Committee (7th Day) (Continued)
Clause 36: Codes of practice about duties
98A: Clause 36, page 37, line 29, at end insert—
“(ga) the Children’s Commissioner,(gb) the Commissioner for Victims and Witnesses,(gc) the Domestic Abuse Commissioner,”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment provides that in preparing a draft code of practice or amendments of a code of practice under clause 36, OFCOM must also consult the Children’s Commissioner, the Commissioner for Victims and Witnesses and the Domestic Abuse Commissioner.
My Lords, the amendments in this group consider the role of collaboration and consultation in Ofcom’s approach. The proposals range in their intent, and include mandating additional roles for young people in the framework, adding new formal consultation requirements, and creating powers for Ofcom to work with other organisations.
I reassure noble Lords that the Government take these concerns extremely seriously. That is why the Bill already places the voices of experts, users and victims at the heart of the regime it establishes. In fact, the intent of many of the amendments in this group will already be delivered. That includes Ofcom working with others effectively to deliver the legislation, consulting on draft codes of practice, and having the ability to designate specific regulatory functions to other bodies where appropriate. Where we can strengthen the voices of users, victims or experts—without undermining existing processes, reducing the regulator’s independence or causing unacceptable delays—the Government are open to this. That is why I am moving the amendment today. However, as we have heard in previous debates, this is already a complex regulatory framework, and there is a widespread desire for it to be implemented quickly. Therefore, it is right that we guard against creating additional or redundant requirements which could complicate the regime or unduly delay implementation.
I turn to the amendment in my name. As noble Lords know, Ofcom will develop codes of practice setting out recommended measures for companies to fulfil their duties under the Bill. When developing those codes, Ofcom must consult various persons and organisations who have specific knowledge or expertise related to online harms. This process will ensure that the voices of users, experts and others are reflected in the codes, and, in turn, that the codes contain appropriate and effective measures.
One of the most important goals of the Bill, as noble Lords have heard me say many times, is the protection of children. It is also critical that the codes reflect the views of victims of online abuse, as well as the expertise of those who have experience in managing them. Therefore, the government amendment seeks to name the Commissioner for Victims and Witnesses, the domestic abuse commissioner and the Children’s Commissioner as statutory consultees under Clause 36(6). Ofcom will be required to consult those commissioners when preparing or amending a code of practice.
Listing these commissioners as statutory consultees will guarantee that the voices of victims and those who are disproportionately affected by online abuse are represented when developing codes of practice. This includes, in particular, women and girls—following on from our debate on the previous group—as well as children and vulnerable adults. This will ensure that Ofcom’s codes propose specific and targeted measures, such as on illegal content and content that is harmful to children, that platforms can take to address abuse effectively. I therefore hope that noble Lords will accept it.
I will say a little about some of the other amendments in this group before noble Lords speak to them. I look forward to hearing how they introduce them.
I appreciate the intent of Amendment 220E, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and my noble friend Lady Morgan of Cotes, to address the seriousness of the issue of child sexual exploitation and abuse online. This amendment would allow Ofcom to designate an expert body to tackle such content. Where appropriate and effective, Section 1(7) of the Communications Act 2003 and Part II of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994 provide a route for Ofcom to enter into co-regulatory arrangements under the online safety framework.
There are a number of organisations that could play a role in the future regulatory framework, given their significant experience and expertise on the complex and important issue of tackling online child sexual exploitation and abuse. This includes the Internet Watch Foundation, which plays a pivotal role in the detection and removal of child sexual abuse material and provides vital tools to support its members to detect this abhorrent content.
A key difference from the proposed amendment is that the existing route, following consultation with Ofcom, requires an order to be made by a Minister, under the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994, before Ofcom can authorise a co-regulator to carry out regulatory functions. Allowing Ofcom to do this, without the need for secondary legislation, would allow Ofcom to bypass existing parliamentary scrutiny when contracting out its regulatory functions under the Bill. By contrast, the existing route requires a draft order to be laid before, and approved by, each House of Parliament.
The noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, tabled Amendment 226, which proposes a child user advocacy body. The Government are committed to the interests of child users being represented and protected, but we believe that this is already achieved through the Bill’s existing provisions. There is a wealth of experienced and committed representative groups who are engaged with the regulatory framework. As the regulator, Ofcom will also continue to consult widely with a range of interested parties to ensure that it understands the experience of, and risks affecting, children online. Further placing children’s experiences at the centre of the framework, the Government’s Amendment 98A would name the Children’s Commissioner as a statutory consultee for the codes of practice. The child user advocacy body proposed in the noble Lord’s Amendment 226 may duplicate the Children’s Commissioner’s existing functions, which would create uncertainty, undermining the effectiveness of the Children’s Commissioner’s Office. The Government are confident that the Children’s Commissioner will effectively use her statutory duties and powers to understand children’s experiences of the digital realm.
For the reasons that I have set out, I am confident that children’s voices will be placed at the heart of the regime, with their interests defended and advocated for by the regulator, the Children’s Commissioner, and through ongoing engagement with civil society groups.
Similarly, Amendment 256, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, seeks to require that any Ofcom advisory committees established by direction from the Secretary of State under Clause 155 include at least two young people. Ofcom has considerable experience in setting up committees of this kind. While there is nothing that would preclude committee membership from including at least two young people, predetermining the composition of any committee would not give Ofcom the necessary space and independence to run a transparent process. We feel that candidates should be appointed based on relevant understanding and technical knowledge of the issue in question. Where a board is examining issues with specific relevance to the interests of children, we would expect the committee membership to reflect that appropriately.
I turn to the statement of strategic priorities. As I hope noble Lords will agree, future changes in technology will likely have an impact on the experience people have online, including the nature of online harms. As provided for by Clause 153, the statement of strategic priorities will allow the Secretary of State to set out a statement of the Government’s strategic priorities in relation to online safety. This ensures that the Government can respond to changes in the digital and regulatory landscape at a strategic level. A similar power exists for telecommunications, the management of the radio spectrum, and postal services.
Amendments 251 to 253 seek to place additional requirements on the preparation of a statement before it can be designated. I reassure noble Lords that the existing consultation and parliamentary approval requirements allow for an extensive process before a statement can be designated. These amendments would introduce unnecessary steps and would move beyond the existing precedent in the Communications Act when making such a statement for telecommunications, the management of the radio spectrum, and postal services.
Finally, Amendment 284, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, proposes changes to Clause 171 on Ofcom’s guidance on illegal content judgments. Ofcom is already required to consult persons it considers appropriate before producing or revising the guidance, which could include the groups named in the noble Lord’s amendment. This amendment would oblige Ofcom to run formal public consultations on the illegal content guidance at two different stages: first, at a formative stage in the drafting process, and then before publishing a final version. These consultations would have to be repeated before subsequently amending or updating the guidance in any way. This would impose duplicative, time-consuming requirements on the regulator to consult, which are excessive when looking at other comparable guidance. The proposed consultations under this amendment would ultimately delay the publication of this instrumental guidance.
I will listen to what noble Lords have to say when they speak to their amendments, but these are the reasons why, upon first reading, we are unpersuaded by them.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for opening the group. This is a slightly novel procedure: he has rebutted our arguments before we have even had a chance to put them—what is new? I hope he has another speech lined up for the end which accepts some of the arguments we put, to demonstrate that he has listened to all the arguments made in the debate.
I will speak mainly to Amendments 220E and 226, ahead of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron; I understand that the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, will be speaking at the end of the group to Amendment 226. I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, for signing Amendment 220E; I know she feels very strongly about this issue as well.
As the Minister said, this amendment is designed to confirm the IWF’s role as the recognised body for dealing with notice and take-down procedures for child sexual abuse imagery in the UK and to ensure that its long experience and expertise continues to be put to best use. In our view, any delay in establishing the roles and responsibilities of expert organisations such as the IWF in working with Ofcom under the new regulatory regime risks leaving a vacuum in which the risks to children from this hateful form of abuse will only increase. I heard what the Minister said about the parliamentary procedure, but that is a much slower procedure than a designation by Ofcom, so I think that is going to be one of the bones of contention between us.
The Internet Watch Foundation is a co-regulatory body with over 25 years of experience working with the internet industry, law enforcement and government to prevent the uploading of, and to disable public access to, known child sexual abuse, and to secure the removal of indecent images and videos of children from the internet. The organisation has had some considerable success over the last 25 years, despite the problem appearing to be getting worse globally.
In 2022, it succeeded in removing a record 255,000 web pages containing child sexual abuse. It has also amassed a database of more than 1.6 million unique hashes of child sexual abuse material, which has been provided to the internet industry to keep its platforms free from such material. In 2020, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse concluded that, in the UK, the IWF
“sits at the heart of the national response to combating the proliferation of indecent images of children. It is an organisation that deserves to be acknowledged publicly as a vital part of how, and why, comparatively little child sexual abuse material is hosted in the UK”.
Our Joint Committee on the draft Online Safety Bill stated back in December 2021—that seems a long time ago now—that the IWF
“made a persuasive case that they should be co-designated by Ofcom to regulate CSEA content, an argument supported by the CPS and by TalkTalk”
in their evidence to the committee. We also concluded that
“it would have been beneficial to see more information … about how such co-designation might be achieved or even”
the processes for and
“a timeline on when such decisions will be taken”.
In fact, the then Minister, Chris Philp MP, backed up the importance of the IWF to the regulatory landscape during the Public Bill Committee in the Commons in June 2022, stating that
“agencies such as the Internet Watch Foundation and others should co-operate closely. There is already very good working between the Internet Watch Foundation, law enforcement and others—they seem to be well networked together and co-operating closely”.—[Official Report, Commons, Public Order Bill Committee, 14/6/22; col. 421.]
But I think that is not utterly clear, and that is the reason for putting this forward.
It is clear that Ofcom does not see regulation as a solo effort just by itself; of course, that cannot be the case for something as big and important as this. There is already so much expertise in other organisations such as the IWF. I hope that this amendment will tease out some of the progress being made—or not—in terms of co-designation and the relationship between Ofcom and organisations such as the IWF. What consultation has been carried out with the IWF to date? Are arrangements going to be come to with it in terms of CSEA and other similar material?
Three years have elapsed since we saw the first draft of this Bill, so we have had plenty of time to have those discussions and consultations. When can we expect decisions to be made? What steps will be taken to help organisations such as the IWF to scale up if they do get a response to assistance from Ofcom? What conclusions has Ofcom reached on the role for the IWF in the new regulatory landscape? I very much hope that we will get a more positive response to some of those questions at the end of this debate.
I want to come on to Amendment 226. My noble friend Lady Tyler is not well, unfortunately, and cannot be here today, but she is a strong supporter of this amendment, which deals with child protection and mental health. Mental health is the number one reason why children call Childline. We know that online abuse and harm can have a profound impact on children’s mental health. Online child abuse has a devastating impact on children. It profoundly affects their mental health and their experience of relationships, with many continuing to experience the impact long after the period of abuse. Exposure to legal but harmful content can have an incredibly damaging impact on children’s mental and emotional well-being. Some children told Childline that they were experiencing
“anxiety, intrusive thoughts, low self-esteem and trouble sleeping”
as a result of seeing that harmful material online. That is why we support this amendment to introduce an advocacy body for children.
I heard what the Minister had to say about that: that it was duplicative, and so on. I am sure there are some jolly good reasons that the Minister can adumbrate, but I do not necessarily believe that the Children’s Commissioner believes that that is their specific role in these circumstances. That is why Young Minds and the Molly Rose Foundation, established by Ian Russell after the death of his daughter Molly, have come together with the NSPCC to support the introduction of an advocacy body for children. So I hope that the Minister will be rather more positive than he started out being on Amendment 226.
I shall speak briefly to Amendments 220E and 226. On Amendment 220E, I say simply that nothing should be left to chance on IWF. No warm words or good intentions replace the requirement for its work to be seamlessly and formally integrated into the OSB regime. I put on record the extraordinary debt that every one of us owes to those who work on the front line of child sexual abuse. I know from my own work how the images linger. We should all do all that we can to support those who spend every day chasing down predators and finding and supporting victims and survivors. I very much hope that, in his response, the Minister will agree to sit down with the IWF, colleagues from Ofcom and the noble Lords who tabled the amendment and commit to finding a language that will give the IWF the reassurance it craves.
More generally, I raise the issue of why the Government did not accept the pre-legislative committee’s recommendation that the Bill provide a framework for how bodies will work together, including when and how they will share powers, take joint action and conduct joint investigations. I have a lot of sympathy with the Digital Regulation Co-operation Forum in its desire to remain an informal body, but that is quite different from the formal power to share sensitive data and undertake joint action or investigation.
If history repeats itself, enforcing the law will take many years and very likely will cost a great deal of money and require expertise that it makes no sense for Ofcom to reproduce. It seems obvious that it should have the power to co-designate efficiently and effectively. I was listening to the Minister when he set out his amendment, and he went through the process that Ofcom has, but it did not seem to quite meet the “efficiently and effectively” model. I should be interested to know why there is not more emphasis on co-regulation in general and the sharing of powers in particular.
In the spirit of the evening, I turn to Amendment 226 and make some comments before the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, has outlined the amendment, so I beg her indulgence on that. I want to support and credit the NSPCC for its work in gathering the entire child rights community behind it. Selfishly, I have my own early warning system, in the form of the 5Rights youth advisory group, made up of the GYG—gifted young generation—from Gravesend. It tells us frequently exactly what it does not like and does like about the online world. More importantly, it reveals very early on in our interactions the features or language associated with emerging harms.
Because of the lateness of the hour, I will not give your Lordships all the quotes, but capturing and reflecting children’s insight and voices is a key part of future-proofing. It allows us to anticipate new harms and, where new features pop up that are having a positive or negative impact, it is quite normal to ask the user groups how they are experiencing those features and that language themselves. That is quite normal across all consumer groups so, if this is a children’s Bill, why are children not included in this way?
In the work that I do with companies, they often ask what emerging trends we are seeing. For example, they actually say that they will accept any additions to the list of search words that can lead to self-harm content, or “What do we know about the emoji language that is happening now that was not happening last week?” I am always surprised at their surprise when we say that a particular feature is causing anxiety for children. Rather than being hostile, their response is almost always, “I have never thought about it that way before”. That is the value of consulting your consumer—in this case, children.
I acknowledge what the Minister said and I welcome the statutory consultees—the Children’s Commissioner, the Victims’ Commissioner and so on. It is a very welcome addition, but this role is narrowly focused on the codes of practice at the very start of the regulatory cycle, rather than the regulatory system as a whole. It does not include the wider experience of those organisations that deal with children in real time, such as South West Grid for Learning or the NSPCC, or the research work done by 5Rights, academics across the university sector or research partners such as Revealing Reality—ongoing, real-time information and understanding of children’s perspectives on their experience.
Likewise, super-complaints and Ofcom’s enforcement powers are what happen after harms take place. I believe that we are all united in thinking that the real objective of the exercise is to prevent harm. That means including children’s voices not only because it is their right but because, so often in my experience, they know exactly what needs to happen, if only we would listen.
My Lords, I speak mainly to support Amendment 220E, to which I have added my name. I am also delighted to support government Amendment 98A and I entirely agree with the statutory consultees listed there. I will make a brief contribution to support the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, who introduced Amendment 220E. I thank the chief executive at Ofcom for the discussions that we have had on the designation and the Minister for the reply he sent me on this issue.
I have a slight feeling that we are dancing on the head of a pin a little, as we know that we have an absolutely world-leading organisation in the form of the Internet Watch Foundation. It plays an internationally respected role in tackling child sexual abuse. We should be, and I think we are, very proud to have it in the United Kingdom, and the Government want to enhance and further build on the best practice that we have seen. As we have already heard and all know, this Bill has been a very long time in coming and organisations such as the Internet Watch Foundation, which are pretty certain because of their expertise and the good work they have done already, should be designated.
However, without knowing that and without having a strong steer of support from the Minister, it becomes harder for them to operate, as they are in a vacuum. Things such as funding and partnership working become harder and harder, as well, which is what I mean by dancing on the head of a pin—unless the Minister says something about another organisation.
The IWF was founded in 1996, when 18% of the world’s known child sexual abuse material was hosted in the UK. Today that figure is less than 1% and has been since 2003, thanks to the work of the IWF’s analysts and the partnership approach the IWF takes. We should say thank you to those who are at the front line of the grimmest material imaginable and who do this to keep our internet safe.
I mentioned, in the previous group, the IWF’s research on girls. It says that it has seen more girls appearing in this type of imagery. Girls now appear in 96% of the imagery it removes from the internet, up almost 30 percentage points from a decade ago. That is another good reason why we want the internet and online to be a safe place for women and girls. As I say, any delay in establishing the role and responsibility of an expert organisation such as the IWF in working with Ofcom risks leaving a vacuum in which the risk is to children. That is really the ultimate thing; if there is a vacuum left and the IWF is not certain about its position, then what happens is that the children who are harmed most by this awful material are the ones who are not being protected. I do not think that is what anybody wants to see, however much we might argue about whether an order should be passed by Parliament or by Ofcom.
The Minister has already mentioned the Internet Watch Foundation tonight. It would be very helpful if he could set out whether he does expect Ofcom to work with the IWF to deliver its obligations under the Bill and whether he will commit to discussing this with both Ofcom and the IWF, due to the impact this uncertainty is having on the IWF. I am sure, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, suggested, that I and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, would be happy to attend any such meeting as well, if that would help, but I do not think that we need necessarily to hold hands with these two extremely grown-up organisations in meeting the Minister. Obviously, the IWF has to have some sort of commitment in relation to its funding, to help it, as we have said, to scale up to offering services to the 24,000 companies that could be attempting to access its services to comply with the Bill.
I think it is fair to say this is a probing amendment. It is an important amendment, and I think that without that confirmation or indication from the Minister, we do leave a vacuum in which this hateful material proliferates, and children become ever more vulnerable.
My Lords, I have put my name to Amendment 220E, in order that the Internet Watch Foundation is duly recognised for its work and there is clarity for its role in the future regulatory landscape. So far, no role has yet been agreed with Ofcom. This could have a detrimental effect on the vital work of the IWF in combating the proliferation of child sexual abuse images and videos online.
As other noble Lords have said, the work of the IWF in taking down the vile webpages depicting sexual abuse of children is vital to stemming this tide of abuse on the internet. Worryingly, self-generated images of children are on the rise, and now account for two-thirds of the content that is removed by the IWF. Seven to 10 year-olds are now the fastest-growing age group appearing in these images. As the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, said, girls appear in 96% of the imagery the IWF removes from the internet—up almost 30 percentage points from a decade ago. The abuse of boys is also on the rise. In the past year the IWF has seen an 138% increase in images involving them, often linked to sexual extortion.
This amendment attempts to clarify the future role of the IWF, so we await the response from the Government with interest. Tackling this growing plague of child sexual abuse is going to take all the expert knowledge that can be found, and Ofcom would be strengthened in its work by formally co-operating with the IWF.
Briefly, I also support Amendment 226, in the name of my noble friend Lord Knight, to require Ofcom to establish an advocacy body for children. I raised this at Second Reading, as I believe that children must be represented not just by the Children's Commissioner, welcome though that is, but by a body that actively includes them, not just speaks for them. The role of the English Children’s Commissioner as a statutory consultee is not an alternative to advocacy. The commissioner’s role is narrowly focused on inputting into the codes of practice at the start of the regulatory cycle, not as an ongoing provider of children’s experiences online.
This body would need to be UK-wide, with dedicated staff to consistently listen to children through research projects and helplines. It will be able to monitor new harms and rapidly identify emerging risks through its direct continual contact with children. This body would assist Ofcom and strengthen its ability to keep up with new technology. The new body will be able to share insights with the regulator to ensure that decisions are based on a live understanding of children’s safety online and to act as an early warning system. Establishing such a body would increase trust in Ofcom’s ability to stay in touch with those it needs to serve and be recognised by the tech companies as a voice for children.
There must be a mechanism that ensures children’s interests and safety online are promoted and protected. Children have a right to participate fully in the digital world and have their voices heard, so that tech companies can design services that allow them to participate in an age-appropriate way to access education, friendships and entertainment in a safe environment, as the Bill intends. One in three internet users is a child; their rights cannot be ignored.
My Lords, I support Amendment 220E in the names of my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones and the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Cotes. I also support the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and Amendment 226, which deals with children’s mental health.
I have spoken on numerous occasions in this place about the devastating impact child sexual abuse has and how it robs children of their childhoods. I am sure everyone here will agree that every child has the right to a childhood free of sexual exploitation and abuse. That is why I am so passionate about protecting children from some of the most shocking and obscene harm you can imagine. In the case of this amendment and child sexual abuse, we are specifically talking about crimes against children.
The Internet Watch Foundation is an organisation I am proud to support as one of its parliamentary champions, because its staff are guardian angels who work tirelessly beyond the call of duty to protect children. In April 2019, I was honoured to host the IWF’s annual report here in Parliament. I was profoundly shocked and horrified by what I heard that day and in my continued interactions with the IWF.
That day, the IWF told the story of a little girl called Olivia. Olivia was just three years old when IWF analysts saw her. She was a little girl, with big green eyes and golden-brown hair. She was photographed and filmed in a domestic setting. This could have been any bedroom or bathroom anywhere in the country, anywhere in the world. Sadly, it was her home and she was with somebody she trusted. She was in the hands of someone who should have been there to look after her and nurture her. Instead, she was subjected to the most appalling sexual abuse over several years.
The team at the IWF have seen Olivia grow up in these images. They have seen her be repeatedly raped, and the torture she was subjected to. They tracked how often they saw Olivia’s images and videos over a three-month period. She appeared 347 times. On average that is five times every single day. In three in five of those images, she was being raped and tortured. Her imagery has also been identified as being distributed on commercial websites, where people are profiting from this appalling abuse.
I am happy to say that Olivia, thankfully, was rescued by law enforcement in 2013 at the age of eight, five years after her abuse began. Her physical abuse ended when the man who stole her childhood was imprisoned, but those images remain in circulation to this day. We know from speaking with adult survivors who have experienced revictimisation that it is the mental torture that blights lives and has an impact on their ability to leave their abuse in the past.
This Bill is supposed to help children like Olivia—and believe you me, she is just one of many, many children. The scale of these images in circulation is deeply worrying. In 2022, the IWF removed a record number of 255,000 web pages containing images of the sexual abuse and exploitation of children. Each one of these web pages can contain anything from one individual image of a child like Olivia, to thousands.
The IWF’s work is vital in removing millions of images from the internet each and every year, day in, day out. These guardian angels work tirelessly to stop this. As its CEO Susie Hargreaves often tells me, the world would be a much better place if the IWF did not have to exist, because this would mean that children were not suffering from sexual abuse or having such content spread online. But sadly, there is a need for the IWF. In fact, it is absolutely vital to the online safety landscape in the UK. As yet, this Bill does not go anywhere near far enough in recognising the important contribution the IWF has to make in implementing this legislation.
Victims of sexual abuse rely upon the IWF to protect and fight for them, safe in the knowledge that the IWF is on their side, working tirelessly to prevent millions of people potentially stumbling across their images and videos. This amendment is so important because, as my noble friend said, any delay to establishing roles and responsibilities of organisations like the IWF in working with Ofcom under the regulator regime risks leaving a vacuum in which the risks to children like Olivia will only increase further.
I urge the Government to take action to ensure that Ofcom clarifies how it intends to work with the Internet Watch Foundation and acknowledges the important part it has to play. We are months away from the Bill finally receiving Royal Assent. For children like Olivia, it cannot come soon enough; but it will not work as well as it could without the involvement of the Internet Watch Foundation. Let us make sure that we get this right and safeguard our children by accepting this amendment.
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, observed, we have approached this group in an interesting way, having already heard the Minister’s feelings about the amendment. As I always think, forewarned is forearmed—so at least we know our starting point, and I am sure the Minister has listened to the debate and is reflecting.
I start by welcoming government Amendment 98A. We certainly value the work of various commissioners, but this amendment does not provide for what I would call a comprehensive duty. It needs supplementing by other approaches, and these are provided for by the amendments in this group.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Morgan, Lady Benjamin and Lady Kidron, and my noble friend Lady Healy and others, have made a powerful case for the Internet Watch Foundation being the designated expert body. I too wish to pay tribute to those who tackle online child sexual exploitation and abuse. They do it on behalf of all of us, but most notably the children they seek to protect, and their work is nothing short of an act of service.
Amendment 220E is in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan. Despite the recommendation by the Joint Committee that scrutinised the draft Bill in December 2021 for the Internet Watch Foundation’s role in the future regulatory landscape to be clearly identified within the timescale set, it would require a role to be agreed with Ofcom, which has not yet happened. Perhaps the Minister can give the Committee some sense of where he feels Ofcom is in respect of the inclusion of the Internet Watch Foundation.
This amendment is designed to confirm IWF’s role as the recognised body dealing with notice and takedown procedures of child sexual abuse imagery in the UK. It would ensure that its long experience and expertise continue to be put to best use, which I am sure the Committee wants to see.
We have already heard evidence that the severity of child sexual abuse is becoming ever worse. In the past two years, category A child sexual abuse—the most severe form, including the rape and sexual torture of babies and toddlers—has doubled. In 2022 there were 51,369 web pages containing category A material, compared with 25,050 web pages in 2020. As the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, reminded us in linking to the earlier debate, girls are now appearing in 96% of the imagery removed from the internet—up almost 30 percentage points from a decade ago. The abuse of boys is also on the rise. In the last year, the IWF has seen a 138% increase in images involving boys, often linked to sexual extortion, and often self-referred by children through the world-leading Report Remove portal.
I turn to Amendment 226 in the name of my noble friend Lord Knight. The number one message here is that user advocacy is the missing piece in this regulatory regime. Ofcom will be navigating extremely complex child safeguarding issues. These will develop at a rapid pace, yet there are no formal mechanisms in the Bill for Ofcom to gather insight directly from children and from safeguarding experts. These amendments seek to put this right.
As many noble Lords have said, it is essential that we hear from children and young people. Of course, I understand that the role of statutory consultees, such as the Children’s Commissioner, is extremely important. As noble Lords have already indicated, this role is narrowly focused on the codes of practice, at the very start of the regulatory cycle, rather than providing ongoing, real-time information and an understanding of children’s experiences, as we are trying to do. These will show how effectively—or not—platforms are complying with their new duties.
I am grateful to leading children’s charities—5Rights, Barnardo’s and YoungMinds—as well as to the organisations that have been set up by bereaved parents campaigning for child safety online. These include the Molly Rose Foundation and the Breck Foundation. All these groups have joined with the NSPCC to call for the introduction of an advocacy body for children.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, spoke from her own experience through 5Rights of the value of the contribution of children in tackling online harms. I hope that the Minister will draw on this extremely valuable experience when thinking about what Amendment 226 seeks to do.
My other point in this regard is that we know from other regulated settings that user advocacy is extremely effective. Those user advocacy organisations assist regulators rather than getting in the way, and they assist them by identifying areas of harm or user detriment. Importantly, they can provide something of a counter- balance to lobbying from regulated sectors. For example, Citizens Advice is a consumer advocate in the essential service market, while Transport Focus speaks up for transport users.
Given the scale of online harm and the vulnerability of child users, I put it to the Minister that similar advocacy arrangements should be introduced in the Bill, otherwise we are going to be in the invidious position of children at risk of sexual abuse online receiving fewer statutory user advocacy protections than, say, users of a Post Office or passengers on a bus. I am sure that is not the intention, but we must make sure that we are not in that place.
All the amendments in the name of my noble friend Lord Stevenson would ensure that relevant voices were heard. There are repeated debates in your Lordships’ House about the need to consult and to get the right people around the table. All these amendments seek to do that, so I hope the Minister will take them in the spirit in which they are intended, which is to strengthen the arm of those who seek to protect children.
I am grateful to noble Lords who have spoken to their amendments. Regarding the lead amendment in the group, I take on board what was said about its inevitable pre-emption—something that I know all too well from when the boot is on the other foot in other groups. However, I have listened to the points that were made and will of course respond.
I join the tributes rightly paid by noble Lords to the Internet Watch Foundation. The Government value its work extremely highly and would support the use of its expertise and experience in helping to deliver the aims of the Bill. My noble friend Lady Morgan of Cotes is right to say that it is on the front line of this work and to remind us that it encounters some of the most horrific and abhorrent content in the darkest recesses of the internet—something that I know well from my time as an adviser at the Home Office, as well as in this capacity now. Both the Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology and the Minister for Safeguarding at the Home Office recently provided a foreword to the foundation’s latest annual report.
Clearly, Ofcom will need a wide variety of relationships with a range of organisations. Ofcom has been in regular contact with the Internet Watch Foundation, recognising its significant role in supporting the objectives of online safety regulation, and is discussing a range of options to make the best use of its expertise. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, asked what consultation and discussion is being had. We support the continuation of that engagement and are in discussions with the Internet Watch Foundation ourselves to understand how it envisages its role in supporting the regulatory environment. No decisions have been made on the co-regulatory role that other organisations may play. The Government will work with Ofcom to understand where it may be effective and beneficial to delivering the regulatory framework. Careful assessment of the governance, independence and funding of any organisations would be needed if co-designation were to be considered, but officials from the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology and the Home Office are in discussion with the IWF in relation to a memorandum of understanding to support ongoing collaboration.
On the designation of regulatory functions, we are satisfied that the powers under the Communications Act and the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act are sufficient, should other bodies be required to deliver specific aspects of the regime, so we do not see a need to amend the Bill in the way the amendments in this group suggest. Those Acts require an order from the Minister in order to designate any functions. The Minister has to consult Ofcom before making the order, and that is the mechanism that was used to appoint the Advertising Standards Authority to regulate broadcast advertising. It remains appropriate for Parliament to scrutinise the delivery of these important regulatory functions; accordingly, such an order cannot be made unless a draft of the order has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.
The noble Baroness, Lady Merron, dwelt on the decision not to include a child user advocacy body. As I said in my earlier remarks and in relation to other groups, the Bill ensures that children’s voices will be heard and that what they say will be acted on. Ofcom will have statutory duties requiring it to understand the opinions and experiences of users, including children, by consulting widely when developing its codes. Ofcom will also have the flexibility to establish other mechanisms for conducting research about users’ experience. Additionally, the super-complaints process, which we began discussing this afternoon, will make sure that entities, including those that represent the interests of children, will have their voices heard and will help Ofcom recognise and eliminate systemic failings.
We are also naming the Children’s Commissioner as a statutory consultee for Ofcom in developing its codes of practice. A further new child user advocacy body would encroach on the wider statutory functions of the Children’s Commissioner. Both bodies would have similar responsibilities and powers to represent the interests of child users of regulated services, to protect and promote the interests of child users of regulated services, and to be a statutory consultee for the drafting and amendment of Ofcom’s codes of practice.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, when discussing the input of the Children’s Commissioner into the regulatory framework, suggested that it was a here and now issue. She is right: the Children’s Commissioner will represent children’s views to Ofcom in preparing the codes of practice to ensure that they are fully informing the regime, but the commissioner will also have a continuing role, as they will be the statutory consultee on any later amendments to the codes of practice relating to children. That will ensure that they can engage in the ongoing development of the regime and can continue to feed in insights on emerging risks identified through the commissioner’s statutory duty to understand children’s experiences.
The Bill further ensures that new harms and risks to children are proactively identified by requiring that Ofcom make arrangements to undertake research about users’ experiences on regulated services. This will build on the significant amount of research that Ofcom already does, better to understand children’s experience online, particularly their experiences of online harms.
The super-complaints process will enable an eligible entity to make a complaint to Ofcom regarding a provider or providers that cause significant harm or significant adverse impact on users, including children. This will help Ofcom to recognise and eliminate systemic failings, including those relating to children, and will ensure that children’s views and voices continue to inform the regime as it is developed.
The Bill will also require that Ofcom undertake consumer consultation in relation to regulated services. This will, in effect, expand the scope of the Communications Consumer Panel to online safety matters, and will ensure that the needs of users, including children, are at the heart of Ofcom’s regulatory approach.
I draw noble Lords’ attention to the provisions of Clause 141(2), which states that Ofcom must make arrangements to ascertain
“the experiences of United Kingdom users of regulated services”.
That, of course, includes children. I hope, therefore, that noble Lords will be satisfied that the voices of children are indeed being listened to throughout the operation of the Bill. However, we have high regard for the work of the Internet Watch Foundation. I hope that noble Lords will be willing not to press their amendments—after the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, asks his question.
My Lords, I am in the slightly strange position of not having moved the amendment, but I want to quickly respond. I was slightly encouraged by what the Minister said about Ofcom having been in regular contact with the IWF. I am not sure that that is mutual; maybe Ofcom thinks it is in good contact with the IWF, but I am not sure the IWF thinks it is in good contact with Ofcom. However, I am encouraged that the Minister at least thinks that that has been the case and that he is encouraging consultation and the continuation of engagement.
What the Minister absolutely has not said is what role he envisages for the IWF in all this in terms of possible co-regulation. He went swiftly on to talking about other co- regulation arrangements which had not yet been determined. He did not actually say what kinds of co-regulation arrangements might be appropriate with the IWF. Then he went on—he keeps going swiftly on—to say that an MoU with the Home Office is in prospect. This sounds very interesting, but no doubt we will want to know more about precisely what is envisaged as part of the MoU.
Of course, the Minister’s conclusion is that there is no need to amend the Bill because we have parliamentary procedure and draft regulations, and because Ofcom will be consulted and so on. That is all fair enough. As the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, said, this is a probing amendment. If we have done something to speed up the process, all well and good, but the essence of this is to get something cracking. I hope that the debate has at least had some impact, but this is still incredibly vague. We do not really know what role is envisaged for the IWF. The Minister has heard around the Committee the regard in which the IWF is held. He has heard our desire to see that it is an integral part of the protection process and the procedures under the Bill, and to see it work with Ofcom.
My Lords, I have held back from contributing to this group, because it is not really my group and I have not really engaged in the topic at all. I have been waiting to see whether somebody who is engaged in it would raise this point.
The one factual piece of information that has not been raised in the debate is the fact that the IWF, of which I too am a huge admirer—I have huge respect for the work that it does; it does some fantastic work—is a registered charity. That may lead to some very proper questions about what its role should be in any kind of formal relationship with a statutory regulator. I noticed that no one is proposing in any of these amendments that it be put on the face of the Bill, which, searching back into my previous roles and experience, I think I am right to say would not be proper anyway. But even in the context of whatever role it might have along with Ofcom, I genuinely urge the DCMS and/or Ofcom to ensure that they consult the Charity Commission, not just the IWF, on what is being proposed so that it is compatible with its other legal obligations as a charity.
If I might follow up that comment, I agree entirely with what the noble Baroness has just said. It is very tricky for an independent charity to have the sort of relationship addressed in some of the language in this debate. Before the Minister completes his comments and sits down again, I ask him: if Ofcom were to negotiate a contracted set of duties with the IWF—indeed, with many other charities or others who are interested in assisting with this important work—could that be done directly by Ofcom, with powers that it already has? I think I am right to say that it would not require parliamentary approval. It is only if we are talking about co-regulation, which again raises other issues, that we would go through a process that requires what sounded like the affirmative procedure—the one that was used, for example, with the Advertising Standards Authority. Is that right?
Yes, I think it is. I am happy to confirm that in writing. I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Stowell, who of course is a former chairman of the Charity Commission, for making the point about the charitable status of the foundation. I should clarify that officials from the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology and the Home Office are in touch with the IWF about its role.
Speedily moving on, Ofcom is in discussion with the foundation about a memorandum of understanding. I hope that reassures the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, that they are in reciprocal contact. Obviously, I cannot pre-empt where their discussions are taking them in relation to that MoU, but it is between Ofcom and the foundation. Careful consideration of governance, funding and issues of charity, as my noble friend raised, would have to be thought about if co-designation were being considered.
Amendment 98A agreed.
Amendments 99 to 101 not moved.
Clause 36, as amended, agreed.
Clause 37 agreed.
Amendment 102 not moved.
Schedule 4: Codes of practice under section 36: principles, objectives, content
Amendments 103 to 108 not moved.
Schedule 4 agreed.
Clause 38: Procedure for issuing codes of practice
Amendment 109 not moved.
House adjourned at 9.52 pm.