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Children’s Rights: Digital Environment

Volume 813: debated on Thursday 1 July 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they plan to take in response to General Comment No. 25 (2021) on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment adopted by the United Nation’s Committee on the Rights of the Child on 2 March.

My Lords, I am delighted that the UN committee has formally recognised how children’s rights in the convention apply to the digital world. The strongest protections in the Government’s landmark online safety Bill are for children and reflect the general comments provisions, such as the new duty of care. The age-appropriate design code informed by the principles in the convention will also provide protection for children’s personal data when it comes into force this September.

I thank the Minister for her response and declare my interest, particularly as chair of 5Rights and its role as consultant to the Committee on the Rights of the Child in drafting the general comment. As the Minister said, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its associated protocols provide the international benchmark for all government action regarding children, and the UK has an exceptional record on this question. So will the Minister say whether the Department for Education as the lead reporting department will take note of the general comment when it reports to the committee later this year? Since so many noble Lords wish to see specific reference to children’s rights in the online safety Bill, will she agree to convene a meeting between those noble Lords, her department and DCMS Ministers?

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her reference to the exceptional record this country has in protecting and promoting the rights of children, and I am delighted to confirm that a meeting will be arranged for noble Lords, which will be led by my noble friend Lady Barran.

My Lords, the online safety Bill talks about protecting

“rights to freedom of expression”,

but nowhere does it refer to children’s rights to grow up in a healthy digital environment. Can the Minister give assurance that this will be addressed?

My Lords, the key point around the protections we are putting in place and why the strongest protections are for children, reflected in the Keeping Children Safe in Education guidance, is that we want children to benefit and flourish using digital technology but to be kept safe online.

I refer to my entry in the register of Members’ interests, particularly my work with Common Sense Media. I gather that last night a US Senator and two Congresspeople recommended that the age-appropriate design code be incorporated into US legislation. That is because the Convention on the Rights of the Child is incorporated within the age-appropriate design code here in the UK, thanks to the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and this House. Can the Minister assure us that the convention will appear in the online safety Bill, so that the UK can continue to burnish its well-earned reputation for the protection of children online?

My Lords, it is indeed pleasing to note that the age-appropriate design code is seen in such a world-leading manner. The Government’s response to the White Paper on online safety has led to draft legislation that will be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny this Session. Noble Lords will have the opportunity then to advocate that the convention should be in the Bill.

My Lords, does the Minister’s department agree with DCMS that we should repeal Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act? This goes against the United Nations general comment, which states in paragraph 114:

“Robust age verification systems should be used to prevent children from acquiring access to products and services that are illegal for them to own or use.”

My Lords, I can confirm to the noble Earl that age-appropriate and age-verification services are part of the structure of the online safety Bill. Providers of services that are a high risk to children will be expected to have significant levels of security, such as age verification. For lower risks, age appropriate will be the provision. I will have to write to the noble Earl in relation to the suggestion of repealing some legislation.

My Lords, the Government’s digital charter states that rights online must be the same as those offline and that the benefits of new technologies must be “fairly shared”. The House of Lords communications committee has called for regulation to ensure that human rights and children’s rights are upheld. There have been clear failures in both fairness and the delivery of children’s rights during the Covid pandemic. How will these rights be protected and monitored in future?

My Lords, after the last review under the UN convention, suggestions and recommendations were taken forward. There is now a children’s rights assessment in the development of policy and there has been training of civil servants, as was suggested.

This week’s Radio Times piece by Paul Lewis tells of a 10 year-old boy who racked up substantial debts by playing computer games which had what are called “loot boxes”. This is unfair treatment, as mentioned in general comment 25. Following the end of the consultation period on loot boxes, will the Government work with the gaming industry and legislate to eliminate this danger?

My Lords, we are consulting on those matters and will report back. It is clear that in the online safety Bill one of the sanctions available to Ofcom, if providers have inappropriate content that children are gaining access to, is to disconnect payment services such as that from their websites and social media services.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that right-set standards and rightly considered regulation of legislation need be neither a drain on our economy nor a strain on our society? Rather, they can be part of enabling us to have the economy we need and the society we want, with all the individual and collective well-being that goes with that.

My Lords, this is entirely what we are seeking to do through the national online media strategy that we will launch later this year, to empower citizens to use the internet safely and to make wise choices. It is why the draft Bill not only includes protections for children but proposes to entrench in legislation freedom of speech and the right of appeal, should content be removed.

Understandable confusion from the Lord Speaker.

My Lords, The Ofcom Online Nation 2021 Report showed that lockdown had highlighted the digital divide and that, with one in 10 households without access to the internet during lockdown, it had been magnified and was clearly a severe socioeconomic problem. Last week the Times reported that Amazon was engaged in the mass disposal of unused IT equipment, with 120,000 items marked for destruction in one week alone. I know the Minister will share my anger at that obscene waste, against the backdrop of lost education and damaged life chances caused by the pandemic. So can she tell noble Lords what discussions the Government have had or will have with retailers to maximise the charitable repositioning of devices for schools?

My Lords, I am grateful for the expertise of the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, as this question straddles a number of departments.

Obviously, we want to avoid all kinds of waste; food waste has also been on many people’s agenda. I can assure the noble Lord that the 1.3 million laptops we have distributed are the property of local authorities and schools, and we would take a very dim view if anything of that nature happened to that property. I will have to write to him in relation to the specific point about the recycling of white goods.

As a neuroscientist, I am aware of the growing evidence of reports about the impact of digital technology on the physical brain. I therefore ask the Minister to what extent the Government will be consulting with neuroscientists.

My Lords, in this Session there will be a period of pre-legislative scrutiny for the online safety Bill and therefore neuroscientists will be able to put forward their views on the Bill. When we consulted on the White Paper there were 2,400 responses, so those experts have also had the opportunity to respond to that consultation.

My Lords, the digital environment is constantly evolving, reaching further into lives, with a focus concentrated mainly on child protection and education. What further steps do the Government plan to address the general digital experience of children?

My Lords, during the pandemic the Government have invested over £400 million in remote technology to assist learning in schools. We anticipate that that will be something for the future and beyond. We are also looking at how we can assist schools in managing cyber risks, which have increased with the use of technology. We want to embed this in our education system.