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Lords Chamber

Volume 830: debated on Thursday 25 May 2023

House of Lords

Thursday 25 May 2023

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Chelmsford.

Food Price Rises: Impact on Low-Income Families

Question

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the rise in food prices on low-income families.

My Lords, we remain concerned about the impact of current global inflationary pressures on low-income families. This is a government priority and the reason why we have taken decisive action to support those on low incomes. The Chancellor met food manufacturers on Tuesday to discuss food costs and to explore ways to ease pressure on households. He also met the Competition and Markets Authority to discuss its investigations into the fuel and grocery markets.

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply and that the Government are now seriously looking at this, but we know that inflation in basic foods is running at 19%, the highest rate since 1977, and polls show that one in six parents is going without—going hungry—so they can afford to feed their children, while supermarkets are still making record profits. The Minister may have seen reports that families with babies cannot afford baby formula, with the CEO of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service warning:

“We know that families experiencing food poverty resort to unsafe feeding methods, such as … watering down formula”.

What is the take-up of the Healthy Start allowance? Will the Minister urge his department to at least look at increasing its value, which is just £8.50 a week for children from birth to one year old and a staggeringly low £4.25 a week for children between one and four? Are the Government really going to stand by as babies are placed at risk of malnutrition and serious illness due to the cost of living crisis and the soaring cost of infant formula?

There were a number of questions there from the noble Baroness. We know that it is tough for households and businesses across the UK at the moment and are doing whatever we can to support them with the cost of living. The noble Baroness will know that £94 billion is earmarked for giving out. On her question about supporting families who cannot afford the rising cost of infant formula, she will know that in cases of difficulty all local authorities should have an emergency formula provision pathway in place. Families can access this by talking to their health visitor or midwife, who can signpost them to local support. For women who cannot or choose not to breastfeed, Healthy Start provides support towards the cost of first-stage infant formula.

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on organising the Farm to Fork summit but echo the sentiments of the noble Baroness who asked the Question. Does my noble friend share my concern that farmers are not receiving these increasing costs, which they are covering, of energy prices and food production, added to the shortage of staff? Will the Government use every opportunity to investigate the rising profits that the supermarkets are recording?

I take note of my noble friend’s point on the Farm to Fork food summit, which allowed the sector to get together, discuss the future, provide further innovative methods on food supply and discuss the current situation. Supermarkets’ profit margins are actually surprisingly low; I have some figures that I can pass on.

My Lords, with ever-increasing food prices, the Trussell Trust has said that 40% of people on universal credit are using food banks. Is it not about time that the Government looked at this benefit and increased it?

We remain very aware that food banks are being used to a great extent. As I have done before, I pay tribute to those, including charities, who so ably and selflessly run them. With the Family Resources Survey that we picked up on recently, we are very aware of the issues and are determined to ensure that people do not and should not have to go to food banks.

My Lords, in the diocese which I serve, charities in Harlow alone have fed more than 1 million people in the last year, which, frighteningly, represents a slower than the average demand for food banks nationally. I draw the Minister’s attention to the Bounty Club, which works with local businesses and people on the edge of crisis, helping them access a large bag of fresh food for £2.50, saving households on average £20 to £40 a week. Demand in Harlow is such that queues are regularly seen from St Paul’s Church right down the street. What assessment have the Government made of the number of people who are on the cusp of falling into poverty? What strategies are they considering to prevent people requiring the use of their local food bank or even charities such as the Bounty Club?

I take note of the point the right reverend Prelate makes about Harlow. We are alert to those who do fall into poverty. What I can tell her is that in 2021-22, there were 1.7 million fewer people in absolute poverty after housing costs than in 2009-10, but I am very aware of the current situation. All I can say is that we continue to keep an eye on this: we are spending £276 billion through the welfare system in 2023-24, including around £124 billion on people of working age and children, and £152 billion on pensioners, to help with this aspect.

My Lords, the reality is that food is now the new energy; but it is worse, because households spend more of their budgets on food and it is not cheaper in the summer. In fact, it is worse, because the kids do not get free school meals. Food price inflation of 19% is a disaster for poor families. The Minister will know—because he has read the evidence—that those on low incomes, even in work, are already buying own-brand supermarket goods; they are already skipping meals; and they are already going to food banks. There is nowhere else for them to go. Is any thinking going on in the Government as to what they will do right now to help those families this summer?

Of course, the noble Baroness is right. I said at the beginning that much work is going on with regard to interaction with the supermarkets. A number of supermarkets have some urgent initiatives on the go. For example, ASDA has invested £73 million, allowing it to drop and lock prices for over 100 household products. The prices of these products were dropped by 12% on average and will remain this way until the end of the year. Morrisons has similar initiatives: it has cut prices on more than 500 products. It is more than this, and the noble Baroness will know that it is not just the UK. There are other countries, including Germany, where food price inflation remains high, at around 18% or 19%.

My Lords, have the Government made any assessment of the impact on the food industry, and therefore the impact on prices for consumers, of the new labelling requirements, which appear to be quite onerous and are required under the Windsor Framework? The Government are now saying that these will apply not just to goods going to Northern Ireland but right across the United Kingdom. Severe concerns have been raised about the impact on food prices of those requirements.

I do not have any figures to support an answer to give to the noble Lord, but what I can say—to which I alluded earlier—is that, in terms of supermarkets and profits, looking at the money side, there is no reason to believe that supermarket profit margins have significantly increased recently. The overall profits of Tesco and Sainsbury’s fell by 51% and 62% respectively in 2022-23. On the link with Northern Ireland, I will certainly look at my answer, and I may well write to the noble Lord.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the big problem is with processed food—the more processing, the higher the prices? Fresh food is another matter. The price of wheat this time last year was more than £300 a tonne; it is currently less than £200 a tonne. That is actually less than it was before the Ukraine war started. What effect does the Minister think that will soon start to have on the price of bread and meat?

The truth is that many people on low incomes find it easier, and sometimes cheaper, to buy processed food. That is a fact. Having said that, we would encourage people to go to the local market to buy food. Again, the supermarkets are really stepping up to help those on low incomes.

My Lords, I heard what the Minister said about the Government doing everything they can to help, but I do not think that it is everything. Are they considering extending free school meals? What are they doing about energy bills? An earlier questioner asked about this, but there was no real answer. What are they doing to crack down on the profiteering by supermarkets? The Minister gave an example of one or two supermarkets, but they are not helping people on low incomes.

I take issue with the noble Lord, because they are, and I have made that clear with some examples. On his point about free school meals, under this Government eligibility has been extended several times, and to more groups of children than under any other Government over the past half a century. That includes the introduction of universal infant free school meals and further education free school meals. Approximately 1.9 million pupils are claiming free school meals, and it cost about £1 billion a year. A lot has been done in this area.

NHS National Health Inequalities Improvement Programme

Question

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether the NHS National Health Inequalities Improvement Programme plans to review and improve the nutrition of free school meals.

The focus of the NHS healthcare inequalities improvement programme is the delivery of healthcare services. Free school meals are outside its remit. The Department for Education continues to keep school food standards under review. The current standards provide a robust yet flexible framework to ensure that pupils in England continue to receive high-quality and nutritious food. Developing healthy habits early in life can influence health in childhood and reduce the risk of diet-related diseases in later life.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. Who actually is responsible if one tries to change the formulation of school meals for children? In previous debates on obesity, he has stressed the importance of reducing calories. The Government have estimated the number of calories that need to go down to get child obesity down. As we are giving children so much sugar in school meals and such highly processed food, why do they not run a trial with less sugar and healthier food than we are doing at the moment to try to deliver on the calorie objective, which he has talked about previously?

First, I thank the noble Lord for the work that he does in this space; I know it is something very close to his heart. It is the school foods standards that set and define the formulation in the food and drinks provided by schools. That is all through the school day: breakfast, lunch and afterwards. They were due to be reviewed around the time of Covid in 2019; clearly, that did not happen then, so we are looking again at whether we should be reviewing those. Precisely in that, we shall be looking at levels of calorific intake.

My Lords, as my noble friend will know, in the short term a poor diet can lead to stress, inability to concentrate and tiredness. In the longer term it can lead to obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and indeed heart disease. Of course, my noble friend will be aware that there are great inequalities within ethnic minorities. Can he say what the Government are doing to reduce the inequalities and ensure that micronutrients play an important part in the promotion of the food strategy?

First, I wish my noble friend a happy birthday. I totally support her question. The most important thing with regard to inequalities—funnily enough, this was the answer to an earlier question—is the use of free school meals. I think we can all welcome the fact that 37.5% of children now receive free school meals and therefore a nutritious start to life. Clearly, that is the best way to make sure that children, particularly those with potential inequalities, are getting a healthy start in life, as well as the under-fours clubs to make sure that they get healthy food.

My Lords, according to Henry Dimbleby, the Government’s public food procurement system is dominated by a few very large corporations, creating little incentive for innovation or improvement. Can the Minister give us an update on the trials in south-west England, in which small, local, high-quality food suppliers can get into public procurement—for example, to schools and hospitals? I understand that early evidence reports better quality and choice at no increased cost.

Absolutely. Again, there are also very good grounds for locally sourcing in that way in terms of the environment and reducing the carbon footprint. I must admit to not being very familiar with some of the pilots mentioned, so I will find out and get back to the noble Baroness.

My Lords, the latest data from the National Child Measurement Programme showed that among 10 to 11 year-olds at school, almost 38% were overweight, of whom nearly two-thirds were obese. Do the Government recognise that this represents severe malnutrition in that cohort and that public health should be involved in the planning and inspection of school meals to try to improve that figure? These children will become health problems for the whole of the nation going forward unless their malnutrition is corrected.

I agree with the noble Baroness. It was said in answer to a Question not so long ago that the hypothesis about much of the reduction in increases in life expectancy in the G7 nations, apart from Japan, is that it is very much linked to obesity, and that starts early on in life. Education is a key part of that, but the things we are starting to do as regards the placement of foods in supermarkets are already having an impact, and the reaction of the industry to that has been the reformulation of some foods which has already taken out 14% of sugar and 20% of salt—but clearly there is a lot more to be done.

My Lords, I apologise to my noble friend the Minister and reassure him that I was not trying to answer the previous question. However, in answer to a previous question, my noble friend the Minister mentioned that the responsibility of school meals and nutrition lies with the Department for Education. Is he aware of any conversations and interaction between the Department for Education, the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, and the Department of Health and Social Care?

Absolutely. We work very closely together. The Healthy Start programme gives seven fruits a day to kids up to the age of seven to make sure that they get fruit and vegetables, and that is very much a joint initiative. Clearly, we need to be joined at the hip on some things, but as regards school meals, the DfE takes the lead.

My Lords, the levelling up White Paper promised to design and test a new approach to ensure compliance with school food standards. Although pilot schemes were meant to start last September, a recent Written Answer from the Schools Minister stated that

“standards are being kept under review”,

with no sign of the pilot scheme. Have the Government given up on their promise and does the Minister consider the existing standards for school meals and the means of compliance sufficient to tackle nutritional inequalities across the country?

As mentioned previously, the review did not happen because of Covid, and it is very much within the plans that it is time to look at school standards again. Clearly, that is key to making sure that there is a healthy diet in schools, and of course that goes across the board.

My Lords, can the Minister explain whether the Department of Health is working with other departments to consider funding families entitled to free school meals with additional allowances during the summer vacation in the light of the current cost of food and the need, as he has acknowledged, to provide adequate nutrition to promote health in young people?

Yes. It is worth reiterating that the 37.5% free school meal level is an achievement, as is the fact that all infant schoolchildren receive free school meals—higher than ever before. However, the noble Baroness is correct in terms of what happens during holidays. That is why we have the holiday activity fund, which in the summer holidays, for instance, provides meals for four of the weeks, as well as for another week in winter. Clearly, we need to keep that under review to make sure that that is sufficient.

My Lords, currently some Jewish children are having to survive due to the funding formula on a bagel every dinnertime. Is that acceptable and, if not, which Minister will sort it out?

I hope that every child would have something more nutritious and healthier than just a bagel. I will happily discuss that with the noble Lord; I am not familiar with that particular case but it is something I will happily take up.

My Lords, in response to the noble Baroness’s question on the South West Food Hub, I was on the advisory board until last week. That project has now folded, purely through lack of engagement from the Cabinet Office and the procurement services. Can the Minister speak to his colleagues at the Cabinet Office to see whether they can re-engage in these dynamic procurement activities for local farmers?

I would be happy to. I need to find out more first, and I would be delighted if there was some information or if we could meet on this, but I would be happy to take it up.

The Minister has twice cited the figure of 37.5% of children now receiving free school meals, which, as he rightly says, is an achievement of a sort. However, if the standard of food those children are receiving is insufficiently good—and there appears to be some evidence of that from the information that has been going around the House this morning—adding to the number on the list of those receiving free school meals, although admirable in terms of the numbers, may be contributing to the problem. Does the Minister agree?

I do not think anyone would say that the current school food standards are insufficient. I think the feeling is that it has been a while since they were changed because of Covid, and it is time to ask whether improvements can be made, because this is an ever-evolving situation. So I would not agree with that categorisation, but we should indeed always be looking to see whether we can make better choices.

Parole Board Recommendations: Open Conditions

Question

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what proportion of Parole Board recommendations for prisoners to be transferred to open conditions were accepted by the Secretary of State for Justice from January to March; and on what grounds such recommendations can be rejected.

My Lords, the Question refers to the transfer of a life or other indeterminate sentence prisoner to an open prison. That is an operational decision for the Secretary of State. He is not obliged to follow the Parole Board’s advice but will take it into account. From January to March 2023, the Secretary of State considered 90 recommendations by the Parole Board for a prisoner to be moved to open prison. The Secretary of State accepted 14 recommendations and rejected 76.

My Lords, it is an old saying in Parliament, “Never ask a question of a Minister unless you know the answer already”, and I read with interest the Minister’s response to the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, on 27 April. The figure that the noble and learned Lord has quoted is less than one in six referrals from the Parole Board, and I cannot get my head around how small it is. The Minister outlines the criteria to be taken into consideration, but the Parole Board making the recommendation will surely know what criteria the Government are going on. What is the point in it keeping on making referrals if the Secretary of State is not going to listen?

My Lords, I think I should clarify that this particular advisory function of the Parole Board has no statutory basis. It dates historically to the time when the Parole Board was part of the Home Office. The Parole Board has no operational responsibility for the safety and security of the open estate, nor for the rehabilitation of prisoners, nor for the categorisation of which prisoners are suitable for which prisons. In June 2022, the Secretary of State adopted new criteria for the transfer of prisoners to open prisons and unfortunately, in the Secretary of State’s view, those criteria have not been fully followed by the Parole Board’s advice. Those decisions by the Secretary of State can of course be challenged in the courts.

My Lords, in the first quarter of last year, 88 references were made from the Parole Board, and 80 were accepted. The change over the past year can have nothing to do with whether the Parole Board is following the Ministry of Justice criteria, which say

“the prisoner is assessed as low risk of abscond; and … a period in open conditions is considered essential to inform future decisions about release”.

The Parole Board is following the criteria laid down by the MoJ, but the MoJ is following a different route, and the question is: why?

My Lords, with great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, who has enormous experience and expertise in this area, the Secretary of State’s view is that the Parole Board is not entirely following the change in criteria that was adopted in June 2022, particularly in regard to the essential nature of the move to open conditions to inform future decisions about release. There is indeed a further condition that the

“transfer to open conditions would not undermine public confidence in the Criminal Justice System”.

That is a matter for the Secretary of State.

My Lords, in March, the High Court held that the previous Secretary of State, Dominic Raab, had acted unlawfully by instructing probation officers not to give the Parole Board their view of the risks of release of particular prisoners if that conflicted with his views. Can the Minister assure me that the new Secretary of State for Justice, Alex Chalk, who I warmly welcome to his post, has a better understanding of the importance of the independence of the Parole Board and its processes?

The Secretary of State will of course abide by the recent decision of the High Court and will entirely respect the constitutional position of the Parole Board. I should add that what we are talking about today in relation to the 76 decisions is 32 prisoners serving a mandatory life sentence for murder, 11 serving a discretionary life sentence for rape and various other sexual offences, eight on an IPP sentence for serious sexual offences and another 25 for serious offences, all involving violence against the person.

Does my noble and learned friend share my concern that too many people are going to prison? Has a recent assessment been made of the effects of community restorative justice, which I saw in Northern Ireland when I was chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in the other place and which was extremely effective?

My noble friend makes a very fair point. That is a matter primarily for the Sentencing Council, but the Government will of course keep it under review.

My Lords, we long ago got rid of Home Office Ministers setting tariffs in life sentences because it permitted politics to become involved in the justice system. Can my noble and learned friend assure me that of the 76 decisions made by the Secretary of State rejecting a Parole Board recommendation, politics played no part whatever in any of them?

My Lords, those decisions were all taken on the merits. I repeat that it is an operational matter which prison the prisoner should be in. That is quite distinct from the question of whether a prisoner should be released, which is the primary role of the Parole Board.

My Lords, the principal reason that people are worried about this is because they believe that release straight from closed conditions and high security conditions increases the risk of reoffending and that a period in open conditions is very helpful in reducing that risk. Will the Minister return to the House at a future date to inform us of what has happened as a consequence of the decisions taken by the Secretary of State? Preventing a period in open conditions does not prevent release. All it does is prevent preparation for release.

My Lords, I am entirely happy to give the House whatever information it requires at any time, and I fully accept that a move to an open prison is potentially one aspect of a prisoner’s progression towards release, but in modern thinking, it is not the only route. A number of closed prisons operate prisoner progression programmes towards release direct from closed prisons, and those relatively new programmes are enjoying results. Several hundred prisoners are released every year from those closed conditions without, as far as I know, any evidence that that poses a risk to the community.

My Lords, following the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, does the Minister accept that short-term prison sentences tend to lead to very high reoffending rates and that prisoners often come out more criminal than they went in. If we can ensure that community sentences really address the underlying causes of criminality—and the Justice and Home Affairs Select Committee is looking at that—will the Minister accept that short-term prison sentences really should be abandoned in favour of community sentences?

My Lords, I cannot as of today accept that proposition. I entirely see the arguments, it is a very big question and I am sure we will discuss it on a future occasion.

My Lords, presumably the Secretary of State has access to all the information that the Parole Board has, and the Parole Board is well aware of all the relevant matters, so why the difference? Should the Secretary of State give reasons for rejecting the recommendations?

My Lords, has my noble and learned friend given consideration to what might be called the ripple effect of the change in criteria on Parole Board decisions, where the sentences are less than life sentences, where it is making other judgments about moving people from closed to open prison? I ask that because anecdotally one hears—and my noble and learned friend may be able to comment on this—that there are now spare places in open prisons that cannot be filled, while the closed prison estate comes under ever more pressure.

My Lords, the Secretary of State, when introducing these new rules in January 2022, prioritised the precautionary principle and the protection of the public. Despite enormous pressure on the closed estate, he took the view—in my view rightly—that public protection was more important than the short-term expedient of transferring prisoners who are not suitable for open conditions to open conditions simply to reduce pressures on the closed estate.

My Lords, is it not the case that the Government’s policy is being driven by dogma again? They are not looking at the evidence. Reoffending rates are still far too high, jails are full and yet Ministers are claiming that they are going to have longer and tougher sentences. Do the Government not need to revisit this and come up with a coherent plan to deal with the matter?

My Lords, as I have said on previous occasions, reoffending rates are slowly coming down, and I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the previous Secretary of State for his work on improved education in prison, employment opportunities, accommodation on release and other reforms which I am sure will bear good fruit in due time.

Trains: Wifi Provision for Passengers

Question

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they plan to advise franchise train operators to discontinue the provision of Wi-Fi for passengers on their trains.

My Lords, the way we currently operate our railways is not financially sustainable. It is unfair to continue to ask taxpayers to foot the bill, which is why reforms are essential. Therefore, it is only right that we work with operators to review whether the current service delivers the best possible value for money. However, no decisions have been taken.

I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. She will be aware that, I think, most train operators already have wifi in all their trains for management and revenue purposes. How much money would be saved by the Treasury if they removed access to wifi from the passengers?

I will revert to where I started on this. No decisions have been taken. As part of the business planning process, we have asked the train operating companies to look again at the services provided and to come up with a business case which sets out the benefits to passengers and the costs of providing that service. However, usage of wifi on trains is actually quite low. It is available from all train operating companies but is not available on all trains.

One of the reasons that wifi use on trains is perhaps a little low, as my noble friend says, is because it is so hit and miss. I have been involved in an energetic correspondence with Mr Mark Hopwood, the managing director of GWR. I say energetic. It is energetic on my part, but less energetic perhaps on his; an acknowledgement would be a start and an answer even better. The truth is that we have a terrible problem in this country with productivity, and train time is dead time. You can get wifi on a plane and on a boat; surely you should be able to get reliable wifi on trains. If the problem is with Network Rail, then we really need to look at the relationship we have with the train operators, Network Rail and the whole infrastructure.

The wifi on trains usually runs off the same 4G and 5G system that my noble friend will have on his smartphone, so sometimes there can be reliability issues. It also depends on how many people are using the wifi on the train. It is there for email and other low data usage requirements. It is not really there for streaming, but I accept that sometimes the bandwidth can be a little challenging.

My Lords, UK rail passengers already suffer the most expensive rail fares in Europe. Surely they should expect to receive the basics—a seat, working toilets and catering—but too often this is not the case, even on long journeys. Now the Government are planning to advise train operators to remove wifi so passengers will not be able to use their journey time to work. Are the Government stuck in the 19th century? When will His Majesty’s Government recognise that to tackle the climate emergency we need better public transport, not worse?

Of course, the Government regularly survey passengers to find out what they really appreciate about the railways such as reliability, good services, punctuality and clean services. Actually, wifi is very low down on the list of priorities.

I can say only what the evidence is from asking passengers. We have asked the train operating companies to look at the provision of wifi, to establish a business case which sets out the benefits to passengers—how much they need it, those who perhaps are unable to use a smartphone on 4G or 5G for example—and then to revert.

My Lords, will my noble friend take this as a response to her survey? Those of us who purchase our tickets electronically require wifi to both board and travel on the train. How am I going to be permitted legally to travel if there is no wifi to demonstrate that I have purchased a ticket?

I would hope that my noble friend would have got the ticket in the wallet on her phone because she would have needed it to go through the station anyway. Free wifi will remain available at stations and as I say, no decisions have been taken. We have asked the train operating companies to prepare business cases.

My Lords, if the wifi is taken off our unreliable Avanti trains, how will I be able to let the Whips’ Office know that I will be missing a three-line Whip? Is this not another example of the pettifogging interference in the railway industry by civil servants, many of whom know nothing about it but love playing trains in their spare time? Is this not yet another example of those in her department who know the price of everything and the value of nothing?

I for one would be very disappointed if the noble Lord were unable to vote. I will take up the issue of where the Government are at the moment. Prior to the pandemic there was no need for any subsidy in operating the railways. There were zero subsidies, so revenues matched the costs. Noble Lords will all know that, since the pandemic, revenues have fallen and some revenues have shifted to the weekend and to more leisure travel. Last year the taxpayer had to subsidise the trains to the tune of £2.85 billion. That is unsustainable. To be a responsible Government, we have to look at all elements of our train services to ensure that they match demand and that the services we are providing and the facilities on them meet the needs of passengers.

My Lords, the Minister frequently tells us that the taxpayer cannot be expected to subsidise the railways because relatively few people use them. Do the Government acknowledge that we all benefit—every single one of us—from the use of the railways because each train that travels carries many hundreds of passengers who would otherwise be clogging up our already congested roads?

I do not think I can necessarily disagree with the noble Baroness, but that is a very absolutist approach and there is some balance to be had here. She says that the Government are not willing to subsidise the railways; we already do. As I have said, £2.85 billion is going in for the services. As I mentioned earlier this week, £44.1 billion is going into control period 7—the highest ever—and that covers all the renewals, the maintenance and the Network Rail operations. That element of it is very significant. That is nearly £9 billion a year that the Government spend, and in addition a further £2.8 billion is spent on subsidising services.

My Lords, the Minister says that no final decision has been taken, but is she trying to persuade the House that the Government no longer think, in the 21st century in which we live, that wifi should count as an essential service for those of us who use the railways?

The proof is in the pudding—between 10% and 20% of people on trains use the wifi. Most people nowadays use 4G and 5G networks.

The noble Baroness links the unavailability of wifi to the unavailability of 4G and 5G in the areas in which the trains are travelling. Does she directly link the failure of the trains to provide wifi to the failure of Project Gigabit?

If I knew what Project Gigabit was, I would be able to answer the noble Earl’s question. I will find out and write to him. If there are not-spots for 4G and 5G—or perhaps we should call them no-spots—we really should look at that and ensure that train travellers can use those networks with reliability.

My Lords, the Minister has a number of times referred to people using their own 4G or 5G contracts instead, but people who have to really watch their costs in the cost of living crisis are very likely to have capped contracts where the amount of 4G or 5G they use is limited. Given the already eye-watering cost of rail fares and the fact that if you get wifi you are not using that scarce resource you have in your 4G or 5G contract, is this not actually pricing even more people off the railways and making the service available only to the rich?

As I have said many times, business cases will be drawn up by the train operating companies, and those considerations will be top of mind.

Can the noble Baroness let the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, and the House know just what saving would be made if wifi were withdrawn, and what alternatives might be available to keep it running?

Of course, I cannot say that at the moment because there is no plan to completely withdraw all wifi from across the network. That is the whole point. However, once the business cases have been done and there is an agreement as to which wifi might continue and which might not—one might assume that it would be a prerequisite on longer journeys, but I am not going to prejudge the outcome of the business cases—at that stage we will have a better idea of the future economics.

Arrangement of Business

Announcement of Recess Dates

My Lords, I bring good news. I am delighted to announce the current plan for recess dates for the rest of the year. To save noble Lords from rushing to write them down, or trying to remember them, the full list of dates is now available in the Royal Gallery, in the usual place.

As previously announced, the current plan is for Summer Recess to commence at the conclusion of business on Wednesday 26 July. We will return on Monday 4 September. We will then rise on Thursday 21 September for Conference Recess and return on Monday 16 October. We will rise for Christmas Recess on Tuesday 19 December and return on Monday 8 January. The usual caveats apply: these dates are subject to the progress of business. Any changes and further recess dates will be announced in the usual way.

Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2023

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 23 March be approved.

Relevant document: 36th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (special attention drawn to the instrument). Considered in Grand Committee on 22 May.

Motion agreed.

Houses in Multiple Occupation (Asylum-Seeker Accommodation) (England) Regulations 2023

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 30 March be approved.

Relevant document: 37th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (special attention drawn to the instrument). Considered in Grand Committee on 16 May.

Motion agreed.

Online Safety Bill

Committee (9th Day)

Relevant document: 28th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee

Clause 49: “Regulated user-generated content”, “user-generated content”, “news publisher content”

Amendment 125

Moved by

125: Clause 49, page 47, line 22, at end insert—

“(c) machine-generated content is to be regarded as user-generated content of a service if—(i) the creation or use of the machine-generated content involves interacting with user-generated content,(ii) it takes the form or identity of a user,(iii) it provides content that constitutes illegal, primary priority content or priority content, or would constitute it if created in another format, or(iv) a user has in any way facilitated any element of the generation by way of a command, prompt, or any other instruction, however minimal.”Member’s explanatory statement

This amendment would add machine-generated content to regulated content in the bill and gives meaning to how it could be regarded as ‘user-generated content’ of the service, and allows virtual and augmented reality material to be treated on an equal basis as on other formats.

My Lords, I rise to introduce this group. On Tuesday in Committee, I said that having reached day 8 of the Committee we had all found our roles; now, I find myself in a different role. The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, is taking an extremely well-earned holiday and was never able to be in the House today. She has asked me to introduce this group and specifically to speak to Amendment 125 in her name.

I strongly support all the amendments in the group, particularly those that would result in a review, but will limit my words to Amendment 125. I also thank the other co- signatories, the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, who is in her place, and my noble friend Lord Sarfraz, who made such a compelling speech at Second Reading on the need for the Bill to consider emerging technologies but who is also, sadly, abroad, on government business.

I start with something said by Lord Puttnam, and I paraphrase: that we were forbidden from incorporating the word “digital” throughout the whole process of scrutiny of the communications Act in 2002. As a number of us observed at the time, he said, it was a terrible mistake not to address or anticipate these issues when it was obvious that we would have to return to it all at some later date. The Online Safety Bill is just such a moment: “Don’t close your eyes and hope”, he said, “but look to the future and make sure that it is represented in the Bill”.

With that in mind, this amendment is very modest. I will be listening carefully, as I am sure the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, will from a distance, to my noble friend the Minister because if each aspect of this amendment is already covered in the Bill, as I suspect he will want to say, then I would be grateful if he could categorically explain how that is the case at the Dispatch Box, in sufficient detail that a future court of law can clearly understand it. If he cannot state that then I will be asking the House, as I am sure the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, would, to support the amendment’s inclusion in the Bill.

There are two important supporters of this amendment. If the Committee will forgive me, I want to talk briefly about each of them because of the depth of understanding of the issues they have. The first is an enforcement officer who I shall not name, but I and the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, want to thank him and his team for the extraordinary work that they do, searching out child sexual abuse in the metaverse. The second, who I will come to in a little bit, is Dr Geoff Hinton, the inventor of the neural network and most often referred to as “the godfather of AI”, whom the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, met last week. Both are firm supporters of this amendment.

The amendment is part of a grouping labelled future-proofing but, sadly, this is not in the future. It is with us now. The rise of child sexual abuse in the metaverse is growing phenomenally. Two months ago, at the behest of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, hosted a small event at which members of a specialist police unit explained to colleagues from both Houses that what they were finding online was amongst the worst imaginable, but was not adequately caught by existing laws. I should just warn those listening to or reading this—I am looking up at the Public Gallery, where I see a number of young people listening to us—that I am about to briefly recount some really horrific stuff from what we saw and heard.

The quality of AI imagery is now at the point where a realistic AI image of a child can be produced. Users are able to produce or order indecent AI images, based on a child known to them. Simply by uploading a picture of a next door neighbour’s child or a family member, or taking a child’s image from social media and putting that face on existing abuse images, they can create a body for that picture or, increasingly, make it 3D and take it into an abuse room. The type of imagery produced can vary from suggestive or naked to penetrative sex; for the most part, I do not think I should be repeating in this Chamber the scenarios that play out.

VR child avatars can be provided with a variety of bespoke abuse scenarios, which the user can then interact with. Tailor-made VR experiences are being advertised for production on demand. They can be made to meet specific fetishes or to feature a specific profile of a child. The production of these VR abuse images is a commercial venture. Among the many chilling facts we learned was that the Oculus Meta Quest 2, which is the best-selling VR headset in the UK, links up to an app that is downloaded on to the user’s mobile phone. Within that app, the user can search for other users to follow and engage with—either through the VR headset or via instant messaging in their mobile app. A brief search through the publicly viewable user profiles on this app shows a huge number of profiles with usernames indicative of a sexual interest in children.

Six weeks after the event, the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, spoke to the same officer. He said that already the technology was a generation on—in just six weeks. The officer made a terrible and terrifying prediction: he said that in a matter of months this violent imagery, based on and indistinguishable from an actual known child, will evolve to include moving 3D imagery and that at that point, the worlds of VR and AI will meet and herald a whole new phase in offending. I will quote this enforcement officer. He said:

“I hate to think where we will be in six months from now”.

While this group is labelled as future-proofing the Bill, I remind noble Lords that in six months’ time, the provisions of the Bill will not have been implemented. So this is not about the future; it is actually about the now.

Even though what I am describing is abhorrent, to some it may appear to be a victimless crime or a thought crime that might take the place of real crimes, since it could be argued that nobody gets hurt. There are three points to say against that. First, evidence shows that rehearsing child-abuse fantasies online radically accelerates the offender pathway—the length of time between looking at images and abusing a child. Secondly, the relative anonymity of the online world has enabled and supercharged the spread of such content and risks, normalising its production and consumption. Thirdly, the current advances in AI allow perpetrators to create and share thousands of images of a child in a matter of minutes. That leaves the police overwhelmed with the impossible task of distinguishing between the AI-created children and the real children who are being abused. The sheer volume of abuse imagery can remain undiscovered and therefore unreached. This is a perverse and chilling game of whack-a-mole.

A small band of enforcement officers are crying out for our help because they are concerned that existing law does not reach this material and that blurring the role of machine and master risks undermining their ability to enforce the law. While Sections 62 to 69 and Schedule 13 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 go some way towards bringing certain computer-generated images into the scope of the law, much of the sexual offences law fails to reach the online world. As a result, the enforcement community is struggling to deal with the new generation of automated and semi-automated systems that create not only abuse images but abusive scenarios at the touch of a button. As the police officer explained to us, the biggest change required is the provision of specific offences covering virtual abuse in the VR social environment, to protect children in those areas against the psychological impact of virtual abuse.

This amendment makes a small change to the definition of “content”, to make clear that machine-generated content is to be regarded as user-generated content of a service, under the following circumstances: first, if the creation or use of the content interacts with user-generated content; secondly, if it takes the form or identity of a user; thirdly, if it provides content that would reach the bar of illegal primary priority content or priority content in another format; and finally, if a user has in any way facilitated any element of the generation by way of a command prompt or any other instruction, however minimal. This would go a long way to support the police in their unenviable task.

When my noble friend the Minister responds, I would ask that he confirms that the scope of the Bill—user-to-user services and search—does not fetter law enforcement. We discussed services of limited functionality being out of scope earlier in Committee, when discussing Amendment 2. For example, would a person or an automated process creating this material at scale, with no user-to-user functionality, be out of scope? The concern must be that existing laws covering child sexual abuse do not address the current state of technology, and this Bill may be drawn too narrowly to catch the abuse that is happening at ever-increasing scale.

Finally, this brings me to Dr Geoff Hinton. After a decade at Google, he retired and has chosen to speak freely about his profound worries concerning the future of AI, joining the chorus of those on the front line who are demanding that we regulate it before it is too late. I am a keen and enthusiastic early adopter of new technology, but we should listen very carefully to his concerns. He says that AI systems can learn and provide a compelling view of the world at such speed and scale that, in the hands of bad actors, they will in the very near future obliterate any version of a common reality. A deluge of fake images, videos and texts will be the data upon which future AI-driven communication will be built, leaving all of us unable to distinguish between fact and fiction. That is a very scary view of the world and we should take his professional concern very seriously, particularly when we focus on this Bill and how we protect our children in this world.

Given the scope of the Bill, we obviously will not be able to address every one of the hopes or fears of AI as it stretches out ahead of us, but it is a huge mistake for the Online Safety Bill to pretend that this future is not already with us. In this amendment and the whole group, we are attempting to put in the Bill the requirements to recognise those future dangers. As Dr Hinton has made clear, it is necessary to treat the fake as if it were real today, because we are no longer certain what is fake and what is real. We do a disservice to our children if we do not recognise that reality today.

I appreciate that I have spoken for far too long on this very small amendment. It closes a loophole which means that if machine-generated material is imitating user-to-user behaviour, takes the form of a user, or would in another context meet the bar of illegal primary priority content or priority content, it should be treated as such under the safety duties of the Bill. That is all it does. This would prevent the police standing by as the horrific rise in the use of abuse rooms—which act as a rehearsal for abusing children—continues. It is much needed and an essential first step down this road. I beg to move.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, for the way she introduced this group of amendments. I have added my name to Amendment 125 and have tabled probing Amendments 241 and 301 in an attempt to future-proof the Bill. As the noble Baroness has said, this is not the future but today, tomorrow and forever, going forwards.

I hope that there are no children in the Public Gallery, but from my position I cannot see.

Then I shall slightly modify some of the things I was going to say.

When this Bill was conceived, the online world was very different from how it is today. It is hard to imagine how it will look in the future. I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, and the Dawes Centre for Future Crime at UCL, for information that they have given to me. I am also grateful to my noble friend Lady Kidron, and the enforcement officers who have shared with us images which are so horrific that I wish that I had never seen them—but you cannot unsee what you have seen. I admire how they have kept going and maintained a moral compass in their work.

The metaverse is already disrupting the online world as we know it. By 2024, it is estimated that there will be 1.7 billion mobile augmented-reality user devices worldwide. More than one-fifth of five to 10 year-olds already have a virtual reality headset of their own, or have asked for similar technology as a gift. The AI models are also developing quickly. My Amendment 241 would require Ofcom to be alert to the ways in which emerging technologies allow for activities that are illegal in the real world to be carried out online, to identify the places where the law is not keeping up to date with technological developments.

The metaverse seems to have 10 attributes. It is multiuser and multipurpose, content is user-generated, it is immersive, and spatial interactions occur in virtual reality or have physical environments enhanced by augmented reality. Its digital aspects do not expire when the experience ends, and it is multiplatform and interoperable, as users move between platforms. Avatars are involved, and in the metaverse there is ownership of the avatars or other assets such as virtual property, cryptocurrency et cetera. These attributes allow it to be used to master training scenarios of complex situations, such as in surgical training for keyhole surgery, where it can improve accuracy rapidly. On the horizon are brain/computer interfaces, which may be very helpful in rehabilitative adaptation after severe neurological damage.

These developments have great potential. However, dangers arise when virtual and augmented reality devices are linked to such things as wearable haptic suits, which allow the user to feel interactions through physical sensation, and teledildonics, which are electronic devices that simulate sexual interaction.

With the development of deep-fake imagery, it is now possible for an individual to order a VR experience of abusing the image of a child whom they know. The computer-generated images are so realistic that they are almost impossible to distinguish from those that would be cartoon-generated. An avatar can sexually assault the avatar of a minor, and such an avatar of the minor can be personalised. Worryingly, there have been growing reports of these assaults and rapes happening. Since the intention of VR is to trick the human nervous system into experiencing perceptual and bodily reactions, while such a virtual assault may not involve physical touching, the psychological, neurological and emotional experience can be similar to a physical assault.

This fuels sex addiction and violence addiction, and is altering the offender pathway: once the offender has engaged with VR abuse material, there is no desire to go back to 2D material. Offenders report that they want more: in the case of VR, that would be moving to live abuse, as has been said. The time from the development of abnormal sexual desires to real offending is shortened as the offender seeks ever-increasing and diverse stimulation to achieve the same reward. Through Amendment 125, such content would be regarded as user-generated.

Under Amendment 241, Ofcom could suggest ways in which Parliament may want to update the current law on child pornography to catch such deep-fake imagery, as these problematic behaviours are illegal in the real world but do not appear to be illegal online or in the virtual world.

Difficulties also arise over aspects of terrorism. It is currently a criminal offence to attend a terrorist training ground. Can the Minister confirm that Amendment 136C, which we have debated and which will be moved in a later group, would make attending a virtual training ground illegal? How will Ofcom be placed to identify and close any loopholes?

The Dawes Centre for Future Crime has identified 31 unique crime threats or offences which are risks in the metaverse, particularly relating to child sexual abuse material, child grooming, investment scams, hate crime, harassment and radicalisation.

I hope the Minister can confirm that the Bill already applies to the metaverse, with its definition of user-to-user services and technology-neutral terminology, and that its broad definition of “encountering” includes experiencing content such as haptic suits or virtual or augmented reality through the technology-neutral expression “or other automated tool”. Can the Minister also confirm that the changes made in the other place in Clause 85 require providers of metaverse services to consider the level of risk of the service being used for the commission or facilitation of a priority offence?

The welcome addition to the Bill of a risk assessment duty, however, should be broadened to include offences which are not only priority offences. I ask the Minister: will the list of offences in Schedules 5 to 7 to the Bill be amended to include the option of adding to this list to cover other harmful offences such as sexual offences against adults, impersonation scams, and cyber physical attacks such as cyber burglary, which can lead to planned burglary, attacks on key infrastructure and assault?

The ability to expand the risk assessment criteria could future-proof the Bill against such offences by keeping the list open, rather than closed as it is at the moment, to other serious offences committed in user-to-user or combined service providers. Such duties should apply across all services, not only those in category 1, because the smaller platforms, which are not covered by empowerment duties, may present a particularly high risk of illegal content and harmful behaviours.

Can the Minister therefore please tell us how content that is illegal in the real world will be reported, and how complaints can be made when it is encountered, if it is not a listed priority offence in the Bill? Will the Government expand the scope to cover not only illegal content, as defined in Clauses 207 and 53, but complex activities and interactions that are possible in the metaverse? How will the list of priority offences be expanded? Will the Government amend the Bill to enable Ofcom to take a risk-based approach to identifying who becomes classified as a category 1 provider?

I could go on to list many other ways in which our current laws will struggle to remain relevant against the emerging technologies. The list’s length shows the need for Ofcom to be able to act and report on such areas—and that Parliament must be alive to the need to stay up to date.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, for tempering her remarks. On tempering speeches and things like that, I can inform noble Lords that the current school group have been escorted from the Chamber, and no further school groups will enter for the duration of the debate on this group of amendments.

My Lords, I rise to support Amendment 241, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, as she mentioned. I also spoke in the Private Member’s Bill that the noble Baroness previously brought before your Lordships’ House, in a similar vein, regarding future-proofing.

The particular issue in Amendment 241 that I wish to address is

“the extent to which new communications and internet technologies allow for behaviours which would be in breach of the law if the equivalent behaviours were committed in the physical world”.

The use of “behaviours” brings into sharp focus the applicability of the Online Safety Bill in the metaverse. Since that Private Member’s Bill, I have learned much about future-proofing from the expert work of the Dawes Centre for Future Crime at UCL. I reached out to the centre as it seemed to me that some conduct and crimes in the physical world would not be criminal if committed in the metaverse.

I will share the example, which seems quite banal, that led me to contact them. The office meeting now takes place in the metaverse. All my colleagues are represented by avatars. My firm has equipped me with the most sophisticated haptic suit. During the meeting, the avatar of one of my colleagues slaps the bum of my avatar. The haptic suit means that I have a physical response to that, to add to the fright and shock. Even without such a suit, I would be shocked and frightened. Physically, I am, of course, working in my own home.

My Lords, I apologise to my noble friend. I ask that we pause the debate to ask this school group to exit the Chamber. We do not think that the subject matter and content will be suitable for that audience. I am very sorry. The House is pausing.

In this moment while we pause, I congratulate the noble Lord, the Government Whip, for being so vigilant: some of us in the Chamber cannot see the whole Gallery. It is appreciated.

I, too, thank my noble friend the Government Whip. I apologise too if I have spoken out of discourtesy in the Committee: I was not sure whose name was on which amendment, so I will continue.

Physically, I am, of course, working in my home. If that behaviour had happened in the office, it would be an offence, an assault: “intentional or reckless application of unlawful force to another person”. It will not be an offence in the metaverse and it is probably not harassment because it is not a course of conduct.

Although the basic definition of user-to-user content covers the metaverse, as does encountering, as has been mentioned in relation to content under Clause 207, which is broad enough to cover the haptic suits, the restriction to illegal content could be problematic, as the metaverse is a complex of live interactions that mimics real life and such behaviours, including criminal ones. Also, the avatar of an adult could sexually assault the avatar of a child in the metaverse, and with haptic technologies this would not be just a virtual experience. Potentially even more fundamentally than Amendment 125, the Bill is premised on the internet being a solely virtual environment when it comes to content that can harm. But what I am seeking to outline is that conduct can also harm.

I recognise that we cannot catch everything in this Bill at this moment. This research is literally hot off the press; it is only a few weeks old. At the very least, it highlights the need for future-proofing. I am aware that some of the issues I have highlighted about the fundamental difference between conduct and content refer to clauses noble Lords may already have debated. However, I believe that these points are significant. It is just happenstance that the research came out and is hot off the press. I would be grateful if the Minister would meet the Dawes Centre urgently to consider whether there are further changes the Government need to make to the Bill to ensure that it covers the harms I have outlined.

My Lords, I have put my name to Amendments 195, 239 and 263. I also strongly support Amendment 125 in the name of my noble friend Lady Kidron.

During this Committee there have been many claims that a group of amendments is the most significant, but I believe that this group is the most significant. This debate comes after the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Science and Technology met the heads of leading AI research companies in Downing Street. The joint statement said:

“They discussed safety measures … to manage risks”

and called for

“international collaboration on AI safety and regulation”.

Surely this Bill is the obvious place to start responding to those concerns. If we do not future-proof this Bill against the changes in digital technology, which are ever increasing at an ever-faster rate, it will be obsolete even before it is implemented.

My greatest concern is the arrival of AI. The noble Baroness, Lady Harding, has reminded us of the warnings from the godfather of AI, Geoffrey Hinton. If he is not listened to, who on earth should we be listening to? I wholeheartedly support Amendment 125. Machine-generated content is present in so much of what we see on the internet, and its presence is increasing daily. It is the future, and it must be within scope of this Bill. I am appalled by the examples that the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, has brought before us.

In the Communications and Digital Committee inquiry on regulating the internet, we decided that horizon scanning was so important that we called for a digital authority to be created which would look for harms developing in the digital world, assess how serious a threat they posed to users and develop a regulated response. The Government did not take up these suggestions. Instead, Ofcom has been given the onerous task of enforcing the triple shield which under this Bill will protect users to different degrees into the future.

Amendment 195 in the name of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford will ensure that Ofcom has knowledge of how well the triple shield is working, which must be essential. Surveys of thousands of users undertaken by companies such as Kantar give an invaluable snapshot of what is concerning users now. These must be fed into research by Ofcom to ensure that future developments across the digital space are monitored, updated and brought to the attention of the Secretary of State and Parliament on a regular basis.

Amendment 195 will reveal trends in harms which might not be picked up by Ofcom under the present regime. It will look at the risk arising for individuals from the operation of Part 3 services. Clause 12 on user empowerment duties has a list of content and characteristics from which users can protect themselves. However, the characteristics for which or content with which users can be abused will change over time and these changes need to be researched, anticipated and implemented.

This Bill has proved in its long years of gestation that it takes time to change legislation, while changes on the internet take just minutes or are already here. The regime set up by these future-proofing amendments will at least go some way to protecting users from these fast-evolving harms. I stress to your Lordships’ Committee that this is very much precautionary work. It should be used to inform the Secretary of State of harms which are coming down the line. I do not think it will give power automatically to expand the scope of harms covered by the regime.

Amendment 239 inserts a new clause for an Ofcom future management of risks review. This will help feed into the Secretary of State review regime set out in Clause 159. Clause 159(3)(a) currently looks at ensuring that regulated services are operating using systems and process which, so far as relevant, are minimising the risk of harms to individuals. The wording appears to mean that the Secretary of State will be viewing all harms to individuals. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain to the Committee the scope of the harms set out in Clause 159(3)(a)(i). Are they meant to cover only the harms of illegality and harms to children, or are they part of a wider examination of the harms regime to see whether it needs to be contracted or expanded? I would welcome an explanation of the scope of the Secretary of State’s review.

The real aim of Amendment 263 is to ensure that the Secretary of State looks at research work carried out by Ofcom. I am not sure how politicians will come to any conclusions in the Clause 159 review unless they are required to look at all the research published by Ofcom on future risk. I would like the Minister to explain what research the Secretary of State would rely on for this review unless this amendment is accepted. I hope Amendment 263 will also encourage the Secretary of State to look at possible harms not only from content, but also from the means of delivering this content.

This aim was the whole point of Amendment 261, which has already been debated. However, it needs to be borne in mind when considering that harms come not just from content, but also from the machine technology which delivers it. Every day we read about new developments and threats posed by a fast-evolving internet. Today it is concerns about ChatGPT and the race for the most sophisticated artificial intelligence. The amendments in this group will provide much-needed reinforcement to ensure that the Online Safety Bill remains a beacon for continuing safety online.

My Lords, I shall speak in favour of Amendments 195, 239 and 263, tabled in the names of my right reverend friend the Bishop of Oxford, the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, who I thank for his comments.

My right reverend friend the Bishop of Oxford regrets that he is unable to attend today’s debate. I know he would have liked to be here. My right reverend friend tells me that the Government’s Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, of which he was a founding member, devoted considerable resource to horizon scanning in its early years, looking for the ways in which AI and tech would develop across the world. The centre’s analysis reflected a single common thread: new technologies are developing faster than we can track them and they bring with them the risk of significant harms.

This Bill has also changed over time. It now sets out two main duties: the illegal content duty and the children duty. These duties have been examined and debated for years, including by the joint scrutiny committee. They are refined and comprehensive. Risk assessments are required to be “suitable and sufficient”, which is traditional language from 20 years of risk-based regulation. It ensures that the duties are fit for purpose and proportionate. The duties must be kept up to date and in line with any service changes. Recent government amendments now helpfully require companies to report to Ofcom and publish summaries of their findings.

However, in respect of harms to adults, in November last year the Government suddenly took a different tack. They introduced two new groups of duties as part of a novel triple shield framework, supplementing the duty to remove illegal harms with a duty to comply with their own terms of service and a duty to provide user empowerment tools. These new duties are quite different in style to the illegal content and children duties. They have not benefited from the prior years of consultation.

As this Committee’s debates have frequently noted, there is no clear requirement on companies to assess in the round how effective their implementation of these new duties is or to keep track of their developments. The Government have changed this Bill’s system for protecting adults online late in the day, but the need for risk assessments, in whatever system the Bill is designed around, has been repeated again and again across Committee days. Even at the close of day eight on Tuesday, the noble Lords, Lord Allan of Hallam and Lord Clement-Jones, referred explicitly to the role of risk assessment in validating the Bill’s systems of press reforms. Surely this persistence across days and groups of debate reflects the systemically pivotal role of risk assessments in what is, after all, meant to be a systems and processes rather than a content-orientated Bill.

But it seems that many people on many sides of this Committee believe that an important gap in risk assessment for harms to adults has been introduced by these late changes to the Bill. My colleague the right reverend Prelate is keen that I thank Carnegie UK for its work across the Bill, including these amendments. It notes:

“Harms to adults which might trickle down to become harms to children are not assessed in the current Bill”.

The forward-looking parts of its regime need to be strengthened to ensure that Parliament and the Secretary of State review new ways in which harms manifesting as technology race along, and to ensure that they then have the right advice for deciding what to do about them. To improve that advice, Ofcom needs to risk assess the future and then to report its findings.

As the Committee can see, Amendment 195 is drawn very narrowly, out of respect for concerns about freedom of expression, even though the Government have still not explained how risk assessment poses any such threat. Ofcom would be able to request information from companies, using its information-gathering powers in Clause 91, to complete its future-proofing risk assessment. That is why, as Carnegie again notes,

“A risk assessment required of OFCOM for the purposes of future proofing alone could fill this gap”

in the Bill’s system,

“without even a theoretical threat to freedom of expression”.

Amendment 239 would require Ofcom to produce a forward-looking report, based on a risk assessment, to inform the Secretary of State’s review of the regime.

Amendment 263 would complete this systemic implementation of risk assessment by ensuring that future reviews of the regime by the Secretary of State include a broad assessment of the harms arising from regulated services, not just regulated content. This amendment would ensure ongoing consideration of risk management, including whether the regime needs expanding or contracting. I urge the Minister to support Amendments 195, 239 and 263.

My Lords, like others, I thank the Whips for intervening to protect children from hearing details that are not appropriate for the young. I have to say that I was quite relieved because I was rather squirming myself. Over the last two days of Committee, I have been exposed to more violent pornographic imagery than any adult, never mind a child, should be exposed to. I think we can recognise that this is certainly a challenging time for us.

I do not want any of the comments I will now make to be seen as minimising understanding of augmented reality, AI, the metaverse and so on, as detailed so vividly by the noble Baronesses, Lady Harding and Lady Finlay, in relation to child safety. However, I have some concerns about this group, in terms of proportionality and unintended outcomes.

Amendment 239, in the names of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, sums up some of my concerns about a focus on future-proofing. This amendment would require Ofcom to produce reports about future risks, which sounds like a common-sense demand. But my question is about us overly focusing on risk and never on opportunities. There is a danger that the Bill will end up recommending that we see these new technologies only in a negative way, and that we in fact give more powers to expand the scope for harmful content, in a way that stifles speech.

Beyond the Bill, I am more generally worried about what seems to be becoming a moral panic about AI. The precautionary principle is being adopted, which could mean stifling innovation at source and preventing the development of great technologies that could be of huge benefit to humanity. The over-focus on the dangers of AI and augmented reality could mean that we ignore the potential large benefits. For example, if we have AI, everyone could have an immediately responsive GP in their pocket—goodness knows that, for those trying to get an appointment, that could be of great use and benefit. It could mean that students have an expert tutor in every subject, just one message away. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, spoke about the fantastic medical breakthroughs that augmented reality can bring to handling neurological damage. Last night, I cheered when I saw how someone who has never been able to walk now can, through those kinds of technologies. I thought, “Isn’t this a brilliant thing?” So all I am suggesting is that we have to be careful that we do not see these new technologies only as tools for the most perverted form of activity among a small minority of individuals.

I note, with some irony, that fewer qualms were expressed by noble Lords about the use of AI when it was proposed to scan and detect speech or images in encrypted messages. As I argued at the time, this would be a threat to WhatsApp, Signal and so on. Clauses 110 and 124 have us using AI as a blunt proactive technology of surveillance, despite the high risks of inaccuracy, error and false flags. But there was great enthusiasm for AI then, when it was having an impact on individuals’ freedom of expression—yet, here, all we hear are the negatives. So we need to be balanced.

I am also concerned about Amendment 125, which illustrates the problem of seeing innovation only as a threat to safety and a potential problem. For example, if the Bill considers AI-generated content to be user-generated content, only large technology companies will have the resources—lawyers and engineers—necessary to proceed while avoiding crippling liability.

In practice, UK users risk being blocked out from new technologies if we are not careful about how we regulate here. For example, users in the European Union currently cannot access Google Bard AI assistant because of GDPR regulations. That would be a great loss because Google Bard AI is potentially a great gain. Despite the challenges of the likes of ChatGPT and Bard AI that we keep reading about, with people panicking that this will lead to wide-scale cheating in education and so on, this has huge potential as a beneficial technology, as I said.

I have mentioned that one of the unintended consequences—it would be unintended—of the whole Bill could be that the UK becomes a hostile environment for digital investment and innovation. So start-ups that have been invested in—like DeepMind, a Google-owned and UK-based AI company—could be forced to leave the UK, doing huge damage to the UK’s digital sector. How can the UK be a science and technology superpower if we end up endorsing anti-innovation, anti-progress and anti-business measures by being overly risk averse?

I have the same concerns about Amendment 286, which requires periodic reviews of new technology content environments such as the metaverse and other virtual augmented reality settings. I worry that it will not be attractive for technology companies to confidently invest in new technologies if there is this constant threat of new regulations and new problems on the horizon.

I have a query that mainly relates to Amendment 125 but that is also more general. If virtual augmented reality actually involves user-to-user interaction, like in the metaverse, is it not already covered in the Bill? Why do we need to add it in? The noble Baroness, Lady Harding, said that it has got to the point where we are not able to distinguish fake from real, and augmented reality from reality. But she concludes that that means that we should treat fake as real, which seems to me to rather muddy the waters and make it a fait accompli. I personally—

I am sorry to interrupt, but I will make a clarification; the noble Baroness is misinterpreting what I said. I was actually quoting the godfather of AI and his concerns that we are fast approaching a space where it will be impossible—I did not say that it currently is—to distinguish between a real child being abused and a machine learning-generated image of a child being abused. So, first, I was quoting the words of the godfather of AI, rather than my own, and, secondly, he was looking forward—only months, not decades—to a very real and perceived threat.

I personally think that it is pessimistic view of the future to suggest that humanity cannot rise to the task of being able to distinguish between deep fakes and real images. Organising all our lives, laws and liberties around the deviant predilections of a minority of sexual offenders on the basis that none of us will be able to tell the difference in the future, when it comes to that kind of activity, is rather dangerous for freedom and innovation.

My Lords, I will speak very briefly. I could disagree with much of what the noble Baroness just said, but I do not need to go there.

What particularly resonates with me today is that, since I first entered your Lordships’ House at the tender age of 28 in 1981, this is the first time I can ever remember us having to rein back what we are discussing because of the presence of young people in the Public Gallery. I reflect on that, because it brings home the gravity of what we are talking about and its prevalence; we cannot run away or hide from it.

I will ask the Minister about the International Regulatory Cooperation for a Global Britain: Government Response to the OECD Review of International Regulatory Cooperation of the UK, published 2 September 2020. He will not thank me for that, because I am sure that he is already familiar and word-perfect with this particular document, which was pulled together by his noble friend, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan. I raise this because, to think that we can in any way, shape or form, with this piece of legislation, stem the tide of what is happening in the online world—which is happening internationally on a global basis and at a global level—by trying to create regulatory and legal borders around our benighted island, is just for the fairies. It is not going to happen.

Can the Minister tell us about the degree to which, at an international level, we are proactively talking to, and learning from, other regulators in different jurisdictions, which are battling exactly the same things that we are? To concentrate the Minister’s mind, I will point out what the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, committed the Government to doing nearly three years ago. First, in relation to international regulatory co-operation, the Government committed to

“developing a whole-of-government IRC strategy, which sets out the policies, tools and respective roles of different departments and regulators in facilitating this; … developing specific tools and guidance to policy makers and regulators on how to conduct IRC; and … establishing networks to convene international policy professionals from across government and regulators to share experience and best practice on IRC”.

I am sure that, between now and when he responds, he will be given a detailed answer by the Bill team, so that he can tell us exactly where the Government, his department and Ofcom are in carrying out the commitments of the noble Lord, Lord Callanan.

My Lords, although I arrived a little late, I will say, very briefly, that I support the amendments wholeheartedly. I support them because I see this as a child protection issue. People viewing AI, I believe, will lead to them going out to find real children to sexually abuse. I will not take up any more time, but I wholeheartedly agree with everything that has been said, apart from what the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, said. I hope that the Minister will look very seriously at the amendments and take them into consideration.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones, I will speak in support of Amendments 195, 239, 263 and 286, to which he added his name. He wants me to thank the Carnegie Trust and the Institution of Engineering and Technology, which have been very helpful in flagging relevant issues for the debate.

Some of the issues in this group of amendments will range much more widely than simply the content we have before us in the Online Safety Bill. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford is right to flag the question of a risk assessment. People are flagging to us known risks. Once we have a known risk, it is incumbent on us to challenge the Minister to see whether the Government are thinking about those risks, regardless of whether the answer is something in the Online Safety Bill or that there needs to be amendments to wider criminal law and other pieces of legislation to deal with it.

Some of these issues have been dealt with for a long time. If you go back and look at the Guardian for 9 May 2007, you will see the headline,

“Second Life in virtual child sex scandal”.

That case was reported in Germany about child role-playing in Second Life, which is very similar to the kind of scenarios described by various noble Lords in this debate. If Second Life was the dog that barked but did not bite, we are in quite a different scenario today, not least because of the dramatic expansion in broadband technology, for which we can thank the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, in her previous role. Pretty much everybody in this country now has incredible access, at huge scale, to high-speed broadband, which allows those kinds of real life, metaverse-type environments to be available to far more people than was possible with Second Life, which tended to be confined to a smaller group.

The amendments raise three significant groups of questions: first, on scope, and whether the scope of the Online Safety Bill will stretch to what we need; secondly, on behaviour, including the kinds of new behaviours, which we have heard described, that could arise as these technologies develop; and, finally, on agency, which speaks to some of the questions raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, on AIs, including the novel questions about who is responsible when something happens through the medium of artificial intelligence.

On scope, the key question is whether the definition of “user-to-user”, which is at the heart of the Bill, covers everything that we would like to see covered by the Bill. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, I look forward to the Minister’s response; I am sure that he has very strongly prepared arguments on that. We should take a moment to give credit to the Bill’s drafters for coming up with these definitions for user-to-user behaviours, rather than using phrases such as, “We are regulating social media or specific technology”. It is worth giving credit, because a lot of thought has gone into this, over many years, with organisations such as the Carnegie Trust. Our starting point is a better starting point than many other legislative frameworks which list a set of types of services; we at least have something about user-to-user behaviours that we can work with. Having said that, it is important that we stress-test that definition. That is what we are doing today: we are stress-testing, with the Minister, whether the definition of “user-to-user” will still apply in some of the novel environments.

It certainly seems likely—and I am sure that the Minister will say this—that a lot of metaverse activity would be in scope. But we need detailed responses from the Minister to explain why the kinds of scenario that have been described—if he believes that this is the case; I expect him to say so—would mean that Ofcom would be able to demand things of a metaverse provider under the framework of the user-to-user requirements. Those are things we all want to see, including the risk assessments, the requirement to keep people away from illegal content, and any other measures that Ofcom deems necessary to mitigate the risks on those platforms.

It will certainly be useful for the Minister to clarify one particular area. Again, we are fortunate in the UK that pseudo-images of child sexual abuse are illegal and have been illegal for a long time. That is not the case in every country around the world, and the noble Lord, Lord Russell, is quite right to say that this an area where we need international co-operation. Having dealt with it on the platforms, some countries have actively chosen not to criminalise pseudo-images; others just have not considered it.

In the UK, we were ahead of the game in saying, “If it looks like a photo of child abuse, we don’t care whether you created it on Photoshop, or whatever—it is illegal”. I hope that the Minister can confirm that avatars in metaverse-type environments would fall under that definition. My understanding is that the legislation refers to photographs and videos. I would interpret an avatar or activity in a metaverse as a photo or video, and I hope that is what the Government’s legal officers are doing.

Again, it is important in the context of this debate and the exchange that we have just had between the noble Baronesses, Lady Harding and Lady Fox, that people out there understand that they do not get away with it. If you are in the UK and you create a child sexual abuse image, you can be taken to court and go to prison. People should not think that, if they do it in the metaverse, it is okay—it is not okay, and it is really important that that message gets out there.

This brings us to the second area of behaviours. Again, some of the behaviours that we see online will be extensions of existing harms, but some will be novel, based on technical capabilities. Some of them we should just call by their common or garden term, which is sexual harassment. I was struck by the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, on this. If people go online and start approaching other people in sexual terms, that is sexual harassment. It does not matter whether it is happening in a physical office, on public transport, on traditional social media or in the metaverse—sexual harassment is wrong and, particularly when directed at minors, a really serious offence. Again, I hope that all the platforms recognise that and take steps to prevent sexual harassment on their platforms.

That is quite a lot of the activity that people are concerned about, but others are much more complex and may require updates to legislation. Those are particularly activities such as role-playing online, where people play roles and carry out activities that would be illegal if done in the real world. That is particularly difficult when it is done between consenting adults, when they choose to carry out a role-playing activity that replicates an illegal activity were it to take place in the real world. That is hard—and those with long memories may remember a group of cases around Operation Spanner in the 1990s, whereby a group of men was prosecuted for consensual sadomasochistic behaviour. The case went backwards and forwards, but it talked to something that the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, may be sympathetic to—the point at which the state should intervene on sexual activities that many people find abhorrent but which take place between consenting adults.

In the context of the metaverse, I see those questions coming front and centre again. There are all sorts of things that people could role-play in the metaverse, and we will need to take a decision on whether the current legislation is adequate or needs to be extended to cater for the fact that it now becomes a common activity. Also important is the nature of it. The fact that it is so realistic changes the nature of an activity; you get a gut feeling about it. The role-playing could happen today outside the metaverse, but once you move it in there, something changes. Particularly when children are involved, it becomes something that should be a priority for legislators—and it needs to be informed by what actually happens. A lot of what the amendments seek to do is to make sure that Ofcom collects the information that we need to understand how serious these problems are becoming and whether they are, again, something that is marginal or something that is becoming mainstream and leading to more harm.

The third and final question that I wanted to cover is the hardest one—the one around agency. That brings us to thinking about artificial intelligence. When we try to assign responsibility for inappropriate or illegal behaviour, we are normally looking for a controlling mind. In many cases, that will hold true online as well. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, is looking at bots—and with a classic bot, you have a controlling mind. When the bots were distributing information in the US election on behalf of Russia, that was happening on behalf of individuals in Russia who had created those bots and sent them out there. We still had a controlling mind, in that instance, and a controlling mind can be prosecuted. We have that in many instances, and we can expect platforms to control them and expect to go after the individuals who created the bots in the same way that we would go after things that they do as a first party. There is a lot of experience in the fields of spam and misinformation, where “bashing the bots” is the daily bread and butter of a lot of online platforms. They have to do it just to keep their platforms safe.

We can also foresee a scenario with artificial intelligence whereby it is less obvious that there is a controlling mind or who the controlling mind should be. I can imagine a situation whereby an artificial intelligence has created illegal content, whether that is child sexual abuse material or something else that is in the schedule of illegal content in the Bill, without the user having expected it to happen or the developer having believed or contemplated that it could happen. Let us say that the artificial intelligence goes off and creates something illegal, and that both the user and the developer can show the question that they asked of the artificial intelligence and show how they coded it, showing that neither of them intended for that thing to happen. In the definition of artificial intelligence, it has its own agency in that scenario. The artificial intelligence cannot be fined or sent to prison. There are some things that we can do: we can try to retrain it, or we can kill it. There is always a kill switch; we should never forget that with artificial intelligence. Sam Altman at OpenAI can turn off ChatGPT if it is behaving in an illegal way.

There are some really important questions around that issue. There is the liability for the specific instance of the illegality happening. Who do we hold liable? Even if everyone says that it was not their intention, is there someone that we can hold liable? What should the threshold be at which we can execute that death sentence on the AI? If an AI is being used by millions of people and on a small number of occasions it does something illegal, is that sufficient? At what point do we say that the AI is rogue and that, effectively, it needs to be taken out of operation? Those are much wider questions than we are dealing with immediately with in the Bill, but I hope that the Minister can at least point to what the Government are thinking about these kind of legal questions, as we move from a world of user-to-user engagement to user-to-user-to-machine engagement, when that machine is no longer a creature of the user.

I have had time just to double-check the offences. The problem that exists—and it would be helpful if my noble friend the Minister could confirm this—is that the criminal law is defined in terms of person. It is not automatic that sexual harassment, particularly if you do not have a haptic suit on, would actually fall within the criminal law, as far as I understand it, which is why I am asking the Minister to clarify. That was the point that I was making. Harassment per se also needs a course of conduct, so if it was not a touch of your avatar in a sexual nature, it clearly falls outside criminal law. That is the point of clarification that we might need on how the criminal law is framed at the moment.

That is exactly the same issue with child sexual abuse images—it is about the way in which criminal law is written. Not surprisingly, it is not up to date with evolution of technology.

I am grateful for that intervention as well. That summarises the core questions that we have for the Minister. Of the three areas that we have for him, the first is the question of scope and the extent to which he can assure us that the Bill as drafted will be robust in covering the metaverse and bots, which are the issues that have been raised today. The second is on behaviours and to the two interventions that we have just had. We have been asking whether, with the behaviours that are criminal today, that criminality will stretch to new, similar forms of behaviour taking place in new environments—let us put it that way. The behaviour, the intent and the harm are the same, but the environment is different. We want to understand the extent to which the Government are thinking about that, where that thinking is happening and how confident they are that they can deal with that.

Finally, on the question of agency, how do the Government expect to deal with the fact that we will have machines operating in a user-to-user environment when the connection between the machine and another individual user is qualitatively different from anything that we have seen before? Those are just some small questions for the Minister on this Thursday afternoon.

My Lords, the debate on this group has been a little longer, deeper and more important than I had anticipated. It requires all of us to reflect before Report on some of the implications of the things we have been talking about. It was introduced masterfully by the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, and her comments—and those from the noble Baronesses, Lady Finlay and Lady Berridge—were difficult to listen to at times. I also congratulate the Government Whip on the way he handled the situation so that innocent ears were not subject to some of that difficult listening. But the questions around the implications of virtual reality, augmented reality and haptic technology are really important, and I hope the Minister will agree to meet with the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, and the people she referenced to reflect on some of that.

The noble Baroness, Lady Fox, raised some of the right questions around the balance of this debate. I am a technology enthusiast, so I will quote shortly from my mobile phone, which I use for good, although a lot of this Bill is about how technology is used for bad. I am generally of the view that we have a responsibility to put some safety rails around this technology. I know that the noble Baroness agrees, in respect of children in particular. As ever, in responding to her, I end up saying “It’s all about balance” in the same way as the Minister ends up saying “It’s all about unintended consequences”.

Amendments 283ZZA and 283ZZB in my name are, as the noble Lord, Lord Allan, anticipated, about who controls autonomous bots. I was really grateful to hear his comments, because I put down the amendments on a bit of a hunch without being that confident that I understood what I was talking about technically. He understands what he is talking about much better than I do in this regard, so it is reassuring that I might be on to something of substance.

I was put on to it by reading a New York Times article about Geoffrey Hinton, the now labelled “Godfather of AI”. The article stated:

“Down the road, he is worried that future versions of the technology pose a threat to humanity because they often learn unexpected behavior from the vast amounts of data they analyse. This becomes an issue, he said, as individuals and companies allow AI systems not only to generate their own computer code but actually run that code on their own”.

As a result, I went to OpenAI’s ChatGPT and asked whether it could create code. Of course, it replied that it could help me with creating code. I said, “Can you code me a Twitter bot?” It said, “Certainly, I can help you create a basic Twitter bot using Python. Here is an example of a Twitter bot that post tweets”. Then I got all the instructions on how to do it. The AI will help me get on and create something that starts then to be able to create autonomous behaviours and activity. It is readily available to all of us now, and that should cause us some concern.

The Bill certainly needs to clarify—as the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and introduced so well by the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, goes to—whether or not a bot is a user. If a bot is a user and the Minister can assure us of that, things get a lot easier. But given that it is possible to code a realistic avatar generating its own content and behaviour in the metaverse, the core question I am driving at is: who is responsible for that behaviour? Is it the person who is deemed to be controlling it, as it says in Clause 170(7), which talks about

“a person who may be assumed to control the bot or tool”?

As the noble Lord, Lord Allan, said, that is not always going to be that straightforward when behaviours start to be something that the AI itself generates, and it generates behaviours that are not expected by the person who might be perceived to have controlled it. No one really controls it; the creator does not necessarily control it. I am just offering the simple amendment “or owns it” to allow some legal culpability to be clarified. It might be that the supplier of the virtual environment is culpable. These are questions that I am seeking to answer with my amendment from the Minister, so that we get clarity on how Ofcom is supposed to regulate all of these potential harms in the future.

Some months ago, I went to a Speaker’s Lecture given by Stuart Russell, who delivered the Reith Lectures around AI. He talked about the programming of an AI-powered vacuum cleaner that was asked to clear up as much dirt as possible. What then plays out is that the vacuum cleaner gets a bit of dirt up off the carpet and then spews it out and picks it up again, because that is the way of maximising the intent of the programming. It is very difficult to anticipate the behaviour of AI if you do not get the instructions exactly right. And that is the core of what we are worried about. Again, when I asked ChatGPT to give me some guidance on a speaking note to this question, it was quite helpful in also guiding me towards an embedded danger of bias and inequity. The AI is trained by data; we know a certain amount about the bias of data, but it is difficult to anticipate how that will play out as the AI feeds and generates its own data.

The equity issues that can then flow are something that we need to be confident that this legislation will be able to deal with. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford reminded us, when the legal but harmful elements of the Bill were taken out between draft stage and publication, we lost the assessment of future risk as being something that was in place before, which I think was an unintended consequence of taking those things out. It would be great to see those back, as Amendment 139 and Amendment 195 from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford suggest. The reporting that the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, is proposing in her amendments is important in giving us as Parliament a sense of how this is going. My noble friend Lord Stevenson tabled Amendment 286 to pay particular regard to the metaverse, and I support that.

Ultimately, the key test for the Minister is, as others have said, that tech is changing really fast. It is changing the online environment and our relationship with it as humans very quickly indeed; the business models will change really quickly as a result and they, by and large, are likely to drive quite a lot of the platform behaviour. But can the regulator, as things are currently set out in this legislation, react and change quickly enough in response to that highly dynamic environment? Can we anticipate that what is inconceivable at the moment is going to be regulatable by this Bill? If not, we need to make sure that Parliament has opportunities to revisit this. As I have said before, I strongly support post-legislative scrutiny; I personally think a permanent Joint Committee of both Houses around digital regulation, so that we have some sustained body of expertise of parliamentarians in both Houses to keep up with this, would be extremely useful to Parliament.

As a whole, I think these amendments are really helpful to the Minister and to Parliament in pointing us towards where we can strengthen the future-proofing of the Bill. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

My Lords, this has been a grim but important debate to open the Committee’s proceedings today. As my noble friend Lady Harding of Winscombe and others have set out, some of the issues and materials about which we are talking are abhorrent indeed. I join other noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lord Harlech for his vigilance and consideration for those who are watching our proceedings today, to allow us to talk about them in the way that we must in order to tackle them, but to ensure that we do so sensitively. I thank noble Lords for the way they have done that.

I pay tribute also to those who work in this dark corner of the internet to tackle these harms. I am pleased to reassure noble Lords that the Bill has been designed in a way that responds to emerging and new technologies that may pose a risk of harm. In our previous debates, we have touched on explicitly naming certain technologies and user groups or making aspects of the legislation more specific. However, one key reason why the Government have been resistant to such specificity is to ensure that the legislation remains flexible and future-proofed.

The Bill has been designed to be technology-neutral in order to capture new services that may arise in this rapidly evolving sector. It confers duties on any service that enables users to interact with each other, as well as search services, meaning that any new internet service that enables user interaction will be caught by it.

Amendment 125, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron—whose watchful eye I certainly feel on me even as she takes a rare but well-earned break today—seeks to ensure that machine-generated content, virtual reality content and augmented reality content are regulated content under the Bill. I am happy to confirm to her and to my noble friend Lady Harding who moved the amendment on her behalf that the Bill is designed to regulate providers of user-to-user services, regardless of the specific technologies they use to deliver their service, including virtual reality and augmented reality content. This is because any service that allows its users to encounter content generated, uploaded or shared by other users is in scope unless exempt. “Content” is defined very broadly in Clause 207(1) as

“anything communicated by means of an internet service”.

This includes virtual or augmented reality. The Bill’s duties therefore cover all user-generated content present on the service, regardless of the form this content takes, including virtual reality and augmented reality content. To state it plainly: platforms that allow such content—for example, the metaverse—are firmly in scope of the Bill.

The Bill also ensures that machine-generated content on user-to-user services created by automated tools or machine bots will be regulated by the Bill where appropriate. Specifically, Clause 49(4)(b) means that machine-generated content is regulated unless the bot or automated tool producing the content is controlled by the provider of the service. This approach ensures that the Bill covers scenarios such as malicious bots on a social media platform abusing users, or when users share content produced by new tools, such as ChatGPT, while excluding functions such as customer service chatbots which are low risk. Content generated by an artificial intelligence bot and then placed by a user on a regulated service will be regulated by the Bill. Content generated by an AI bot which interacts with user-generated content, such as bots on Twitter, will be regulated by the Bill. A bot that is controlled by the service provider, such as a customer service chatbot, is out of scope; as I have said, that is low risk and regulation would therefore be disproportionate. Search services using AI-powered features will be in scope of the search duties.

The Government recognise the need to act both to unlock the opportunities and to address the potential risks of this technology. Our AI regulation White Paper sets out the principles for the responsible development of AI in the UK. These principles, such as safety and accountability, are at the heart of our approach to ensuring the responsible development and use of artificial intelligence. We are creating a horizon-scanning function and a central risk function which will enable the Government to monitor future risks.

The Bill does not distinguish between the format of content present on a service. Any service that allows its users to encounter content generated, uploaded or shared by other users is in scope unless exempt, regardless of the format of that content. This includes virtual and augmented reality material. Platforms that allow such content, such as the metaverse, are firmly in scope of the Bill and must take the required steps to protect their users from harm. I hope that gives the clarity that my noble friend and others were seeking and reassurance that the intent of Amendment 125 is satisfied.

The Bill will require companies to take proactive steps to tackle all forms of online child sexual abuse, including grooming, live streaming, child sexual abuse material and prohibited images of children. If AI-generated content amounts to a child’s sexual exploitation or abuse offence in the Bill, it will be subject to the illegal content duties. Regulated providers will need to take steps to remove this content. We will shortly bring forward, and have the opportunity to debate in Committee, a government amendment to address concerns relating to the sending of intimate images. This will cover the non-consensual sharing of manufactured images—more commonly known as deepfakes. The possession and distribution of altered images that appear to be indecent photographs of children is ready covered by the indecent images of children offences, which are very serious offences with robust punishment in law.

The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, asked about an issue touched on in Amendment 85C. Under their illegal content safety duties, companies must put in place safety measures that mitigate and manage the risks identified in their illegal content risk assessment. As part of this, in-scope services such as Meta will be required to assess the level of risk of their service being used for the commission or facilitation of a priority offence. They will then be required to mitigate any such risks. This will ensure that providers implement safety by design measures to mitigate a broad spectrum of factors that enable illegal activity on their platforms. This includes when these platforms facilitate new kinds of user-to-user interactions that may result in offences manifesting themselves in new ways online.

Schedules 5, 6 and 7, which list the priority offences, are not static lists and can be updated. To maintain flexibility and to keep those lists responsive to emerging harms and legislative changes, the Secretary of State has the ability to designate additional offences as priority offences via statutory instrument, subject to parliamentary scrutiny. It should be noted that Schedule 7 already contains several sexual offences, including extreme pornography, so-called revenge pornography and sexual exploitation, while Schedule 6 is focused solely on child sexual abuse and exploitation offences. Fraud and financial offences are also listed in Schedule 7. In this way, these offences are already captured, and mean that all in-scope services must take proactive measures to tackle these types of content. These schedules have been designed to focus on the most serious and prevalent offences, where companies can take effective and meaningful action. They are, therefore, primarily focused on offences that can be committed online, so that platforms are able to take effective steps proactively to identify and tackle such offences. If we were to add offences to these lists that could not be effectively tackled, it would risk spreading companies’ resources too thinly and diluting their efforts to tackle the offences we have listed in the Bill.

The Bill establishes a differentiated approach to ensure that it is proportionate to the risk of harm that different services pose. Category 1 services are subject to additional duties, such as transparency, accountability and free speech duties, as well as duties such as protections for journalistic and democratic content. These duties reflect the influence of the major platforms over our online democratic discourse. The designation of category 1 services is based on how easily, quickly and widely user-generated content is disseminated. This reflects how those category 1 services have the greatest influence over public discourse because of their high reach. Requiring all companies to comply with the full range of category 1 duties would impose a disproportionate regulatory burden on smaller companies, which do not exert the same amount of influence over public discourse. This would divert their resources away from the vital task of tackling illegal content and protecting children.

The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, also asked about virtual training grounds. Instruction or training for terrorism is illegal under existing terrorism legislation, and terrorism is listed as a priority offence in this Bill. Schedule 5 to the Bill lists the terrorism offences that constitute priority offences. These are drawn from existing terrorism legislation, including the Terrorism Act 2000, the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 and the Terrorism Act 2006. Section 6 of the 2006 Act covers instruction or training for terrorism and Section 2 of that Act covers dissemination of terrorist publications. Companies in scope of the Online Safety Bill will be required to take proactive steps to prevent users encountering content that amounts to an offence under terrorism legislation.

Amendments 195, 239, 263, 241, 301 and 286 seek to ensure that the Bill is future-proofed to keep pace with emerging technologies, as well as ensuring that Ofcom is able to monitor and identify new threats. The broad scope of the Bill means that it will capture all services that enable user interaction as well as search services, enabling its framework to continue to apply to new services that have not yet been invented. In addition, the Government fully agree that Ofcom must assess future risks and monitor the emergence of new technologies. That is why the Bill already gives Ofcom broad horizon-scanning and robust information-gathering powers, and why it requires Ofcom to carry out extensive risk assessments. These will ensure that it can effectively supervise and regulate new and emerging user-to-user services.

Ofcom is already conducting extensive horizon scanning and I am pleased to confirm that it is planning a range of research into emerging technologies in relation to online harms. The Bill also requires Ofcom to review and update its sectoral risk assessments, risk profiles and codes of practice to ensure that those reflect the risks and harms of new and emerging technology. The amendments before us would therefore duplicate existing duties and powers for Ofcom. In addition, as noble Lords will be aware, the Bill already has built-in review mechanisms to ensure that it works effectively.

My right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology are clear that artificial intelligence is the defining technology of our time, with the potential to bring positive changes, but also that the success of this technology is founded on having the right guardrails in place, so that the public can have the confidence that artificial intelligence is being used in a safe and responsible way. The UK’s approach to AI regulation will need to keep pace with the fast-moving advances in this technology. That is why His Majesty’s Government have deliberately adopted an agile response to unlock opportunities, while mitigating the risks of the technology, as outlined in our AI White Paper. We are engaging extensively with international partners on these issues, which have such profound consequences for all humankind.

Clause 159 requires the Secretary of State to undertake a review into the operation of the regulatory framework between two and five years after the provisions come into effect. This review will consider any new emerging trends or technologies, such as AI, which could have the potential to compromise the efficacy of the Bill in achieving its objectives. I am happy to assure the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford that the review will cover all content and activity being regulated by the Bill, including legal content that is harmful to children and content covered by user-empowerment tools. The Secretary of State must consult Ofcom when she carries out this review.

Will the review also cover an understanding of what has been happening in criminal cases where, in some of the examples that have been described, people have tried to take online activity to court? We will at that point understand whether the judges believe that existing offences cover some of these novel forms of activity. I hope the review will also extend not just to what Ofcom does as a regulator but to understand what the courts are doing in terms of the definitions of criminal activity and whether they are being effective in the new online spaces.

I believe it will. Certainly, both government and Parliament will take into account judgments in the court on this Bill and in related areas of law, and will, I am sure, want to respond.

It is not just the judgments of the courts; it is about how the criminal law as a very basic point has been framed. I invite my noble friend the Minister to please meet with the Dawes Centre, because it is about future crime. We could end up with a situation in which more and more violence, particularly against women and girls, is being committed in this space, and although it may be that the Bill has made it regulated, it may not fall within the province of the criminal law. That would be a very difficult situation for our law to end up in. Can my noble friend the Minister please meet with the Dawes Centre to talk about that point?

I am happy to reassure my noble friend that the director of the Dawes Centre for Future Crime sits on the Home Office’s Science Advisory Council, whose work is very usefully fed into the work being done at the Home Office. Colleagues at the Ministry of Justice keep criminal law under constant review, in light of research by such bodies and what we see in the courts and society. I hope that reassures my noble friend that the points she raised, which are covered by organisations such as the Dawes Centre, are very much in the mind of government.

The noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam, explained very effectively the nuances of how behaviour translates to the virtual world. He is right that we will need to keep both offences and the framework under review. My noble friend Lady Berridge asked a good and clear question, to which I am afraid I do not have a similarly concise answer. I can reassure her that generated child sexual abuse and exploitation material is certainly illegal, but she asked about sexual harassment via a haptic suit; that would depend on the specific circumstances. I hope she will allow me to respond in writing, at greater length and more helpfully, to the very good question she asked.

Under Clause 56, Ofcom will also be required to undertake periodic reviews into the incidence and severity of content that is harmful to children on the in-scope services, and to recommend to the Secretary of State any appropriate changes to regulations based on its findings. Clause 141 also requires Ofcom to carry out research into users’ experiences of regulated services, which will likely include experiences of services such as the metaverse and other online spaces that allow user interaction. Under Clause 147, Ofcom may also publish reports on other online safety matters.

The questions posed by the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, about international engagement are best addressed in a group covering regulatory co-operation, which I hope we will reach later today. I can tell him that we have introduced a new information-sharing gateway for the purpose of sharing information with overseas regulators, to ensure that Ofcom can collaborate effectively with its international counterparts. That builds on existing arrangements for sharing information that underpin Ofcom’s existing regulatory regimes.

The amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, relate to providers’ judgments about when content produced by bots is illegal content, or a fraudulent advertisement, under the Bill. Clause 170 sets out that providers will need to take into account all reasonably available relevant information about content when making a judgment about its illegality. As we discussed in the group about illegal content, providers will need to treat content as illegal when this information gives reasonable grounds for inferring that an offence was committed. Content produced by bots is in scope of providers’ duties under the Bill. This includes the illegal content duties, and the same principles for assessing illegal content will apply to bot-produced content. Rather than drawing inferences about the conduct and intent of the user who generated the content, the Bill specifies that providers should consider the conduct and the intent of the person who can be assumed to have controlled the bot at the point it created the content in question.

The noble Lord’s amendment would set out that providers could make judgments about whether bot-produced content is illegal, either by reference to the conduct or mental state of the person who owns the bot or, alternatively, by reference to the person who controls it. As he set out in his explanatory statement and outlined in his speech, I understand he has brought this forward because he is concerned that providers will sometimes not be able to identify the controller of a bot, and that this will impede providers’ duties to take action against illegal content produced by them. Even when the provider does not know the identity of the person controlling the bot, however, in many cases there will still be evidence from which providers can draw inferences about the conduct and intent of that person, so we are satisfied that the current drafting of the Bill ensures that providers will be able to make a judgment on illegality.

It depends on what the noble Lord means by “out of control” and what content the bot is producing. If he does not mind, this may be an issue which we should go through in technical detail and have a more free-flowing conservation with examples that we can work through.

Providers will consider contextual evidence such as the circumstances in which the content was created or information about how the bot normally behaves on the site. In many cases, the person who “owns” the bot may be the same person who controls it. In such instances, providers will be required to consider the conduct and mental state of the owner when considering whether the relevant bot has produced illegal content. Where the ownership of the bot is relevant, it will already be captured by this clause, but I am very happy to kick the tyres of that with the noble Lord and any others who wish to join us.

This is a very interesting discussion; the noble Lord, Lord Knight, has hit on something really important. When somebody does an activity that we believe is criminal, we can interrogate them and ask how they came to do it and got to the conclusion that they did. The difficulty is that those of us who are not super-techy do not understand how you can interrogate a bot or an AI which appears to be out of control on how it got to the conclusion that it did. It may be drawing from lots of different places and there may be ownership of lots of different sources of information. I wonder whether that is why we are finding how this will be monitored in future so concerning. I am reassured that the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, is nodding; does the Minister concur that this may be a looming problem for us?

I certainly concur that we should discuss the issue in greater detail. I am very happy to do so with the noble Lord, the noble Baroness and others who want to do so, along with officials. If we can bring some worked examples of what “in control” and “out of control” bots may be, that would be helpful.

I hope the points I have set out in relation to the other issues raised in this group and the amendments before us are satisfactory to noble Lords and that they will at this point be content not to press their amendments.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to a thought-provoking and, I suspect, longer debate than we had anticipated. At Second Reading, I think we were all taken aback when this issue was opened up by my noble friend Lord Sarfraz; once again, we are realising that this requires really careful thought. I thank my noble friend the Minister for his also quite long and thoughtful response to this debate.

I feel that I owe the Committee a small apology. I am very conscious that I talked in quite graphic detail at the beginning when there were still children in the Gallery. I hope that I did not cause any harm, but it shows how serious this is that we have all had to think so carefully about what we have been saying—only in words, without any images. We should not underestimate how much this has demonstrated the importance of our debates.

On the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, I am a huge enthusiast, like the noble Lord, Lord Knight, for the wonders of the tech world and what it can bring. We are managing the balance in this Bill to make sure that this country can continue to benefit from and lead the opportunities of tech while recognising its real and genuine harms. I suggest that today’s debate has demonstrated the potential harm that the digital world can bring.

I listened carefully—as I am certain the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, has been doing in the digital world—to my noble friend’s words. I am encouraged by what he has put on the record on Amendment 125, but there are some specific issues that it would be helpful for us to talk about, as he alluded to, after this debate and before Report. Let me highlight a couple of those.

First, I do not really understand the technical difference between a customer service bot and other bots. I am slightly worried that we are defining in the specific one type of bot that would not be captured by this Bill. I suspect that there might be others in future. We must think carefully through whether we are getting too much into the specifics of the technology and not general enough in making sure we capture where it could go. That is one example.

Secondly, as my noble friend Lady Berridge would say, I am not sure that we have got to the bottom of whether this Bill, coupled with the existing body of criminal law, will really enable law enforcement officers to progress the cases as they see fit and protect vulnerable women—and men—in the digital world. I very much hope we can extend the conversation there. We perhaps risk getting too close to the technical specifics if we are thinking about whether a haptic suit is in or out of scope of the Bill; I am certain that there will be other technologies that we have not even thought about yet that we will want to make sure that the Bill can capture.

I very much welcome the spirit in which this debate has been held. When I said that I would do this for the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, I did not realise quite what a huge debate we were opening up, but I thank everyone who has contributed and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 125 withdrawn.

Amendment 125A not moved.

Clause 49 agreed.

Clause 50: “Recognised news publisher”

Amendment 126 not moved.

Amendment 126A

Moved by

126A: Clause 50, page 48, line 31, at end insert “, and

(iii) is not a sanctioned entity (see subsection (3A)).”Member’s explanatory statement

The effect of this amendment, combined with the next amendment in the Minister’s name, is that any entity which is designated for the purposes of sanctions regulations is not a “recognised news publisher” under this Bill, with the result that the Bill’s protections which relate to “news publisher content” don’t apply.

Amendment 126A agreed.

Amendment 127 not moved.

Amendment 127A

Moved by

127A: Clause 50, page 49, line 9, at end insert—

“(3A) A “sanctioned entity” is an entity which—(a) is designated by name under a power contained in regulations under section 1 of the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018 that authorises the Secretary of State or the Treasury to designate persons for the purposes of the regulations or of any provisions of the regulations, or (b) is a designated person under any provision included in such regulations by virtue of section 13 of that Act (persons named by or under UN Security Council Resolutions).”Member’s explanatory statement

The effect of this amendment, combined with the preceding amendment in the Minister’s name, is that any entity which is designated for the purposes of sanctions regulations is not a “recognised news publisher” under this Bill, with the result that the Bill’s protections which relate to “news publisher content” don’t apply.

Amendment 127A agreed.

Clause 50, as amended, agreed.

Clause 51 agreed.

Clause 52: Restricting users’ access to content

Amendments 127B and 127C

Moved by

127B: Clause 52, page 50, line 23, after second “the” insert “voluntary”

Member’s explanatory statement

This amendment and the next amendment in the Minister’s name ensure that restrictions on a user’s access to content resulting from the user voluntarily activating any feature of a service do not count as restrictions on users’ access for the purposes of Part 3 of the Bill.

127C: Clause 52, page 50, line 25, leave out from “service” to “, or” in line 26 and insert “(for example, features, functionalities or settings included in compliance with the duty set out in section 12(2) or (6) (user empowerment))”

Member’s explanatory statement

This amendment and the previous amendment in the Minister’s name ensure that restrictions on a user’s access to content resulting from the user voluntarily activating any feature of a service do not count as restrictions on users’ access for the purposes of Part 3 of the Bill.

Amendments 127B and 127C agreed.

Clause 52, as amended, agreed.

Clause 53: “Illegal content” etc

Amendments 128 to 130 not moved.

Clause 53 agreed.

Schedule 5 agreed.

Schedule 6: Child sexual exploitation and abuse offences

Amendments 131 to 133 not moved.

Schedule 6 agreed.

House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 2.19 pm.

Branded Health Service Medicines (Costs) (Amendment) Regulations 2023

Motion to Regret

Moved by

That this House regrets that the Branded Health Service Medicines (Costs) (Amendment) Regulations 2023 propose a 27.5 per cent claw back rate which significantly exceeds that required by comparable countries, and which risks seriously damaging future investment in the research and development (R&D) of new drugs in the United Kingdom for the NHS, investment in the life sciences more generally, and the manufacture of branded medicines and their availability to the NHS; further regrets the short and insufficient consultation period for these measures of just 39 days over the Christmas period; and notes with concern that the UK’s share of global pharmaceutical R&D has fallen by over one-third between 2012 and 2020, and that the UK’s medicine production volumes, clinical trial delivery, and global share of new medicine launches have also all declined in recent years. (SI 2023/239)

Relevant document: 34th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (special attention drawn to the instrument)

My Lords, I am very glad to introduce this debate, and thankful to noble Lords who have stayed to take part in it. Underpinning this debate is a major concern about the current state of the UK economy, beset as it is with low growth, low productivity, workforce shortages, regional inequality and a dilapidated infrastructure; yet we have no industrial strategy. The Government have raised corporation tax; it is little wonder that Sir James Dyson recently accused the Government of having a “stupid” and “short-sighted” approach to the economy and business in the UK. Indeed, as Theresa May’s former chief of staff, Nick Timothy, put it on 8 May, there is an alarming decline in manufacturing as a percentage of GDP.

We ought, at least, to welcome the Prime Minister’s launch of the Government’s plan to create the UK’s place and cement it as a science and technology superpower by 2030. My concern is that the Minister and his colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care are doing everything they can to inhibit that ambition. The life sciences industry is one of the most successful and important pillars of the UK economy, contributing more than £94.2 billion a year and 200,000 jobs in this country. Two-thirds of this is generated by the biopharmaceutical sector. The industry’s pipeline of new medicines is equally impressive.

We are at great risk of seeing this economic success falter under the watch of the Government, as companies are reducing their level of investment because of the imposition of a massive clawback that equates to one-quarter of sales revenue. We are already seeing very worrying trends in investment levels. From 2012 to 2020, the UK’s share of global pharmaceutical R&D spend decreased by more than a third. Since 2018, the UK has been falling down the global rankings across all phases of industry clinical trials. UK manufacturing production volumes have fallen by 29% since 2009. We all know that the NHS is far too slow to adopt new innovation and new medicines.

The UK is falling behind comparable countries as an early-launch market. Companies are making decisions to delay, or even not to launch, in the UK. These can be clinically important medicines that address many of the NHS’s priorities. Compared to leading countries in Europe—Italy, Spain, Germany and France—we have experienced the largest decline in our global share of new medicine launches between 2016 and 2021. This is the background to the statutory instrument that we are debating today.

I believe and hope this debate can influence the negotiations that have just started with the industry over the next phase of the voluntary scheme, otherwise known as VPAS—various noble Lords used to know it as PPRS. Under these regulations, companies in the statutory scheme will be required to pay to the Secretary of State 27.5% of their 2023 net sales income received for the supply of those medicines to the NHS.

The Government’s argument is that continued high sales growth in 2022 has led to an increase in the payment percentages in the VPAS scheme from 15% in 2022 to 26.5% in 2023, which is higher than was projected at the time of the 2022 statutory scheme consultation. As a result, the Government have ratcheted up the statutory scheme required payment rate. My argument is that both the voluntary and statutory schemes—companies have to be in one or the other, and can switch between them—are becoming a major impediment to future investment in the UK. The proposed rate of 27.5% will place the UK as a global outlier. In countries that operate similar clawback arrangements, current rates include 12% in Germany, 7.5% in Spain and 9% in Ireland, and all those countries spend more on medicines per head than we do. How on earth can the Government’s stated aim to grow the life sciences industry, as set out in the Life Sciences Vision and just recently articulated by the Chancellor, be delivered if industries expect to pay twice the level here that they do in Germany?

I have no doubt whatever that there is a direct link between payment rates and scale of investment. Placement of clinical research clearly takes into consideration subsequent expected patient uptake and medicine sales in that country as well. This connection is further evidenced by analysis commissioned by ABPI, which found that continued high payment rates in both schemes would cost the UK £50 billion in GDP and £17.9 billion in tax revenue as a result of lost R&D investment of £5.7 billion by 2028. Without action or signals from the Government that they agree that this situation is not sustainable, there is a risk that short-term decisions or disinvestment will have long-term consequences as high payment rates are locked into business planning cycles.

Worrying signs are emerging. AstraZeneca recently announced a major expansion of its research footprint in Canada, creating over 500 new, highly skilled jobs and a new research and development hub, because the Government there at both provincial and federal level have taken huge steps to create a more supportive environment for the biopharmaceutical industry. AbbVie left the voluntary scheme on principle and has disinvested from certain R&D activities to manage those high repayment rates. That includes halting of UK data and real-world evidence studies, some of which are continuing in other countries, and, particularly disappointing, the discontinuation of an initiative to support promising UK biotech companies by providing free lab space to facilitate technological advancement and company scale-up. Other companies are clearly taking similar actions.

The Government’s response seems incredibly complacent, and the impact assessment does not even recognise a link between payment rates and investment for the UK, nor does it reference the Life Sciences Vision. The IA states that the risk that the payment rates will delay or pause the launch of new medicines in the UK is “remote”. How on earth can the Minister justify that being stated when the decline has been so visible in industry’s investment in pharma R&D? The remarkable paragraph 101 says that

“supply side factors, such as availability of expert scientific labour and favourable tax conditions, are of greatest significance in the decision to locate R&D activity, and that siting of R&D facilities should not be affected by”

the commercial environment. That is an extraordinary statement. If you were reading this in the boardrooms of New York or New Jersey, or indeed Basel, what would you conclude? By implication, the Government are saying, “We do not have the right scientific resource available in this country, nor do we have the right tax conditions”. This is an extraordinary statement to make, and I have to ask whether a Minister ever read this IA before they signed it off. I rather doubt it.

The Government need to reset their view on this matter before they enter into serious negotiations on the new VPAS scheme. I have no doubt whatever that this is recoverable, but it is only just recoverable. I have no doubt that a successful life sciences sector has the potential to drive the health and wealth of the UK, and the Chancellor has made it clear that this is a priority for him. In his Budget he said that he wants the UK

“to be the best place in Europe for companies to locate, invest and grow”—[Official Report, Commons, 15/3/23; col. 842.]

our life sciences sector.

Agreeing a new voluntary scheme is critical, and the Government should work with industry to secure an agreement with growth at its heart. We need a sustainable approach to medicines provision for the whole branded market which rapidly brings industry payments into line with comparator countries to unlock investment and growth, maximising the potential of the UK life sciences industry as an engine for growth, including through harnessing the full value of the UK as a destination for R&D and clinical research, ensuring rapid patient access and adoption of new medicines, in partnership with a dynamic, innovative MHRA and NICE. There is not time to go into the shortages at the MHRA at the moment, which is causing great concern to industry. It can also help to improve outcomes, and I shall come back to the need to lower the discount rate to be applied to future health gains deriving from new treatments, because the current rate is another inhibitor to investment by industry.

I appeal to the Minister. We have had a number of debates in the past and, frankly, the line in the IA is the line the department has used for 20 years. The noble Lord, Lord Warner and I, are aware of the tensions within the Department of Health in managing the NHS budget on the one hand and, for much of that time, sponsoring the industry. I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, faced similar issues. We are at a critical stage. The Minister will know that the UK economy is fragile. We desperately need to grow the life sciences sector, but the action the Government seem to be taking with the industry is guaranteed to ensure that this will not happen. I very much hope that the Government will listen and that this will inform their negotiations with industry on the new VPAS. I beg to move.

My Lords, I intervene in this short debate just to make a number of points that I feel strongly about and have done for quite a long time, because now is an important moment, when the Government are entering the process of negotiating the voluntary price access scheme starting at the beginning of next year.

I welcome the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, has sought and secured this debate: it is really important. I do not disagree with any of the points he made, and he and I know that in past debates, together with the noble Lord, Lord Warner, we have often made these points—not least when we were debating the legislation which has given the Government the powers to secure whatever pricing outcome they are looking for, frankly. We do not actually have any pharmaceutical pricing freedom in this country; we effectively have government control of it.

The purpose of the regulations is not really in debate: to ensure that the statutory scheme and voluntary scheme align. We have been in a position where they did not align when we had the Gilead example, and that is not a place we want to go back to; we want to ensure that the schemes align, if we need two such schemes at all. That is my starting point. I have no registrable interests, although as a former Secretary of State I was very much involved in these issues, and as a Member of Parliament for South Cambridgeshire I probably had, in my time in the other place, a greater interest directly in the pharmaceutical industry, the life sciences sector and the R&D activity in this country than did Members for any other constituency.

I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, is right that there is a relationship at this point between the scheme’s rebate level and the willingness or otherwise of internationally mobile investment and international pharmaceutical boards to consider the United Kingdom as a location for investment. The impact assessment does not sufficiently recognise that truth. It more or less works on the basis that this was the result of the old scheme, it is all for a few months and will all be replaced next year. I fear that is not how the world works. There will be discussions at international board level where people say, “We used to think the United Kingdom was the best place in Europe”—arguably, the best place in the world—“to conduct pharmaceutical research, but at the moment we are not sure that is the case because, if we were to launch in the United Kingdom, the level of pricing rebate being imposed on us makes the risks associated too great”.

From my point of view, clearly this can be remedied with a VPAS next year which re-establishes, from the industry’s point of view, a more predictable level of rebate. I have to say that the VPAS, the statutory scheme, is based on a serious fallacy that there is such a thing within the healthcare industry of a fixed drugs budget. I know of no healthcare system that thinks that is a logical way of approaching it. The drugs budget must be part of a health budget. We have budgets in order to deliver health outcomes. We do not have a drugs budget in order to secure a health outcome, we have a total health budget. The idea that the Government should intervene in order specifically to confine and restrict the amount that we spend on medicines in the healthcare system is wrong.

We should try to get away from that. I am not saying that we should not try to ensure that we get the best possible value for money for the medicines that we buy. The NHS in this country is effectively a monopsony, so we have every possibility of having extremely competitive medicine prices, but frankly we are being, as my mother would have said, penny wise and pound foolish. If we save a bit on NHS purchasing and parade to the rest of the world that we have the lowest medicine prices, the inevitable result—which we have seen—is a doubling of the number of pharmaceutical companies withdrawing their products from NICE evaluations. That is not a place where we want to be. We want those evaluations to take place.

I am going to finish with this thought. Even at this stage, I hope they are looking at this not only in the pharmaceutical companies, not only in ABPI but inside the department and inside the Treasury. I think all of our experience is that at the end of the day these things were determined more in the Treasury and No. 10 than they were in the Department of Health. I did not actually see a PPRS negotiation completed in my time, but I know perfectly well that is what happens. When they read this, I hope they will say: “Why don’t we move away from this kind of system?” The idea of a rate of return regulation as a mechanism for industry control is so out of date, it is practically neolithic. We have the benefit in this country of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence which has acknowledged expertise in health technology assessment. It should make assessments.

We have in NHS England an increased capacity and propensity to negotiate medicines prices regardless of what NICE says about evaluations anyway. Let us put those two together—we have argued this many times—and enter into negotiations on medicines pricing with the industry. Wherever we can, we should operate on the basis of a market. We have a market in generics and biosimilars. We are close to market on branded generics and biosimilars, but the branded medicines are inside this scheme. They should not be inside it; they should be the subject of negotiated pricing in what is effectively a market context. They should have to demonstrate where there is a benefit to a branded generic or a branded biosimilar relative to one which is not branded but is simply generic.

But for those where there is exclusivity, clearly there is going to be a negotiated price, and it is in our interests for that negotiation to take account not only of the incremental cost effectiveness, not only the quali-benefit, as it were, but also the societal benefits and the innovation benefit of new medicines. Let us say for the sake of argument that in the course of the next five years we were suddenly to find that we had a blockbuster new medicine that gave us immense advantages in terms of delaying the onset of dementia. It is not inconceivable that that could happen. As things stand, the scheme is designed for the pharmaceutical industry to derive no benefit from the fact that it has brought forward a new medicine of that scale and advantage. That cannot be right. If, in the context of healthcare, medicines occupy a stronger position, they should secure greater funding. If, relative to them, medicines do not do the job, they should have lesser funding, but this should be a healthcare and a health budget calculation, not a rate-of-return prior regulation. I hope that, even at this stage, the Government and the industry will think of whether there might be a better way of conducting negotiations on medicines pricing in this country.

My Lords, I support the regret Motion moved so ably by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. I agree with quite a lot of what the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, has said, but I am not going to be as wide-ranging as him. The Minister may be relieved to know that.

I speak from the perspective of having been a Pharmaceuticals Minister who negotiated a 7% reduction in the price of branded medicines, under the old PPRS, without damaging the UK’s life sciences industry and with the agreement of the Treasury. So it is possible to do these things and make such schemes work if, across government—we will come back to that—there is a willingness to engage properly with the industry. What we see here is that failure across government to deal with the industry.

Unfortunately, the regulations before us will, as has been said, significantly damage the UK life sciences sector. That was confirmed for me by the briefing received from the ABPI and some of the pharmaceutical companies that have also set out their views in relation to these regulations.

The regulations increase the repayments by pharmaceutical companies in the statutory price scheme to bring them into line with the already high levels in the voluntary price scheme, so we have a scheme which is catching up to an already unsatisfactory scheme. That is a wonderful achievement for government departments to have delivered. Government departments seem to have simply ignored the warnings they have been given about what will happen if they press on with the regulations as they stand. Instead, they have produced what I would regard as an unconvincing and wordy impact assessment, which has already been commented on. It totally downplays the warnings from the industry. The industry made its position very clear in the ABPI briefing for this debate. It points out that the proposed rebate of 27.5% of companies’ revenues

“is a rapid escalation from historical and international norms. Prior to this the average payment rate across the last four years was 10.6% and in 2022 the rate was 14.3%”.

That is almost a doubling of what the rate was a year or so ago.

When one looks at comparator countries, as has been mentioned, the UK rate is an extreme outlier within western Europe. Some countries do not even have comparable schemes, but in those that do, the rates are 12% in Germany and 7.5% in Spain and Ireland. The only comparable clawbacks to the UK’s are in Romania and Greece, two countries that, if I may say so, are hardly in the Premier League in terms of the life sciences. The ABPI brief goes on to state that

“the UK is already seeing worrying signs of decline in the UK life sciences industry including in R&D investment, access to clinical trials and medicines launches with companies making long-term decisions on the future of their UK footprint.”

The new proposed rate will accelerate this investment and jeopardise the availability of new medicines, which will lead to poorer NHS performance and patient outcomes. The ABPI contrasts the UK’s approach with incentives to new life sciences investments in France and Ireland, where Pfizer has recently announced big investments in both countries. AstraZeneca has followed suit in Ireland. The ABPI briefing is also supported by the briefing from AbbVie, a top-five, US-headquartered global biopharmaceutical company. It points out that the NHS already lags behind other countries in the take-up of new medicines. Branded medicines expenditure is reducing in the NHS, while the NHS budget is increasing. That is no mean achievement. I never got to that stage when I was the Pharmaceuticals Minister.

UK patient access to industry clinical trials is declining rapidly, and the average annual loss in the UK’s share of R&D spending is declining by about 3% a year. The briefing from Roche, another major company, is in a similar vein to that from AbbVie. This is not just the industry complaining about these regulations; these concerns are shared by patient groups. Gene People, which supports people with genetic conditions, has set out in its evidence the impact of these regulations for patients and on their access to the drugs that they will require over time.

I am genuinely puzzled by why the Department of Health and Social Care has simply ignored the evidence provided by the industry and patient groups on the damage that these regulations will do to UK life sciences and UK plc. The ABPI commissioned research which found that continued high payment rates in both the statutory and voluntary schemes would cost the UK £50 billion in GDP and £17.9 billion in tax revenue because of lost R&D investment of £5.7 billion by 2028. These are considerable losses to the UK economy. There is not a mention of them in the impact assessment. The ABPI company survey also suggests that repayment rates of around 24% across both the voluntary and statutory schemes

“would result in job losses in over 9 out of 10 companies”.

The savings to the NHS budget from these rebate schemes is modest compared to the economic damage that they do.

Despite all this evidence, Ministers from the Department of Health and Social Care are ploughing on with these regulations, seemingly unaware that the industry’s timescales for making R&D investment decisions are much closer than they realise. In the next year or so, these decisions will be taken in relation to 2030 onwards. Somewhat bizarrely, 2030 is the date the Prime Minister is talking about for cementing the UK’s place as a science and technology superpower.

It crossed my mind as I prepared for this debate whether the Prime Minister and No. 10 are aware of the contradictions between the Department of Health and Social Care and the Prime Minister’s aspirations for the UK economy. It is also strange that on the very day that we are debating this regret Motion on these regulations, the Chancellor is sitting with the industry at the Life Sciences Council, discussing the life sciences sector in this country. It seems an interesting coincidence.

I should like clarification from the Minister on one point and to ask him a question. The point of clarification is whether, as the usual convention requires, he is speaking fully on behalf of the Government in responding to the Motion tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. My question relates to the new discussions on the voluntary scheme, which are taking place or have begun. Can the Minister confirm that these discussions are indeed taking place? If so, what is the point of pursuing these regulations if, in these new discussions, there is the possibility of a more positive approach to rebates under both schemes, given the more sensible proposals put on the table by the ABPI—the Minister may be able to confirm this—which suggest that we should be talking about single-figure rebates if we want this country’s life sciences industry to be successful?

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for his Motion, and for giving us an opportunity to debate a series of questions raised by the statutory instrument about the life sciences sector more broadly.

I do not think that it is enough for us simply to say, “Look, Britain is great”, and expect that to act as a magnet for international pharmaceutical companies to invest in it. We certainly have a very strong sector and excellent skills, but the market is not sentimental: it reacts to financial signals. The noble Lord, Lord Lansley, was quite right to put us in the position of those people sitting in boardrooms, where soft signals such as the Prime Minister holding a summit are fine but the determinations will be based on hard numbers in spreadsheets. That is the way businesses work.

The concern that we should have in considering the statutory instrument is whether this settlement will be absorbed as simply the cost of doing business in the UK or whether it will change behaviour of businesses in a negative way. On all sides of the House, I think we hope that it will not do the latter. The ideal outcome is that businesses continue to invest in spite of taking a hit, but the risk that that will not be the case is genuine and deserves the debate that we are having today.

We have already seen some companies move from the voluntary to the statutory scheme. It would be helpful if the Minister could indicate how many. I understand that the rates are similar, but it is a pretty strong signal when a company says in that board discussion that it is important for them to say, “We are not taking this lying down. We are upset. Therefore, we will pay what we have to pay, but only if you make us do it. We are not willing to do it on a voluntary basis.” As I said, the numbers may look similar, but the signal seems pretty clear to me. I hope the Minister can indicate the scale of the trend and his views on whether we should be concerned that that is happening.

It is interesting to note from the Explanatory Notes to the legislation that the consultation responses were nearly uniformly negative. I was going to say that they were uniformly negative, but they were not: only 30 out of 33 were. I was fascinated by this comment in paragraph 10.3, which referred to having more responses than in previous years. It said:

“It is likely this rise in the number of responses reflects a stronger level of interest in the consultation from industry in advance of negotiations for a new voluntary scheme to succeed VPAS, which expires at the end of 2023.”

I suggest that the increased number of consultations reflects something else: it is a cry for help and a protest against the fact that the rate is now over 20% and seems to be rising inexorably. Businesses are not responding in greater numbers just because of something happening in the process but because of the substance. When the noble Lord, Lord Warner, made his 7% reduction some years ago, I suspect he would not have had the same number of responses, because the reduction was not at the levels we are seeing now. The fact that we are at over 20%, and that there seems no prospect that that will reduce, means that businesses want to engage.

Here is the question for the Government: what signal do they want to send to these major companies that produce medicines that our population depends on? Is it that the trend is going to improve over time, so that they are encouraged to invest in test facilities and research in the UK—that they can expect to have more free cash flow, as it were, from the sales that they are making in the UK, to invest back into the UK? Or will the trend stay the same, at a level that they have told us they already find unacceptable, or even worsen? As the Covid backlog is, hopefully, dealt with more expeditiously, there will be more dispensing of branded drugs, and there is a scenario in which things continue to get worse. If companies feel that they have less to invest, those signals will be negative.

The noble Lords, Lord Lansley and Lord Hunt, commented on boardroom discussions, in which all of this will be summarised down to some bullet points for a pharmaceutical company board. The bullet point will say “UK negative, Germany positive” or “UK trending positive, Germany trending negative”. That will be based on everything the Government do, especially on revenue, because revenue is the lifeblood of any company. However well-intentioned and socially beneficial companies are, revenue matters.

I was very interested in the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, about how we might move to a different model. I hesitate to confess ignorance in the House, but hopefully it was a constructive naivety I had when I came to this. This has been the first time I have had to read up on how this works. I was talking to somebody about it, who talked about this rate. I said “Oh, that’s the discount rate on the price for the drug”. They said “No, there is no pricing; it is a bucket”. It took me a little while to get my head around the scheme. I think most people would be quite surprised if they understood how it works.

I know that is a bigger conversation than the one we are having, but it is right that we think about whether there are models that would work better to achieve the objectives the Government have said they want: the availability of drugs at a reasonable price and continued investment in the life sciences industry. There is something to chew on there in terms of a broader discussion.

If we are serious about having a vibrant, growing life sciences sector in the UK, we need to look at how all government policies affect business decision-making, including the policy on branded medicines that we are discussing. Clearly, having a vibrant life sciences sector is better for employment and the availability of medicines for patients. It is also important for our resilience in future crises. This year, above all, we should be thinking that we need a domestic sector, whereas previously we might have been more comfortable simply relying on international solutions for drug development and availability.

If there is any area where a holistic industrial strategy might be appropriate, it is here, where the Government are a major customer. They are the most significant customer for these companies and therefore have levers to pull. Our concern with this statutory instrument is that we have got that lever and we are pulling it in the wrong direction.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his usual expert and comprehensive explanation of his regret Motion on this SI, which is so important for the future of the NHS and the UK’s pharmaceutical industry and life sciences sector.

While the Government’s argument for maintaining equivalence between the two schemes makes sense, we certainly do not want companies to choose to leave the voluntary scheme for better rates. We on these Benches fully recognise the strong concerns about the impact and potential damage that the 27.5% clawback rate will cause to the manufacturer of branded medicines, to the availability of those medicines to the NHS and its patients and to future investment in the research and development of new drugs.

I point out that this is the first opportunity, on such an important subject, that we have had to discuss in depth the key issues my noble friend and other speakers across the House have raised, since the short Grand Committee debate last October on pharmaceutical research and development spending. The Minister will recall that it was his first debate as Health Minister and that he surprised us all by bursting into maiden speech mode when he summed up the debate. He expressed his confidence that the Government

“through Life Sciences Vision … will develop the end-to-end improvements required to attract an ever-growing proportion of pharmaceutical investment to the UK”.—[Official Report, 13/20/22; col. 135GC.]

He also made the acknowledgement that growing the UK’s proportion of global pharmaceutical investment meant improving

“every aspect of the life science ecosystem”.—[Official Report, 13/20/22; col. 133GC.]

As my noble friend and other expert speakers have shown today, this is just not happening.

The continuing dramatic decline in the UK’s share of global pharmaceutical investment is clear evidence of this, causing the loss of billions of pounds to the industry over the past 10 years. We have heard the stark figures. The NHS faces huge challenges and obstacles to becoming an effective innovation partner in supporting the access to and uptake of new and innovative drugs, which are so critical to developing better outcomes for patients and creating a thriving life sciences ecosystem. If the NHS continues to be slow on the uptake of innovative medicines and treatments, the UK could lose its position as a world leader in life sciences, particularly with the rapid advancements in biotechnology and AI.

For the UK to become a destination of choice for cutting-edge research, urgent action has to be taken to reverse the sharp decline in industry clinical research trials within the NHS and to address the standstill we have reached in developing the comprehensive strategy on patient data and research that is vitally needed. We need to balance the safeguards for patients and public engagement with the ability of accredited researchers to access the data they need to develop the valuable research at the heart of innovative medicines and treatments. What consideration are the Government giving to further embedding research within the NHS, both to underline the importance of patient participation and to allow a more direct link between health and science? During Covid we saw how, with the right drive and attitude, this can be done successfully for vaccine development, with life-saving results.

That is why the background and context of the proposals in this SI are so important. Despite the “remote” risk optimism of the impact assessment, and all the flaws that noble Lords outlined, the SI’s proposals for a substantial clawback, in 2023, of net sales income for UK biopharmaceutical companies greatly increases the risk of them reducing their current level of R&D investment. I look forward to the Minister’s explanation of how other countries that have similar clawback schemes—Ireland, Germany and Spain—managed to keep their clawback rates considerably lower than half what is proposed in the UK. This was mentioned by a couple of speakers. What assessment have the Government made of the impact these lower rates would have on investment in the UK? Why do they think that AbbVie and Lilly chose to leave the voluntary scheme?

In 2023, manufacturers of branded drugs in the voluntary scheme will be required to return almost £3.3 billion—or 26.5% of sales—to the Government, up from around £0.6 billion in 2021 and £1.8 billion in 2022. ABPI says that this means that the money spent on branded drugs has declined by 14% in real terms over the past decade, despite rising demand. The noble Lord, Lord Warner, pointed out that, overall, the savings to be made are minor when compared with the likely damage.

On the consultation exercise, I look forward to the Minister’s explanation of how 39 days of consultation over the Christmas period was sufficient to provide this. This is made even starker by the fact that 32 out of 33 respondents opposed the proposals. One thing we know businesses need in order to invest their money is certainty, but they are not getting it.

Finally, today’s discussions have made a convincing case for taking a long, hard look at the current scheme and how it is working. Negotiations are under way for the new voluntary scheme for pricing, access and growth, and we will watch them carefully. The priority must be to find a solution that allows patient access to the best-quality treatments, with good value for the NHS and taxpayer, while ensuring a fair return for the industry. We need to secure arrangements that will build confidence and provide mutual benefit for the NHS and industry. Can the Minister provide an update on the early talks or negotiations that have taken place? I noted the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Warner, about how this SI’s approach could be paused in the light of any significant developments that are likely to take place.

I thank noble Lords for the debate, and I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for bringing forward this important subject. It was clear from the contributions of noble Lords that we all want the same thing here, and this is a discussion about how best to achieve it. We all want the UK to be a

“science and technology superpower by 2030”,

as quoted by the Prime Minister. We all want a thriving life science sector, we want access to the best medicines for the NHS and we all want to ensure that the NHS is achieving value, in terms of money for the front line—I think we are united on those things. I also commend the fact that this debate was very much a discussion, so I will respond in that vein, rather than reading out a speech. I will try to discuss this from the Government’s point of view. I apologise if that means that I might not come across as quite as polished, but I would rather respond directly to the points raised.

We would all accept that we are striking a delicate balance here: between having value for the NHS—through, for example, the funding of £2.5 billion this year—and having value and making savings for frontline services, which we all want to see. While we are focusing on those, we also want to make sure that we do not go too far and damage what is, and what we want to be, a thriving sector.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, asked whether the Government are being complacent about this. The words of the Prime Minister, saying that he wants a negotiated outcome with the ABPI, are probably the strongest sentiment in terms of wanting a sensible, negotiated outcome. At this point, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Warner, that I am responding on behalf of the Government.

As the noble Lord, Lord Warner, pointed out, just today, the Chancellor is having a round table with the life sciences industry. That, too, is very much about getting a solution that works all the way round. Having said that, please remember that some of the comments I am making in this debate are about a balance. We are all aware that we are entering into a negotiation and obviously, in any negotiation, sides make points—sometimes at the negotiating table and sometimes publicly. Please take my comments in that vein; we want to make sure that a balance is brought to the debate.

I am sorry to interrupt the Minister’s flow. He said that we are having the fruitful discussions that the Prime Minister wants with the industry and that they are starting to progress. However, the industry itself is starting with a figure in the single figures, nowhere near 27%. I am curious as to why we are having this discussion about progressing these regulations, as they seem to be going in totally the opposite direction from the aspirations the Prime Minister has.

The mechanics behind this debate—I was planning to say that my noble friend Lord Lansley made this point—are about the alignment of the voluntary and statutory schemes. I think that we would all agree that it is sensible that the two are roughly aligned. We can argue over how high or low that figure should be, but we would agree, I think, that it is quite sensible that the two are aligned. If you had large disparities between the two, you would disadvantage, for instance, the members who have joined the VPAS system.

I am sorry to interrupt the Minister again. We are talking about signals given to the outside world, in these discussions that are now taking place about the voluntary scheme. As the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, asked, rather elegantly, why do we have two schemes in the first place? There is something very odd about levelling up to a voluntary scheme’s level with a big increase and, at the same time, sitting down with the industry and saying how much we love it and that we want a new, agreed programme, when the industry is talking about figures which are nowhere near the figures in these two schemes. It seems almost politically inept.

As I said, this is about the scheme and the pricing for this year. The negotiations happening now are about future years, while, technically, this debate is about making sure that the alignment is there for this year and its pricing. Given that the discount has been decided on for this year for the voluntary scheme, having alignment will ensure fairness, so that members in the voluntary scheme are not suddenly disadvantaged against the statutory scheme—which would happen if we were not putting in a similar price. It does not in any way predicate what a negotiated outcome might be for future years.

In terms of a future negotiation, if there was a VPAS-type scheme—again, everything is on the table—you would have the argument about alignment. Most people would accept, as my noble friend Lord Lansley was saying, that having an alignment between the two is a sensible mechanism. The real debate today is about what level that discount should be. Regarding the balance—and I am not making any value judgment about what the right level is—when this was first forecast in 2018, a forecast was put out about what the discount would be over a five-year period, and in year 5 it showed a discount in 2023 of 31.1%. Those were the projections made, at that time—in 2018—the ABPI welcomed the scheme as an innovative one. In fact, today, the discount is less than that, at 26.5%. This was all known and projected as part of the scheme at the time. That is not to say that, in these negotiations, it should not be reset or that we should not make sure that there is a sensible conversation, but I am trying to do this while making sure that there is a balance in the negotiation.

Turning to what the noble Baroness, Lady Wheeler, said about access, the evidence shows that we are in the top three in the world in terms of access and speed at which we get the top medicines. NICE has reduced the approval period from an average of 10 months to two months, so we really can get these things very quickly, and as we have shown, it approved 92% of medicines. We can see that we are getting access for patients. However, the key issue is not that but whether we are going to set the right conditions for the life sciences industry.

Again, as the noble Baroness, Lady Wheeler, and other noble Lords mentioned, it is not just about the price of drugs in the UK, because the UK is just one part of a very large market. When a company is deciding where to invest, it looks at all the conditions—how available clinical research is and how easy it is to do it, and whether the skilled people and the tax regimes, including tax credits, are in place. I absolutely accept that pricing is obviously a part of that, but you are making the R&D decisions across those bucket measures. It is vital in this debate that we make sure we are doing everything we can in the clinical research space; that is why I am so glad about the investments we are making in the federated data platform, so there is that clinical research database that industry can draw on. Obviously, we will look at a balance of recommendations in clinical research, so that we make sure we put the best environment in place.

On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, about the discount rate, that is a matter for NICE, which I know it is considering. That is a slightly different point, but it is relevant in all this.

My noble friend Lord Lansley referred to branded generic drugs and whether they should be outside the scheme. It is a very good point, and one that is recognised, and it is being considered in the negotiations. Regarding whether we were discouraging new drugs coming on to the scheme and our getting access to them, of course, there is a three-year exemption from the VPAS, so with any new drug it is only in the fourth year that the rebates apply. It is precisely designed so there is that three-year runway, which will, I hope, ensure that we get access to the best drugs early on. As I said before, that is what the evidence shows.

Regarding how our pricing compares to other countries, the difficulty in trying to compare rebates is what level you start those rebates from, because you have different pricing to begin with. You cannot like-for-like compare 26% to 12%, because it all depends on what it is a discount from. So it is a complex area. If you look at the average spend per patient on medicines, assuming that European countries generally have a similar approach to the sorts of medicines that patients should have, you will see that our average spend is comparable to other European countries. So, on a very broad basis, I would say that the pricing is largely comparable and, to my knowledge, is not particularly out of kilter.

In response to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Allan, about the number of companies leaving: to my knowledge, five companies have moved recently. Clearly, if any more than zero companies move we should always want to understand the reason, so that is something that we need to be taking note of. I understand about signals to business. As the House knows, I was a CFO, and I know that when you are making your projections, suddenly having a large amount to claw back from your budget is not helpful in terms of investment decisions.

While it is difficult to talk too much about what is going on in negotiations, I would hope that noble Lords can see from my responses that there is a wide consideration of factors in play here. There is a balance we are trying to get right between it all. I should say in terms of balance that we are still in the top three countries in terms of investment. We had £1.9 billion invested from overseas in the UK, which put us in the top three worldwide, compared with £600 million just a few years ago in 2019. We raised £7 billion in terms of equity, so, while there are clearly areas that we need to keep an eagle eye on and not be complacent, at the same time, in terms of balance, we should accept that we are performing well in those areas.

After this last point, I hope I will have covered all the points raised, but, as ever, I will write a detailed response. In terms of the consultation period, I know that six weeks might generally be considered quite a short time. In this industry, where the scheme is very well known, there is a lot of knowledge and the forecasts have been highlighted for quite a while, I think the general feeling was that actually six weeks was not an unreasonable period, given the knowledge base; it was not as if this was a normal consultation.

I hope from the way I have responded to this debate that noble Lords go away with the impression that we are trying to get a balanced outcome here. As I say, we are all united in the objectives we are trying to get in terms of value for the NHS and access to these top medicines, while at the same time creating a thriving ecosystem for drug and pharmaceutical companies to come here.

In conclusion, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for bringing forward this debate. I am sure this is something that we will all enjoy and discuss further as the negotiations progress. I can assure noble Lords that this is very, very high on our priority list.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister. I think he has responded in a positive way, which is gratifying and, I hope, sets the foundation for a proper negotiation with the industry to get a jointly owned voluntary scheme which will incentivise global pharma to invest in the UK.

For me, two or three themes come from this. First, the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, talked about the curiosity of a fixed drugs budget, and I found it curious when the Minister said we need value for money on medicines in order to have resources for front-line services. But medicines are a front-line service. Why is it a good thing to increase the number of doctors and nurses and buy more medical equipment, but it is suddenly shock-horror to spend more on medicines? What would we do without medicines? It is curious. I have never understood why the Department of Health has such a downer on the medicines budget, when it has just said—and I declare an interest as a member of the GMC—that it wants to see a massive expansion in medical school places. Why is the medicines budget regarded as such a negative factor? It defies all understanding; of all the great advances we have made in healthcare, how many have been made through new medicines? And I have to say that new medicines are rather easier to get than extra staff.

May I just clarify? I completely agree that medicines are of course valuable. My comments were not about not spending money on medicines but about getting value for what we spend on medicines—not the quantity, not the quality, but the price that we are paying. I think that all noble Lords would agree that we want to make sure that we are getting the best value on pricing.

I fully accept that, but the sentiment that comes through is something that is shared throughout the National Health Service: that drugs expenditure, per se, is something to be held down. That is why, even though we have NICE, and bilateral negotiations—as the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, said—between NHS England and pharma companies in relation to specific drugs, at local level you have formularies and all sorts of mechanisms designed to ration medicines to patients. It is a curiosity about our whole approach. I agree with the Minister that one needs to start with a health budget. If we have—and I hope we do—new medicines coming on in relation to, say, Alzheimer’s, we will need to spend extra money in order to invest in them.

My second point—also made by the noble Lords, Lord Warner and Lord Allan, and my noble friend Lady Wheeler—is that it is very important that this is seen as a cross-government approach. If this is seen simply an issue for the Department of Health and NHS England in terms of the NHS budget, we will never get the kind of agreement that we need. If the Prime Minister is true to his word in terms of trying to reset the relationship—as the Minister implied—that is very welcome indeed.

This has been a very useful debate and I am very grateful to the Minister and other noble Lords. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion withdrawn.

Online Safety Bill

Committee (9th Day) (Continued)

Schedule 7: Priority offences

Amendment 134

Moved by

134: Schedule 7, page 202, line 9, at end insert—

“Animal cruelty

A1_ An offence under section 4 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 (unnecessary suffering).A2_ An offence under section 19 of the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 (unnecessary suffering).A3_ An offence under section 1 of the Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996 (offences).”Member’s explanatory statement

This amendment adds a number of animal welfare offences to the list of priority offences outlined in Schedule 7.

My Lords, this is an unusual group: it has just one amendment—Amendment 134 in the name of my noble friend Lord Stevenson. It has also been signed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, whom I thank; I know that the right reverend Prelate is currently in a debate in Grand Committee.

This amendment seeks to add animal cruelty offences to the list of priority offences set out in Schedule 7, which would require platforms to proactively identify and remove content that depicts animal cruelty, including torture and death. This content is increasingly common, and it is shocking—films of cats being kicked about as footballs, dogs being set on fire and monkeys being ensnared into plastic bottles with dogs then being set upon them. All this is widely shared and viewed, and none of it is properly addressed by social media companies. These animal cruelty offences clearly meet the criteria of prevalence, risk of harm and severity of that harm, which have been set out and previously used by the Government to justify additions to the list.

I turn first to prevalence. The Social Media Animal Cruelty Coalition database comprises over 13,000 social media links showing animal abuse, collected over the past two years. Social media platforms often fail to remove animal cruelty films when they are reported, despite that being a clear contravention of their policies. In fact, less than 50% of links reported by the coalition since August 2021 have been removed, with predictions of a “rapid proliferation” of animal cruelty footage over the years ahead. This analysis is supported by the RSPCA, which received 756 reports of animal cruelty on social media in 2021, compared with 431 in 2020 and 157 in 2019.

The evidence of harm is also clear. Polling commissioned by the RSPCA five years ago found that nearly one in four of 10 to 18 year-olds had seen animal cruelty on social media sites—a proportion which is very likely to have increased subsequently, given the growth in the prevalence of animal abuse films in recent years. Viewing animal cruelty can cause psychological harm to children, with findings suggesting that,

“There is emerging evidence that childhood exposure to maltreatment of companion animals is associated with psychopathology in childhood and adulthood”.

Viewing animal abuse can also lead to imitative behaviour. Research suggests that children who witness animal cruelty are three to eight times more likely to abuse animals themselves, while those engaging in animal cruelty at a young age are more likely to exhibit abusive and violent behaviour towards people as they grow older.

Amendment 134 supports practical consideration of the effect of policy upon the welfare of animals as sentient beings to fulfil the requirements of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022 and help the Government to meet their pledge to

“continue to raise the bar”

for animal welfare in the UK.

The adoption of the measures outlined in Amendment 134 would be a popular move. Thousands upon thousands of people have written in to make the Government aware that they want to see this modest addition, and they are supported by a wide range of animal welfare charities, including the RSPCA, the Born Free Foundation and the Humane Society International.

The Bill Minister in the other place stated that the addition of animal cruelty offences

“deserves further consideration as the Bill progresses through its parliamentary stages”.—[Official Report, Commons, 12/7/22; cols. 165-166.]

Earlier this year, as a comparator, the Government agreed to add offences under Section 24 of the Immigration Act, relating to illegal immigration, to the priority offences list. At the time, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State admitted that

“offences in Section 24 cannot be carried out online”,—[Official Report, Commons, 17/1/23; col. 314.]

but insisted that the inclusion of the offences was justified on the grounds of the damage that online encouragement of illegal immigration could cause to children. This is a helpful reference point and suggests that offences under Section 4 of the Animal Welfare Act—unnecessary suffering would be the reference—are directly commissioned for online content, which is growing in prevalence and causing demonstrative harm to children, should be added to the priority list.

I hope the Minister is sympathetic to Amendment 134 so we can make the necessary progress. I beg to move.

My Lords, I rise to support Amendment 134, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, which was so ably introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Merron. The Government accepted the Joint Committee’s recommendation that priority offences should be put in the Bill, and that is now contained in Schedules 5, 6 and 7. In particular, Schedule 7 sets out the priority offences. The noble Baroness, Lady Merron, has nailed it in setting out why these animal suffering-related offences fall within the Government’s criteria.

When the Government responded to the Joint Committee, they accepted our recommendation that we should put priority content in the Bill. As the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, said, the criteria are very clearly set out in paragraph 86 of their report:

“The prevalence of such content on regulated services … The risk of harm being caused to UK users by such content; and … The severity of that harm”.

The noble Baroness has absolutely set out how these offences fall within those criteria: the prevalence of these offences; the abuse that is present; the viewing by children and its impact on them; the impact on animal welfare, which would be positive if this content were treated as a priority offence; and the very strong public support.

Of course—the noble Baroness did not quite go here, but I will—there is a massive contrast with the inclusion of the encouragement of immigration offence in Schedule 7. These offences have far greater merit for inclusion in Schedule 7. I very much hope the Minister will accede to what I think is an extremely reasonable amendment.

I thank the noble Baroness for her amendment and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for speaking so powerfully, as ever. I very much recognise the harms and horrors of cruelty to animals online or anywhere else. The UK has a proud history of championing and taking action on animal welfare, and the Government are committed to strengthening animal welfare standards and protections.

Our Action Plan for Animal Welfare demonstrates the Government’s commitment to a brighter future for animals both at home and abroad and provides a foundation for conversations on how we can continue to improve animal welfare and conservation in future. I can also reassure your Lordships that this Bill will tackle some of the worst online activities related to animal cruelty.

Amendment 134 seeks to add certain specified animal offences to the list of priority offences in Schedule 7. It is worth reminding ourselves that the Bill will already tackle some of the worst examples of animal cruelty online. This includes, for example, where the content amounts to an existing priority offence, such as extreme pornography, which platforms must prevent users encountering. Equally, where content could cause psychological harm to children, it must be tackled. Where the largest services prohibit types of animal abuse content in their terms of service, the Bill will require them to enforce those terms and remove such content. Improved user reporting and redress systems, as mandated by the Bill, will make it easier for users to report such content.

The Bill, however, is not designed to address every harm on the internet. For it to have an impact, it needs to be manageable for both Ofcom and the companies. For it to achieve the protections envisaged since the start of the Bill, it must focus on its mission of delivering protections for people. Schedule 7 has been designed to focus on the most serious and prevalent offences affecting humans in the UK, on which companies can take effective and meaningful action. The offences in this schedule are primarily focused on where the offences can be committed online—for example, threats to kill or the unlawful supply of drugs. The offences that the noble Baroness proposes cannot be committed online; while that would not stop them from being added for inchoate purposes, the Government do not believe that platforms would be able to take effective steps proactively to identify and tackle such offences online.

Crucially, the Government feel that adding too many offences to Schedule 7 that cannot be effectively tackled also risks spreading companies’ resources too thinly, particularly for smaller and micro-businesses, which would have to address these offences in their risk assessments. Expanding the list of offences in Schedule 7 to include the animal cruelty offences could dilute companies’ efforts to tackle other offences listed in the Bill which have long been the priority of this legislation.

Beyond the Bill, however, the Government are taking a very wide range of steps to tackle animal cruelty. Since publishing the Action Plan for Animal Welfare in 2021, the Government have brought in new laws to recognise animal sentience, introduced additional legislative measures to tackle illegal hare-coursing, and launched the animal health and welfare pathway as part of our agricultural transition plan. We will, of course, continue to discuss these important issues with colleagues at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who lead on our world-leading protections for animals, but, for the reasons I have set out, I am unable to accept this amendment. I therefore hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw it.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his considered reply, outlining the ways in which he believes the Bill supports where this amendment is going. I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for his support. Indeed, it is my view that the criteria have been met for inclusion of these animal welfare offences in this list of priority offences. It is, of course, disappointing that the Minister does not share the view that we have expressed.

Perhaps I could pick up a point from the Minister’s response. It seems to me that something that is illegal offline should also be illegal online. If something is illegal under the various Acts referred to but there is user-to-user content of these animal cruelty films, for example, is the Minister saying that this will be covered by the Bill in its current form?

I note that the Minister has spoken of continuing discussions with Defra, which is very welcome. I am also requesting a meeting to pursue this. It is something on which we could make progress, and I hope that the Minister would be open to that. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 134 withdrawn.

Amendment 135 not moved.

Amendment 135A

Moved by

135A: Schedule 7, page 203, line 14, at end insert—

“10A_ An offence under section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 (controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship).”Member’s explanatory statement

This amendment adds the specified offence to Schedule 7, with the effect that content amounting to that offence counts as priority illegal content.

As noble Lords will recall from the earlier debate on this issue, His Majesty’s Government take tackling violence against women and girls extremely seriously. This is why we have ensured that the Bill provides vital protections for women and girls, so that they can express themselves freely online without fear of harassment or abuse.

As noble Lords know, the Bill places strong duties on providers regarding illegal content. The Bill takes an approach which protects all users, but the framework accounts for the fact that some offences can disproportionately affect certain people. To that end, we have already listed several priority offences in Schedule 7 that we know disproportionately affect women and girls. These include sexual exploitation, intimate image abuse— including so-called revenge pornography—and extreme pornography.

In addition, I want to be clear that the Bill will also cover content which intentionally encourages priority offences, an issue that was raised as a concern in our previous debate. Paragraph 33 of Schedule 7 has the effect that inchoate offences of encouraging or assisting a priority offence are themselves to be treated as priority offences under the Bill. As a result, for example, where there is content that intentionally or knowingly encourages harassment online, services will have proactive duties in relation to this content.

Furthermore, the Bill will soon—as I mentioned earlier—introduce new intimate image abuse offences to tackle behaviour, such as the sharing of deep-fake images. These new offences will be listed as priority offences, as is already the case for the current revenge pornography offence under Section 33 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015. These offences are a major milestone for protecting women and girls, and will be introduced to the Bill as soon as possible. They will sit alongside the Bill’s other criminal provisions, such as its offences on cyberflashing, false communications and threatening communications.

Although I appreciate the intention behind Amendments 269 and 270 and look forward to hearing the arguments made by the noble Lords who will speak to them, I remain concerned by the approach suggested to change Clause 167 to a consent-based model rather than the current intent-based approach. We are confident that the offence, as drafted, captures acts of cyberflashing, including when supposedly done “for a joke”—which, of course, it certainly is not. This is because the focus of the offence as drafted remains firmly on the perpetrator’s abhorrent behaviour and not on the actions of the victim, as would happen with a consent-based approach.

I am grateful to the noble Lords who attended the briefing we organised with Professor Penney Lewis of the Law Commission, who explained in detail why it has taken the approach it has in suggesting this drafting. I know that a number of noble Lords who attended found that it was useful and put their minds at rest. However, I look forward to listening to the thoughts of other noble Lords in this debate.

Amendment 271 would require instances of cyberflashing to be reported to the Crown Prosecution Service. The CPS is not the appropriate body to receive such reports, as its role is to prosecute criminal offences which the police have investigated. In addition, the Bill is primarily about introducing new duties on service providers. It requires them to take responsibility for the safety of their users and prevent illegal content and activity appearing on their services in the first place. I welcome the discussion we will have on these amendments and will listen closely to the points raised in them. However, I hope to be able to reassure noble Lords that these amendments are not needed.

Before we have that debate, I will address government Amendment 135A in my name. Although Schedule 7 already contains several offences which we know will go a long way to protect women and girls online, we want to go further to strengthen the protections in the Bill. That is why the Government have, following discussions, tabled an amendment to list controlling or coercive behaviour as a priority offence in Schedule 7. Doing so will require platforms proactively to identify and tackle content which amounts to this offence.

Measures that platforms can take to tackle this behaviour could include increased safety-by-design features aimed to prevent this type of content occurring in the first place, trusted flagger programmes, or options to enable users to report certain behaviour to platforms. As your Lordships will be aware, the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour, like some other priority offences currently listed in Schedule 7 such as harassment and stalking, includes a course of conduct element. I reassure noble Lords that platforms will be required to tackle this type of behaviour to comply with their safety duties in the Bill.

I hope that noble Lords will accept the government amendment, I look forward to the debate, and I beg to move.

My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 270 in the name of my noble friend Lady Featherstone, who I regret to tell the House is still indisposed, and to support Amendments 269 and 271 respectively in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Merron and Lady Berridge, which my noble friend also signed up to.

In the real world, if a man flashed his genitals at a woman or a girl in public, this would constitute a criminal offence punishable by up to two years in prison. Rightly so—she has no choice in the matter. He may do it to cause alarm, distress or humiliation, or to obtain sexual gratification. Apparently, he may hope that the girl or woman he flashes to will be overcome with desire for him, although you would be hard-pressed to find many cases of this pipe dream—pun intended—ever becoming a reality. More seriously, however, this behaviour can be a precursor to more serious offences, as happened with the murder of Sarah Everard.

In the online world, many things are done and said which would be totally unacceptable in real life. Therefore, while the motivation for physical flashing is usually to obtain sexual gratification or cause fear in the victim, in the permissive world of online other motivations are mooted—“for a laugh”, in the hope of reciprocal pictures being flashed back at the flasher, or even in the hope of initiating something physical—although in the online world, as well as in the real world, unsolicited images of male genitalia are rarely welcomed by women or girls.

Indeed, the vast majority of women who receive these unsolicited images are not laughing. Research by Professor Clare McGlynn KC at Durham University found that women report feeling violated, threatened, intimidated and harassed. They experience a loss of control, privacy and sexual autonomy. They feel personally targeted. Some women are bombarded with these images across social media and dating apps, so they are intimidated into changing their behaviour online as a result. This is in no one’s interests; it is something the Bill is intended to prevent. Research from Jessica Ringrose and colleagues at UCL found that 76% of teenage girls had been sent unwanted explicit images by their peers and by strangers. The women-orientated online dating platform Bumble produced a survey finding that 48% of millennial women had been cyberflashed in the last year alone.

The Law Commission recommended a new criminal offence of cyberflashing, and its recommendation has been incorporated in Schedule 7. The inclusion of cyberflashing as a potentially criminal offence is to be warmly welcomed. However, the premise of the Bill as it stands is motive based. This means that the prosecution must prove that the sender had the intention to cause distress, alarm or humiliation to the victim, or that sexual gratification was the motive and the sender was reckless as to any distress that might be caused. This means that many forms of cyberflashing, including when men are doing it to “have a laugh” or to show off to their friends, would not be covered, regardless of the harm caused to the victims. Currently, someone who sends a dick pic to a girl “for a laugh” is unlikely to be prosecuted if he thinks, “She should have found it funny too”. Really? If any noble Lord has evidence that most women enjoy unsolicited cyberflashing, let him bring it forward.

I ask the Minister the rhetorical question: how do you prove motivation? The Minister may have been told that many men send these images in the hope of getting nudes or other favours in return, and as a form of sexual gratification. Proving motive will be well-nigh impossible, and the sheer fact of having to prove it to get a conviction will put off police. They are hardly going to waste precious resources prying into senders’ backgrounds. How would you do that? Check out their porn habits, perhaps? This is the difficulty we have seen with the need to prove intent to cause distress in the distribution of intimate images offence. Under these strictures, very few prosecutions would result and girls and women would continue to suffer.

To my mind, and to the minds of all the women’s organisations that responded to the government consultations, it is all the wrong way around. Ultimately, the motivation of the perpetrator has no bearing on the outcome for the victim. They suffer regardless. If alarm, distress, humiliation, et cetera was caused, would the logical solution not be to take steps to prevent it in the first place? Would it not prevent a lot of suffering if the sender were to check that they were not going to cause those effects before sending the dick pics? It is not hard to do, but it may well cause someone who thinks it is a fun prank to send a picture of his willy to think again.

This amendment would send the clear message to men and boys that you have to have consent before you send your image. This would have an educational value, too. It is about learning how to respect women and girls and appreciate that they are different in their thinking from boys and men.

As it stands, sending unsolicited images could have the effect of bullying, intimidating or sexualising women and girls. This is not good enough, and we would be squandering the opportunity to protect women and girls. It is not difficult to ask whether it is okay before you send.

I do not understand the inconsistency of the Law Commission here. In its 2022 report on intimate image abuse, the Law Commission recommended an offence of taking and sharing intimate images without consent, regardless of motivation. It used the same arguments that Amendment 270 uses today, including difficulty in evidencing the intention of the perpetrator. In November 2022 the Government accepted the Law Commission’s recommendations. Surely the same principle applies to cyberflashing.

Amendment 270 has also addressed any circumstances in which use of legitimate images of genitals might be inadvertently caught in the net. These would, of course, not attract prosecution. I will not list them all here: they are in proposed new subsection (7) in the amendment. Young boys would be appropriately dealt with through the youth justice system: it is in no one’s interest to brand them with a criminal record, unless that would be in the public interest.

The argument boils down to priorities. The Bill as it stands prioritises boys’ and men’s rights to be “funny” over girls’ and women’s rights to live free from harassment and abuse. We must stop making women who receive such images responsible and hold those who commit gendered harms to account. I hope the Minister will agree.

My Lords, I support Amendment 135A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson. I also support Amendment 269 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, and Amendment 270 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, and have added my name to both. I wish the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, good health and hope to see her back soon.

I welcome adding coercive control to Schedule 7 to ensure that content amounting to this offence counts as priority illegal content. Coercive control has a very damaging and long-term impact on mental health and, increasingly, abusers are maintaining their power and hold over victims through digital coercive control, which is like having invisible chains that you cannot break free from. This will send a clear message to tech companies that they must better understand and tackle online domestic abuse and will mean that perpetrators will be held accountable for their actions.

I also welcome the effort by the Government to criminalise cyberflashing. No one should be forced to see images of genitals. This is a growing form of sexual harassment of girls and women. Of course, I acknowledge that young boys and men can also be sent unwanted images. However, the majority of the cases involve images of male genitals being sent by men to women and girls. Very worryingly—as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Burt—research by Professor Jessica Ringrose from 2020 found that 76% of girls aged 12 to 18 had been sent unsolicited nude images of boys or men.

While I am pleased that concerns raised by women and women’s groups have been heard by the Government, the wording in the Bill does not go far enough to protect women and girls from this type of sexual harassment. With the present wording, an offence is based on motive rather than consent, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Burt. I also thank Professor Clare McGlynn, Bumble and many others who have made a strong case for a consent-based cyberflashing offence rather than the motive-based approach proposed by the Government.

I put my name to these amendments because the offence in its current form will not be effective. It relies on the victims of cyberflashing, who will mostly be women and girls, to prove that the motive or intention in sending the image of genitals was deliberately to cause distress or for sexual gratification, so I ask: why should the onus be put on the victim to prove the sender’s intent when it comes to reporting cyberflashing? I would be grateful if the Minister could respond to this question.

How are women and girls going to prove the motive of the person sending the images, as already mentioned? I would also like the Minister to share his thoughts on that, as it will not be easy. The perpetrator could say “It was a joke” or “I did not do it for sexual gratification”. Then imagine them reporting it to the police, who research already shows do not take offline stalking and harassment seriously. In reality, many women and girls are likely to be turned away by the police because they will say it is hard to prove the motive. Once men realise that they can get away with sending unwanted sexual images, they may then deliberately gaslight women and girls and send further images, safe in the knowledge that they will not have the law used against them.

The current wording in the Bill, which bases the offence on motive and not consent, may well have been adopted because the Law Commission recommended it. However, that does not mean the commission got it right, despite its best intentions. What is even more confusing is that the current approach is out of step with other laws. For example, for intimate image abuse, offences are based on consent, which the Law Commission actually recommended. I am not sure why the Law Commission has not been consistent in its approach, as has been mentioned.

Perhaps it may not have wanted to criminalise young people for misjudged humour. However, I understand that there are CPS guidelines on having the option to be more lenient on younger people when they commit offences. Perhaps guidelines for this offence can be drawn up where they are given a first warning, which is logged by the police, and arrested only if they commit a second offence. Similar warnings exist for harassment, but that first warning must still be counted, even if the perpetrator moves on to a different victim.

I feel that the current approach in the Bill is sexist because it prioritises the entitlement of men to send images over a woman’s entitlement not to receive those images. The current approach also does not consider the impact on women and girls of receiving such unwanted images. It can cause significant emotional distress, with feelings of violation, it can be traumatic due to past trauma, and it can make them feel very unsafe. The current approach will also contribute to the further normalisation of sexual harassment, and inadvertently help to perpetuate a culture where men will feel entitled to invade the boundaries of women without any consequences.

Research by Bumble has found alarming statistics, including that: 35% of women have received an unsolicited nude image at work; 27% of women have received an unsolicited nude image when on public transport; one in five women have received unsolicited nude images when walking down the street; and almost half of 18 to 24 year-olds have received a sexual image that they did not consent to. Let us make the law clearer and stronger by basing the offence on consent. If anyone has not consented to receiving sexual images then it should be an offence. I therefore urge that Clause 167 is left out and replaced with the new clause as proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone.

My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords who have added their name to my Amendment 271, which arose out of concerns that there are now seemingly several offences that laudably aim to protect women but are not being enforced effectively. The most notable in this category is the low rate of rape cases that are prosecuted and lead to convictions. The amendment is not affected in theory by the definition of cyberflashing, whether it is in the form recommended by the Law Commission, that of specific intent, rather than being based on consent. However, in practice, if it remains in that specific intent form, then the victim will not be required to go to court. Therefore, in practice the amendment would be more effective if the offence remained on that basis. However, even if the victim on that basis does not need to go to court, someone who has been cyberflashed is, as other noble Lords have mentioned, unlikely to go to the police station to report what has happened.

This amendment is designed to put an obligation on the providers of technology to provide a reporting mechanism on phones and to collate that information before passing it to the prosecuting authorities. The Minister said that there are various issues with how the amendment is currently drafted, such as “the Crown Prosecution Service” rather than “the police”, and perhaps the definition of “providers of internet services” as it may be a different part of the tech industry that is required to collate this information.

Drawing on our discussions on the previous group of amendments regarding the criminal law here, I hope that my noble friend can clarify the issues of intent, which is mens rea and different from motive in relation to this matter. The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that there will be resources and expertise from the technology sector to provide these reporting mechanisms for the offences. One can imagine how many people will report cyberflashing if they only have to click on an app, or if their phone is enabled to retain such an image, since some of them disappear after a short while. You should be able to sit on the bus and report it. The tech company would then store and collate that, potentially in a manner that it would become clear. For instance—because this happens so much as we have just heard—if six people on the 27 bus multiple times a week report that they have received the same image, that would prompt the police to get the CCTV from the bus company to identify who this individual is if the tech company data did not provide that specificity. Or, is someone hanging out every Friday night at the A&E department and cyberflashing as they sit there? This is not part of the amendment, but such an app or mechanism could also include a reminder to change the security settings on your phone so that you cannot be AirDropped.

I hope that His Majesty’s Government will look at the purpose of this amendment. It is laudable that we are making cyberflashing an offence, but this amendment is about the enforcement of that offence and will support that. Only with such an easy mechanism to report it can what will be a crime be effectively policed.

My Lords, I, too, wish the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, a very speedy recovery. Her presence here today is missed, though the amendments were very ably moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Burt. Having worked in government with the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, I can imagine how frustrated she is at not being able to speak today on amendments bearing her name.

As my noble friend said, this follows our debate on the wider issues around violence against women and girls in the online world. I do not want to repeat anything that was said there, but I am grateful to him for the discussions that we have had since. I support the Government in their introduction of Amendment 135A and the addition of controlling or coercive behaviour to the priority offences list. I will also speak to the cyberflashing amendments and Amendment 271, introduced by my noble friend Lady Berridge.

I suspect that many of us speaking in this debate today have had briefings from the wonderful organisation Refuge, which has seen a growing number of cases of technology-facilitated domestic abuse in recent years. As a result of this, Refuge pioneered a specialist technology-facilitated domestic abuse team, which uses expertise to support survivors and to identify emerging trends of online domestic abuse.

I draw noble Lords’ attention to a publication released since we debated this last week: the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s violence against women and girls strategic threat risk assessment for 2023, in which a whole page is devoted to tech and online-enabled violence against women and girls. In its conclusions, it says that one of the key threats is tech-enabled VAWG. The fact that we are having to debate these specific offences, but also the whole issue of gendered abuse online, shows how huge an issue this is for women and girls.

I will start with Amendment 271. I entirely agree with my noble friend about the need for specific user reporting and making that as easy as possible. That would support the debate we had last week about the code of practice, which would generally require platforms and search engines to think from the start how they will enable those who have been abused to report that abuse as easily as possible, so that the online platforms and search engines can then gather that data to build up a picture and share it with the regulator and law enforcement as appropriate. So, while I suspect from what the Minister has said that he will not accept this amendment, the points that my noble friend made are absolutely necessary in this debate.

I move on to the cyberflashing amendment. It has been very ably covered already, so I do not want to say too much. It is clear that women and girls experience harms regardless of the motives of the perpetrator. I also point out that, as we have heard, motivations are very difficult to prove, meaning that prosecutions are often extremely unlikely.

I was very proud to introduce the amendments to what became the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. It was one of my first contributions in this House. I remember that, in the face of a lockdown, most of us were working virtually. But we agreed, and the Government introduced, amendments on intimate image abuse and revenge porn. Even as I proposed those amendments and they were accepted, it was clear that they were not quite right and did not go far enough. As we have heard, for the intimate image abuse proposals, the Law Commission is proposing a consent-based image abuse offence. Can my noble friend be even clearer—I am sorry that I was not able to attend the briefing—about the distinction between consent-based intimate image abuse offences and motive-based cyberflashing offences, and why the Government decided to make it?

I also gently point out to him that I know that this is complicated, but we are still waiting for drafting of the intimate image abuse offences. We are potentially running out of time. Perhaps we will see them at the next stage of the Bill—unless he reveals them like a rabbit out of a hat this afternoon, which I suspect is not the case. These are important offences and it will be important for us to see the detail so that we can scrutinise them properly.

Finally, in welcoming the Government’s amendment on coercive control, I say that it is generally poorly understood by technology companies. Overall, the use of the online world to perpetrate abuse on women and girls, particularly in the domestic abuse context, is certainly being understood more quickly, but we are all playing catch-up in how this happens while the perpetrators are running ahead of us. More can be done to recognise the ways that the online world can be used to abuse and intimidate victims, as the Government have recognised with this amendment and as the noble Baroness, Lady Gohir, said. It is very necessary in debating the Bill. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s remarks at the end of this debate.

My Lords, I am pleased to add my name to Amendment 271, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, has spoken so comprehensively. I too heard the criticisms made by the Minister, but they do not take away from the intention behind that amendment, which is really important. Like others, I hope to convey the well wishes from around the House to the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone. I am grateful the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, for introducing this whole section with a great deal of clarity.

I will not repeat what has been said about the traumas involved, because that has been covered. It seems that one of the real difficulties is how people in receipt of these ghastly images and experiences can report them and get something done.

A study from UCL and the University of Kent in 2021 found that 51% of people who had received unwanted sexual content without their consent did nothing about reporting it and one-third of people thought that reporting did not work anyway; there was no point, and it would add to their own trauma. The other difficulty with reporting, which I do not think has been touched on yet, is that some of the perpetrators of cyberflashing do so with false identities. They are nearly all men who take on false identities, so tracing them is particularly difficult.

In listening to the debate, I welcome the government amendment, because, like others have said, coercive and controlling behaviour has been very poorly understood across the whole of society until very recently. It is to the credit of the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Cotes, that awareness has risen. People have seen what has been happening in front of their own eyes, but they never noticed it previously.

It seems that this difficulty, again, goes back to the debate we had previously on the need for some form of complaints system, whereby people can report easily to a complaints system and have confidence in that complaint being collated with other similar complaints, which would then allow action to be taken.

My Lords, I welcome government Amendment 135A and the inclusion in the Bill of the new offence of cyberflashing.

I understand why questions have been raised, and indeed arguments advanced, about the way in which this offence has been crafted and whether the onus should be on the perpetrator or the victim of such a crime. I tend to come down on the side of the Law Commission and what is in the Bill as it stands. I have thought about it, and I have listened carefully and read the various briefings. I have weighed it up and found it quite hard at times to make my mind up. On balance. I would stick with what is in the Bill.

The noble Baroness, Lady Burt, said something I am not sure is correct. She said that, in the way it is currently included in the Bill, it will be the responsibility of women and girls to show that they are harmed by this. My understanding is that the opposite of that is true; they just need to report it and the responsibility sits on the shoulders of the person distributing these images. I am sure my noble friend the Minister will be able to confirm that—or otherwise—when he comes to wind up.

The only other thing in that context which I will add—I think this has been touched on by others—is that it is important, in introducing this as a new offence, that we ensure that we educate young people away from what I have been told has now become quite a common practice as a way of expressing interest in one another. I do not think that, just because it is happening, we should tolerate it and say, “Okay, well that’s all right then”. I do not think that it is right, and we should be much clearer about advising and explaining to our young people why that is not the best way to express any kind of interest in anyone, whether they are of the opposite sex or of the same sex. I also understand this is a common practice among gay men as well. I just think that taking photographs of one’s genitals and distributing them to other people is not a good idea—that is my argument.

My noble friend Lady Berridge’s Amendment 271 is an interesting proposal. What I found compelling about it was her argument that we will introduce a new offence in the Bill, and, specifically in that context, she proposes a way to report receiving these pictures when people do not want to receive them, and to do so in a way that makes it easier for the police to see new trends and incidences emerging. It is then more likely that they would be able to pursue a perpetrator. However, although I hope my noble friend the Minister will consider this carefully, I do not know what the tech companies would argue about their position, having been given that responsibility. So I am interested in her proposal and think that it is worth proper consideration, but I say that without the benefit of an understanding of where the tech firms are on it. But, overall, I welcome what the Government propose and offer my support.

My Lords, alongside others, I very much welcome government Amendment 135A and how the Minister introduced it. But there is a big “but” as regards much of the rest of what he said. I very much welcome that this will be included as a priority offence, and I join other noble Lords in that—but there is still a view out there that women and girls are being short-changed by the Bill. The other day, we had a debate on the Violence Against Women and Girls Code of Practice, and the same feeling about the cyberflashing offence was very much there, which is why I strongly support Amendments 269 and 270, which would alter the nature of Clause 167.

The equivalence between online and offline was mentioned by my noble friend Lady Burt—I also regret that my noble friend Lady Featherstone has not been with us for some time—and she introduced extremely clearly and well that this kind of cyberflashing offence leads to other and worse offences in both the offline and the online worlds, as we have seen.

Like others, I am in debt to Professor McGlynn for her analysis of the proposed offence. We had evidence from UCL and the Bumble survey, and there is of course also the YouGov survey that shows that nearly half of young women aged 18 to 24 have been sent an unwanted penis image—that is an extraordinary figure. So all of the evidence of this offence is there.

We have heard differing views on the offence—the noble Baronesses, Lady Berridge and Lady Stowell, are on the side of the status quo on the nature of the offence. The fact is that the Government’s proposal covers only some cases of cyberflashing, where motivated by a desire to cause “distress” or for “sexual gratification” with recklessness about causing distress.

I am not a criminal lawyer, but, in answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, you have to show intent beyond reasonable doubt—that is where the onus on the victim arises. There is a very high barrier in a criminal offence. My noble friend made that point clearly, and the analysis of the noble Baroness, Lady Gohir, was absolutely right that, of course, if you make it a criminal offence, where the issue is about consent rather than intent, you can always be more lenient when an offence does not seem so egregious, where there is clear misunderstanding or where there are other mitigating factors—that is what happens under the criminal law.

This is all about proving the motive—that is the real problem; it is technically called mens rea or the intent—so we need a clear message, as my noble friend said. I believe that we are squandering an opportunity here; it could be a real opportunity for the Government to send a much more powerful signal that the Bill is about protecting women and girls, despite the very welcome addition of abuse under Amendment 135A.

The noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, put her point extremely well. She made a very good case for another addition to the armoury of user-empowerment tools. Although I disagree with her about the ambit of the cyberflashing offence, she proposed something which would be extremely useful to add.

We ought to take heed from the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, given her legal background. She referred to the Law Commission’s rather inconsistent approach. The very welcome proposal to extend the way that revenge porn events will apply seems to be extremely sensible. I am afraid that, in the battle of the professors, I prefer what Professor McGlynn is saying to what Professor Lewis is saying; that is the choice that I have made.

Following the way that the noble Baroness, Lady Gohir, talked about this issue, we need to call men to account. That is something that the Government need to pay heed to.

That is all I want to say on this subject. This is not just a technical aspect—it is not just a question of whether or not we accept the Law Commission’s advice in this particular case—it is about the difficulty that young women, in particular, will find in enforcing this offence, and we need to be very mindful of that.

My Lords, this has been a very good and well-focused debate. We have focused deeply on the particular issue I will focus on in my speech about why there is a difference in the Government’s approach to what seem to be, on the surface, very similar instances of the evidence we have all been looking at, and are convinced by, that, in some way, the internet, as currently constructed, is gendered against women. Something must be done about that.

I am grateful to the Minister for introducing this group. Amendment 135A is very well-drafted and appropriate for what we are doing. I have very little to comment on it. It is a difficult area, but I am glad that the Government are putting their money where their mouth was on this issue and that we are seeing some action coming forward.

My noble friend Lady Merron would have been speaking to our amendments in this group, but, unfortunately, she has been taken off for some treatment to her leg, which seems to have been slightly twisted. They follow on from the meeting that the Minister mentioned with Professor Lewis from the Law Commission, when she very expertly introduced this whole topic, explaining very carefully, and with great care and concern, the reasons why the Law Commission has proposed, and the Government have accepted, that the new law to be brought in on cyberflashing needs to be different. My problem with that was that it seemed, by the end of it, that the rationale for doing it differently from other offences of a similar nature and type was more to do with the fact that there were good reasons for having the ability to send dick pics—let us call them that, even though it is a horrible term to use.

It is sometimes necessary for pictures to be sent around, and examples of that were given. For example, in a medical situation in which a doctor, perhaps during the Covid epidemic, wanted to know about a patient’s particular problem in the genital area, a picture would be helpful in diagnosis. Sending that should not be made illegal. Other reasons were given. The argument was good, but not sufficient to trump the need to have in place a set of laws relating to the way in which the internet treats women and girls in this dimension that does not come from different directions and is not confusing but complementary.

That is why we have tabled Amendment 269, to probe a little further why the Government have opted for this approach, and the argument has been well made. It has been further picked up in the amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, which we also signed—and I send my best wishes to her for a speedy recovery. The way in which the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, introduced it made it very clear that the direction that she was coming from was that this was not a good thing, and I want to cover some of the ground on that.

We do not need to spend too much time on this, as the issue is very narrow; it is a question of choosing one of two options about how we bring this forward—whether it is consent based or whether to make it an offence on specific evidence from the individual who has sent the messages as to why they did it. For all the reasons, it seems to me that a consent-based offence is a much more comprehensive way in which to approach the issue. It covers all forms—you do not have to distinguish between them. It is more straightforward and much easier to understand, and that is a really important point. If, in passing the law, we are simply trying to attack bad behaviour, we are not going far enough. We want the laws to be illustrative and for people to learn from them. If it is a simple law and a simple concept of consent having to be required, and if not it is illegal, that opens up the opportunity to make much more of this than we previously have.

The evidence is there that this is a widespread and unpleasant happening. AirDropping seems to be one of the causes of that, and it is something that we do not seem to address. We are attacking the end result, which is the distress and unpleasantness caused, but have the Government thought about whether AirDropping could be looked at in more detail, so that the process was more of an offence, as it is one that seems to cause harm? If you are in an enclosed space, such as on a bus or another form of public transport, and somebody sends you an unsolicited image because you happen to have your phone on and have not barred AirDropping, that distress is compounded by the fact that somewhere close to you is somebody sending you images that you do not want to receive in a way that is meant to threaten or, as we have heard, might be to attract your attention in a positive way but, anyway, is unwanted. If we are not attacking that, why not? That seems an open goal, in some senses.

For all the reasons that we have this coming forward, we have arrived at a situation in which a large number of people who are affected by this and want to see the law change do not like the solution. It is inconsistent. The Government do not have to accept Law Commission recommendations. In fact, I have spent quite a lot of my time when not involved in this Bill trying to redress a decision taken by the Government not to implement a Law Commission proposal for a law to prevent a particularly egregious Victorian piece of legislation that is causing a lot of distress among people who take out high-cost loans, but we have not been able to make progress. The Government do not want to move. The Law Commission has developed a Bill, and I have put it in as a Private Member’s Bill but it has still not got through. I will have one more go before I give up. But we do not have to follow the Law Commission; we still have choices to make in relation to this. It could be a consent-based offence. For all the reasons that others have given—and I support them—it is a pity that that is not the case.

I signed up to the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, because it is a very helpful one that we should think carefully about. It seems to get around the question about how to ensure that the process of reporting and the subsequent carrying forward of the cases that are made is picked up by those who would perhaps need a bit of support in that area. That is something we should support as well. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I join all those who have sent our best wishes to the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, for a speedy recovery. I am grateful that noble Lords were able to take forward her points in this debate.

As I said at the outset, protecting women and girls online is an objective of this Bill, which is reflected by the number of priority offences we have included that disproportionately affect women and girls. This includes the addition of the controlling or coercive behaviour offence, and I am grateful for the support from across the Committee for that amendment. This, in addition to the new cyberflashing offence and other criminal law reforms, demonstrates our continued commitment to increase the safety of women and girls online.

The amendments tabled by my noble friend Lady Berridge and the noble Baronesses, Lady Featherstone and Lady Gohir, relate to cyberflashing. The new cyberflashing offence, alongside the package of offences in this Bill, will bring significant benefit for women and girls across the UK, too many of whom have been subjected to the distressing behaviour that noble Lords have spoken about in this debate. We share the aim of noble Lords who have spoken in favour of those amendments to ensure that this offence is effective at stopping this behaviour.

Regarding Amendments 269 and 270, I want to reassure your Lordships that the intent-based approach in Clause 167 has been tested extensively both by the Law Commission and subsequently by His Majesty’s Government. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, is correct that we do not automatically agree with what it says, but we do take the commission’s expert views very seriously. The Crown Prosecution Service has stated that it has no concerns about using the offence that has been drafted to bring perpetrators to justice. Indeed, it strongly supported the inclusion of the “sexual gratification” element, which would, according to the Crown Prosecution Service, enable it to prosecute this offence more effectively.

The offence will capture many instances of cyberflashing, such as where pictures are sent to strangers via AirDrop in a crowded railway carriage. I agree with the points noble Lords raised about the settings and the simple technological change that, at an operator level, could make a big difference here. We are well aware of the concern set out by the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, that an intent-based approach may let perpetrators off the hook if they send images supposedly for a laugh. We do not accept that view. The courts will, in the normal way, consider all the evidence to determine whether the elements of the offence have been made out. It is of course never on the victim to have to prove the perpetrator’s intention; it is for the police to investigate alleged offences and for the Crown Prosecution Service to establish the perpetrator’s intention in court.

I draw noble Lords’ attention to the inclusion of the word “humiliation” in Clause 167. This will catch many supposedly joke motives, since the perverted form of humour in these instances is often derived from the victim’s humiliation, alarm or distress. This offence has been crafted following calls, including by victims’ groups, to include an intention to cause the victim humiliation.

My noble friend Lady Morgan of Cotes said she was unable to attend the briefing we organised with the Law Commission so, for the benefit of those who were not able to join, let me reassure noble Lords that Clause 167 is based on the offence proposed by the Law Commission, which held an extensive public consultation with victims, the police, prosecutors and academics, and was drafted following further engagement with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service.

The Law Commission, as Professor Lewis set out in that briefing for your Lordships, did consider a consent-based approach, and its final report highlights the significant concerns expressed by respondents to its consultation. A consent-based offence, as the commission found, would result in overcriminalisation, capturing behaviour that does not warrant criminal sanction. For example, as Professor Lewis outlined at the meeting, it could capture a patient sending their doctor an image of their genitals for medical reasons. I take the point that the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, just made interrogating that. The commission found that it would also criminalise misjudged attempts at intimacy where there was, for example, no genuine intention to cause harm or upset. It has looked at these issues.

Requiring a specific intent is not new and is taken in line with other non-contact sexual offences, including “in person” flashing—the offence of exposure. The police and Crown Prosecution Service are very familiar with these offences and with the evidence that is needed in court to prove the required intent. Crucially an offence based on a lack of consent would shift the focus away from the actions and intentions of the perpetrator to the victim and what they may or may not have done. This would be likely to result in a victim’s previous sexual or private behaviour being interrogated in open court. We do not want victims of this behaviour to be put under that sort of pressure. We want the focus to be fully on the perpetrator’s actions and intentions. The provisions in the Bill have been carefully targeted to protect victims from the intrusive and disturbing behaviour that noble Lords have set out, not to subject them to an unnecessary and distressing interrogation of their private lives.

Changing the consent test to reasonable belief that the defendant would have consented, in order to avoid criminalisation, would not work. Applying this test would mean that it would be much easier for genuinely harmful and culpable cyberflashing to escape conviction. For example, it would make it easier for a defendant to make an excuse, such as claiming that they reasonably believed that a person had consented to see a picture because they were on a particular dating app or, as was discussed in the briefing with the Law Commission, claiming that the victim had smiled back at them in a meaningful way on a train. They are not, perhaps, strong defences, but they are not—I am sure—ones that noble Lords would want to encourage through the drafting of this amendment. We are confident that an intent approach is the most appropriate way to frame this offence and that it ensures that the criminal law is workable, so that we can bring perpetrators to justice.

I am sorry to interrupt the Minister in his flow. Just to go back a little bit, the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, attempted to resolve the questions about where it was legitimate for material of the nature that he has been describing to be circulated. Would be accept that that approach has some merit? If so, then I go on to ask: is the decision still to go with intent rather than content for reasons other than relating to that particular point?

It is a very narrow point, but it is important in terms of the overall approach that we are taking on this. The Minister very accurately described the reasons that the Law Commission came up with for moving back to an intent-based rather than content-based approach. I wanted to ask him to check whether the wording in the amendment that we signed up to, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone—ably introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, and spoken to by many people around the Chamber—would cover off those points where there is legitimate reason for this material to be circulated. I used an unfortunate phrase that I will not repeat. Are the Government happy to accept that it is possible to get around that objection by the Law Commission by making legitimate those particular explicit reasons for those pictures being circulated? I make that point only to get an admission at the Dispatch Box that the Government could get round the issue that has been mentioned, but they are still deciding to go for an intent-based approach for other reasons, which the Minister has just adumbrated and which I accept are genuine.

It may be helpful to the Minister to just repeat the terms of the amendment itself. If you reverse the point and do not have intent, you would still need to consider

“Whether a belief is reasonable”

which

“is to be determined having regard to all the circumstances, including any steps that A has taken to ascertain whether B consents”.

The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, has absolutely hit the mark on this. This would not lead to terrible consequences and injustices because of this particular qualification.

If the Minister could write to me on the point once he has had advice, or perhaps inspiration from the Box, that would be very helpful.

I will certainly do so. It requires flicking through a number of amendments and cross-referencing them with provisions in the Bill. I will certainly do that in slower time and respond.

We think that the Law Commission, which looked at all these issues, including, I think, the questions put by the noble Lord, has done that well. We were satisfied with it. I thought its briefing with Professor Penney Lewis was useful in exploring those issues. We are confident that the offence as drafted is the appropriate one.

My noble friend Lady Morgan and others asked why both the Law Commission and the Government are taking a different approach in relation to intimate image abuse and to cyberflashing. We are taking action to criminalise both, but the Law Commission recommended different approaches in how to criminalise that behaviour to take into account the different actions of the perpetrator in each scenario. Sharing an intimate image of a person without their consent is ipso facto wrongful, as it is a violation of their bodily privacy and sexual autonomy. Sending a genital image is not ipso facto wrongful, as it does not always constitute a sexual intrusion, so greater additional culpability is required for that offence. To give an example, sending a photograph of a naked protestor, even without the consent of the recipient, is not always harmful. Although levels of harm resulting from behaviours may be the same and cause the same levels of stress, the criminal law must consider whether the perpetrator’s behaviour was sufficiently culpable for an offence to have been committed. That is why we think the intent approach is best for cyberflashing but have taken a different approach in relation to intimate image abuse.

I thank my noble friend for that explanation, which is very helpful and there is a lot in his reply so far that we will have to bottom out. Is he able to shed any light at all on when we might see the drafting of the intimate image abuse wording because that would be helpful in resolving some of the issues we have been debating?

I cannot give a precise date. The Committee knows the dates for this Committee are a moveable feast, but we have been having fruitful discussions on some of the issues we have already discussed—we had one yesterday with my noble friend. I appreciate the point she is making about wanting to see the drafting in good time before Report so that we can have a well thought through debate on it. I will certainly reiterate that to the usual channels and to others.

Amendment 271 additionally seeks to require companies in scope to provide systems which enable users to report incidents of cyberflashing to platforms. Clauses 16 and 26 already require companies to set up systems and processes which allow users easily to report illegal content, and this will include cyberflashing. This amendment therefore duplicates the existing requirement set out in the Bill. Amendment 271 also requires in scope companies to report cyberflashing content to the Crown Prosecution Service. The Bill does not place requirements on in scope companies to report discovery of illegal content online, other than in the instances of child exploitation and abuse, reflecting the seriousness of that crime and the less subjective nature of the content that is being reported in those scenarios.

The Bill, which has been developed in consultation with our partners in law enforcement, aims to prevent and reduce the proliferation of illegal content and activity in the first place and the resulting harm this causes to so many. While the Bill does not place any specific responsibilities on policing, our policing partners are considering how best to respond to the growing threat of online offences, as my noble friend Lady Morgan noted, in relation to the publication last week of the Strategic Threat and Risk Assessment on Violence Against Women and Girls. Policing partners will be working closely with Ofcom to explore the operational impact of the Bill and make sure it is protecting women and girls in the way we all want it to.

I hope that helps noble Lords on the issues set out in these amendments. I am grateful for the support for the government amendment in my name and hope that noble Lords will be content not to move theirs at this juncture.

Amendment 135A agreed.

Amendment 136 not moved.

Amendments 136A to 136C

Moved by

136A: Schedule 7, page 204, line 31, leave out from “under” to end of line 32 and insert “any of the following provisions of the Immigration Act 1971—

(a) section 24(A1), (B1), (C1) or (D1) (illegal entry and similar offences);(b) section 25 (assisting unlawful immigration).”Member’s explanatory statement

This amendment adds the specified offences under section 24 of the Immigration Act to Schedule 7, with the effect that (amongst other things) content amounting to encouraging those offences (as per the Serious Crime Act 2007) counts as priority illegal content.

136B: Schedule 7, page 204, line 32, at end insert—

“22A_ An offence under section 2 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (human trafficking).22B_ An offence under section 1 of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act 2015 (asp 12) (human trafficking).22C_ An offence under section 2 of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015 (c. 2 (N.I.)) (human trafficking).”Member’s explanatory statement

This amendment adds the specified offences to Schedule 7, with the effect that content amounting to those offences counts as priority illegal content.

136C: Schedule 7, page 205, line 36, at end insert—

“32A_ An offence under section 13 of the National Security Act 2023 (foreign interference).”Member’s explanatory statement

This amendment adds the specified offence to Schedule 7, with the effect that content amounting to that offence counts as priority illegal content.