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Children: Online Grooming

Volume 808: debated on Wednesday 2 December 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to protect children online who have been groomed into filming their own abuse.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and declare an interest as a champion of the Internet Watch Foundation and a vice-president of Barnardo’s.

My Lords, the rise in self-generated indecent images of children is extremely concerning. These images can have devastating impacts on young people, putting them at risk of blackmail, coercion and, of course, further abuse. Through the online harms Bill we intend to publish a new duty of care for online companies towards their users, overseen by an independent regulator. Our response during the pandemic includes amplifying messages to stakeholders to help children to stay safe online.

My Lords, professionals working in child protection, such as those at Barnardo’s and the NSPCC, have been raising concerns about the impact of the lockdown on children, which has created a perfect storm that has led to an increase in online child abuse. The Internet Watch Foundation has warned of a rise in self-generated illegal images of young children which it has had to take down, up almost 50% on last year. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that there is a renewed focus on prevention and the protection of children, who are spending more time online, to guarantee that they are properly supported with high-quality online safety advice, funding and resources?

I agree whole- heartedly with the noble Baroness: she is absolutely right that the figures she quotes are staggering and worrying. I commend the Internet Watch Foundation for the work it is doing. I know that officials are engaging very closely with the IWF to explore what more we can do to tackle this sort of online grooming. I also know that RSE in schools is another area through which we can engage with children to prevent this sort of thing happening in the first place.

My Lords, the UK Safer Internet Centre recently reported that in one week alone earlier this year 700 young girls, most of them between 11 and 13 years old, were coerced into filming their own abuse and posting it online, where it is easily shared, repeating the trauma and victimisation time and again. What progress have the Government made in getting social media companies to take down all such images, including those that have been shared, as they are reported? Which companies are not complying with this process? Can the Minister also confirm that funding for the UK Safer Internet Centre has been secured as a result of the Chancellor’s Statement last week?

I cannot confirm the answer to the noble Lord’s question about the funding for the UK Safer Internet Centre, but I will confirm it to him in writing. The figure that he quoted of 700 girls in one week is just staggering in its magnitude. Of course, this is a problem of this generation: my children were certainly not subjected to this type of coercion, either by their peers or by groomers online. This is the double concern. I know that Five Eyes are working together with some of the internet providers and social media sites and that the Home Secretary has been engaged in this work, specifically with Facebook.

My Lords, in April 2017, three and a half years ago, the Digital Economy Act included measures to protect children online. In 2019, the Government decided not to commence these measures, wanting instead to wait for the online harms Bill. A year on, we are still waiting for that Bill. When will it be published, and can the Minister explain to the House how this three and a half year-delay is the Government seeking to protect children online?

I cannot disagree with the noble Baroness that the sooner the online harms Bill comes our way, the better. I certainly know that the response to the consultation will be published very shortly. The sooner we can get on with this, the absolute better for our children.

My Lords, is there any way for the authorities to monitor communications with children who are in local authority care and particularly vulnerable to the offer of a relationship, and in this way prevent the grooming altogether?

I have to say to my noble and learned friend that in local authorities, particularly when local authority systems are being used, there are firewalls to prevent some types of abuse, but if a child has a smart phone with such things as Messenger or Snapchat on it, it is incredibly difficult for local authorities to keep tabs on children who are at the end of such coercive behaviour. The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley, talked about the online harms Bill next year: that is going to be crucial, because it will place a duty of care on service providers and social media platforms to actually protect vulnerable people from this sort of thing.

My Lords, following up on the Minister’s reply to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, she may be aware that industry compliance in taking down child abuse images fell by 89% in the first month of lockdown. What tools are the Government using, or threatening to use, to ensure that social media companies such as Facebook design and deliver platforms and services that put child protection front and centre?

I can guess at several of the factors, but one might be the ever-increasing use of encryption, so that not only can parents not see what their children are doing, but nor can the local authority or, actually, the internet providers themselves. This is at the heart of what the Home Secretary and Five Eyes partners are trying to discourage going forward.

My Lords, following up on the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, my noble friend may be aware that Facebook and Facebook-owned apps such as Instagram and WhatsApp account for more than 50% of online abuse. What conversations are specifically taking place with Facebook in relation to its platforms being the preferred method and platform for this kind of abuse?

Well, Messenger, which is a Facebook app, had not to date been encrypted, but Facebook has announced its intention to encrypt Messenger from, I think, next year. This is precisely the type of discussion that the Home Secretary and Five Eyes partners are having with Facebook, because not only will law enforcement bodies and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the US not be able to look at what is going on there, but nor will Facebook itself, and that is the crucial thing here.

My Lords, these are horrific crimes. Frankly, is it not time to give the directors of the companies that are hosting these images legal civil and criminal responsibility for the content they host? I suspect we would see much swifter action if this were the case, and nothing short of this will do to deal with this abuse.

My Lords, although I cannot give the actual details of the online harms Bill, that duty of care will push that responsibility on to those internet service providers and platforms to do just that, to protect our children.

The question we really want answered is whether the Home Office is pressing for, and the Government are going to provide parliamentarians with, the opportunity to vote in Parliament to create criminal sanctions against the internet companies that are failing to deal with this depravity.

I certainly look forward to having those discussions with parliamentarians in your Lordships’ House, many of whom have such expertise in this area.