I hope that the House will bear with me if I mention the comment made by the former Minister for Immigration in the other place, Damian Green, who said that the cards are more restrictive because they reflect the temporary nature of the people concerned and that limitations are necessary, not least because public funds are limited.
The problem, though, is that more than half the people in the current situation are here for more than two years and, as has been mentioned, some for more than six years. I do not know why the Home Office cannot really get a grip on those who have been here for a long time. We know that there are legal firms that specialise in this area and produce a host of reasons why a particular applicant should not be deported, but somehow there has to be a truce for dealing with this situation because that relationship is totally unacceptable.
With the leave of the House, I shall turn for a second to the bigger scene. Overnight I did a bit of work on the numbers and types of people involved. I draw attention to the figures from Eurostat that I cut out about a fortnight ago from the Financial Times. The one fact that sprang out to me from that article was that the UK today is the most generous acceptor of non-EU immigration. We took 30.2% of the share of the 2.4 million residence permits. That is a huge number, so the background is that we are not usually restrictive but we are understanding and generous. That is welcome, but the immigrants have to be genuine, and for me that is the key determinant.
We see that reflected in the Home Office’s statistics. The last year for which figures are published is 2013, and understandably we see that the number of refugees is rising; they are now 33% of those who are granted asylum. That does not surprise me and I am sure it does not surprise anyone else in the Chamber—we have only to look at the situation in the Middle East to understand what the pressures are. Conversely, the refusals are falling, and that is understandable. The interesting thing to me is that the Home Office appears to be making progress on those who come under the category of “not recognised as refugees but given leave to remain”. In other words, these people are not refugees. Historically, the percentage used to be somewhere between 10% and 15%; this is now down to 5%. These are economic migrants who claimed that they needed asylum for refugee reasons, but they do not and have been found to be seeking asylum to improve their position in life.
Members of the House will know that I take a particular interest in Sri Lanka so last night I asked for Sri Lankan figures for three years. I asked for the figures for 2003, which was a time when the war was going on, but not with any great pressure, and peace negotiations were in progress. At that time the UK received 705 applications, granted 117 and refused 1,355 because the Home Office found that the vast majority of these people were economic migrants. For 2008, at the height of the war, I expected to see—understandably—a very high figure. There were 1,473 applications, 206 grants and 668 refusals. I also asked for the figure for 2013. There is peace now so that if you are a Tamil you can go to the north as much as you like and you can work where you like without particular permission. I was amazed to discover that, in contrast to the figure of 2008 when the war was at is height—1,473—in 2013, 1,811 people from Sri Lanka came here seeking asylum.
The Home Office does not break this down into whether they are Muslims or Tamils or Sinhalese, but my guess is that they are Tamils. I am surprised because I asked our British High Commission the other week about those that had been returned. It has a scheme whereby if you are returned as a refused asylum seeker you can ring up the British High Commission on a secret line and complain or ask for help. It has not had a single returned asylum seeker who has complained. I checked with the Australian High Commission because it has a similar scheme. It has had well over 1,000 Tamils come back from Australia with only one complaint. I am therefore led to believe that the vast majority of these people now—looking at the figures, their number equates to nearly a quarter of the refusals—are here seeking economic migrant status. Frankly, it is time for Her Majesty’s Government to look more closely at exactly what is happening on the ground in Sri Lanka as opposed to what they are being told is happening by the British Tamils Forum and other pressure groups. I use that as a particular example as it is one about which I know something in depth.
I conclude by once again thanking my noble friend for putting this on the agenda. I have looked at the scheme as far as I can in the time available and I think it is basically fine. It needs some fine-tuning and I hope the Minister will take it away and have a look at the areas that can and should be fine-tuned. There are two other aspects. Noble Lords have all made the point that there is something wrong when asylum seekers have been here for more than two years. Somehow we have to resolve that problem. I cannot pretend to know how it can be resolved but, specifically, now that I have looked at the evidence supplied by the Home Office on the Sri Lankan figures, it is time for a review of the cases from Sri Lanka and recognition that the vast majority of those now coming here who seek asylum are certainly not refugees. The Sri Lankan economy is doing well and life is quiet—there are no bombs or anything else—so most of those must be refused, but sadly at the moment that is not happening.
My Lords, we should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, for raising this issue. I do not suppose he expected that such a narrowly drafted Motion that we take note of the Azure card would provoke such a wide-ranging debate. It has been helpful. I listened to his speech, which he gave with his customary passion. Initially, I think he was arguing for the abolition of the card, but later in his speech he talked about ways to change or modify it. A number of points came up in the speeches of all noble Lords. I should say at the outset that, like the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, I am grateful for the briefing I received. I thought that the Library Note was particularly helpful and detailed. We should thank those in the Library who prepared it.
I suspect that the subject of this debate would have puzzled most people who may not have heard of the Azure card and may not be aware that there is support for those who have been refused asylum and, for whatever reason, are waiting to return to their country of origin. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, asked about the reasons for this. There are cases where for genuine reasons such removal is not immediately possible. Government data show that the numbers are relatively small, but I always think that in cases such as this statistics do not tell you very much, because they do not tell the underlying story. These are people who have been refused asylum in the UK and have exhausted all routes to be allowed to stay in the UK, so there must be exceptional and special reasons why they do not leave and, in some cases, are provided temporarily with state support.
There are therefore different issues to consider, which have come out in the speeches. The first is the principle of whether it is considered appropriate or efficient for there to be a support system for failed asylum seekers that is operated separately from any other system. Secondly, there are the practical implications about whether the system in operation is as efficient and effective as it should or could be. The third issue, which we ranged around slightly, is about process of asylum and whether cases are being dealt with as quickly, and therefore as humanely, as possible.
On the first issue, anyone who seeks asylum in this country and is ultimately refused is expected to return to their country of origin as soon as possible. It is only in exceptional cases that those who have been refused would continue to receive state support—what has become known as Section 4 support, part of which is the Azure card. One of those exceptional circumstances would be that the individuals are seeking judicial review; otherwise, they would have to be destitute and able to prove that they are taking all reasonable steps to leave—
That is the case, once applications for judicial review have been accepted, but during the application process they come under Section 4. I am grateful to the noble Earl for helping to clarify that.
As I say, the individuals must be destitute and prove that they are taking all reasonable steps to leave the UK, unless they are medically unable to do so through ill health or if, for other reasons, it is pretty much impossible for them to leave immediately. It is right that in those exceptional circumstances, whether or not someone has a legal right to remain in the UK, we should provide temporary support to ensure that people are not destitute. The key word here is “temporary”, and it is of great concern how long some people have been receiving such Section 4 support. It is hard to imagine the circumstances of those who have been on Section 4 support for more than a year. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, tried to deal with that issue.
I understand that the average time for which someone receives such support is nine months—sometimes much less. However, the fact that anybody should be in that position for six or more years, as 127 people are at present, is incredible. I suspect that each one of them has very specific reasons, but there is neither the time, and nor is it appropriate, to go into them in this debate. However, I would like the Minister to help me, either today or in writing: what proportion and number of cases receive Section 4 support for one year or less, and for two years or less? The point that I am trying to get to is that the circumstances in which this is long-term support, which was never intended, must be exceptional. The fact that there are 127 people in such exceptional circumstances is alarming and distressing. I would like to know more about the reasons behind the figures.
The whole point of support—including Section 95 support—for those seeking asylum was that it would always be a temporary measure. The issues of delays in the system must be addressed. However, after listening to the debate and from my reading beforehand, I wonder whether those long-term delays should be approached in a completely different way. Delays of five to six years are far too long when we are dealing with Section 4 support.
I come to my second point on whether the Azure card is as efficient and effective as it could be. As we have heard, it is pre-loaded with funds and provided alongside accommodation. It was brought in because of concerns about potential abuse of the voucher system that was then in place, and was intended to be more effective and efficient. The importance of it to those who use it means that it must be efficient. I am grateful to the Red Cross and others who drew attention to a number of problems that they found with the operation and administration of the card. A number of those relate to problems that arise because of delays in people being able to leave the UK, but others relate to the operation of the card itself.
First, there is the issue of limited shops. Clearly, it is an issue if anyone on a limited budget, for whatever reason, is limited to which shops they use. The reasons that cash is not provided is understandable, but it means that those using the cards will pay higher prices for essential items. I listened to the point made about that by the noble Lord, Lord Naseby. I think he said that 85% of the grocery trade is covered. However, that is not the same as 85% of the outlets that are available. Those figures may also predate the fall in profits of the big supermarkets and the rise in the low-cost supermarkets that many people who are not on benefits, but earning a living, are trying to use now to save money; so we would probably find that the figure is not quite as good.
They are tiny and they are growing; but convenience shops may be helpful if they are closer to somebody. There are also issues about being able to shop in markets, for example, where prices are lower. For me, the range of shops is an issue, in that if people are limited in the shops they can use, they end up paying higher prices in many cases. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, recognised this when he told the House in May that:
“There are ongoing discussions with other outlets that may be interested in joining the scheme”.—[Official Report, 14/5/14; col. WA 501.]
It would be very helpful if the noble Baroness could say something about the outcome of those discussions and what progress has been made since May.
The noble Lord, Lord Naseby, also raised the issue of travel, and other noble Lords raised concerns about it. I congratulate him on using his bus pass; I am sure that he is very grateful to the Labour Government for providing it.
I come now to the administrative problems that have been raised. The Government make it clear that the percentage of technical problems is quite small. That is accurate, but when we look at the numbers rather than percentages it gives cause for concern. Some 3,600 unsuccessful transactions were due to technical faults and more than 100,000 because they were not being used in the shops in which they can be used. What happened in those cases—did people go hungry? Is there any follow-up on cards that have failed, for whatever reason, and is there any follow-up from the people administering the scheme where that has happened? We are talking about fewer than 3,000 people who have Azure cards, so it would be interesting to know whether the contract to operate the cards includes any follow-up behaviour when transactions fail.
One further administrative problem is that more transactions were rejected because there being insufficient funds on the card than for any other reason—more than 200,000, which is a lot in terms of the number of people who have Azure cards. Helpfully and properly, there is a helpline, although there are some issues with it. It is operated by Sodexo and it will advise how much is on the card. I am concerned at suggestions that the use of that helpline should be charged for if it is used too often. Given that a transaction can be rejected as quickly for being lp over the limit as for being £5 over the limit, I would have thought we would want people to check the amount available on the card before they go shopping. I would be grateful for the Minister’s comments on that point.
What should concern us all is poor decision-making and the time it takes for asylum and other immigration decisions to be made. I have raised this in your Lordships’ House on many occasions in debates we have had on immigration issues over the last few years. Too often the initial decision has been found to be wrong. In recent years, 50% of appeals in First-tier Tribunal immigration cases fought by the Home Office have been successful, which means that in many cases Home Office decision-making about who can remain in the country has been as accurate as flipping a coin. That is unacceptable and is not fair to anybody. There has to be far greater confidence in the system. There is little doubt that poor-quality decision-making leads to far more appeals because of lack of confidence in the system.
Not only is it wrong in principle to make people wait any longer than necessary for a decision on their application and to have a system so flawed that there is little confidence in that decision when it is first made, there is also a false economy in making poor decisions as the appeal process and the money spent supporting people while that is ongoing and while they await decisions is a significant sum for the taxpayer. Therefore, improving the quality and speed of Home Office decisions has to be a priority. I confirm that that would be a key priority for a Labour Government.
The biggest difference that could be made to help solve some of the difficulties so many asylum seekers face as they try to live their lives waiting for a decision would be to have that decision made as quickly as possible. There are clearly problems in the implementation of the system of people waiting for decisions. The High Court recently found the Home Secretary’s decision to freeze support for asylum seekers to be flawed and made without reference to the evidence available of what support they might need. That kind of mismanagement increases the difficulties and the destitution faced by many and is just not acceptable.
What we need to do to move forward is establish a transparent and robust evidence-based review into the way asylum support rates are calculated to ensure that people are not left destitute and the taxpayer is not unfairly burdened. It seems appropriate for the Azure card to be included in any such review but, ultimately, we need to be more efficient and supportive in removing people when their options to stay in the UK have been exhausted. Obviously, ideally, once their application is refused and their route to staying in the UK has been exhausted, they should leave the country quickly and efficiently. People are waiting far too long for removal, whether voluntary or otherwise. That is a serious problem and is not fair to anybody. Cases where people are unable to stay for exceptional reasons should also be dealt with. I am horrified that people have been on the Azure card system for six years and more. The Azure card should only ever be a stopgap in somebody’s life. Section 4 support was only ever meant to be a short-term, temporary stopgap.
This has been a thoughtful debate. The Minister has been asked a number of questions and I hope that she will address them today.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate, particularly my noble friend Lord Roberts who is a very passionate advocate on this subject, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, said. I agree with the noble Baroness that this has been a thoughtful debate and, I think, a constructive one.
It is probably best if I set the background to this debate. The Government provide support and assistance to destitute asylum seekers by using the powers in Section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. This type of support generally consists of accommodation and a cash allowance to cover the person’s essential living needs. We provide this assistance to enable us to meet international obligations, most particularly by ensuring that persons seeking asylum, many of whom will, of course, have a genuine case, are not forced to abandon their claims and return to their countries because of destitution.
We do not usually accommodate or otherwise assist failed asylum seekers because in the vast majority of cases they can reasonably be expected to avoid the consequences of destitution by returning to their own countries. However, as an exception, we provide a different type of support under Section 4 of the 1999 Act—many noble Lords have mentioned this—where there is an unavoidable obstacle preventing the person’s immediate departure: for example, if they are too sick to travel or need time to obtain a necessary travel document. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, asked why people would be on that type of support. We also provide assistance to failed asylum seekers who have made further submissions relating to their asylum claim which, although found to be without merit in the vast majority of cases, have to be dealt with through a process that takes time. Different types of assistance therefore serve different purposes.
Section 4 assistance consists of accommodation plus a weekly allowance to meet essential living needs. The allowance is provided through the Azure card, which can be used to buy food and other essential items. The value of the allowance is rightly less than the allowances provided to asylum seekers, reflecting the different purposes of the separate support systems. One is aimed at meeting the needs of people still seeking asylum, a substantial number of whom will be granted refugee status and have a long future in the UK. The other offers a temporary fix for people who are not refugees and in nearly all cases need to be making arrangements to go home.
The legislation explicitly rules out cash being provided, as a result of an amendment brought in by the previous Government via the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006. This Government have looked at the matter afresh, as a result of the proposed amendments to the Immigration Act passed earlier in the year, but have no plans to change the law. Many noble Lords have touched on this. We need to provide a balance between meeting people’s basic living needs and processing their asylum claims in an efficient and speedy manner. However, we are always looking at ways of improving the operation of the card. Officials talk regularly to voluntary sector providers and partners about how such improvements can be made. As one practical example of this co-operation, we will shortly be bringing in changes to allow card users to carry over extra credit on the card from one week to the next. This suggestion was made by the Red Cross in a recent report and by many noble Lords in the Chamber today and I am pleased to be able to make this announcement. Currently, credit is limited to £5 unless the person has children. The change is designed to enable people to plan how they spend their allowance more effectively.
We are also considering how we can implement sensible suggestions about providing further information about the terms and conditions of the card and clearer information about how to apply for extra assistance that is available to those on Section 4 support; for example, the provision of travel tickets not only to attend essential medical appointments but to undertake other types of necessary travel.
We also look for opportunities to extend the range of outlets that accept the card, although this is ultimately a matter for the particular retailers. In the run-up to this debate, we again approached other retailers such as Aldi and Lidl. They are not willing to have the card at this time. In the round, the Azure card is essentially a pre-paid debit card that can be used at most of the main UK supermarket chains. It serves substantially the same purpose as other debit cards used by shoppers. The Government are satisfied that it is an effective means of ensuring that those on Section 4 support are able to buy food and other items to meet their living needs. It is a shame that other outlets will not accept the card. I do not think that there is an impediment to their accepting the card. My noble friend Lord Roberts and I have spoken about this. Ultimately, a bit more of a push might be needed from voluntary organisations—indeed, from Members of your Lordships’ House—to encourage them to do so.
I turn to points made by noble Lords in the debate. My noble friend Lord Roberts brought up a number of points, the first being on the thanks that we owe to the voluntary organisations that provide different types of support not just to failed asylum seekers but to asylum seekers generally. I echo my noble friend’s comments. Without the voluntary sector, this country would be a poorer place in all sorts of ways. He talked about the Red Cross survey, which should probably be seen in context in that it sampled only 11 people. I am not decrying any of its findings, but the sample was quite limited. He and other noble Lords talked about travel to legal offices or health services. All asylum seekers, or failed asylum seekers under Section 4 support, are always housed within two to three miles of shops. However, I take on board a comment made by the right reverend Prelate about somebody living next door to a shop that they cannot actually use. That was a good point and additional pressure needs to be put on those shops to be a bit more accommodating. I have no reason to believe that they cannot accept the card.
My noble friend talked about replacing the card with cash. This goes back to the point about striking the right balance between processing claims quickly and not having a system that incentivises new claims that might not have been made were it not for an easier system. I am not saying we should make the system difficult for people, but we should try to prevent encouraging new claims. He talked about dignity, mental health, and so on, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, talked about the anxious effect on families. I cannot disagree that somebody with a family who not only sought asylum but had the claim refused must be in a state of extreme anxiety. The noble Earl mentioned a pregnant woman, for example, and the effect on foetal health must be extreme. Again, that goes back to needing to process claims quickly—70% of appeals are processed within six months. However, that does not undermine the figures for the people who stay here for more than a year, and as the noble Baroness said, sometimes up to six years.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, asked about the number of people on support for under a year. That figure is 684. I will come back to her on the two-year figure, which she asked for, but the number of those on support for more than a year and fewer than five years is 3,013. There is no doubt that the system needs to be speeded up. The speedier it is, the less anxiety will be caused to families.
My noble friend Lord Roberts also asked about the administrative costs of the card. It is not hugely expensive; it is about £200,000 per year, and there is a helpline. I was shocked to hear—I think I heard it right—that overuse of the helpline could lead to charges. I am happy to be corrected on that.
I would be happy to come back to the noble Baroness on that, because it is a good idea for people to want to know exactly where they are up to in terms of their credit limits, just as we may want to know where we are up to on our bank accounts.
The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, asked why people are here. I hope that I have explained the reasons why people would be on Section 4 support. My noble friend Lord Attlee spoke about the contribution of immigrants to this country. When we talk about immigration now, we often talk about it almost as a scourge. However, this country is a nation of immigrants and, speaking as an immigrant, I can say that many of us have contributed both to the economy of this country and to its cultural richness. Nevertheless, we have to get it right in terms of people who are coming to contribute to the economy and those who, as my noble friend pointed out, will risk their lives to come here for reasons other than work.
My noble friend also asked whether the Government would reconsider the level of payments on the card. I understand that the Government reconsider this every year, and at this point we do not intend to increase the level. I also take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, about the High Court ruling, and I will write to her and to my noble friend on that subject, in terms of the level of the payment, and put a copy in the Library.
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, asked about the numbers on Section 4 support. The numbers are about 5,000, and 70% of the claims are processed within six months. Of course, that means that 30% of claims are not processed within six months.
When a claimant is appealing a failed claim, they will be paid during the time of their appeal—yes. I hope that that answers the noble Baroness’s question.
The noble Earl also talked about the cost to families in terms of dignity, and the stigma of being not just an asylum seeker but a failed asylum seeker. I have to concur with that. Again, the more quickly we can process the claims, the better. There is also the travel issue, which I think I have already addressed.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester said that the card can be used only in certain outlets. Again, I hope I have addressed that point by explaining that the card can be used only in outlets that wish to accept it. The right reverend Prelate talked about someone living next door to a shop but not being able to use the card in it. He also talked about allowing flexible use of the Azure card or abolishing it. The Government have no intention of abolishing the card, but I agree that if markets, or any other retail outlets, were more willing to accept it, that would make the process easier and more dignified for all involved.
My noble friend Lord Naseby asked what happens if a card is refused. My understanding is that it will be replaced, or vouchers will be provided immediately. Obviously, there is a helpline to ring. I do not think that anybody would be left hungry because of a failure of the card. He also asked about carryover, and I am pleased to say that carryover would now be allowed without restrictions. He also talked about the range of supermarkets—I think I have gone through that—and about transport. We are continuing to look at where transport arrangements can be more flexible. Certainly, someone on Section 4 support can apply for travel tickets to see a doctor, to go to the Home Office or to access legal support. My noble friend said that the UK was a most generous country. That is true. We pride ourselves on our democracy and our rule of law, on our compassion and on how we treat asylum claimants. But obviously there remain some efficiencies to be derived in the asylum system where claims have failed.
I think that I have addressed all noble Lords’ points. I hope that I have addressed those made by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, sometimes by weaving them in to my responses to various other noble Lords. She said that anyone going through an appeal is on Section 4 support, and that is absolutely correct; I think that was in response to a point made by my noble friend Lord Attlee.
They are appealing against their failed application; it is during the appeal process, I understand. I will write to the noble Baroness, because I am not sure that she is satisfied. It is when an asylum seeker has had their asylum claim rejected and is appealing against that.
I shall now conclude, because my time is up. I will check whether there is anybody whose questions I have not answered sufficiently, and if so I will write to them in due course.
My Lords, I appreciate the Minister’s approach very much. This is not an easy time to debate this subject, but often our debates on such subjects depend on the spirit of the participants—whether they are positive and eager to do something that enhances people’s lives, or whether they are those who will keep on putting hindrances in people’s way. I thank the Minister for taking that very positive attitude.
I have not achieved the abolition of the Azure card—that is possibly the next step—but we can now go ahead and discuss this in a positive way. There is nothing black about it; it is something that we can discuss together, and together we can achieve a great deal of what the organisations involved, such as the British Red Cross and the Refugee Council, want us to do in the interests of every individual. They are all individuals, whether they are in dire poverty, or whether they are in the depths of Wales. We are always dealing with individuals; they are always people. As I say, I think that we can now work positively and actively with the organisations involved in these matters. I would like to see regular meetings with them to discuss the problems from their viewpoint as well as from the point of view of this House.
In spite of not getting what I want, I feel that the whole tenor today has been one of encouragement. I want to say thank you for that, and I look forward to the next step, which in due course may possibly be the abolition of the Azure card. We need a payment that is more relevant and fit for purpose for those who are suffering through no fault of their own. Their time here should not be spent in dire poverty. Again, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part. I appreciate that very much indeed.
UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: Digital Impact
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, today we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is a legally binding international agreement that carefully balances the necessity for children to be the guardians of their own interests alongside our need to act as responsible guardians of them. The 54 articles of the convention cover a complex matrix of scenarios, but when combined they stipulate that,
“the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration … In all actions concerning children”.
In March 1989, also 25 years ago, Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s proposal for the world wide web gave birth to a technological revolution which changed immeasurably almost every aspect of a young person’s life. While the experience of childhood has been revolutionised by technology, the necessity for children to be the guardians of their own interests and our need to be responsible guardians of them remains exactly the same as it was 25 years ago.
Today’s debate does not seek to establish whether web-based technologies are good or bad. My own view is that these technologies bring with them unparalleled opportunity, breathtaking imagination and the tantalising promise of a better world. But any technology that brings about such fundamental change in the way we behave, the way we do business and the way we communicate is bound to present challenges. In the case of the two momentous events of 25 years ago, they present some demanding contradictions. The digital world is one of infinite possibility, but it was not designed with children in mind. I look forward to the contributions of noble Lords from all sides of the House on a wide set of issues. Many of my own comments will concern Article 16 covering a child’s right to privacy. But first I must declare an interest as one of the founders of iRights, a broad coalition of civil society organisations and young people working together to create an agreed framework for promoting and implementing children’s rights online. Among the 100 or more signatories to iRights are UNICEF UK, the Children’s Rights Alliance for England and the National Children’s Bureau, all of whom provided briefing for today’s debate.
Article 16 determines that:
“No child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his or her honour and reputation”.
It is estimated that 98% of nine to 16 year-olds in the UK are online, while recent Ofcom research indicates that the vast majority are accessing the net through portable devices such as smartphones and tablets. In a young person’s hands these are powerful tools that hold the possibility of creativity and invention and allow them to access the world’s vast knowledge. But this is not a neutral arrangement. As children shop, play, learn, research and upload, they are giving up their personal information. We are familiar with the attacks on “honour and reputation” and with the risks of overexposure. Multiple surveys suggest that between a quarter and a third of young people online have been upset by what others have posted or shared about them. The 2014 Ofcom report explains that:
“Some intrinsic aspects of the online environment served to facilitate risk-taking”,
as young people experiment with identify formation and use the cover of anonymity to communicate with strangers, view inappropriate content, and be critical or even cruel to one another.
However, research also shows that young people do not fully appreciate how the indelible nature of data contributes to their reputation and the reputations of others. A reputation, once it is established, is extremely difficult to change. But preserving reputation is just one dimension of a digital identity. The gathering of personal information and of the activities of its users has become the primary commercial driver of the web, creating in its wake a real-time record of childhood. Increasingly, the use of GPS technology tracks not only what children have used their phones for, but where they were at the time. Their most intimate details and cursory winks provide data as they go about their daily lives. Data are the building blocks for a system of personal profiling where an algorithm can access the preferences and activities of a child however young with no promise of how or when they might be used—in perpetuity. These data, casually signed away by children who are often without legal capacity or cultural understanding of the consequences, create a digital legacy that is built up beyond the knowledge or sight of parents and guardians, and often beyond the comprehension of the young people themselves. The data gathered may indeed be of a benign nature, but put together, they profile a young person before they are fully formed.
The ideal of privacy allows individuals to define themselves, to reveal or conceal; it is not to hide only that which is wrongdoing, but also perhaps something that is special, precious or simply personal. We know that on occasion our dignity is challenged by the misunderstanding of others or by our actions being judged out of context. A digital identity is very low on context. Childhood is a time of rapid personal development and experimental social interaction. It is a time when change is a requirement, not a fault. What we know from neuroscience is that the brain is plastic and develops according to use and experience, and that the concept of consequence is one of the last things to develop as a child grows to maturity.
The convention lays emphasis on privacy for children and provides for a balance of interference that includes both protections and privileges based on the overarching notion that we must act in,
“the best interests of the child”.
Arguably, data gathering on this scale from minors is not unlawful, but I believe that we have the balance wrong. The subject of this debate is as broad as the convention itself. There are many stakeholders: parents, teachers, those who design and deliver technology, corporations and government. All are putting technology at the centre of their services, and not least the young themselves. Like the internet, the 54 articles of the UNCRC are interconnected, mirroring key aspects of the children’s complex lives and needs, and within them lie so many contradictions.
It is worth noting, however, that, however anxious we feel about some people’s online activity, it is very often of great benefit to them. The mental health charity YoungMinds states clearly that everyone who is concerned about the emotional well-being of young people needs to acknowledge that thousands of them get emotional support from online communities, thereby upholding the principle enshrined in Article 24, which encompasses a child’s right to appropriate physical and mental health information advice and support. This is just one of dozens of charities and third-sector organisations that reach out to the young through digital technology.
Article 13 describes the right to freedom of expression and raises the question of access. I will always argue for according the same rights online that children enjoy in the analogue world, but it is absolutely the case that children need equal access to the web. The findings of a large-scale study by Oxford University’s Department of Education are that teenagers who do not have access to the internet in their home are,
“clearly missing out both educationally and socially”.
With access, however, come challenges. Article 19 determines that a child must be protected from,
“physical and mental violence … including sexual abuse”.
The noble Baroness, Lady Shields, who has guided Her Majesty’s Government and worked successfully with industry, is an expert in this field. I look forward to hearing her maiden speech in this debate.
Forgive me for reiterating this point: this debate is not about whether web and digital technology are good or bad. They are here. It is about how we best deliver children’s rights, inform them of their responsibility and build their resilience when using technology that is fast becoming the organising technology of our society.
In their briefing the four Children’s Commissioners of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland refer to Articles 28 and 29 as a right to “a three dimensional education”. No education can be three-dimensional in the 21st century unless it puts the digital and internet technologies at its heart. The O2 report The Future Digital Skills Needs of the UK Economy states that we are about to experience a skills gap where 745,000 jobs requiring digital skills may go unfilled—jobs that could go to young people, who, we know, suffer disproportionately from unemployment. Yet the decade-long survey by the London School of Economics, EU Kids Online, run by Professor Sonia Livingstone, cites young people as still being at the bottom of the digital ladder of opportunity and states that we must move the young from “information-seeking” to the top-of-the-ladder activities that promote creative and civic engagement.
I welcome the Government’s new computing curriculum in schools and the work of the “maker movement”, which is setting its sights on teaching children and young people to be digital creators. In seeking to provide for the “best interests” of the child as a “primary consideration”, however, we must make sure that we define digital literacy as not only an ability to create and code but also a critical understanding of the pushes and pulls designed into the technology itself and its emerging social norms.
In this regard, we need to redouble efforts to teach the teachers, and not only those who will deliver the new computing programme. Professor Peyton Jones, in his evidence to the Digital Skills Committee, said that IT teachers,
“feel underequipped to deliver that change in a short time”.
He referred to the computing curriculum as an “entirely new subject” because of its very great breadth—which is to be celebrated. It is imperative that not only teachers of the computing curriculum have confidence in their skills but also teachers right across the curriculum, parents and policymakers. The issues emerging from the digital world should be a central component of PSHE, and PSHE should be statutory in all schools, whatever their status.
It is not possible, in the time available, to capture the totality of what a rights-based approach could provide for young people in the digital world. It will take the good will of industry and involve all stakeholders, including Members of our own House. Over the past few days, many colleagues kindly took the time to contact me in order to say how important they thought the subject of this debate. At the same time, they suggested that their own lack of technological knowledge prevented them from speaking in the Chamber today. Many of those noble Lords have the sort of experience that I can only dream of—in law, mental health, education, the EU, offending and medicine. This is not a question of technology. This is a question of how we step into the digital space alongside children and young people to learn and understand its implications for their lives now and in the future. Our role is to apply our wisdom, our values and their rights enshrined in the UNCRC.
I have been able to raise only a few of the issues at stake, and I know other noble Lords will follow me. I would, however, like to ask the Minister if Her Majesty’s Government will commit to a review that would report on how we might implement all relevant articles of the UNCRC in the context of web-based and digital technologies. This would be a review process that in the spirit and letter of the convention has the “best interests” of the child as its “primary consideration”.
Finally, will the Minister consider how best Her Majesty’s Government might support parliamentarians in furthering their own understanding of the digital world, and in doing so put our own House in order? None of us can afford to be absent from the digital debate. I am very grateful to those who have chosen to speak, and I look forward to hearing the contributions of all noble Lords. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is with great trepidation that I follow the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, because she was saying that she knew of many Members of your Lordships’ House who did not feel they were sufficiently qualified to enter into this debate. I am afraid that I am one of those people who has the temerity to take part today, but I am grateful to her because she has introduced the debate expertly and comprehensively, and dealt with almost every aspect of the convention that we are here to talk about.
I am going to be followed by people who know far more about this field than I do—particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, who is going to make her maiden speech this afternoon. As a layman, I want to issue a warning about the damage being done to our children by what are described in the title of this debate as young people’s “online and digital interactions”.
How many times, in how many debates, have we heard someone say, “The welfare of the child is paramount”? We say this constantly, but do we really mean it? If we do mean it and believe it, what, as legislators, are we doing about it? The world is becoming increasingly insensitive to the care and needs of our children. To grow up happily, children need stability as well as love. The very sad reduction in the role of the traditional family in our national life is denying many children the stability they need.
Children are not modernised in the womb. They emerge naked, empty and vulnerable, totally unaware of what their surroundings will be like. If it is a boy, he does not know whether he will be asked to fight with Harold at Hastings, to take sides in the Civil War or maybe go off to Flanders in 1914. Children know nothing until we start to shape them.
For thousands of years, the influences on children’s lives were their parents, family and friends. As they grew up, it would be school friends, teachers and workmates. Suddenly, whether we admit it or not, we have created a parallel universe—a world into which, once they are old enough to press a button or two, children can disappear and we cannot follow or have any idea of what they are doing. It becomes for them a source of entertainment. For some it is a refuge: a place to meet new people, a place to experiment away from supervision. They may talk to people whose real identity they do not know and whose motives may be dubious.
Imagine your child or grandchild perhaps being told by total strangers, children or adults whom neither you nor they have ever met the most intimate details of any and every aspect of life without anyone realising what they are hearing or seeing. There is the very obvious danger of children being persuaded to enter into dangerous relationships—now commonly known as grooming.
I looked at some of the statistics in the report that we are talking about today and I found all of them horrifying. In 2013, 37% of five to seven year-olds used the internet every day. In just one month, December 2013, 44,000 children aged six to 11 visited an adult website. I could go on. Quite frankly, as I said, I find the statistics relating to this debate on the convention utterly horrifying.
When children are young and vulnerable, images and ideas, whether good or bad, leave impressions and help form character traits that last a lifetime and have a huge effect for good or ill on their future happiness. Part of the answer, obviously, is strong, wise parental control, but this by itself cannot work. Many parents will not worry, do not see the size of the problem or simply do not have or make the time to supervise. Even the best parents cannot be on duty every minute—and a minute is perhaps all it takes for serious harm to be done.
As a matter of the greatest urgency, a way must be found to control, edit and supervise what at least our very youngest children can access. As I have said, I am not technically competent enough even to begin to suggest how this might be done, but there must be people who know how we can at least try. Surely those who invented the so-called social media can help us to tame the creature they have created.
One thing is certain: we simply cannot do nothing, for that would be to admit that we have produced a monster that is beyond our control, and the long-term effects on our children will be catastrophic. History will show whether all these new contrivances, whether it be the internet, websites, Google, Facebook, YouTube or even Snapchat, have brought us more good than harm. For the sake of our nation’s children, we must do all we can as quickly as possible to tip the scales the right way. Going online must not be allowed to send our children off course.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on securing this important debate, as it coincides with the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. She persuaded me to speak in her debate and it is an honour to do so. I also look forward with great interest to hearing the maiden speech of my noble friend Lady Shields and welcome her to the House.
After 25 years of the UN’s Convention on the Rights for the Child, this should be the gold standard by which the United Kingdom measures all its provision for its youngest citizens. As Article 3 states, we are required to act in the best interests of children at all times and think about how our decisions will affect them. As I say repeatedly, childhood lasts a lifetime and children’s early experiences form lasting foundations, so it is our duty to get it right. For nearly 40 years, I have worked for and with children and young people, and my mission in life is to secure the very best for them in society and to make sure that all parts of our society put them first. Children have rights that need to be considered and promoted, and that includes their rights within the new-age, online world.
At this point, I want to acknowledge all the children and young people who have taken their lives because of the influence of online abuse, content and negative experiences—practices such as cyberbullying, sexual abuse, anorexia or suicide sites, all involving boys and girls. These tragic incidents are becoming more and more commonplace in today’s society, bringing pain, suffering and sadness to families across the country. Let us not forget them.
I am the chair of the All-Party Group for Children’s Media and the Arts. Since its formation in 2012, we have been concerned that decisions about the internet and children are not properly thought through, because, too often, the internet is seen by adults as separate from the rest of the child’s life. Public opinion and policymakers seem to lurch from knee-jerk reaction to knee-jerk reaction. Yes, the internet is full of predators, full of bullies, full of silly games, and children must be protected from all this. But the internet is also full of important and valuable things such as information, knowledge, news, fun and friendship.
The UNCRC states that children have just as much right to these things as they do to safety and security, so we need to find a way to teach our children and young people how to navigate their way safely, how to be discerning, and how to evaluate and judge what they see, hear and do. It is encouraging that Ofcom’s research states that some older children are beginning to make judgments about the truthfulness of online content, including search engine results and how accurately people present themselves online. However, we still do not know the long-term psychological effects on young minds and whether they will be harmful—the jury is still out on this.
Yes, all of this is food for thought, and I am glad that we are having this debate today, especially when so much of the popular digital space is occupied and controlled by a small handful of powerful players such as Facebook, Twitter and Google. They have a huge and largely unnoticed influence upon our children, gathering information about their users with each mouse click, and controlling what information their search engines offer back. Such power and influence over young people is not tolerated in traditional media. I ask the Minister: why is this allowed to happen in the cyberworld? Who do these powerful players answer to in this country? This is an important question. Why? Because we are entering a new age: the cyber age. In decades to come we may regret not paying enough attention to the controlling and socially invasive aspect of the internet.
I believe this for several reasons. The main one is because we continue on an almost daily basis to witness revelations of sexual and domestic violence; rape, even gang rape, on girls, some as young as 11; and the sexualisation of young girls in society where violent pornography is only a mouse click away. Where is all this taking us? How are young minds going to cope psychologically, physically and mentally in the future?
This is a pan-global epidemic underpinned by the media and the internet, which supports imagery and attitudes that relentlessly promote the idea that social emancipation and free speech equal the freedom to flaunt the boundaries of decency, self-respect and the sanctity of our bodies and our souls. It is women, especially young women and girls, who are the main casualties of this. No wonder we witness highly sexualised behaviour by children and young people—some as young as six—when they are being influenced so strongly to believe that stardom, success, fame, riches and happiness can all be achieved by using sex as a commodity.
We are living in an era when children and young people lose their innocence far, far too early. They are exposed relentlessly to a sexual culture, where many boys and girls are allowing themselves to be exploited, degraded and manipulated. Young boys are learning to see their female counterparts as sexual objects, who are expected to perform the same way as they see on porn sites, which are so easily accessible today to anyone with a smartphone, a computer or a tablet. We now have degrading behaviour by boys who force girls to perform sexual acts, film the humiliating action and then shame the girls by putting it on the web. The boys often do not feel satisfied by the experiences, as they do not match up to the expectations of their pornographic fantasies. The girls, in turn, self-harm; some even take their own lives. Both parties become victims. It makes me weep.
This has to stop. The NSPCC has highlighted a dramatic increase in girls self-harming and committing suicide because of their sexual exploitation and degradation—and more recently by adults using the internet to slowly, slowly groom children through sexually explicit online communication. Sometimes the aim of these adults is no longer just to meet the child or young person. The sex abuse happens online—with the adult and the child using coded language when the parents are present. These paedophiles are manipulative, ruthless and dangerous.
The internet and technological developments have given children and young people access to economic, social and political opportunities across the world, which is wonderful. However, many parents feel disempowered by an environment that ignores their rights to protect their children online. Access to their children’s data and images is withheld by the companies that have created their children’s online world. There are international laws in place protecting children online. However, parents are beginning to realise that in the UK their online rights do not match their rights offline. Parents need to have the right to be able to intervene on behalf of their child if problems arise online, to know what data are stored about their child and to challenge inaccuracies. Parents should have their consent sought when a child signs up to use an online service and expect minimum safety standards for children’s websites.
On a positive note, the message is slowly getting through. According to a report by Ofcom, not only are many parents expressing concerns about the media online content that their child has access to but nine out of 10 parents mediate their child’s access to the internet in some way. Most parents use a combination approach, including using technical tools, as well as having rules about access and use, regularly talking to the child about specific risks and supervising the child’s online activity. They also feel that ISP content filters are important and use them to block what they believe should be blocked. They feel that it is their right to do so—together with open dialogue with their child.
I believe that this will not only empower the child but, in doing so, educate the child to become more vigilant and aware. Yes, children do have rights, but with these rights come responsibilities: to let their parents know about their online activities as they explore the limitless cyberworld.
Not all children have parents who care or take an interest in their well-being. So, as well as parents, school has an important role to play in teaching our children how to use online technology responsibly and safely, how to put safeguards in place to protect their privacy and how to be cautious about trusting anyone online—because the person they are interacting with might just have ulterior motives, which could end in disaster.
I tell children when I visit schools, “Never feel intimidated by bullies. Never feel a victim. Never exchange information you wouldn’t otherwise share with someone in person or a stranger”. I tell them to learn to love and respect themselves, to have high self-esteem, to feel worthy, even though they may be suffering abuse, and never to feel that it is their fault. I tell them that they must live their lives with integrity and honesty, and above all have the courage to stand up against those who want to harm them or take advantage of them.
Yes, I know—I could go on for ever about this subject. I should never have been asked to speak. I finish by saying that we have opened a Pandora’s box. I know we are in uncharted waters. The global and domestic challenge for us is to join together and lead the fight for children’s rights. If the UK is to fulfil its UNCRC obligation to children by creating, as Article 4 says, an environment where they can grow and reach their potential, we must all do what we can to help them understand this digital world. We must give our children the opportunity, knowledge and tools to grow up happy and contented, just as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child intended us to do. I am so sorry I went over my time.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Kidron for tabling this debate today. The House has just heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, who was passionate in her wish to protect children. This is a very important debate. It is not just about young people. It is something that affects us all. I take today as an opportunity to listen to experts. I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, to your Lordships’ Chamber. I very much look forward to her contribution.
I quote from iRights:
“Enabling children and young people to deal with the challenges and engage knowledgeably with the digital world is the best way to ensure the full potential of the internet”.
That is vital. I am a fan of the internet. I was trying to think about how much of my life is spent online. I thought it was significant—mostly because my daughter keeps telling me to put my phone down—but it is much bigger than I thought. It is booking trains, taxis, reading the House of Lords Library briefing pack on this debate, checking Marshalled Lists and Order Papers, let alone the e-mails and social media platforms I use, and keeping in touch with my family.
I love the fact that I can be sitting at my desk in London and watch my daughter do her maths homework 300 miles away until she asks me to help her. In the pre-internet days, if I wanted to book a hotel, I had to take the word of the manager or a travel agent that the hotel was accessible. Now, they can send me a picture and I can choose whether to stay there. The camera on my phone is better than any camera that I have ever owned and, thanks to remote cameras, I can put a little camera on my daughter’s crash helmet as she is canoeing down the river and watch it on my tablet while I am sitting in the warmth of the car.
For me, social media are a way to engage, to ask questions, to challenge; that is not always welcome. One night, when I was in your Lordships’ Chamber for some late-night votes, a few people commented on how I had voted, but when I posted that I had missed my evening meal and asked whether anyone knew of a takeaway that was open at one o’clock in the morning, I was inundated with offers to bring pizza to Peers’ Entrance. Someone even posted that they lived in the same block as me and would make me a sandwich and leave it outside my door. It is amazing how you can dip in and out. You can engage with the pictures I tweet of the food that I eat on trains or what I say in debates. I can use it as a straw poll. In various debates that I have been involved in, people have sent me messages and given me extremely helpful information.
When I thought about this debate, I also thought about safety. Not all of my online interactions have been positive. I was recently interviewed on “Newsnight” about the issue of equal pay for women in sport. I was being pragmatic, not radical; I was not asking for a sudden change, but I cannot repeat in your Lordships’ Chamber some of the unparliamentary language that was used towards me. I think of myself as being fairly resilient, but when people are swearing and—I can say this—I was called a moron several times, it can be really hard to deal with. The offside rule seems to be the only gateway to any knowledge about football; if you know that, you must be okay.
It is not the same as having a conversation, where you can see someone’s body language and where the conversation might become more intense because you can see the person who is displeased. Often, the person at the other end has had time to ponder, stew, react and become very angry. When I explained to someone who was extremely rude to me that it is the same as printing it on a piece of paper, running towards me and thrusting it in my face, they stepped down and apologised, because they had not realised how aggressive they were being. What if I were 12 or 13 years old? Some people think that they are being funny. It is about context. Some people genuinely do not realise that they are being rude. There are people at the extreme end who are simply being horrible, but it is about the context and how people say things.
One disadvantage with social media and e-mail is the immediacy with which people expect a response. I recently received an e-mail at nine o’clock in the morning and then a vitriolic complaint three hours later because I had not replied, but do we punish somebody every time they say something out of context? I have said clumsy things in real life and on the internet that I later regret. There must be a way to manage this. We must come back to this in more detail in your Lordships’ Chamber.
The UN convention was written before the digital era; to be fair, if it had been written two years ago it would probably be out of date now. I look back to when I was working with the London Organising Committee for the 2012 Olympic Games. We were discussing the athletes’ village in 2007, or perhaps 2008. Several people questioned whether we needed wi-fi in the village—whether that was a justifiable expense. If we had not had it, we would have looked rather foolish. I am by no means an expert in the digital world, but we are not talking about laptops any more; we are talking about mobile technology. We do not know where it is going to go in the next year, let alone in the next five years.
I am worried about the number of people who do not have access to the internet. About 2 million disabled people do not have access. For some, it will open doors; others will be left behind. I hope that my noble friend Lady Lane-Fox will explore that in more detail, because I worry as much about those people who are using it as those unable to use it.
I have a 12 year-old. She has a phone. Some children whom she knows are on platforms that they are not meant to be on it because of their age. We talk about internet usage and what we think is appropriate as a family. She is very willing to show me messages that she has been sent. Frankly, I have been shocked by some of the things that I have seen nine, 10 and 11 year-olds write. She has had the confidence to remove herself from that conversation, but that has not been easy for her because she felt that she had a responsibility to be part of a group. That is why section 4 of iRights is so important. Young people need to feel confident to step away from these things. It is a lesson that I should learn. If you read a social media comment at two o’clock in the morning, the best thing to do is to turn your phone off and walk away from it.
Many people do not realise how far it can go. They talk about having friends. My daughter is fed up with me saying, “They are not real friends. They are different friends”. One comment can go around the world immediately. We have only to look at the pictures of Kim Kardashian that went to hundreds of millions of people in a very short time.
Young people use the internet in a very positive way. I think that a lot of young people are more informed about the world now than I was when I was that age. My knowledge of the world depended on which newspaper my parents bought and watching the six and 10 o’clock news. Today, young girls can find information about a whole variety of things. I do a lot of work with women in sport about the desire of young girls to be size zero. With one click, you can find pages of pictures of famous young women who are size zero. Young women of my daughter’s age aspire to be like them. It is very hard for them to choose what is and what is not the right thing to watch. That is why we need education. We need young people to feel able to make choices.
I think iRights is doing an amazing job because it has made me question things that I do, and I think that I am relatively savvy about the internet. Do I read all the terms and conditions of the forms I sign? No, I do not. Should I? Yes. Have I started? Yes, I have. I am very careful about the content that I share. I do not tweet pictures of my family. I turn off the location. I like it that when I open certain internet sites, they suggest books for me to read. That is fantastic, but I am also conscious that I am being directed down a certain path. Sometimes, I am very radical: I click to the second page of the search engine results. Because it is around me, I am aware of those things.
We must consider digital literacy and how we educate our young people. I would love digital literacy, physical literacy, literacy and numeracy to be joined together in our education system in balance.
My noble friend Lady Kidron cited Sonia Livingstone. I read a very interesting article in the Library briefing pack where she said that Governments promote ICT but we do not think about children’s needs. We must think of our children’s needs and all our needs. I think about how my husband uses the internet, how I use the internet and how my daughter uses it. They are all different, but we need to know and understand each other. We also need to do a lot of work about how disabled people can access information, especially as most benefit applications are now online. Without access, we will be leaving lots of people behind.
UNICEF issued a very interesting briefing document—I declare an interest as a sporting ambassador for UNICEF. It made seven recommendations. I shall just highlight the first two. The first is about ensuring equal access to digital media by providing technology and infrastructure. That is really important. In particular, we need to target different groups, such as girls, disabled children and vulnerable groups. The second is about actively engaging children in ongoing dialogue. We need to talk to young people about this so that they are able to make free choices.
I hope that there will be a favourable response from the Minister on this issue. It is something that we will have to come back to because it will affect us all. Finally, I thank my noble friend for her tireless work in this area.
My Lords, it is a great honour to make my maiden speech as a Member of the House. It is an even greater honour to do so on a topic that is this important and so close to my heart.
Before I begin, I want to thank your Lordships for the remarkably warm welcome that I received here after my Introduction. What is particularly touching is the kindness and graciousness that noble Lords have extended to me. Your Lordships have made me feel very much at home here in this great House. Although I am still finding my way around, I want to thank the clerks, the doorkeepers and the staff, who remain most kind to and patient with me. I also want to acknowledge my mentors and noble friends Lady Hanham and Lady Eaton for their wisdom and guidance, and my dear supporters, the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, and my noble friend Lord Marland, who encouraged me to make my maiden speech today. They know that this topic means a great deal to me, because I have spent my life in the pursuit of developing technology and innovation for good.
Today, I applaud the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for creating the iRights initiative, and her passion and determination to protect the rights of young people in this digital world. We are on this quest together. I am grateful to her for making this her personal mission, and I am confident that the work that she is doing will make a great impact on empowering young people and encouraging them to make better and more informed choices.
Over the past 25 years I have had the privilege of building some of the world’s largest technology companies, including Google, Facebook, Bebo and AOL. I feel fortunate to be asked to participate in the iRights initiative in my capacity as a technology industry veteran and as the Prime Minister’s adviser on the digital economy. My desire is to contribute further to this most important work.
Children today live in an always-on social, digital and connected world. With the click of a button, they build relationships with people across the globe. Everything that they want to do and learn is simply available to them on demand wherever they are. The velocity of change in the world brought about by technology and inspired thinking is unprecedented. We should welcome it with open arms. But as guardians of the next generation, we should also keep our eyes wide open. We should ensure that the companies building digital products and services for our children use the premise of safety first in every aspect of their design and development, so that what they create is safe by design.
The reason that this is so important is that a minority of people will use technology to exploit and harm our children, to bully and harass them, and in some cases, with far direr consequences, abuse them for sexual purposes. The same technology that is allowing our children to turn their dreams into reality can turn their lives into a nightmare. During my tenure in government I have been working closely with the Home Office and the National Crime Agency, and I have seen at first hand the terrible harm that can be caused to children by people who abuse technology for criminal means.
In 2012-13, the UK’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, CEOP, received a staggering 18,887 reports relating to child sexual exploitation. In 2011, the US National Center for Missing & Exploited Children reviewed an overwhelming 17.3 million images and videos of suspected child pornography, which is nearly 4,000% more than in 2007. It saddens me beyond belief that 19% of the offenders identified had images of children younger than three years old on their devices; 39% of them had images of children under six years old; and 83% of them had images of children aged under 12. As I looked at these data in the summer of 2013 and at the trajectory of things, it was clear to me that we urgently needed a strong, effective strategy to protect our children online, and our Government took bold action.
The Prime Minister called together internet service providers and internet platform companies, and he set a challenge: to enlist their brightest minds in a mission to protect children all over the world from online abuse and exploitation. Last November, the Prime Minister and the President of the United States agreed to set up a joint UK-US task force to counter these horrendous crimes. The task force was established to focus on developing a better model for defending children in an increasingly digital world—a new level of co-operation to stop these horrific crimes.
As a result, working alongside Governments and law enforcement agencies, many of the leading technology companies have made much progress. I am happy to report that they are working side by side with government and NGOs in this pursuit. However, eradicating the crimes that threaten our children online remains a significant challenge. For every measure taken, the perpetrators of these crimes use new tools to change course and evade detection. To win this battle, we have no choice but to be faster, nimbler and more innovative than they are.
Luckily, the internet offers us a window into this offending behaviour—the tiny visible part of an otherwise hidden crime—and presents opportunities to identify the victims and perpetrators. As long as this window remains open, which may not be for ever, it is incumbent on government, law enforcement and industry to work together to do all that can be done to identify these perpetrators and protect their victims, who in all too many cases are unable to speak for or defend themselves.
In April this year, the technology industry came together in a first-ever industry alliance called We Protect. In that forum, technical experts representing 48 of the world’s leading technology companies collaborated to develop breakthrough approaches for protecting children from online abuse and exploitation.
The people who work in our digital industries represent some of the brightest minds in the world. They are the kind of people who, when they set their minds to a challenge, are able to step up and develop solutions to the world’s most difficult problems. The impact of cross-industry collaboration in developing these solutions cannot be overestimated. If we want to make a fundamental difference to the lives of vulnerable children all over the world, this modus operandi must continue.
I am happy to report that our work is paying off. I am proud and delighted to be able to tell noble Lords that next month, at the Prime Minister’s global summit to combat online child sexual exploitation, we will be presenting solutions created as a result of this new model. We will also be showcasing a number of breakthrough innovations that will be implemented by the world’s largest search engines, communication platforms and social networks. Real progress has been made, which means that our children are already safer online and incidents of actual harm to our children have been prevented.
The 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child requires that states act in the best interests of the child. Yet technology, without enlightened leadership, respects no rights or boundaries. The most popular internet platforms reach more people every day than there are in any sovereign country. By establishing a new paradigm of co-operation and collaboration with industry, NGOs and experts, we are creating an atmosphere of willingness and we can make real change in the way that we protect our children in the digital world.
Every child has the potential to dream, invent and amaze the world, but they must be able to do so creatively, knowledgeably and fearlessly. By working across national borders and using the skills of our brightest in business, I am happy to say that we are starting to give our children the future that they deserve. Thank you.
What a delight to follow the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Shields. To have more women in this Chamber is essential, but to have one with such digital smarts is a dream come true.
The second Chamber of the UK Parliament was not the obvious place for a young woman from Pennsylvania to end up, but she brings a distinctive perspective through her rare experience. The noble Baroness’s CV is like a roll-call of the great and good of the tech sector, from early video in Silicon Valley to Google, Bebo, AOL and Facebook; but for more than that, her commercial smarts, the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, has earned her place among the leading voices in our sector. Alongside the work on the issue that she has described today, she has tirelessly championed more recognition and support of entrepreneurs, particularly women, and was instrumental in the Government’s renewed focus on technology, founding Tech City and moving on to advise the Prime Minister on digital policy. Perhaps we should not find it surprising that a few weeks after entering your Lordships’ House, the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, has launched a free digital academy providing skills to help people move on in their careers. Watch out, noble Lords—she may be hoping to use you as test cases. I look forward to working with her very much.
I also add my thanks to my noble friend Lady Kidron, both personally and professionally. She has been a great ally and supporter since my arrival in the House and I have watched with admiration as she has built her iRights campaign. Like this debate, it is timely and important.
In some ways I feel ill equipped to speak. I have no children of my own and have spent my entire working life in the company of grown-ups. During the founding of lastminute.com, the closest I came to dealing with the difficulties of children and the web was one customer who claimed that he had not meant to book a fairly ritzy holiday but that his dog and his two year-old had completed the transaction. I suggested that his child should be sent straight to college as the child was clearly a genius. That happened in 2000. How things have changed. Now it seems more than possible that a two year-old child could complete a transaction on a website. I read just yesterday that a five year-old boy, Ayan Qureshi, has become the world’s youngest qualified Microsoft Certified Professional.
However, no one who works in or around the digital world can ignore the questions and challenges that the internet now raises in relation to young people. It was interesting to read the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child and consider how fast technology is evolving, how hard it is to unpick themes and how difficult it is to future-proof legislation. No one would have predicted social networks when I started my career in technology, and even at the start of this Parliament WhatsApp and Snapchat were fanciful notions, yet they now present some of the knottiest problems.
I will make three points. The first is about digital exclusion. As noble Lords may know, I have been working for the past five years on the lack of basic digital skills in the UK. I declare an interest as founder and chair of Go ON UK, an alliance of eight public and private sector organisations coming together to help people reach their digital potential. There are still 10 million adults in the UK who are unable to communicate, transact, stay safe or search using the web, meaning that information, jobs and significant savings—let alone entertainment and all the things we take for granted—are unavailable to them. This is a huge issue for the country, especially as this group is from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and the older population—two groups that could arguably benefit most from online skills. More than 4 million of that 10 million are parents and I cannot imagine how intimidating and difficult it must be to navigate your child’s online life if you have no understanding of your own.
In addition, the charity Mind the Gap tells us:
“Over 500,000 children in over 400,000 of the poorest homes in the UK cannot go online using a computer at home, disadvantaging them in their education”—
we know that children with access gain on average a two-grade improvement in results—
“Schools expect children to use the Internet at home for homework, research, revision, collaboration and independent study”,
yet 10% of schoolchildren are excluded from doing so. It is vital that we do not let up on championing and creating access and skills for all to ensure that there is not a disadvantaged group of children or a disadvantaged group of parents. Will the Minister please elaborate on how the Government plan to ensure that half a million children—a worryingly large number—are not permanently left behind?
Secondly, I would like to reflect on the changes to the curriculum that this Government have introduced so boldly. It is a fantastic ambition to have mandated that every child of primary school age should learn to code. In an age when the internet underpins all aspects of our daily lives—like water—giving children the confidence to look under the bonnet and start to create and build is essential. With innovations such as Raspberry Pi, the Scratch sites and Codeacademy, there really are few barriers that prevent curious children from becoming the next tech stars of tomorrow. As we have heard already, we need them, with 700,000 tech sectors jobs empty right now and 1 million more predicted by 2020.
Education is being blown apart by technology. Children are as likely to use YouTube as a textbook. They whizz to the web as a default when faced with homework. One of my favourite examples was a wily group of children in Michigan who realised that they could outsource their homework to Singapore overnight. Teachers were baffled as results suddenly and dramatically improved. There is a whole new set of challenges for teachers, who are so central to this debate.
The shift is both exciting and vexing for the rest of us. As my noble friend Lady Kidron articulated so well, concepts of authenticity, context and credibility are more important than ever. The connectedness of the world allows for deep and broad learning but it is not a simple transition. I agree completely that it is key for all educational institutions and the national curriculum to establish a place in children’s lives from an early age for the discussion of what it means to be a good user of digital media, as well as having exposure to coding.
This discussion should not be too preachy, fearful or didactic—better to acknowledge the uncertainties and anxieties that accompany many online experiences and encourage children to share those feelings. Above all, they should learn how to access good-quality information and advice, and we should avoid scaremongering by overuse of words such as “addiction” and “dysfunction”. Ensuring that there is the time to express, share and explore nuances is an important part of any education system that aims to promote digital literacy.
Finally, as we, the older generation, grapple with the rapidly changing nature of our world, it is easy to forget that there is much online to amaze, inspire, help and sometimes even save children’s lives. I met one very young carer recently who told me that without the support of the young carers community on the web, she was not sure that she could cope. I agree with the Harvard professor danah boyd, who argues that we fail young people,
“when paternalism and protectionism hinder teenagers’ ability to become informed, thoughtful, and engaged citizens”.
Her recent book is called It’s Complicated. It sure is, and that is why this debate is vital in this Chamber and in the wider world. But it must be rooted in facts not fiction and, crucially, at the heart of the debate we must not forget to listen to young people themselves.
I end with a quote from a brilliant young woman I met recently, Amy Mather—@minigirlgeek, if noble Lords would like to look her up—who at just 15 is the EU’s young digital leader. In a conversation we had on stage at the recent Open Data Institute summit, she summed it up: “It doesn’t matter who you are or what your background is, all children deserve the opportunity to make the future”. I agree. I would add only one word—safely.
My Lords, I begin by echoing the congratulations offered to the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, on an excellent maiden speech. I join her in applauding the wonderful work in this area of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, to whom I am also grateful for providing the House with an opportunity to take stock of the changes wrought over the past couple of decades by the growth of the internet and evolution of digital technologies—on this auspicious day, 25 years since the establishment of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which coincides, as she pointed out, with the beginning of the development of the internet. What a different world we live in now that the convention has come of age. It behoves us to consider the new cultural landscape in which we find ourselves, in which 81% of 12 to 15 year-olds use the internet every day.
As has been observed, the internet has the capacity for great good and great harm. Too often in our society it is characterised as either an unprecedented good or an unmitigated evil. The fact is, of course, that the internet is morally neutral. It is like water, which we need to live and in which we can drown. We just need to take care about the way in which we use it, particularly the way in which we encourage young people to use it. It behoves us to do our utmost to ensure that it is used for good and not harm by the young in our society.
The UNCRC rightly places a high value on education and says:
“Young people should be encouraged to reach the highest level of education of which they are capable”.
With this in mind, it is good that digital and online learning has become an integral part of most children’s education in this country. For teachers, aggregated resources online enable differentiated learning in unprecedented ways. While the inclusion of online learning tools as part of homework is a good thing, the unintended converse is that those without internet access are disadvantaged, as we have been reminded. I applaud the invaluable work of the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, in addressing this.
Article 29 asserts that children’s education should develop each child’s,
“personality, talents and … abilities to their fullest”.
It says that it should encourage children to respect others’ human rights, and their own, and other cultures so that they might learn to live peaceably with those around them and further afield. The Church of England schools’ commitment to this aim is seen in the breadth of our holistic educational vision. We seek to conceive of education as developing children’s creativity and awareness of the world around them—of course, we are not alone in that. To fit students for a life of active civic engagement, and not just to learn facts, is what education should be about. To this end, church schools and the National Society are developing ways of teaching through digital pedagogy, something which needs a great deal of attention all around.
So much for the good; we are all aware of the dangers of the internet and some of the more horrific dangers have been alluded to during this debate. An Ofcom document, Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report, found that 83% of eight to 11 year-olds and 91% of 12 to 15 year-olds say that they are confident about how to stay safe online, while 67% of 12 to 15 year-olds say that they are confident that they can judge whether websites are truthful. As a parent of a 15 year-old and a 10 year-old, I do not think that I am alone in feeling that young people can sometimes be on the overconfident side about their ability to care for themselves. Much more education is needed in this area. It seems telling that the Ofcom report found that, on average, 12 to 15 year-olds have never met in person three in 10 of the friends listed on their main social networking site profile. Children with a social networking site profile that may be visible to people not known to them are more likely to have undertaken some kind of potentially risky behaviour online, such as adding people to their contacts whom they do not know in person or sending photos or personal details to people whom they only know online.
Three of the key risks identified by Her Majesty’s Government and the Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the House of Commons in relation to children’s online activity are, unsurprisingly, sexual exploitation, cyberbullying and social network misuse, as well as access to inappropriate content. In my experience, I have learnt the hard way with my own children about the insidious nature of bullying through social network sites—some of it very subtle, as with all sorts of bullying. There are clearly much more dangerous aspects of internet and social media use but the question of cyberbullying is a very important one, to which attention has already been drawn.
We need to do our utmost to equip parents, teachers, social workers and youth leaders to use the internet well themselves, and to model good practice in using it in their work with children. I agree that we should not do it in a preachy fashion and applaud in this regard the work of iRights and the all-party group chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin. Very clear guidelines about the use of the internet and social media should be taught and rigorously applied in all schools. I applaud the work of the taskforce about which the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, informed the House. A lot more is beginning to happen but a lot more still needs to happen. I very much welcome the Government’s commitment that, from September of this year, the national curriculum’s computing programmes of study in England will encourage children from five to 16 to learn about safe and appropriate internet use. The Government’s £25 million campaign to raise awareness of the risks associated with the internet and promote Safer Internet Day every February are also much needed steps in the right direction.
Finally, widening access to the internet for young people is also important for the realisation of Article 13 on freedom of expression, Article 15 on freedom of association and Article 17 on access to information and mass media. According to the convention, children have the right to obtain information that is important to their health and well-being. We have a responsibility therefore to encourage mass media—radio, television, newspapers and internet content sources—to provide information that children can understand. Figures show that only 34% of 16 to 24 year-olds had used the internet to obtain information on public authorities or services within the past 12 months, and that only 29% had used the internet to download or submit official forms.
In summary, it seems that just as the internet and digital media are morally neutral—there are good aspects and bad aspects—so there are at present good and bad developments and, as a matter of urgency, we need to build on the good development. The development of online and digital interactions over the 25 years of the lifetime of the UNCRC is to be welcomed. Their potential for good and harm are enormous and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, once again for enabling us to consider such potential and such harm in this debate. I support her in asking the Minister for a review.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for initiating this debate and particularly for drawing attention to the relevance of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child for children’s and young people’s online and digital interactions. Although this debate is about securing child well-being in a digital age, it touches on much wider issues, not least in terms of our economy. We have heard it reported this week that the spike in the CPI is mainly due to people splurging pre-Christmas on computer games such as FIFA 15, which the children’s fathers might let them play after they have played it.
My noble friend Lady Shields made a very fine maiden speech and I am going to quote her, as she knows a lot about the subject. She was speaking on Radio 4 yesterday morning and described the UK as,
“the most digital economy in the G20”.
My noble friend also said that we need another 750,000 people with good digital skills by 2017. Children have to be tech-savvy for their own and for the country’s economic competitiveness. But as we have heard today, safeguards are essential because children are breathtakingly vulnerable to the commercialisation and sexualisation of society. Not only are they imbibing values from strangers and learning about relationships from soap storylines and soft porn—or worse—they are also one click away from meeting someone who could poison their childhood or adolescence, sometimes irrevocably.
One of the first actions of this Government to tackle these issues was to initiate the Bailey review, and I thank Reg Bailey and his policy team at the Mothers’ Union for their help in my preparation for this debate. Undoubtedly, Governments have some responsibility to ensure that children and young people are protected from the worst excesses of online culture, particularly if companies and others will not take up their responsibilities, which were clearly identified in Bailey’s report, Letting Children be Children.
My main remarks are concerned with Article 18 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which says that states shall recognise and support the principle that,
“parents have common responsibilities for the upbringing and development of the child”,
and that appropriate assistance should be provided for parents. While parents must shoulder responsibility for their children’s online safety, the Government must ensure that the industry is adequately implementing Bailey’s challenges to them, such as to raise parental awareness of marketing and advertising techniques. Parents can also help each other. Care for the Family’s short pamphlet Pester Power provides tips to cover a range of parenting challenges, including those arising from the internet, and those all came from a survey of parents themselves. However, we must stand back and look at the broader context of the UNCRC. Its preamble recalls that, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,
“the family, as the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members and particularly children, should be afforded the necessary protection and assistance so that it can fully assume its responsibilities within the community”,
“the child, for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding”.
It is on this recognition of the importance of growing up in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding that I want to focus. Noble Lords will be as concerned as I was that the Spectator recently pointed out that a young person is more likely to have a smartphone in their pocket than a father at home. Only 57% of 15 year-olds are still living with their own fathers, while 62% own a smartphone. By the time they sit their GCSEs, almost half of young people have gone through some form of family breakdown.
However, it is even more concerning that by the time children in the poorest households are five, almost half of them are no longer living with both their parents. They are seven times more likely to be in this position than children from the richest households. The former Children’s Commissioner, Sir Al Aynsley-Green, stated that children’s biggest fear was that their parents would split up. Stability is incredibly important to children, so I welcome the Government’s family stability review, carried out as part of their social justice strategy, and urge them to publish its findings. That would give local authorities the evidence base that they need to treat family breakdown as a driver of poverty, which can undermine children’s educational achievement.
What has emerged from this research is the sheer scale of family instability in poorer communities, as I have mentioned. Perhaps less well known is the fact that exposure to digital and online influences is also spread highly unevenly across the income scale, according to research carried out by Nairn et al in 2007. Children in poorer families were far more likely to have a TV and computer in their bedrooms, where parents have far less control. Fewer than half of affluent nine to 13 year-olds in the sample had a television in their bedrooms, and just under one-third had a computer in their rooms. However, 97% of deprived children had TVs and two-thirds had a computer in their rooms. Although smartphones will have changed many older teenagers’ access to screens in the seven years since this research was carried out, it is unlikely that these underlying differences have disappeared in this younger age group of nine to 13 year-olds.
The same study found that children who spend more time on screens are more materialistic, regardless of income, and have a toxic cocktail of poor relationships with their parents and lower self-esteem. The more materialistic children are, the poorer their opinion of their parents and of themselves. When considered alongside Rindfleisch et al’s research showing that children who have experienced their parents’ divorce and separation are more likely to be materialistic, this sounds like a recipe for a deeply unhappy childhood.
While the Government have a role to play in strengthening parents’ ability to guard their children’s well-being online, helping more parents to stay together for the duration serves this purpose indirectly but very importantly. Why do I lay such emphasis on that? Mainly, as we have heard in today’s debate, because it is incredibly hard to monitor your child’s online and digital interactions in an age-appropriate way if you are struggling to raise them on your own. There is simply far less time and energy. Two-parent families also struggle with time famine but at least they can back one another up. Resisting a pleading child who always wants that little bit more unrestricted access to the web sometimes requires Herculean reserves of strength. We have to enable both parents to play their role of primary educator and protector wherever possible, particularly when it comes to teaching children about relationships—largely, again, by example.
This is not just about government and parents. Schools should also ensure that all young people get worthwhile relationship education as standard. The biology of sex is already compulsory, but learning about conflict resolution and how to conduct respectful and non-manipulative relationships is also indispensable to a rounded education.
Finally, those writing storylines for soaps should be exploring the anatomy of commitment and why marriage makes a difference, recognising the drama in the effort that many people make day in and day out to sustain relationships because they value them so much.
In summary, we have to see the importance of the family in the fight to keep children safe. It is a fight that parents are playing out daily amid homework, hormones and developing brains. The Government and others must strengthen their hands.
My Lords, this is a timely and important debate. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Kidron, for securing it and for introducing it in such a penetrating and thoughtful way. I would also like to compliment the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, on a fascinating maiden speech. I welcome her to the House.
I speak with an acute awareness of the limits of my own personal exposure to some of the issues raised in the debate so far. Indeed, it has been rather reassuring to know that I am not alone in the House in my lack of personal knowledge of online gaming and the appeal of Minecraft and Xbox Live. I do not use social media platforms such as Instagram or Snapchat. I do not have a Facebook presence. I say this with no pride; I realise that it is a form of generational isolation. Anyone who spends any time with children or teenagers today knows how important social media are to their lives. They are how they communicate with each other. They seem to be the filter through which they experience almost everything.
Of course these technologies can have many powerful and positive benefits, educationally and socially but, as the Children’s Commissioner for England, Maggie Atkinson, has said, for young people to be at ease in the virtual environment does not mean they are immune from its ill effects. I have been horrified by the statistics and data that I have seen about those ill effects, many of which have been mentioned in this debate. I have talked to parents of young children and heard how anxious they are. I know of teachers who have shocking stories about what children and young teenagers can be exposed to and the damage that this does.
It is absolutely right that we take this opportunity to look to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to help us view issues around children and young people’s use of the internet in terms of rights. Article 16 of the UNCRC encompasses their right to privacy. Given that so much of young people’s lives is now spent in an online environment, teaching them to stay safe and to both value and protect their privacy and dignity is of vital importance. Similarly, Article 19 talks about the promise of adults to ensure children’s protection from abuse in all its forms.
As I indicated, I am not equipped to wade into technical waters, but I will just dip in a toe to welcome an undertaking by the four big internet service providers—BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media—that by the end of this year they will introduce solutions for home filtering that prompt parents, as account holders, with an unavoidable choice to apply a filter. I know that filters can be bypassed but they are still one important way of protecting children from harmful content. But other ISPs are still dragging their feet so I hope that the Minister can tell us what the Government are doing to encourage other ISPs to commit to ensuring that access to online child abuse images is prevented and deterred, and what steps the Government will take if ISPs do not deliver on this commitment.
The scope of this debate is vast and I am going to focus my remaining remarks today on social networking and one huge area of parental concern—one raised by several other noble Lords—which is cyberbullying. Sadly, there has always been bullying in schools but before social media much of it may have stopped at the school gate. Now it can follow a child home. It can take the form of abusive text messages, sexting or explicit mobile phone messaging, and sending menacing or upsetting messages over social networks, known as “trolling”.
It is a serious concern. More than 1,700 cases were heard in 2012 in English and Welsh courts involving abusive messages, sent online or via text message. The NSPCC says that 4,500 children contacted ChildLine last year regarding online bullying. Of 12 to 15 year-olds, Ofcom reports that almost one in 10 say they have experienced bullying in the past year, and close to half know someone with experience of online or mobile phone bullying, gossip being spread or embarrassing photos being shared. The NSPCC says that one in five think being bullied online is part of life.
I was shocked at that, but that statistic was no surprise to one London secondary school teacher I know of, who says all her students use the website Ask.fm. Users have to register but they can do so anonymously. You can pose any question at all on this site and people will respond. It is good for chatting about homework; it might even be genuinely informative. But then someone will ask, “What do you think about so and so?” The responses can be horrible—comments on that person’s sexual experience, appearance, weight and so on. There is no accountability as the comments are all anonymous.
Teenagers are acutely self-conscious, and of course these sorts of remarks can also be made off-line—in what I like to call real life—but online spaces such as Ask.fm can make matters so much worse. Other youngsters hear about the exchanges, they take screen shots and text those to the victim or their friends. This teacher says that when it happens to girls their confidence is ripped to shreds. Building up their self-esteem, raising their aspirations, encouraging them to think beyond their social media friendships is a huge task.
We get media headlines when this sort of bullying ends, tragically, in suicide, but cyberbullying is not a specific criminal offence in the UK. The relevant laws were introduced many years before Twitter, Facebook and Ask.fm. The Communications Act 2003 was drafted with no mention of the internet. The Online Safety report issued earlier this year by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee called for greater clarity in legislation around child abuse images. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government will review current legislation and make cyberbullying a criminal offence so that young people have the protection they need?
While legislation is part of the solution, it is clear that educating children about online safety is key to tackling cyberbullying, so I welcome the extension of e-safety teaching to primary school pupils aged between five and 10 from this September. It will take a combined effort to tackle this terrible problem, so having e-safety on the school curriculum, along with better advice to parents and carers on how to report harmful material, is vital. Websites such as Thinkuknow, the advice offered by Childnet, and the hotline provided by the Safer Internet Centre along with its initiatives such as Safer Internet Day, are all making a difference. So is CEOP, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, The teachers I have spoken to have nothing but praise for its work and for its website and online information for schools and parents, but it is a drop in the ocean. I hope the Minister will give the House an assurance that bringing CEOP within the National Crime Agency will indeed enhance its resources. I am thinking of the concerns I have heard over whether, within the NCA, the centre’s education and social care work will continue alongside its criminal justice remit. I would welcome his views.
Schools cannot be left to work on this in isolation. Parents need to be educated about how best to familiarise themselves with the social media that are so central to their children’s lives. Information about how to deal with upsetting information needs to be displayed prominently by social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
Everyone involved with children’s and young people’s use of the internet, whether parents, schools, organisations or ISPs, shares a responsibility for online safety. But alongside teaching techniques for staying safe, we must also attempt to shape attitudes. The UN convention gives us another opportunity to make that commitment and ensure that, in our ever-changing digital world, we stay a few clicks ahead.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for calling this important and timely debate on the very day of the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. I also pay tribute to the charity that she founded, FILMCLUB, which we were discussing recently. It helps children in this country and across other parts of the world to gain a wide experience of film, not just of Steven Spielberg but also Godard and Truffaut, and not just American films but German, French and Asian ones. I am grateful to my own father for taking me to see Russian and French movies and for the joy I have had through my life through seeing such things, which have had so much meaning for me, so I feel that is a huge achievement for my noble friend.
I begin by talking about the positive side of the technology that we are discussing today. Last night I attended the launch of a new Baby Buddy app at the Royal College of Midwives. I have downloaded it myself and I hope some of your Lordships might wish to do so, or maybe suggest to their daughters or granddaughters that they do so. I was speaking to a midwife who helped develop it, and for instance if a mother has difficulty encouraging her baby to breastfeed, there is a video they can download. The midwife explained that by using this video she could very simply—and in a much better way than in the past—show mothers how to help the child to get to the breast. The app also involves using social media, and young mothers spoke about its value in helping them to feel connected, so some of this technology has immense benefits for children and families.
Maybe it is also a good day to remember the work of the late Baroness Thatcher, because she introduced the Children Act 1989, which enshrined in British law the paramountcy of the best interests of the child. This has been foundational. When the noble Lord, Lord Laming, talks about children’s legislation that comes to the House, he says that if only we thoroughly implemented the Children Act 1989 we would need none of this, so the late Baroness needs to be remembered in this discussion.
Finally, turning to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, I think of the institutions which have drawn strength from or been founded on that convention, particularly UNICEF. It works in the developing world to ensure that families who are starving receive nourishment, that children are properly registered and that programmes of immunisation take place. It is currently focusing, particularly in the last year, on hunger in the developing world and the trafficking of children. I also think of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner and particularly the work of the first commissioner in his championing of the needs of families who are detained in Yarl’s Wood immigration centre following their failure to seek asylum successfully. We successfully campaigned on that. There is also current work on the sexual exploitation of children, investigating—which is particularly interesting for me—children who go missing from children’s homes and from care. It is therefore right that we have a chance today to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
I was taken by the speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Farmer and Lord Framlingham, and their concerns about the disappearance of the father from family life. I was troubled recently to read OECD statistics showing that the percentage of children with fathers living away from home, after living in the home, is increasing in this country, and that in about 10 years we would overtake the United States in that regard; Germany will be about stable, France is accelerating a bit. This is an important issue to keep in mind. The research evidence is clear, particularly regarding young men from poorer backgrounds, whose outcomes are far poorer if they do not have contact with their father. There are many circumstances in which it is best that they do not have such contact. It is important to keep in mind that many lone-parent families do extremely well. However, the research shows that fathers’ absence from their sons is a real challenge to the country. That applies also to daughters, and the research shows that they do better if their father takes interest in how they are doing in their school work. I am therefore grateful to the noble Lords, and hope that perhaps we can meet at some point to discuss the use of mentoring for young people. If we cannot help fathers to stay in touch, at least we can ensure that young people have a mentor who can help them to move forward, particularly through adolescence.
I should like to concentrate my remarks on the development of children and the need for adults close to children to feel comfortable with having conversations about this issue. The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, hit the nail on the head; many of us feel really uncomfortable discussing this matter—I certainly do because I know so little about it. Adults need to be made to feel comfortable; children need to be able to talk to them about the issues arising from their use of the internet.
I begin with child development. Humanity is unique in the animal world in its total dependence upon its parents from birth. Some animals are ready to walk and most, quickly after birth, can look after themselves and move on. We have a very long period of nurturance. As a perinatal mental health psychiatrist pointed out to me last night, it takes 25 years for the process of neurodevelopment of the brain to come to a halt. There is rapid development of the brain around the period of birth and for the first two or three years, and then again in adolescence the neurological make-up changes greatly. It is therefore important to realise that we need to allow children to have a proper and long childhood. For instance, in Scandinavia, it is normal for children to start school at seven and spend a lot more time with their families—learning, for example, to swim and ride a bicycle. They then go to school at seven and quickly pick up the reading and writing and do very well. Indeed, in Finland, their performance is among the best in the world. There is real pressure on us all to try to speed up our children. I would say: give them time.
Consider children who are in trouble in the criminal courts, which may see a 17 year-old who is huge, six feet and four inches, with big fists and a deep voice, but who emotionally may be like a 12 year-old. Many will have a history of trauma and being in care. Do not look at children just from the outside and think, “This is a grown-up person”. I spoke to a businessman who runs an internet service provider. He said of this debate, “Children know; they can sort this out”. Clearly, many children are going to be technically savvy and can easily outwit us in terms of using the internet. However, that does not mean that they are mature adults.
Recent inquiry reports on the sexual exploitation of girls in Rochdale highlighted the responses of a few policemen in that area. A 13 year-old girl was having sexual intercourse with a number of different men—inappropriate relationships—and the response of those policemen was, “Well, she knows what she is doing. She wants to be doing it”. I may not have that precisely right and it was the response of just a few policemen, but it demonstrates a failure to understand child development and recognise that we as adults have responsibility to recognise the immaturity of children, which changes over time. I therefore very much welcome what the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, is doing in terms of introducing iRights and recognising that we as adults constantly let children freely play around the internet. We need to give them guidance, boundaries and so on.
That brings me to the second aspect on which I should like to focus—the ability of adults to have conversations about this matter, particularly in schools. A while ago, I attended a seminar on child protection and the internet. I was struck by an expert who works with children in schools. He said that it was important to have the sort of protections that I hope the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, will talk about in her report next month. I very much welcome her maiden speech and her expertise in this area. However, he felt that it was at least as important—possibly even more—for children to talk with adults in school about their use of social networks and the difficulties they face. When thinking about the new curriculum and PSHE, we need to equip those teachers in order to have those conversations. More generally, we need to train all school staff and teachers to deal comfortably with difficult issues such as this and others, including difficult sexual matters.
I was struck by a recent article in the Sunday Times talking about the development of Teach First and the launch of a new initiative. Research showed that 60% of Teach First teachers stayed on after five years. That was good news and many are becoming head teachers. However, stories were also told of, for example, a teacher being locked in a cupboard by the children when he went to fetch paper. Another teacher, when his back was turned, was showered with the paper coverings from McDonald’s straws. The teachers have six weeks of training and are wholly unequipped to cope with situations such as this and have to work out their own ways of dealing with them. One teacher said, “I just try to praise them as much as possible and ignore the bad behaviour; and that seems to work”. We really need to think about how to equip our teachers better and I should be grateful if the Minister would ask the noble Lord, Lord Nash, in particular to think about Teach First and academies, and how he can create communities of teachers, because it is important that they do not feel isolated. In Teach First there are many opportunities for alumni to get together and talk about their experiences, particularly challenging pupils, and get advice from other teachers on how to deal with those situations. There should be a sense of connection because we are inviting these Teach First teachers to go to the roughest schools with the most challenged teachers. They are given the least teacher training and we need to think of innovative ways in which to ensure that they get the support they need.
Then there is the approach that we have seen over many years and has been found to be most effective, particularly when working with challenging or challenged children—oh! I see that I have passed my time, so I will write to the Minister.
My Lords, I thank and salute the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for her dedication to developing iRights and for this debate. I congratulate also the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, and welcome her to the House. As a former child protection social worker, I look forward to her pursuit of protecting vulnerable children, in particular online, and look forward to seeing the report.
When the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was introduced a quarter of a century ago—this is a good day to remember that, and I congratulate the noble Baroness even more for securing the debate on this day—its authors could not have imagined that parliamentarians would be debating today how to uphold the human rights of children in the digital age. The UNCRC’s authors would have lacked the lexicon to imagine it. My noble friend Lady Grey-Thompson made me feel somewhat nostalgic as she reeled off the current availability of technology. When I came into this House 16 years ago, I used to hold a fantastically large mobile and I went into Black Rod’s office and said, “I have a seven month-old child waiting for me while I am here 17 hours a day and I want to try to be available on the mobile”. I remember to this day the stare down that I had to face in responding; I stood my ground and carried on with my mobile. It took us nearly five or six years after that to ensure that we were allowed to carry on and I am often aghast to see how much technology we all use in this House. I was picking up my various messages from my mum and my son and everyone else and at the same time trying to pretend that I am listening to every word that is being said—seriously, I was listening to everything that was being said. How good we have become at managing all this new technology.
I would like also to pay tribute to the organisations that have marked this day and contributed one way or another to this debate, including the children’s commissioners and UNICEF. I was moved to read of UNICEF’s rights respecting workshop with primary school children to mark the anniversary. When 250 children chose their top rights to uphold, they selected the basics: clean air, clean water, nutritious food, health care and shelter. One cannot help but wonder whether peace, safety and security would also top the list for the children in occupied Palestine, or those under attack in Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria, or those who survive chemical attacks or attacks by drones or cluster munitions, or even those who are affected by Ebola in villages in Africa. It is a great sadness that these rights are not universal for all our children across the globe today. That makes the convention as relevant now as ever.
Although many important rights of children are more widely enshrined than they once were, the contemporary age has brought new threats to human rights, from the spectre of climate change, conflicts and wars to the more immediate scourge of online abuse. The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, spoke eloquently about the internet creating a global marketplace that drives child abuse. It has produced new models for old crimes. I, too, worry that new global and accessible communication tools are being used and may make the despicable act of grooming children ever more a threat.
From cybersecurity to cyberbullying and online child pornography, our laws are too often behind the times and the media in identifying and responding to abuse. The move through the Crime and Courts Bill to make revenge porn—the malicious distribution of private sexual images without consent—a criminal offence was overdue. Police forces in England and Wales have recorded children as young as 11 years old reporting that they have been unwilling subjects of revenge porn. Such victims deserve recourse to the law and civil as well as legal remedies. When I was with a group of Metropolitan Police cadets from Southwark as well as Navy cadets and Girl Guides only a couple of days ago, they told me that not enough is being done to caution young people and counter these online acts. I am glad to hear of the progress reported by the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, and that Governments and regulators are to work together to clamp down on the sites that host this pernicious material.
Notwithstanding the deepening concerns stated by the noble Lord, Lord Framlingham, I wish to focus today on the positive contribution that the digital world makes to the lives of children and all who learn to navigate it. The internet and digital technology can be transformative to the lives of people who find social interaction and communication challenging. For people with a physical immobility, an autism spectrum disorder or a hearing impairment, the internet opens the door to conversation and social interaction at the click of a button. A recent survey by the National Autistic Society showed that 41% of adults with autism feel lonely, compared to 11% of the general population. Though it is not a panacea, social media can create networks for people who are isolated.
This also made me reflect today that, as far back as 1980, when faced with a child with autism I went to the local education authority and asked, “Is there some kind of computer that will assist my son to say things and bring him along in his communication skills?” Of course, I was treated as some kind of mad hatter woman. I was told, “Yes, you can have a computer but not for children with disabilities; that is out of the question”. I was laughed at for my outrageous request. Nobody had heard of Stephen Hawking; that was yet to be, but I rest my case. My son, who is nearly 36 years old, has recently discovered the magic of the iPad. It is superb that with his finger he can open up the best plane flying across the globe or whatever it is that his heart desires—although he spends much too much time away from communicating with others.
Access to the online world also has huge potential in classrooms across England. There are now around 100,000 children with an autism spectrum disorder and 1.1 million children for whom English is not their first language. The language and communication challenges that can be associated with ASD and having English as a second language often indirectly affect other children in the classroom. For that reason, the technology being developed by companies such as the social enterprise Ai-Media can transform children’s education. Using tablets to display live written transcripts of what teachers are saying as they are saying it empowers students in lessons. Lessons become easier to follow for those with a hearing impairment, English as an additional language and certain types of autism.
As the Children’s Commissioner, Maggie Atkinson, has pointed out, the rise of adaptive technologies and aids to communication with, and active engagement in, the modern world has positive resonances for children with disabilities. Yet adaptive technologies remain out of the reach of too many children who would benefit from them. The UNCRC is instructive with respect to the rights that children should be afforded in this regard. Article 17 refers to the right of children to have access to information, including through mass and readily available media sources. Article 23 states that children who have any kind of disability have the right to special care and support, as well as the other rights in the convention, so that they can live full and independent lives. Article 24 encompasses the right to receive child-friendly and appropriate physical and mental health services, advice, information, support and guidance. Despite these articles, however, I hardly ever see UN advocacy or action on ensuring equity of access to digital technologies for children. As we celebrate the UNCRC and seek to uphold its values, children still are being denied access to this sort of information and advice when they lack access to devices that provide them.
Unless children have access to the internet at home as well as at school, they will be at an unfair disadvantage when learning. Already there is a digital divide whereby poorer children rely on schools or diminishing library resources to access computers or the internet, so their access is restricted, whereas richer children are better able to carry out research and develop digital skills. Will the Government consider embedding technology access in their work with so-called troubled families and those with special needs? Surely, access to the web would enhance children’s education and improve social mobility, although I heed the caution expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, that access alone will not enhance education or improve people’s livelihoods.
Notwithstanding the resonance of Article 31 guaranteeing the right to leisure, cultural activities, engagement with the arts and the right to play, we can, should and must use the internet and technology to greater advantage to educate children, particularly those with special needs.
My Lords, I warmly congratulate my noble friend Lady Kidron on securing this vital debate.
Noble Lords will be aware that I am the sponsor of the Online Safety Bill, which had its First Reading in your Lordships’ House on 11 June and is currently awaiting a date for Second Reading. I hope that the usual channels are listening. I readily admit that on the majority of occasions on which I have spoken about this issue, I have focused on trying to address concerns about online safety, so I welcome the opportunity today at least to begin my comments by focusing on the positives of the internet. After then moving on to the dangers, I would also like to set out some principles that I believe should inform how we debate online safety before finally homing in on some specific challenges relating to the live streaming of R18 material and posing questions to the Minister.
On the positives, the truth is that in many ways the internet greatly benefits the lives of children. As I look at this subject, mindful of the reference to the UN convention, it seems to me that many aspects of the convention are relevant, but I particularly pick out Article 17, with its stress on children’s access to information, in relation to which the internet clearly has an absolutely key role to play.
Research undertaken by the E-Learning Foundation has shown that children who access the internet at home are likely to receive higher marks at school than their counterparts. This is because they are able to take advantage of educational tools available online that enhance their educational experience. Such tools include the International Children’s Digital Library, which gives children free access to literature as well as access to free and fee-based games for younger children. These tools clearly show how the internet can have a positive role in children’s intellectual development.
Social media sites can also play a positive role. Research from the American Academy of Pediatrics has shown that social media can have the positive effect of enhancing the communication, social and technical skills of children. The same research also notes that these skills are transferable and can be applied just as well offline as online. This gives children greater ability to communicate positively and interact with the world around them in a way that they may not have been able to before.
The latest data from the Office for National Statistics report that 96% of households with children have an internet connection. However, that still means that some children are unable to reach the rich world of the internet. Of the households that are not connected to the internet—I recognise that not all of these have children within them—32% said that they lacked the necessary skills, 12% said that equipment costs were a barrier and 11% said that access costs were a barrier. We should remember that a small minority of children will find themselves disadvantaged without this access.
It is precisely because I passionately believe that children should go online to access all the positive educational and recreational opportunities that it affords that I am equally passionate that they should be able to do so in safety. On the question of safety—the negatives and dangers, if you like—I immediately think of a tragic case I mentioned in a speech just a couple of weeks ago of a 14 year-old boy acting out pornographic content he had seen online on a 10 year-old girl. Judge Robin Onions said the boy,
“used, abused then abandoned his victim”,
after repeatedly watching internet porn on his home computer that,
“treats women as objects and not people”.
Crucially, it was reported that the mother of the boy in question was unaware that he had visited such sites from his bedroom in their Shropshire home.
I also think of the report by the Authority for Television on Demand, For Adults Only?, which demonstrated that children as young as six are accessing hardcore pornography and that at least 44,000 primary schoolchildren accessed an adult website in one month alone. This raises a very important question for all parents: what are your children actually watching online via their home or mobile devices? The mother of the Shropshire boy had no idea he was watching the porn that inspired him to rape a 10 year-old. The fact that the Ofcom Report on Internet Safety Measures, published in July, demonstrates that, since 2013, there has been a 10% decrease in children aged five to 15 going online while a parent is in the room with them is of real concern. Of course, it is not always possible for parents to be present, especially when mobile devices are being used, which is why default filtering is an important policy tool to have in the mix. In reflecting on the UN convention, I again find myself thinking of Article 17 because, as well as emphasising the importance of access to information, it also says that states parties shall:
“Encourage the development of appropriate guidelines for the protection of the child from information and material injurious to his or her well-being”.
In debating the whole question of online safety, when we come to discuss how best to respond to the safety challenges—and respond we must—I get very concerned that the debate is muddled and confused by a tendency for those expounding a particular solution immediately to be attacked as naive by others who come along and expound another solution. What seems to happen is that someone talks about the importance of, for example, default adult content filters, in response to which someone else will stand up and say, “You are very naive. That isn’t the answer. The answer is education”. I believe that this is profoundly unhelpful. I do not believe that there is always “the answer” to public policy challenges. Almost always there is a mix of different policy solutions that together will generate the best possible outcome, at least for the present. My Online Safety Bill very much reflects this approach with its two central pillars of education and default adult content filters provided by internet service providers and mobile phone operators and, on top of this, additional age verification checks actually at the doors of websites specialising in R18-rated and 18-rated video on demand content from within the UK and, crucially, beyond.
I passionately believe in the importance of all these elements. Education can help children to deal with online behavioural challenges and to avoid content they would rather not encounter. Default adult content filters, meanwhile, provide additional protections to help children not stumble across unwanted adult content. They also provide a mechanism to protect children from damaging adult content that they should not see but might want to.
Mindful of the tragic Shropshire case I mentioned earlier, and thinking particularly of the duty to protect children articulated in Article 17 of the UN convention, I turn to the policy on access controls to R18-rated and 18-rated video on demand. The fact that children can easily access R18 material is absolutely shocking and a terrible indictment on our society. When people consider the story of the boy who watched hardcore porn and then went and acted out what he had seen on a 10 year-old girl, the initial instinct is to feel huge concern for the girl and anger with the boy, but I would suggest that, while he must take responsibility for his actions, there is a sense in which he is a victim as well. Why is it that the society he lives in has not seen fit to change the law to protect him? Are we not as legislators also responsible? If my Online Safety Bill had been law, that boy would not have been able to access this material because it would have been behind robust statutory age verification. Mindful of this, I very much welcome the Government’s commitment to introduce access controls.
In their 2013 report, Connectivity, Content and Consumers, the Government said on page 35 that they would legislate to,
“ensure that material that would be rated R18”—
by the BBFC—
“is put behind access controls … and ban outright content on regulated services that is illegal even in licensed sex shops”.
In March 2014, ATVOD’s report, For Adults Only?, urged the Government to implement these recommendations to,
“remove any doubt that material that would be rated R18”
must be behind access controls. Also in March 2014, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee reported on online safety. It welcomed the Government’s intention to legislate for R18 videos as promised in 2013, arguing that there,
“needed to be greater clarity over the legality of providing unrestricted access to hardcore pornography”.
Then, on 20 April, the Sunday Times stated that the Government had said that they would implement this by the end of the year.
In this regard, I have three questions for the Minister. Firstly, can he please provide us with an update on this legislation? I am aware that it may have been laid before Parliament in the form of regulations which I have missed. Secondly, can he explain why the Government’s commitment relates only to R18 material and not 18-rated material? If we have decided that it is not appropriate to sell a child 18-rated material offline and we have the technology to protect children from accessing R18 material offline, why do we not also protect them from 18-rated material? Surely this double standard is completely unacceptable.
Finally, I draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that the vast majority of live streamed R18 material is live streamed from sites outside the UK. Can he clarify that the legislation will deal with R18 and, I hope, 18-rated video material, live streamed from sites beyond the UK? If it does not, the Shropshire lad to whom I referred earlier is likely not to have been protected by such provision, because statistically it is more likely that he was accessing R18 material live streamed from beyond the UK than from within the UK.
My Lords, the online world is the real world for digital natives. That is exactly what worries so many of us. However, we would be doing our children a huge disservice if we viewed their online interactions in only a negative light. In fact, for many young people, the internet is far more likely to be a place of opportunity. The internet will bring them opportunities that generations before them could only dream of.
Rather than congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, if the House does not mind, I will quote her. At the beginning of her extraordinary film about children and the internet she says:
“About a year ago, I realised that every time I looked at a teenager, they had an electronic device in their hand, a device connected to the internet. I started asking questions. First the simple ones, like why can’t you leave that thing alone? And how can you do homework while checking Facebook at the same time? Quickly, I graduated to the more difficult: do you have any privacy settings? Do you know where your data goes? Do you know the person you’re talking to? Each of my questions was answered with a shrug. I always have and always will believe, that the internet could be the instrument by which we deliver the full promise of human creativity. But perhaps it’s time we asked ourselves: have we outsourced our children to the internet? And if yes, where are they, and who owns them?”.
I urge everyone interested in this debate to watch the noble Baroness’s extraordinary film, “InRealLife”. It teaches us so many things. It also reminds us that policymakers in general and politicians in particular need to recognise that we are at best digital tourists. However, that cannot prevent us legislating on behalf of digital natives—young people who live and breathe the internet. Indeed, it is our responsibility. That is where the problem, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, alluded at the beginning, lies, because we are trying to govern the terrain of digital natives. With a few honourable exceptions in this House—today they are the noble Baronesses, Lady Kidron, Lady Shields and Lady Lane-Fox—the rest of us really do not have a clue what we are doing. Let us be honest, in comparison to the digital natives, most of us are digitally housebound agrophobes.
“Agoraphobe” is an interesting word in relation to how too many of us in politics instinctively view the internet. It comes from the Greek “agora” meaning marketplace, which is similar to what a first-century Roman might call a forum or an open space, or what a 21st century teenager might call cyberspace. According to Wikipedia, agoraphobia is,
“an anxiety disorder where the sufferer perceives certain environments”—
let us think of the internet—
“as dangerous or uncomfortable, often due to the environment’s vast openness or crowdedness”.
In another online forum I found an agoraphobe described as,
“someone with a morbid and irrational fear of the outdoors, and in particular, of crowded public spaces.”
There we have it. That is basically us in the House of Lords when we view the internet. We view it in a morbid, irrational manner because we instinctively find it dangerous and uncomfortable. It is dangerous because none of the rules that we were brought up with apply and uncomfortable because we cannot navigate the vast terrain. We do not know how to get around, and it seems hideously overcrowded because the whole wide world is there, otherwise known as www. For the younger generation, everyone is there, yet we, the digital tourists, can barely connect a computer to a printer or upload a blog.
I am not even joking. This is a really bad thing to say and I apologise in advance. If your Lordships go to my website www.oonaking.com—that is unforgivable, I grant you, but let me explain—you will see that my penultimate blog entry is dated July 2014. The next one is from this month, November. There are four months in between. Contrary to public perceptions of politicians, that is not because I was on holiday for four months. It is not because I did not have anything to blog about for a third of a year. It is because, despite being shown on four separate occasions over a three-year period how to upload a blog to my website, I just cannot do it. I don’t get it—it does not stick in my brain, because I was not brought up on computers, or I have not spent enough time learning how to navigate them. Let me put my cards on the table: I hate computers; they never work for me. I know that if I try to upload a blog, it will take four hours out of my life, it will end in failure, I will lose the will to live and I may sob hysterically. So, like many noble Lords, I distrust computers and I cannot effectively navigate the vast terrain of the internet.
Of course, when you are in that position, you would rather think the internet is a place ram-packed with paedophiles and con-merchants, because then our agoraphobia would be a blessing not a curse. Now here is the thing again: the internet is ram-packed with paedophiles and con-merchants, because the internet is the real world through another lens. Think of the real world and go back a few decades to, say, the 1970s. It turns out there were paedophiles everywhere you looked, from “Jim’ll Fix It” to the political establishment to “Top of the Pops”.
Police forces across Britain are today investigating 7,500 child abuse cases, including historical cases at children’s care homes. We all know that humans can be monsters, whether online or offline, and humans can be angels, online or offline—creative, inspiring, empathetic and transcendent. Between those two extremes is everything else. The internet means that children can come into contact with greater numbers of monsters or angels than ever before. The monsters we know about are predatory online paedophiles. The angels are, for example, the online mentors who can literally transform a young person’s life for the good. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, mentioned some of the mentoring that takes place.
The noble Baroness, Lady Shields, in her excellent maiden speech, spoke about the need for the creation of digital content to be safe by design. She said that we in authority must be faster, nimbler and more innovative than the minority of perpetrators who use the internet for criminal purposes. The We Protect initiative mentioned by the noble Baroness is also hugely important. She may also have suggested—I will be corrected if I am wrong about this—that we should close loopholes when people try to get around the structures we are building.
Action on what can be done falls into two distinct camps. On the one hand, we need to prevent the worst excesses and online abuse. In the context of today’s debate on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, we are talking about Article 16 on privacy and Articles 19, 35 and 36 on protection. The second part of what we need to do is to educate children to be critical and self-aware users of the internet—not used and abused by the internet. That is covered by Article 17 on mass media and Article 31 on the right to recreation and cultural activities, and the right to self expression.
On preventing the worst excesses, we need to move beyond the question of whether we should regulate the new wild west of the internet to how to regulate it. Obviously, there has been a huge amount of discussion on this, but we realise that there are things that we can and must do to protect our children. On extending that protection, we heard powerfully from the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, to whom I pay great tribute for the work that she is doing. We have recently discussed her proposals on adult content filters in the Consumer Rights Bill, and I must say to the Minister that I am genuinely perplexed by the Government’s position. It makes no sense that the Government go out of their way to get protection from the four main ISPs but then leave a loophole in which 10% of houses and the children in them will have no protection from adult content filters. What will the Minister do to get his colleagues to change their view and position before we get to Third Reading? There are the other issues, such as making online bullying an offence, as the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, outlined, and revenge porn on which the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, spoke powerfully.
On the second part, educating children to be critical and self-aware, we need to push digital literacy right up the political agenda. I think that the iRights agenda is a fantastic place to start, with its five key principles. First, all under-18s should have the right to delete data that they have posted. Secondly, we should have the right to know who holds our data and who profits from these data—we would all like to know that, would we not? Thirdly, under-18s should be able to explore the internet safely. Fourthly, there should be safeguards on compulsive technologies, such as gaming. Fifthly, users should be educated so that they can navigate the terrain. I would say that we need iRights for Members of the House of Lords as well.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, outlined the plight suffered by 10 million adults in the UK who are still barred from the benefits of the internet. I cannot speak highly enough of the work that she does to close the digital divide, which has never been more important.
In conclusion, we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, that children’s lives have been revolutionised by technology, and that we must take this opportunity to ensure that we build a rights-based approach to children in the digital world. That is the lesson of this debate. It makes sense for a rights-based approach to stand on the architecture of the UNCRC. I thank the noble Baroness again for securing this debate and ask her forgiveness if I do not blog about it.
My Lords, I am very pleased to wind up for the Government in this debate. In starting, I have to say that I find myself in agreement—it must be rare when the two Front-Bench spokespeople agree—especially with the first part of the speech of the noble Baroness about having three distinct experts in the House of Lords and the rest of us being digital tourists. I found myself in much sympathy with that.
I hope that I will do justice to what has been an excellent debate, and I shall try to pick up the points raised in so far as I have time. I should also say at the outset that I hope this marks the start of a process because the debate can take us only so far, and I hope that we can carry it further and develop some of the themes that have been set out this afternoon.
I thank very much the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for proposing this very important topic. She has spoken passionately, and of course, as the noble Baroness opposite said, she takes a great interest in children’s activity and digital issues. As a film-maker documenting the impact of the internet on children’s lives and through her involvement in iRights to make children and young people better able to use the internet, she has done much to raise awareness of their online activity.
I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, on a maiden speech of rare erudition, based on extraordinarily wide experience. She spoke of the velocity of change, and certainly brought it home to me when she said that she was a digital veteran. That does demonstrate the velocity of change if that is the case. The internet is truly amazing. It has opened up massive opportunities. I felt as we listened to the debate that the internet is very much Janus-like; it can be used for good and bad. It is up to us to ensure that in so far as it can be it is used for good rather than bad. The noble Baroness was correct in saying that many of the problems thrown up by the internet have parallels in the analogue world prior to the growth of the internet. The noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, also demonstrated the pace of change when she talked about an episode with a mobile phone and how things have moved incredibly quickly.
Children’s increased use of social media gives them new opportunities for social interaction and creativity, and to learn and understand more about the world, but as we have heard it also exposes them to risks, such as cyberbullying, grooming and potentially harmful content. Their safety online is therefore everybody’s responsibility. Empowering children to make the most of online opportunities and build their resilience to risks is part of preparing them for adult life. Children are not born fearful of the internet, and adults have a duty to ensure they do not become so, at least in part by teaching them how to protect themselves in an online world.
Many noble Lords, as well as the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, have spoken about how the internet has opened up new possibilities. The noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, spoke about a range of opportunities that presented, and quoted examples. If she can e-mail the pizza takeaway number I would be most grateful.
Schools have an important role to play, and many noble Lords touched on that. They can equip children and young people for adult life through different aspects of the curriculum, such as personal, social, health and economic education. The new computing curriculum, to which some noble Lords referred favourably, also emphasises computer science and programming at all key stages, and ensures that children become digitally literate and are able to use digital technologies responsibly and safely. In practice, effective use of the internet is picked up throughout the curriculum, helping children access information relevant to all their areas of study. The Government are considering ways to support the effective use of technology in schools through the work of the independent Educational Technology Action Group, which will report jointly to BIS and the Department for Education by January 2015. In the modern world, children increasingly need to develop the ability to sift volumes of data and not just use a book as a single source of information, which may have been the position in the past. They must become discerning users of information and schools should help them in that. The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, spoke of the possibilities, not least by tapping into the expertise in Singapore.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, spoke about teacher training. The Department for Education is funding subject knowledge enhancement courses for new teachers of computing which, in practice, will mean all primary teachers. At present this is a voluntary programme. New teachers are also able to access a range of materials and support programmes developed by the sector, and supported and funded by the Department for Education, and £3.6 million will have been spent by the end of this financial year over a two-year period. We should also emphasise the role of Ofsted, whose inspection and annual report in 2011 led to changes in the IT curriculum to which the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, referred.
As well as all these good aspects, we need to protect children from harm—a subject referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and my noble friends Lady Benjamin, Lord Farmer and Lord Framlingham. Just as there are challenges in the offline world, there are also challenges in the online world. I shall use an analogy here. In the real world, the logic of child development says that falling off a bike is an integral part of learning to ride a bike. That same logic should be applied online as well, because it can lead to children learning from their mistakes. As in the offline world, any policy of total risk avoidance is in danger of being counterproductive.
Looking beyond schools, children can also use and share their digital content in a very positive way, to help develop their digital skills and as an outlet for their creativity. Just one inspiring example of that is the game “Spacepants”, made by a 12 year-old developer, Sam Smith, and named one of the best new games on Apple’s App Store. We want children to see information technology as a tool they can conquer, which gives them access to a range of opportunities.
Amid all these wonderful developments, we must not neglect online safety. As I mentioned earlier, this involves addressing a range of other safeguarding issues. Let me try to deal with those now. As research published recently by Ofcom shows, children are accessing the internet more frequently and on a wider variety of devices than ever before. That pace is likely to continue. With this prevalence comes associated risks, and two in 10 children aged from 12 to 15—18%—say they have seen something online in the past year that was worrying, nasty or offensive.
However, our children are among the world’s best protected. This year’s Net Children Go Mobile: The UK Report—an EU report on the UK—refers to the United Kingdom within Europe as,
“leading in children’s internet safety, adopting both social and technical forms of mediation with vigour”.
Ofcom’s qualitative research shows that children’s theoretical understanding of online risks, as compared with that of those in other countries, is relatively good. One of the reasons for the United Kingdom’s success is our collaborative approach. The UK Council for Child Internet Safety brings together government, industry, law enforcement, academia, charities and parenting groups—and young people, through the membership of the council—who work in partnership to help to keep children and young people safe online. This means we are able to respond quickly and effectively to ever developing challenges.
We believe that the self-regulatory approach is the best for a fast-paced sector such as the internet. Regulation could not keep pace with innovation and technological change. This is not a laissez-faire approach, but a recognition that the best way of approaching the matter is through the industry, and by self-regulation. But that does not mean that we should be complacent, and we need to make sure that parents are given support and technical solutions to protect their children in a way best suited to their individual family composition and circumstances.
That is why, in July last year, the Prime Minister asked the four major internet service providers, covering around 90% of the UK’s broadband market—I will come to the other 10%—to provide parents with the ability to filter content easily. The ISPs—BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin—have responded positively. It would not be true to say that the other 10% are not responding. The fifth and sixth in size are responding positively as we speak, and I think that they are due to come online with protection very shortly. The remainder are smaller ISPs, many business-focused, which perhaps do not face the same challenges that the other providers do. So there is work going on in that direction—a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, as well as my noble friend Lady King. The ISPs’ Internet Matters campaign informs parents about parental controls and helps them understand what risks their children might face online.
We are also determined to tackle cyberbullying—a subject raised with great vigour and passion by my noble friend Lady Benjamin. It is a particularly insidious and harmful form of bullying. It is not confined to school hours, but can affect a child 24/7—and, of course, it can be anonymous, with a child not knowing who is bullying them. We have sought to tackle this by giving teachers greater powers through the Education Act 2011 to tackle cyberbullying. Indeed, this is Anti-Bullying Week, and this Monday we made an announcement encouraging parents to talk to their children about their online activities. I should also say to the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, who raised the possibility of specific action in this context, that I believe that in the offline world, which parallels what is happening in the online world, there are already sufficient powers to deal with those issues—such as the powers in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, the criminal justice Act 2013 and the Defamation Act 2013.
We have a responsibility to educate young people to use technology safely, and to strongly discourage them from sharing self-taken indecent photographs, or sexting. This, too is being dealt with, through the Malicious Communications Act 1988 and the Communications Act 2003.
The increase in online child sexual exploitation and sexual grooming, which was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Framlingham, is a problem of real concern. As is all too clear from recent reports, child sexual exploitation is an appalling crime, which this Government are determined to stamp out. We have strengthened our operational response through the National Crime Agency, with a legal duty on every NCA officer to safeguard and promote child welfare, and more posts dedicated to tackling child sexual exploitation and abuse now than in 2010, when we came into office. As part of the NCA, the CEOP command, which the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, mentioned, ensures that child abuse investigators have access to the agency’s extensive crime-fighting resources and global expertise, which includes officers in over 40 countries around the world. Her Majesty’s Government believe that this incorporation actually strengthens the institution.
Perhaps I may mention topically something that I do not think was raised in the debate; I just wish to get it on the record. There is also a grooming for terrorism dimension to the internet, and at a meeting in Downing Street last week the major ISPs collectively agreed to host a public reporting button for extremist and terrorist material online. It is a growing problem and again shows the fast developing nature of the challenges as well as the opportunities provided by the internet.
We should acknowledge that there are international aspects to internet use which make this area quite unique. I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, referred to the international dimension, which throws up jurisdictional issues. There are two unique aspects to the internet that we have to recognise. One is how fast it is developing, to which noble Lords around the House referred in the debate, and there is the international aspect, which makes it quite a challenge to deal with some of the opportunities as well as the challenges thrown up by this area.
I want to say something about the iRights manifesto and the five principles that have been talked about. We have focused more on the protection aspects in the debate, which are rightly important, but there are other issues such as the right to remove material on the internet. The Google judgment in the European Court of Justice in May this year said that there is a right to be forgotten—someone’s past details, and so on. The Government are looking at this and will continue to discuss it with the sector because we agree that it is appropriate. There is also the right to know. All individuals have legal rights under the Data Protection Act, but we have to see how they translate across to the internet. Again, the Government continue to discuss this aspect within a range of issues with the sector. We have also spoken about the educational aspects of the digital side, which are extremely important.
I have omitted to deal with the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, in relation to the R18 classification. I am advised that the new law around video-on-demand content comes into force on 1 December. This will mean that, in the future, TV-like video content that would be classified by the BBFC as R18 will be put behind age control barriers. Perhaps I may write to the noble Baroness on the other points she raised because I was slightly blind-sided by them. I am grateful for this debate, but rarely have my powers been so exaggerated by noble Lords asking for things. I am very happy to write to the noble Baroness on the point.
As I said, I am keen that this should move forward positively. The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, plays a key role in iRights, while as trustees so too do the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, and my noble friend Lady Shields, and I think that we can build on that. Let us not forget that today we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, reminded us. It is an important landmark, and although the document was written before the world wide web was invented, the UNCRC is a living document and subject to modern interpretation. It includes rights to protections and freedom of expression, along with children’s access to the media. Once again, we can see the Janus-like nature of this in that there are threats as well as opportunities. The Government have put on the record their commitment to children’s rights and to giving due consideration to the UNCRC when developing new policy. The department will consider, as part of that, the digital dimension in the checking of UNCRC compliance, to see if it cannot be incorporated as a separate item. That is important; certainly it is symbolically important.
Another aspect that occurred to me as we went through the debate was the importance of the all-party parliamentary group chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, on children, media and the arts, and how it could be used as a focus for the concerns expressed pretty much universally around the Chamber. This has been a very consensual debate in which people can see the challenges as well as the threats and opportunities. I suggest that the all-party group might like to act as a task force and produce a paper for the department.
In conclusion, it is tremendous to see the House of Lords taking the initiative in this area—perhaps counterintuitively based on the age profile and some confessions of little or no knowledge—of looking at the impact of the digital world on children and young people. I should like to offer the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and the signatories to iRights a meeting with officials before the Recess to consider the way forward in this area, and to extend an invitation to iRights campaigners to attend the first meeting in the new year of the United Kingdom Council for Child Internet Safety. I think that both of those could be useful ways of moving things forward. This debate can offer only a kick-start, but I hope that it will kick-start what is clearly an important area not only for children and young people, but also for the country, the economy and our society. This is a massively challenging, important and interesting area.
Today’s debate is an important step forward in looking again at the UNCRC so that children’s rights which are guaranteed offline are also applied online. I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords for this debate, and in particular to the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for her comments and innovative ideas. She is absolutely right to act as a champion in this area. It did occur to me that past revolutions such as the agrarian revolution, the Industrial Revolution and now the digital revolution have all thrown up their challenges and their opportunities. It is our task to ensure that it is the opportunities that win and that the challenges are met.
I must thank all noble Lords. This really has been by all standards a broad and friendly debate. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me for not citing each contribution. I do not have the capacity to improve on what has already been said by others or, indeed, on the way it was articulated. I will just pick up on a few things. We heard the internet described as “water” twice in this debate. The centrality of it in our lives is now beginning to be understood. Everybody who has spoken has shown an overwhelming commitment to education of a non-didactic kind. I think we all agree with what that looks like.
We have heard of the value of the internet: being offered late-night pizza; breast-feeding apps; outsourcing homework; and, possibly more important, preventing isolation through outreach and mentoring. I myself have felt the terror that all must feel when being quoted in this House. Noble Lords have also expressed concern about the safety and upset of children and the inequalities of access. I want to particularly pick up on those noble Lords who mentioned the worrying trend that makes the internet a hostile or difficult place for girls. The internet will never fulfil the ambitions of its inventors if it is not an equal platform for women and young girls.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, for her kind words and her mantra of “safe by design”. Her success proves that what may look impossible now is indeed possible in the future. She has proved today what an important and welcome addition she is to this House, however great our number.
As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester said, the technology is neutral, and that leaves the question of rights and responsibilities to all stakeholders —industry, government, parents, teachers and young people—not just on the issues of safety that have been raised but, as the Minister suggested, more broadly, in the way that young people engage with web-based technology.
The Minister could not have been warmer to this agenda, and I thank him and his officials. I am also grateful for many of the things that the Government are striving to do in this area. I welcome his invitation to talk to officials in the department and explore this with noble friends and other Members of the House more fully. He has my support. When he works out how we make the Members of this House feel more confident about digital and web technology, he will have my support and, I am sure, the support of other Members to alert them to the potential opportunities and contradictions of our digital world.
It has been a long debate, and I cannot say much more. I wanted to make a very technical point, that the right to remove is a lot less ambitious than the European judgment on the right to be forgotten. I am very interested to see what the government finding will be on that question of data and the right to remove them. It is a very important piece of what we are trying to establish.
As I said at the beginning, this is a technology of infinite promise and imagination, and no world is ever risk free. By adopting a path that carefully balances the necessity of children to be guardians of their own interests alongside our needs to be guardians of their interests, we allow them to grasp the opportunities that lie ahead. I salute the authors of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Its work is not yet done. This is a very important day and a very important document.
Jobseeker’s Allowance (18–21 Work Skills Pilot Scheme) Regulations 2014
Motion to Approve
That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 13 October be approved.
Relevant document: 9th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and 12th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. Considered in Grand Committee on 19 November.
House adjourned at 3.59 pm.