House of Lords
Wednesday 1 February 2023
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Manchester.
Football: Illegal Entry to Matches
To ask His Majesty’s Government what consideration they have given to introducing new criminal sanctions in England and Wales for those tailgating to gain illegal entry at football matches; and what other measures they are planning to take further to The Baroness Casey Review: An independent Review of events surrounding the UEFA Euro 2020 Final ‘Euro Sunday’ at Wembley, published in December 2021.
My Lords, the Government keep tailgating under review. Any disorder associated with attempting to gain unauthorised entry may be a criminal offence, with a football banning order imposed following conviction. The safety of spectators at sporting events is of the highest importance. We continue to work closely with all the relevant authorities to ensure that football fans can continue to enjoy the sport safely. The review by the noble Baroness, Lady Casey of Blackstock, was commissioned by and reported to the English Football Association. The Government were referred to in four of the recommendations. Our approach to these is outlined in evidence to the DCMS Select Committee, a copy of which can be found in the Library.
My Lords, I am conscious that I have asked this Question before and also that the Minister has responded before. Would it not be of value to consider making this an offence, to deal with the issue of tailgating, as the review from the noble Baroness, Lady Casey, suggested? This is against the background of a worrying increase in disorder at football grounds this season, evidenced by the recent increase in pitch invasions. We can never be complacent about disorder at football games, and we should never be complacent about crowd safety.
Absolutely—and we are not. As I have explained to the noble Lord before, we have taken action to implement a series of changes to the football banning order legislation with which he was associated when he was in government to help ensure safety at football matches. That included adding football related online hate crime to the list of offences, amending the threshold for the imposition of a banning order, extending the legislation to the women’s domestic game and adding football-related class A drug crimes to the list of offences. We continue to work with the police and football bodies to review disorder and consider whether any further action is necessary.
My Lords, in relation to tailgating, could my noble friend the Minister outline whether the Government are considering making this an offence and making it slightly broader? This happens a lot on the Tube. Particularly as a woman, being tailgated through a barrier by somebody trying to come in behind you means you virtually are assaulted. TfL’s policy is not to do anything, probably because it is not an offence. Could the Minister review this to see whether it should be made an offence not just in football but on the Tube?
My noble friend is right to point to the impact on people being followed through ticket barriers. Fare evasion is a criminal offence and Transport for London publishes its revenue enforcement and prosecutions policy. If convicted, people face a criminal record and a fine of up to £1,000, as well as compensation for the fares they have avoided, a victim surcharge and prosecution costs—so this is something that should not be done.
My Lords, one of the most shocking parts of the review from the noble Baroness, Lady Casey, was, yet again, the lack of information sharing and joined-up working between key bodies. That has been an issue at a number of serious and tragic events, including the Manchester Arena bombing. What are the Government doing to ensure that all relevant responsible bodies—whether statutory, voluntary or, as in the case of football, business—including the police, share information before, during and after events to keep people safe and to learn lessons after each event?
The noble Baroness is right that the report from the noble Baroness, Lady Casey, had recommendations for a number of parties, and the Government have indeed spoken to the other parties for whom the recommendations were made. We will not respond on behalf of others, but we are working with them, not least the Sports Grounds Safety Authority, which we commissioned to conduct, and act on, research related to stewarding capacity in the events sector.
My Lords, given that we know that there are increasing problems at football matches, what are the Government going to do to make sure that they address those issues now? We have an outstanding review of football governance, et cetera—to which the Government have not responded and on which they have not come out with their proposals—as well as the review from the noble Baroness, Lady Casey, on safety and security. We also know, if nothing else from yesterday’s mind-boggling figures for money spent in the transfer market, that there is a lot of money awash in the Premier League. In their response to the report of the Minister’s honourable friend in the other House, Tracey Crouch, perhaps they can look at how football itself improves stewardship, which was also one of the recommendations in the noble Baroness’s report. Will they make sure that they properly look after fans on a Saturday, on a Tuesday, on a Wednesday or whenever they go, by spending their money properly?
The noble Baroness is right that there is action for everybody throughout football to ensure that people can enjoy the game safely. We should not overstate it; the vast majority of people who go to matches do so in a law-abiding way and help people do that. There is a minority of people who want to spoil that. As I have said, we have taken action to toughen football banning orders. The football authorities themselves have taken action, with the FA, the Premier League and the English Football League announcing tougher sanctions, including automatic reporting to the police of anyone participating in anti-social or criminal behaviour. On the fan-led review commissioned by my honourable friend Tracey Crouch, we will be coming forward in the coming weeks with our response.
My Lords, it was an absolute miracle that there was no major loss of life at last year’s Champions League final at the Stade de France. It was a terrifying experience for many Liverpool fans who attended, of whom I was one. Four English teams have now reached the last 16 in this year’s Champions League, so one or more may very well reach the final. It is a matter of regret that UEFA’s own inquiry into last year’s events has yet to report. None the less, will the Minister undertake to approach UEFA to seek reassurance that all the many glaring operational failures seen in Paris will not be repeated at this year’s final in Istanbul?
I am grateful to the noble Lord, who has provided some insights from his own experience of attending that match. We were all appalled to see the terrifying and potentially dangerous scenes that occurred there. The French Senate published its report on the final, which rejected the initial response from French Ministers to blame Liverpool FC fans. UEFA’s inquiry is ongoing, but a full report is due to be published soon. We are in close contact, at ministerial and official levels, with both the French Government and UEFA to ensure that their investigations align with experience and point to future matches, as the noble Lord suggested.
My Lords, a lot of support was given to the report from my honourable friend Tracey Crouch in moving her suggestions, and the overall governance of football, further forward. What progress are the Government making and when can we expect an announcement?
My Lords, to return to the original Question, tailgating here or anywhere else is presumably already an offence. What briefing is given to both stewards, who should now be better trained as a result of this, and police, who are there to take action when it takes place? Also, are we looking at one of the other major areas in the Casey report—interference in the disabled access entrances, which were stormed at this event?
The noble Lord is right: disorder associated with attempting to gain unauthorised entry may indeed be a criminal offence, and criminal punishment can follow. The Sports Grounds Safety Authority commissioned a review of stewarding, following the noble Baroness’s report, which looked at these issues. It is now working with football’s governing bodies to follow up on the points that were identified there. The noble Lord is right to draw attention to the way that disabled fans were particularly affected by people trying to follow them into matches—that is deplorable.
My Lords, I declare an interest as one of over 8,000 members of the Foundation of Hearts, which owns the largest fan-owned club in the whole of the United Kingdom. I have also had the great responsibility of writing a report for the Council of Europe on all the aspects of football that were raised by my noble friend Lady Armstrong. I know that, with his many responsibilities, the Minister may not have had an opportunity yet to read my report. Can I ask him to do so and write to me with responses from the Government—or I can table another Question to allow him to answer?
Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme
I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. I draw the attention of the House to the fact that I co-chair and run the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Women, Peace and Security, and set up and run the Afghan Women’s Support Forum.
Operation Pitting was the largest UK military evacuation since the Second World War. About 15,000 people were evacuated to the United Kingdom. Since then, a further 6,000 people, including those under ACRS pathway 1, have arrived via neighbouring countries. The Home Office is working to assure information on its caseworking systems. This includes reporting on total volumes by gender. Once this work concludes, the Home Office will include all Afghan resettlement statistics, including gender breakdown, in its quarterly immigration statistics publications, the next of which is due on 23 February.
I thank my noble friend for his Answer, but I am disappointed that he cannot give me specifics on the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. I gather that there is no application process for this and the slow speed, lack of communication and transparency creates a feeling of abandonment for the Afghan people. How are eligible people identified for this scheme? Under pathway 3, there is provision for those who are particularly vulnerable; I am talking about the women and girls at risk. Does my noble friend realise that some vulnerable women who either held significant positions or were related to those who did have been on the run and hiding since the Taliban took over? Can he imagine what it feels like to be hunted down in this way? We have only to remember the murder of the ex-Afghan MP Mursal Nabizada a few weeks ago. What steps are His Majesty’s Government taking to ensure that those women human rights defenders are able to access the ACRS? How many do they hope to accept this year?
I agree with much of what my noble friend says. By way of context, the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme was divided into three pathways, to which she alluded, the first of which concerned those evacuated during Operation Pitting and those on the removals list. Pathway 2 is the principal method; it concerns referrals from the UNHCR. Pathway 3 is administered by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. That is the pathway envisaged for Chevening scholars, GardaWorld employees and those who work for the British Council. I understand that the Foreign Office has received some 11,500 expressions of interest that are being worked through at the moment. In relation to her question on vulnerable women and children, I say that the principal focus of the ACRS has been to protect the vulnerable. Since the events in Afghanistan last August, thousands of women and girls have been brought to safety in the UK, including female judges, women’s rights activists and a girls’ football team. Of course, in pathway 2 the UNHCR makes referrals based on an assessment of protection needs, including vulnerabilities.
My Lords, at the end of December there were an estimated 150 Afghan interpreters still in Afghanistan, eligible but unprocessed under either the ACRS or ARAP. Given that many of them would already have been eligible under the previous ex-gratia scheme or the intimidation policy designed primarily for interpreters, can the Minister commit to fast-tracking these cases for a group of individuals to whom the UK owes an incalculable debt of gratitude, and who remain extremely vulnerable to Taliban threats and violence?
I entirely understand the point the noble Baroness makes. Obviously, those who were employed by the British Government are entitled to be relocated under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy. The Ministry of Defence is working with the Home Office in relation to the assistance provided for those people. I am happy to look further into the 150 people whom she indicates. I hope that I might be able to obtain some further details and then look into that for her.
My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, I am disappointed that the Minister was not able to give us any meaningful statistics today, beyond a figure of 6,000 people. I have had conversations with the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, who has spoken to the officers of the APPG on Afghan Women and Girls. Would it be possible for the Minister to undertake for similar meetings to be held with the Home Office, ideally on a cross-party basis, and with DLUHC? Many of the issues about bringing in women and girls, and indeed British Council contractors, link to visas and the provision of accommodation. However hard the FCDO and the MoD are working, those departments cannot deal with these issues alone. Will he agree to a meeting?
Pathway 3 applications, as I have said, are led by the FCDO and its engagement will be the principal point of contact. Of course the Home Office works closely with the FCDO and will continue to do so. I will keep the question of a meeting under review and, if it becomes necessary, certainly.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that our intervention in Afghanistan directly led to the strengthening of the hands of extremists in the Taliban, causing huge difficulties for ordinary Afghan citizens, and that we have a linked moral responsibility to look to the well-being of those who we have caused to be refugees? Does he also agree that if we wish to reduce the flow of immigrants that has worried so many people, we should be much more careful in thinking first about embarking on such interventions?
I fear that this is not the correct place for me to discuss the causation of the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan. But in relation to the point the noble Lord raises about the United Kingdom’s obligation to those who helped UK forces and staff, diplomatic and otherwise, during our period in Afghanistan, then I agree. That is something which the two Afghan schemes are designed to address.
My Lords, some people put the amount of Afghan refugees in Pakistan at up to half a million, some of whom are extremely vulnerable, particularly young women, former judges and former politicians. They live under a constant threat of being returned to Afghanistan, where they would certainly meet with jail or possibly worse. What conversations have the Government had with the Government of Pakistan to lift this threat of being returned to Afghanistan?
My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, reminds us, in discussing the Afghanistan resettlement scheme and the help we rightly give to some, we should never forget the continuing persecution of women and girls across the world. Of the three pathways under the Afghan scheme we are accepting at-risk people from three groups: British Council, GardaWorld and Chevening alumni. Within this, is it only those who worked for the UK who are considered, or is any other priority given to women and girls?
As I hoped to make clear in an earlier answer, the first pathway relates to those removed during August 2021 and those who should have been removed. The second pathway relates to those referred by the UNHCR to us, and the third pathway contains the three categories that the noble Lord just identified. The short answer to the question is no, it is not just people who worked for the United Kingdom Government in various forms; it is broader than that because the UNHCR refers refugees to us who have applied.
Employment Rights Legislation
My Lords, we are proud of the UK’s record on employment standards, having raised domestic standards over recent years to make them some of the highest in the world. Our high standards were never dependent on us mirroring the same rules as the EU. We are seizing the opportunities provided by Brexit to review all retained EU law and ensure that our regulations are tailored to the needs of the UK economy.
My Lords, I am pleased that the Minister recognises the importance of employment rights to workers in Britain. But as he will remember, last week I asked, as did my noble friend Lord Watts, whether he would guarantee that no employment rights will fall off the statute books at year end. Not surprisingly, the Minister did not answer the question, which in my mind speaks volumes. Let us try again, please. Contrary to the impression given last week, at least 13 such legal protections, categorised as EU retained laws, are at risk. Let me name just one: TUPE, which protects pay and terms and conditions in the event of company takeovers. This right will be lost at the end of the year unless the Government actively save it. Again, I ask the Minister: can he guarantee that the TUPE protections will not be scrapped and are not for the chop?
As I have said to the noble Lord on this issue before, our workers’ rights, of which we are very proud, do not and did not depend on our membership of the EU. We have standards far in excess of those provided by the EU. Regarding the regulations the noble Lord mentions, as with all retained EU law we will look at that and see whether it is appropriate for the UK economy, and if necessary we will modernise, update or replace it.
My Lords, when this came up in Questions on 23 January, the Minister, in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, said that he had not seen the comments of CBI director-general Tony Danker, reported in the FT that day. He surely now has, but I will remind him. Mr Danker said that the plan to scrap EU laws wholesale is creating huge uncertainty for UK firms and risks throwing industry into some chaos; that companies are asking whether we are really going to erode maternity and paternity regulations and health and safety standards; and that he concluded that we need to recognise that divergence will often shrink our market size and add a skipload of red tape. Will the Minister recognise that business does not want this scrapping of EU laws?
We will no doubt have this debate at Second Reading of the REUL legislation on Monday. If those are the comments of the director-general of the CBI, then he is wrong. Our paternity and maternity regulations are far in excess of those guaranteed by EU minimums. We are proud of that and will continue with them.
My Lords, when the REUL Bill was introduced in the Commons in September, the Explanatory Notes said that there were 2,400 bits of REUL legislation. When the notes appeared here on 19 January, that number had risen to 3,200. I have just accessed the dashboard, and that refers to 3,745 bits; that is an increase of more than 40 bits of REUL legislation a day in the last 13 days. Can the Minister tell us how many of the 1,345 bits of REUL legislation added since September are about employment rights?
Noble Lords are confused: just because there is an item of retained of EU law, it does not mean it is necessarily still valid for the UK. It has been a very useful exercise to go back through the history books to find out about some of this stuff. Much of it is no longer applicable—some of it refers to sugar prices in the 1970s. My favourite bit is a regulation referring to the movement of reindeer between Denmark and Sweden. I am sure noble Lords do not believe that this is something we should retain on our statute book.
My Lords, does the Minister realise that many people are a bit worried that the end product might be the relaxation of some of the standards they have got used to, and that he could end this concern very easily by saying that whatever is changed, it will not worsen the protection currently in place?
I say to my noble friend that we have made it clear that we have no intention of weakening workers’ rights. I know this is a common refrain from the Opposition but let me repeat: UK standards did not depend on EU law. Let me give noble Lords an example. UK workers are entitled to 5.6 weeks of annual leave, compared with the EU requirement of four weeks. We provide a year of maternity leave, with the option to convert parental leave to enable parents to share care. The EU minimum maternity leave is 14 weeks. Our standards are far in excess of those provided by the EU.
The Minister is quite wrong: some protections are better than the European average, but lots more are not. The Government are very fond of rolling over trade deals; why can they not roll over the protections British workers have now, so that they will not worry about their future conditions?
Perhaps the noble Lord could write and tell me what parts of British law have worse standards than are provided by the EU, because as far as I am concerned the vast majority of our standards are in excess of those offered by the EU. We will take the opportunity of reviewing retained EU law to update and modernise it to make it fit for the UK economy.
Will the Minister recognise that his reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, showed that he had not read the article by the director-general of the CBI very carefully? The main point he made, which the noble Baroness raised, was that the uncertainty created by this Bill and the inability of Ministers at the Dispatch Box to say how many measures are going to be struck down, what they are going to put in their place and when they are going to do it is damaging inward investment. Will the Minister now reply to that point?
My Lords, why are the Government intent on diminishing scrutiny in this House, as is strongly suspected by many Members? Why are Members of this House being denied the opportunity to question Ministers on these changes, and why is Parliament itself, which apparently is in the Minister’s mind, being refused the opportunity to discuss these things?
Parliament is not being refused the opportunity to discuss these things. We will no doubt have many days of debate on the retained EU law Bill. All the regulations that are updated or changed will come back to Parliament for approval, in precisely the same way as the EU regulations were introduced in the first place—in fact, they were subject to a lesser degree of scrutiny. I would have a little more support for the position of some noble Lords if they had objected to the way this legislation was introduced into UK law in the first place.
My Lords, in the very short time I have had the honour of being part of this House, I have witnessed the concerns many noble Lords have about the increasing use of statutory instruments. I have seen the potential for the use of SIs in the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill to reverse a half-century of progress on basic rights for women. I would like to—
I bring to your Lordships’ attention the Part-time Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations, which were passed in 2000. These EU regulations enabled the trade unions to win a court case on behalf of more than 100,000 part-time teaching assistants and school meal staff, 95% of whom were women, who had been denied access to the local government pension scheme. Can the noble Lord confirm that His Majesty’s Government have no intention of letting these vital regulations end on 31 December 2023?
I am pleased that the noble Lord finally got round to a question. We are proud of our record on workers’ rights, particularly women’s rights. I quoted earlier the figures on the maternity leave provisions that are applicable in the UK as opposed to the EU; we want to see that happy state of affairs continue.
My Lords, before I call the fourth Oral Question, I remind noble Lords of the sub judice ruling, which currently covers the case of David Carrick. Noble Lords should therefore avoid discussion of any issue related to sentencing in that case.
Metropolitan Police: Criminality
My Lords, the Home Office publishes regular statistics on criminal proceedings against police officers and has commissioned HMICFRS to review countercorruption arrangements, including those of the Metropolitan Police. Part 2 of the Angiolini inquiry will look at tackling the causes of police criminality and misconduct and, more broadly, police culture. The Home Secretary is clear that the Metropolitan Police must redouble its efforts to root out corrupt officers to prevent the kinds of shocking cases we have seen recently.
My Lords, are we not agreed across the House that urgent action is needed to enable Sir Mark Rowley, the courageous Metropolitan Police Commissioner, to boot out the many criminals and incompetents in the Met, while acknowledging, of course, the dedicated service provided by the majority of officers? How can this urgent action be reconciled with a leisurely four-month Home Office review, whose terms of reference took several weeks to be agreed? The department says it needs evidence; is not the evidence provided by the continuing supply of shocking cases that emerge? Sir Mark has said that
“we have hundreds in policing who shouldn’t be here”.
Give him the means to clean up the Met, and give it to him now.
My Lords, my noble friend refers to the review of police officer dismissals that was announced by the Home Secretary on 17 January, when she published the terms of reference. That will include a consideration of the merits of a presumption for disciplinary action against officers found to have committed a criminal offence while serving in the police. Of course, the review was set up partly in response to the comments that Sir Mark has previously made, and partly in response to the interim review of the Casey report. It would be irresponsible not to collect the appropriate evidence before making these very important decisions.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, is quite right to raise the urgency of these terrible cases. Will the Minister reassure us that the review being carried out will consider the most radical measures? One thing that I have become convinced of over the past 15 years is that the office of constable is more a bar to excluding the bad than it is about protecting the good. A constable’s employment rights are protected by secondary legislation, which includes the ability of lawyers in the employment tribunal process within the police. Home Office guidance establishes that when dismissing an officer the standard of proof should not be just the balance of probabilities but should travel towards beyond reasonable doubt. Both those measures do not help to get rid of the difficult officers that the noble Lord and Sir Mark have mentioned. Both those things should change. By all means, give officers access to employment tribunals, which, frankly, they can get through other means anyway.
I thank the noble Lord for that and defer to his extensive experience. One of the things that the review is doing is looking at whether the current three-stage performance system is effective, which will obviously have to take into account some of the things that the noble Lord has just raised. I should have said in my earlier answer that the review has a time limit of four months on it. Obviously, that time is ticking, and the terms of reference were announced a couple of weeks ago.
My Lords, your Lordships’ House will share the views of most right-thinking members of the public in condemning the crimes committed by the officers who were mentioned in the debate—the abhorrent crimes of David Carrick. There are clearly faults in the vetting system and in the complaints investigation system. Will the Minister say whether in the case of an officer in force X who is found to have had an allegation made against him in force Y, where he lives, there is a duty on force Y to inform his employer—that is, force X— of the complaint?
My Lords, this is more than a series of bad apples; I am sure that there is something rotten in the culture and structures in policing that comprehensively and immediately needs to be addressed. We have the nine turnaround priorities that the new police commissioner has set out. Can the Minister set out how the Government will assist with and ensure those priorities are realised as a matter of urgency?
In my original Answer, I referred to part 2 of the Angiolini inquiry. I met Lady Angiolini last week and she made it clear that police culture will form a critical part of her investigations in part 2. The formal consultation on the terms of reference for part 2 opened earlier this month and will conclude, I think, on 24 February. Noble Lords are welcome to contribute to that consultation process. I am sorry for the long answer, but I shall go on a little. The inquiry will consider whether vetting and recruitment processes do enough to identify those in policing who are not fit to serve. It will investigate the extent to which misogynistic and predatory behaviour exists in police culture and look at whether current measures do enough to keep women safe, particularly in public spaces.
My Lords, given the important Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, which concerns us all, and the concerns that have been raised in this Chamber, how on earth is it possible to read in the papers this morning the headline: “Retired rogue police invited to come back and fill vacancies”? Reported figures show that 99 recently retired officers who had retired under investigation for misconduct had been invited back; and 253 officers who had received warnings at misconduct hearings were invited to return. How on earth does that restore public confidence in the police?
My Lords, at a time when public confidence in policing is at this low level, will the Minister examine the role of the 200 or so staff networks, many of which are blurring the line between policing and politics? I refer not to the Police Federation but to organisations such as the Green Police Network, the police vegan network and the National Association of Muslim Police, which has been known to criticise the Government’s Prevent programme. Is it not critical that police officers stick to operational duties rather than interfering in politics, and leave the latter to politicians?
My Lords, does the Minister recognise that there is a significant cultural dimension to this issue? Understandably, as a body, the police have a deeply defensive and internally focused culture. Simply picking malefactors out of that body will not solve the fact that there is a deep-rooted cultural issue. In my view, deep-rooted cultural change is needed to change the culture of the police force so that it is not as defensively minded as it appears to be at the moment.
The noble Lord makes a good point. I have already expressed that the Angiolini inquiry will look into all aspects of that culture. This is also a useful time to remind all of us that the vast majority of serving policemen do an exceptional job and deserve our thanks and praise.
My Lords, the “spy cops” undercover policing inquiry that is going on at the moment has taken years. It is a classic case of police forces covering up former crimes. What makes the Minister think the inquiry he mentioned will be any different?
There are very specific circumstances surrounding the undercover inquiry to which the noble Baroness refers. She is right that it has gone on for too long; unfortunately, it looks like it is going to continue to go on for quite a long time. As regards this inquiry, I have every confidence that Lady Angiolini—as I say, I met her last week—will be rigorous; she has been up to now.
I promise noble Lords that this is a better answer than it sounds. The latest data shows that 83 criminal proceedings relating to police officer misconduct were finalised in 2021-22, but of misconduct cases commenced after 1 February 2020, when new regulations came into effect, 68 resulted in the officer being found guilty; there was a change to the way in which the statistics are collected.
Civil Contingencies Act 2004 (Amendment of List of Responders) Order 2023
Motion to Approve
Civil Legal Aid (Housing and Asylum Accommodation) Order 2023
Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (Legal Aid: Family and Domestic Abuse) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Order 2023
Motions to Approve
Trade (Mobile Roaming) Regulations 2023
Motion to Approve
Health and Safety and Nuclear (Fees) Regulations 2022
Motion to Approve
Plant Health and Trade in Animals and Related Products (Amendment) Regulations 2022
Motion to Approve
Energy Bill Relief Scheme (Non-Standard Cases) Regulations 2023
Motion to Approve
Domestic Premises (Electrical Safety Certificate) Bill [HL]
My Lords, I have it on command from His Majesty the King to acquaint the House that His Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Domestic Premises (Electrical Safety Certificate) Bill, has consented to place his interest, so far as it is affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.
My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister could help us: why does His Majesty believe that it is necessary to give consent to this very important Bill so that, when he sells his properties in the private sector, he has to have an electrical certificate? Is it not time that we got rid of this ridiculous procedure of seeking the King’s consent?
Bill passed and sent to the Commons.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, before we take questions on last week’s Statement in the House of Commons from Ministers at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I want to ensure that the House is aware that the time for questions from Back-Benchers has been extended. In recognition of noble Lords having the opportunity to discuss two Statements concurrently, the usual channels have agreed that they should have an extra 10 minutes, so there will be 30 minutes available for Back-Benchers. The time for Front-Bench contributions will remain at 20 minutes, as usual. I would also like to reiterate—the Companion is clear on this—that this is an opportunity for questions, not speeches. My noble friend is very keen to answer as many questions as possible.
Agricultural Transition Plan
Crustacean Mortality in North-East England: Independent Expert Assessment
The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Thursday 26 January.
“With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, in addition to the Written Ministerial Statement tabled today, I would like to make a Statement updating the House on the next steps that we are taking to shake off the damaging legacy of the bureaucratic EU common agricultural policy for good.
We will learn from the past, and help farmers to build and maintain profitable and resilient businesses by spending public money in a way that helps us to secure the public good, so that they can continue to produce the food we need and help to improve the state of nature. That is the right and smart thing to do with public money, as we also develop the markets that will draw on finance from all sources. Today we are publishing detailed information about what we will pay for in our environmental land management schemes, and how farmers can get involved this year and beyond.
Having kicked off our sustainable farming incentive last summer starting with soil health, today we are adding six more ways that farmers can be paid to take action in 2023, from protecting and enhancing the hedgerows that make up a vital network of habitats across our farmed landscapes, to making sure that we tackle pests, protect crops and support wildlife, so that more farms of all shapes and sizes can make doing their bit for the environment part of their business plan. Each year, we will add offers to the SFI, with the full set in place by 2025, so that farmers can choose more options for their businesses. That is vital for producing food, tackling the causes and impacts of climate change, and helping nature to recover.
We are making it straightforward and simple to get involved. We know that farmers need to plan for the months and years ahead as early as possible, so today we are publishing information on the work we will be rewarding by 2025 through the sustainable farming incentive and countryside stewardship, and sharing information on the next round of landscape recovery projects. We remain as ambitious as ever, as we move ahead through our transition and work with farmers to design a much better way of doing things.
All that will help us to build the resilience of our communities and to meet our environmental targets on air, water and waste, as well as nature, land and sea, guided by our commitments to reach net zero by 2050 and halt the loss of species in our country by 2030. We are also tackling the polluters who stubbornly refuse to help and threaten to undermine everyone else’s hard work. Our aim is to back the front runners who can have the greatest impact and inspire others, as well as helping everyone to bring up their baseline and improve it year on year, harnessing the power of innovation and technology to help our farmers give nature a helping hand so that we focus on bringing their businesses into the future.
All the evidence we have, as well as plain common sense, tells us that making the shift towards a more sustainable, resilient food system is critical to feeding our growing population and meeting our commitments to halt the decline of nature by 2030 and reach net zero. That will fundamentally improve the lives of people across our country and around the world, and make sure that every generation has a better future. The UK will continue to lead the way. I am sure that the whole House will join me in recognising the vital importance of the solutions our fantastic farmers bring to the table. I commend this Statement to the House.”
The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Thursday 26 January.
“With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will make a Statement on the independent expert assessment of crustacean mortality in the north-east of England in 2021 and 2022.
Last Friday, the Environment Secretary published the independent expert assessment of unusual crustacean mortality in the north-east of England in 2021 and 2022 on GOV.UK. The report documents the findings of the independent crustacean mortality expert panel convened by the chief scientific adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Professor Gideon Henderson, working with the Government chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance. The expert panel was convened to provide an independent scientific assessment of all the possible causes of the mass mortality incident using all relevant available data. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the members of the panel for their work.
The independent panel concluded that pyridine or another toxic pollutant was very unlikely to be the cause, as was any link to dredging in the Teesside freeport; capital dredging was exceptionally unlikely. The panel considered a novel pathogen to be the most likely cause of mortality because it could explain four key observations: mortality over a sustained period, mortalities spread along about 40 miles of coastline, the unusual twitching of dying crabs, and deaths predominantly of crabs rather than other species. The panel’s assessment followed a multiagency investigation, co-ordinated by Defra, into the cause of dead crabs and lobsters that washed up on the north-east coast between October and December 2021.
Similarly to the independent expert panel, the Defra investigation identified no single, consistent causative factor. It could find no evidence of known pathogens and concluded that a harmful algal bloom present in the area coincident with the event was identified as of significance. I am considering carefully whether further analysis by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science can ascertain conclusively the cause of this unusual mortality. I commend this Statement to the House.”
My Lords, I shall first speak to the Statement on the agricultural transition plan. We know from the Statement that Defra is moving away from the direct payment schemes that farmers have been receiving for many years from the EU, such as the basic payment scheme, and is instead moving to a system where farmers are paid to make improvements to the environment, animal health and welfare, and to reduce carbon emissions and pollution. We welcome this. Farmers will get grants to improve productivity, including new robotic equipment.
Our one concern around this is that funds will need to be matched, which will make them unaffordable for many. The Government claim that farmers will, within seven years, produce healthy and profitable food in a sustainable way and without subsidies. Therefore it is important that the Government keep a close eye on progress to ensure that it is achievable, because we know that farmers have been struggling with the increased cost pressures on fertiliser, fuels and labour supply, for example. For upland farmers, such as in Cumbria where I live, the withdrawal of the basic payment support is going to make life much harder. What reassurance can the Minister give to upland farmers that they will have access to sufficient funds for their farms to continue to be viable?
We also know that tenant farmers have raised concerns: for example, how will the new environmental payments work in practice? How will the value of income streams be possible for tenants? How would tenant farmers go about claiming them, and how can the length of tenure be accommodated within this? We also know that they are concerned that the loss of BPS could have an impact on rents. The Rock review raised the issue of access to the various schemes, so I would be grateful if the Minister could provide further clarity and reassurance in these areas.
The other concern we have is that, despite the many schemes on offer, some of them are quite complex. We would be grateful if there was more attention paid by the Government to ensure strong take-up of the new schemes. Our concerns arise from the figures on the sustainable farming incentive from the last year: just 224 applications were paid out, a far lower number than the number that received BPS, which was over 80,000. It is clearly important that these schemes are successful, both for our farming and rural communities but also for the environment. If the Minister is able to provide any information on the projected take-up over the next 12 months and what Defra is doing to encourage that maximum level of interest, we would be very grateful.
Moving on to the Statement on crustacean mortality in the north-east of England, I am sure that many of us are aware of the extremely distressing scenes of thousands of dead and dying lobsters and crabs that have washed ashore on beaches there. We also know that fishing crews have reported a drop of up to 95% in their catches and continue to report high levels of dead shellfish, a situation which has been described as catastrophic for their livelihoods.
We do not understand why this mass die-off has happened, and I appreciate that it is understandably very difficult to identify exactly what the cause is for such incidents. But as the Statement says, the independent crustacean mortality expert panel reports that a novel pathogen was the most likely cause. In making this Statement to the House of Commons on 26 January, Mark Spencer, the Minister, said:
“I am considering carefully whether further analysis by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science can ascertain conclusively the cause of this unusual mortality.”
Since then, Sir Robert Goodwill, the chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, has written to the Minister asking for a study to be carried out as “a matter of urgency.” The letter also states:
“The Committee believes that further work should be undertaken to identify this novel pathogen, given the importance of determining its origin, its vectors of transmission, its transmissibility, its virulence and other factors related to it.”
I have two questions for the Minister. First, how is Defra working with the local fishing industry to support it during this crisis? Secondly, will the Government take note of the Select Committee’s letter and act on its request to get this mystery solved, so it is prevented from happening again?
My Lords, the farming Statement in the other place on 26 January has been generally welcomed. Farmers are keen to move forward with ELMS, but sufficient detail to allow them to plan ahead has been sadly lacking in the past. This current announcement provides more information, which should give some reassurance. The rollout of the sustainable farming incentive is overdue. There appear to be six strands to this, and it provides for paid actions by farmers to manage hedgerows for wildlife, plant nectar-rich wildflowers and to manage crop pests without the use of insecticides.
I particularly welcome this last one as there were amendments and debates during the passage of both the Agriculture Act and the Environment Act on the very harmful effect of pesticides. Can the Minister tell the House the extent of the regulations around the proposed use of insecticides?
The six additional standards to the sustainable farming initiative allow farmers to receive payments for actions on hedgerows, grasslands, arable and horticultural land, pest management and nutrient management. This adds to the existing standards on soil health and moorlands. Can the Minister give more detail on these standards?
There do now seem to be a plethora of ways in which farmers can access money. Farmers are busy people and their workload is heavy, especially in bad weather. The larger farm businesses will employ staff, including farm managers, to look at the detail of the schemes and assess what is best for them. The smaller farmer is unlikely to have the time to look into the detail of the myriad schemes available in order to make the best choices for his or her land. The Minister is aware that there have been complaints about the complexities of applying for existing schemes, and has said on previous occasions that the process is being simplified. Can he give us reassurance that these new schemes will be easier to apply for and less complicated than those already running? It is vital to increase the uptake of sustainable farming initiatives and Countryside Stewardship schemes, and crucial that the schemes are easily understood and that the forms are not overly complex, so that the smaller independent farmer is able to participate.
I am concerned about tenant farmers generally. Countryside Stewardship Plus encourages farmers to work together with their neighbours and landowners. How will the tenant farmer fit into this pattern?
I welcome the new ambition for local nature recovery to include managing flood plains and maintaining peatlands. How will that assist farmers on the Somerset Levels, where flooding is a way of life and water management an everyday part of life? This year, as in others, large tracts of land have been under water for a considerable time. I look forward to the Minister’s comments on this.
My final comment is about the overall thrust of the transition plan, which is towards improving the land, increasing biodiversity, carbon capture, and enhancing and managing woodlands. This is a vital part of managing the land. However, there is insufficient mention of the production of food. The growing of crops, the husbandry of animals and the production of food is essential, both for the sustainability of the British farming industry and as part of the process of feeding the nation. Agriculture cannot be about only biodiversity and carbon capture. Food production must have equal billing for farming to survive. Can the Minister provide reassurance that there is a balance in the transition plan?
My noble friend Lord Teverson, who led on the then Fisheries Bill from these Benches, will speak on the north-east crustacean Statement.
My Lords, I will be very brief. Exactly as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, said, the images of this incident are quite something. Given its importance, I would be very interested to understand from the Minister why Professor Gideon Henderson, the main scientific adviser to Defra, was not involved at the beginning to make sure that the first inquiry was well managed and actually dealt with the real issues. That, perhaps, would have made the second inquiry unnecessary. In fact, we have had two inquiries now but we still do not know what the answer is. I would be interested to learn from the Minister what happens next.
I am particularly interested to understand whether we have samples in cold storage of the original crustacean victims so that we could actually go back and look at pathogens. As we all know, invasive species, whether they are pathogens or larger organisms, are potentially extremely dangerous and expensive to our economy. This was a major incident and I would like to know what will happen next, and exactly how this should move from here. We have had very few answers from those two inquiries.
My Lords, I will try to give noble Lords as much time to ask questions as possible. I thank noble Lords on the opposition Front Benches for their questions. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, for her support for this transition. I know that this announcement has been long awaited, not least by farmers but also by this House. I hope that a look at GOV.UK will reveal the depth we have gone into and the easy accessibility for farmers to find out more.
The noble Baroness asked what other measures we are taking. We are offering a range of one-off grants to improve farm productivity. That perhaps answers also the point the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, made. We want farmers to produce food and to do so sustainably. We want them to look at natural capital as something to grow, because it will improve the productivity of their businesses in the long term. Many farmers are doing that, but we want to help them to do it better. For example, we are giving grants for slurry management, animal health and welfare, and environmental and access features, and to support the innovation, research and development the sector needs. We are reforming our approach to farm regulation to make it clearer, fairer and more effective for farmers. We will develop a new entrants scheme to encourage the next generation of farmers to bring their necessary skills into managing their businesses.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, raised a concern for uplands that I entirely share. Over recent decades, farmers have had to put up with a system that is skewed against the small farmer. Over 50% of basic farm payments would go to the largest 10% of farms. We want to ensure that that money is distributed more fairly. Upland farmers can be paid for actions on moorland, grassland and upland peat, with more than 130 actions in all schemes applicable to them.
All the standards we are introducing in the SFI in 2023 are open to upland farmers. We have tried to make SFI as simple as possible. A very good point was made that smaller farmers tend not to have either the resources of a land agent or the time necessary to do this. Most early applicants to SFI have been very complimentary about the ease with which it can be done. In less than 45 minutes—perhaps the most valuable 45 minutes that they will spend this year—they can access these schemes. The menu is now being rolled out, with lots of different things that are applicable to their farms. Rather than having it done to them, as happened under the system we are transitioning from, they will be able to select what suits their land and business, and to improve their way of working.
Again on upland farms, I am delighted to say that, within the EIP, we have announced an extension of the farming in protected landscapes grant—the first bespoke grant scheme we have introduced since Brexit and, by all measure, the most popular; the money has gone out of the door very quickly. Some 74% of national parks are in upland areas, and farmers in those areas have been able to access more than 1,800 schemes that have seen 84 kilometres of hedgerow planted, large numbers of stone walls repaired, and lots of environmental benefits.
I hope we will see a transition to a scheme that will not only be popular for the wider public, who want to see government support to uphold farmers’ drive to sustainability and environment benefits, but assist farmers to continue to produce food, and to do so sustainably. We want at least 70% of farmers to be in SFI. I hope we will see a big surge in numbers as people see the six new standards we have produced being rolled out.
I will answer the points from the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, on this and then turn to the crustaceans issue. One of the six standards is an integrated pest management standard. It will provide farmers with at least three things. The first is advice on how to transition their production from one that is reliant on chemicals, both herbicides and insecticides. It will also give them advice on companion cropping, so that they can plant different crops at the same time, the insects and other measures from which can help to control pests on the other crop. This has had considerable success; I have seen it for myself. The last is perhaps the most relevant to the noble Baroness’s question, which is on insecticides. It will give arable farmers help in transitioning away from using insecticides on their farms.
There are plenty of ways for farmers to achieve finance. We have ring-fenced the £2.4 billion that we are spending on BPS, and, as the transition tails off for BPS payments, we are now seeing the environmental land management schemes kick in. Farmers will start to see how they can fill the gap that is being created by the phase-out of BPS.
As I say, we want to make sure we are helping smaller farmers. I think the future is very good, once we can get over this transition period. Undoubtedly some farmers are worried, and some may not survive because of a whole range of extraneous circumstances, not least the spike in commodity prices, but I can see a future for them. They are more adaptable than many bigger farms, and we want to see them having access to a simplified system.
One of the most exciting developments I have seen is the surge of interest in countryside stewardship. Countryside stewardship has increased by over 90%, and more people are participating. We want to see that continue. We have three tiers now. It is easy to migrate from existing schemes to the new schemes, and many farmers are looking at the potential of that.
I know the Somerset Levels well. I remember being the floods Minister and having to go down there during the floods of 2011, 2012 and 2013. It was devastating. The flooding that takes place on the Somerset Levels comes from the Mendip Hills, which the noble Baroness knows better than me. Farming activity up there can slow the flow of water on to the levels. We are trying to encourage farmers in their water and soil management and in other methods that can be accessed through these schemes, so we can stop the surge of water, Such water often brings with it topsoil, particularly from maize being grown higher up the hill, which floods down into the Somerset Levels. Sometimes after heavy rainfall you can see in an aerial photograph a plume of soil going out into the Bristol Channel. Better soil management will prevent that.
I turn now to the important questions raised by the tragic situation on the north-east coast of England, with the deaths of crustaceans. I entirely agree with noble Lords in their concern about this. It is a great shame that we do not know precisely what has caused this extraordinary die-off of crabs. To condense very quickly a detailed scientific report, it is as likely as not that a pathogen new to UK waters has caused this. It is unlikely that it was a harmful algal bloom causing a loss of oxygen in the water resulting in crab deaths. It is very unlikely that pyridine or another toxic pollutant caused the crab deaths. It is also very unlikely that maintenance dredging, as required to keep the port open, or capital dredging for the new freeport, was responsible.
What do we do now? That’s the point noble Lords rightly raised. The Environment Secretary has considered carefully whether further analysis by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science can ascertain conclusively the cause of this unusual mortality. We are continuing to monitor wash-ups in the area and encourage local people to report findings. The North Eastern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority has created an online reporting tool for local people to use.
There is currently no evidence to suggest that there has been another mass die-off event or that any is occurring in wash-ups that are currently in line with what we would normally expect to see. While a novel pathogen—a disease or parasite—has not been identified, the experts concluded that it could explain the key observations, including mortality, over a sustained period along 70 kilometres of coastline. A particular feature was the unusual twitching of dying crabs and the deaths being predominantly of crabs rather than of other species. That is what ruled out some of the suspected causes. The report was clear in its conclusion that a novel pathogen is as likely as not to be the cause.
We support the local fishing industry in a great many different ways. It is a fact that crab catches across the whole of that area are roughly normal. Some local vessels fishing in particular parts have seen the number of crabs they are able to catch drop off significantly, and we have to find ways of supporting them until populations recover. I do understand that it is very difficult for them, but we have provided a lot of finance to the inshore fleet right around the coast. We want to make sure that that is adaptable and can be used in circumstances such as these.
My Lords, I declare my farming interests. I very much enjoyed the Minister’s upbeat presentation on the situation in agriculture, but I know that, from his own farming experience, he will empathise with the fact that any farming business is a complex series of ecosystems that interact with each other, and a decision on one will affect others in many different ways. Therefore, can he help me by explaining why the Defra strategy appears to be to drip out bits of the environmental programme, for example, piece by piece? One month it is soil, the next month it is hedgerows. Farmers, who are trying to feed the nation and improve the environment, find it impossible to plan a business when these bits of information are dropped out on a fragmentary basis, as I understand it, right out until 2025.
There are two reasons for that. First, we have a programme of tailing out the basic payment scheme and replacing it with ELMS. That requires us to manage the public money properly. Secondly, we want this to be an iterative—a wonderful Civil Service word—process that responds to our understanding of real life. We have had our tests, trials and pilots and have learned from them. In the autumn we had a serious tyre-kicking session on this, which drew some criticism. I can understand why; people were very nervous that we were going to do a screeching U-turn, but we have not. Out of that has now come the announcement of six, as opposed to three, new standards—because farmers wanted to know precisely what the noble Lord said.
It takes time to get this right because, as he says, it is about people’s livelihoods and businesses, and they want to be able to plan for the future. I think farmers much prefer that—or will in hindsight, when they look back on this era—to some big bang moment where we stop one scheme on 31 December and go into another on 1 January. By and large, when Governments have tried that across a whole range of different reforms in different departments, it has been a disaster. We have tried to do this over many years, and in time farmers will understand that they have been able to migrate from one system to another. As a farmer, that is certainly what I want; I understand if other farmers have different views. I want a Government who listen to farmers and change accordingly, and that is what we have tried to do.
My Lords, I declare my interests as laid out in the declaration of interests. How will the Government make farmers confident in this excellent report when they are signing contracts with other countries that will allow people to export into this country and compete with our farmers when they do not have to meet the same high standards we are asking? It is impossible to ask for their confidence unless we stop this activity.
I am grateful to my noble friend for reminding me that I should have drawn noble Lords’ attention to my entry in the register as a farmer. As he knows, and as I have said frequently from this Dispatch Box, it is the Government’s policy that all trade deals should reflect our own high standards in environment and animal welfare, and that remains the policy of the Government.
My Lords, the Minister said that the Government were ring-fencing the £2.4 billion for ELMS, but the fact is that the basic payment scheme has been going down much more quickly than the sustainable farming incentive has been going up, so there is an inevitable gap in farmers’ incomes as a result of all that.
So I ask the Minister: how much of the £1 billion cut from farmers so far will they be able to get back this year through the ELM scheme? If he finds that the take-up is not the 70% that the Government aspire to, at what point will they go back and look at whether or not the factors are right and whether or not the payments are right? We all want it to be a success, but there is an awful lot of finger in the air at the moment, and we need to make sure that all that money does go back to the farming community to have long-term, sustainable farming enterprises in this country. So how much will they get, and at what point will the Government reconsider whether the amount should go up further?
We have tried to help farmers in as many ways as possible. For example, we have brought forward to a half-yearly payment what they are currently receiving in the basic payment scheme, so what they were receiving in one lump sum they now receive six- monthly. That has helped their cash flow.
There are other things, such as the extra money we have put into Countryside Stewardship, which has drawn many more people into the scheme and front-loaded some of that money. The fact that we are setting six new standards now as opposed to the original three that we were going to announce is another example of how we are pulling the money forward. We want to make sure that it is going into farmers’ pockets as quickly and as easily as possible, keeping the application for it simple and getting the money to them through the Rural Payments Agency as quickly as possible.
I cannot answer the noble Baroness precisely, for the simple reason that it is different for every farm. As a farmer looks at the proposals that we have announced, they will be able to see on each standard that there are different things that they can do that fit in with the ecosystem that they farm in—the water management that they want to achieve and the wildlife that they want to encourage, while still producing food—and every single farm will be different. We are also helping through the announcement we made on landscape recovery, allowing farmers to work together in clusters to bring forward schemes. That has been really effective at drawing people into that scheme as well. So I cannot tell her precisely because every farm is different, but that amount is ring-fenced and farmers will be supported through the scheme.
My Lords, I welcome the further update on the transition plan. When the Agriculture Bill was going through this place, pleas were made to the Minister’s predecessor to allow us to amend the two agricultural Acts that are the foundation of the tenancies. Will my noble friend take that away with him and urgently ensure that the tenancy agreements can be amended so that they will benefit? Who will advise the farmers on which applications they can make? Will it be Natural England?
On a positive note, I welcome the eight new agricultural attachés the Government have announced. Can the Minister say in what way they will actually help, for example, farmers in the north of England to reach export markets many miles away?
On the issue of crustaceans, he will be aware that this has had a devastating impact on those who fish for crabs off the north Yorkshire coast. What compensation can they look for, and what foreseeable future in this area of fishing will they have?
I am grateful to my noble friend, first, for reminding me that I did not answer the points made by the noble Baronesses on the Front Benches about tenants. I absolutely agree that we want to make these schemes as accessible as possible to tenant farmers. They are a fundamental part of the tenure of land that we have, from owner-occupiers, statutory tenants under the Agricultural Holdings Act, farm business tenancies, grazing rights and grazing on commons; there is an array of them. I agree with my noble friend that the legislation is a bit out of date. We have an organisation called TRIG, which is bringing together people across farming businesses to try to find a way of reform, although there is not agreement on that. My noble friend Lady Rock’s report has brought forward some measures that have already found their way into the Environmental Land Management Scheme and into Countryside Stewardship. We want to make these as accessible as possible for tenants, and I hope that the changes we made will please them.
I am grateful for the noble Baroness’s points on exports. I am pleased to see that we have recently agreed exports of pig meat to countries such as Mexico. This fills the gap created when markets were cut off for China. Our attachés, embassies and high commissions abroad will be working hard to secure better export opportunities for high-quality British food, so I hope that we will see a better future for that.
My Lords, the north-east fishing industry, despite the great popularity of its crab and lobster products in mainland Europe, has faced a series of challenges. The one the Minister described today has been the most devastating. Alongside that, the industry has had to find ways of getting products to market in Europe, which has proved far more complicated as it has to be done within 24 hours in most cases. In the case of Holy Island, new problems, of which he is aware, may be posed by marine protection zones. Is there a focus in his department on ensuring that we continue to have a north-east of England fishing industry, given all these difficulties?
Absolutely. Regarding Holy Island, as he knows, we are holding a consultation, which is causing great concern. I have had letters from a variety of people, including the Archbishop of York, on this matter. I know it is causing serious stress to individuals, and we want to resolve it as soon as possible; that is the point of a meaningful consultation. The people managing that fishery need to know that we are listening to them. We will make an announcement very soon, which I hope will set their minds at rest.
The noble Lord and my noble friend also asked about support for that fishing industry. We want to see more biomass in the sea, so fishermen in the north-east of England feel that they can have a sustainable stock of fish to exploit in years to come. Everything we are doing is about driving towards sustainability. The greatest friends of protected marine areas should be fishermen. As we saw in a report I wrote for the Government before I took this position, in other parts of the world the greatest supporters of marine protection are fishermen. Outside those areas, they see biomass moving into an area, which they can then exploit. We want to see a good future for fishermen all around our coasts.
My Lords, I declare my interests as a farmer, as set out in the register. I also express my thanks to the Minister and his department for the progress on and development of ELMS so far. I emphasise “so far” because there are still some areas of concern, and my two principal ones are as follows.
First, the implementation of biodiversity net gain becomes a legal requirement at the end of this year. We need to know how land set aside for BNG relates in terms of payment to land incorporated in ELMS, as this could be a major income opportunity for farmers. Secondly, there is a need for immediate clarity from Defra and the Treasury on income and capital tax treatment and reliefs, as well as the possibility of VAT on BNG and other aspects of ELMS, including woodland. I would be greatly relieved if the Minister could respond on these two points.
The noble Lord is right that the biodiversity net gain target becomes effective from November this year. We are working hard with other departments to ensure that that rollout is happening. I know that contracts and covenants are already being worked up by famers and their advisers. We see this as an income source from which they can benefit, and we want to ensure that it happens. This absolutely dovetails with what they are doing with environmental land management schemes. In addition to the noble Lord’s point, next month we are due to publish our green finance strategy, which will try to create the right degree of regulation in a market which some people refer to as “the wild west”, because you see all sorts of players offering farmers and land managers enormous sums of money, some of which is greenwash. We want to focus that, so we are working effectively to get ESG money and other funds invested in our natural environment through farmers and land managers in a meaningful way. As the noble Lord said, there are also tax concerns. We are in discussions with the Treasury on that, and we will ensure that we keep your Lordships abreast of those developments.
My Lords, tempted as I am to put the case of the challenge for upland farmers in County Durham, I actually want to concentrate on the crab deaths. First, I thank the Minister for the correction I have just received to the Parliamentary Answer he sent me yesterday. I understand that all these issues are challenging, including this one. It is challenging because we do not yet know, and the Government must admit in their report that they do not yet know, the precise nature of what has caused this awful problem. I know the Government want to rule out dredging, but they are not yet in a position to do that, so can he assure me that any future dredging will be monitored very carefully? When the steelworks closed in Consett, we saw the results of processes that nobody had thought about. I am sure that will also be the case around the Redcar works, where stuff got into the river from both the steel and chemical works. Will the Minister ensure that the Government continue to monitor the effects of dredging and that they come up with a firm plan to restore the health of the sea, so that not just fishermen but tourists have confidence to go to those magnificent beaches again?
I entirely accept the point that the noble Baroness makes, and her passion for that area is well known. In doing his survey, the Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Henderson, pulled together 12 leading experts in their field. They are listed in the report, and they have looked at this in the way scientists do. It is sometimes frustrating that you cannot ever get a clear, black-and-white answer to a scientific question, and sometimes there are mysteries, but I hope that this is not one of the mysteries that will always elude us. However, when talking to the scientists and really pushing them to find out whether we gave them the right remit, all the answers I received satisfied me that Professor Henderson, who is a deeply respected public servant and scientist, pulled together the most effective group possible, and they have produced a report that indicates what is very unlikely to be the cause.
Two types of dredging have gone on in that area. One is maintenance dredging, whereby very small amounts of the depths of sediment are removed. We tested that sediment before it was put in a licensed part of the sea, and the levels of pyridine were absolutely inconsequential in terms of its ability to cause the crab deaths. The other one is capital dredging for the new port, and the dates for that are interesting. In December 2020 capital dredging took place, but not actually on the freeport; the deaths occurred in October 2021, some months afterwards; and in September 2022 there was capital dredging in the freeport, after which there were no deaths. The fact that, largely, only crabs have been washed up is really extraordinary, so we want to ensure that we keep an open mind. I absolutely give the noble Baroness the assurance that we are also willing to look at other—
My Lords, I have two questions about the agricultural transition. First, the Minister is very enthusiastic about the number of farmers who would take it up. Does he have any estimate or is that too difficult to find? Secondly, what happens about monitoring practices of farmers who do not sign up? Is there a process for that?
On the crabs, Gary Caldwell, a senior lecturer in applied marine biology at Newcastle University—so, a well-respected expert—says that there is no direct evidence for disease among the crabs, and that very high levels of pyridine were found in the crab carcasses. The next stage of dredging will move a million cubic metres of riverbed seven miles out to sea. The noble Baroness asking the previous question asked whether there will be very careful monitoring of that so that we do not have a repeat occurrence.
On the farmer situation, about 2,200 have entered the sustainable farming incentive to date. That is not particularly surprising, because the amount of money that was available was between £22 and £60 a hectare, and now there will be considerably more. There will be farmers who will not join the scheme because they can farm profitability without support, or for whatever reason. We monitor or collect data from farms right across the country. It is vital that we do, so that we know what crops are being planted and where. It will feed a very important piece of strategic work that I am sure the noble Baroness will support: the land use framework, which is coming forward.
The noble Baroness referred to Dr Gary Caldwell. Professor Henderson has been in touch with him on a number of occasions. There was a rumour that he had somehow been excluded. There is a paper trail of emails between Professor Henderson and Dr Caldwell. I can only rely on the evidence we have seen, in the report from the 12 eminent scientists, that indicated that the levels of pyridine were “very unlikely” to be responsible—we have to be very precise in our language here. We will keep our minds open and make sure that developments in that area address the points the noble Baroness makes.
My Lords, I draw attention to my farming interests in the register. Does the Minister agree that perhaps the most susceptible group of farmers in these difficult times are those on marginal land which is rather too good to be supported through the upland support schemes? Those are very often smaller farms on not good land. Is there anything in the Government’s proposals tailored specifically for this particular group in the margins?
I thank my noble friend. His knowledge and interest in this subject are of course really helpful. We want to make sure that precisely those farmers are able to access these schemes. In fact, they are the people most often able to deliver the kind of benefits we want, in reversing the decline of biodiversity, hitting our net-zero targets and hitting our tree-planting targets. There is something in there for them, particularly in the upland areas. If they are farming areas that have either upland or lowland peat, there is a standard that would be of particular value to them. I also draw farmers’ attention to the hedgerows standard. Farmers are used to hedgerows, and they are restoring their number to deal with those that were taken out with government grants in the 1970s. They know that if they can manage those hedgerows in a different way, it can have enormous benefits, both in carbon and biodiversity. I really hope they will benefit from these new standards.
My Lords, the Minister said that there were no other deaths, but independent marine experts claim that there have been deaths of bivalve shellfish, octopuses, barnacles and algae and there is growing evidence that seal populations were affected. If the assumptions in this new report are accurate, it suggests that we have a discrete, pathogenic, multi-species serial killer committing ecocide. That is significant because it is also in an area that is coterminous with the blast radius of the explosion of the Teesside furnace, which was demolished by explosion with the dust cloud scattered across the sea. I am sure the Minister must be worried about that level of death in the sea. Can he at least try to challenge the notion that there is a multi-species element to this, because I think the report focused just on crustaceans?
I absolutely accept the noble Lord’s point. I want to make sure that my language is correct, because there are a lot of conspiracy theories at the extremes; then there are the absolutely genuine points made by people such as the noble Lord, who want, quite rightly, to ensure that they are addressed.
Although a novel pathogen—a disease or parasite—has not been identified, the experts concluded that it could explain the key observations, including mortality, over a sustained period along a 70-kilometre coastline. The report makes clear the unusual twitching of dying crabs and the deaths being predominantly among crabs rather than other species, and it concluded that a novel pathogen is as likely as not to be the cause.
That leads us to ask, “What now?”, which is why we are talking to Cefas to make sure that we are monitoring this issue. We are also talking to the IFCA about the measures that it brought in and making sure that we are drawing on the evidence of citizen science and other scientific organisations—some of which have understandably been taking part in campaigns on this. We recognise that, as yet, we do not precisely know what the cause is, but we want to.
My Lords, on the hypothesis that the cause is indeed a novel pathogen, the Minister will know that in respect of red belly disease in salmon the original hypothesis was a novel pathogen, but the hypothesis now is an existing pathogen with a novel stressor. Has the review looked at the possibility of an existing pathogen caused by a new stress element? If not, why not? Does the Minister agree that that should be looked at?
The noble Viscount makes a very good point. One of the things that the review looked at was what was going on in the sea at the time. He is absolutely right that there are factors that can affect species and their ability to withstand a pathogen if such a pathogen exists. Those factors can include storm and tide effects and other human effects; they were certainly considered as part of the review and will be considered in any future reviews of this work.
My Lords, during the passage of the then Environment Bill, my noble friend’s predecessor as Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park, promised the House that there would be a soil health action plan and that it would be a “key plank” of the Government’s policy. When is that promise going to be honoured?
I am not sure, because I was not involved in any commitments made at the time of that Bill, but I will certainly look into it and contact my noble friend. I should say that soil is absolutely at the heart of our agricultural reforms. We want farmers to use it in a way that means we are protecting it. There are certain areas, such as lowland peat, where the soil is being depleted at an alarming rate. We want to make sure that the measures we have introduced are used to protect and maintain soils; and that soils can be used for all the things we want, such as cleaning up rivers and protecting our environment.
In the light of the answer that the Minister gave to my noble friend, can he tell the House whether his own adviser, Professor Henderson, has recommended to him further action or research that should be undertaken? The Minister also referred to a wider group of interested people who will want to know what has happened in this tragedy; sometimes, things occur in nature and we do not understand them. Will the action taken involve a wide range of scientific societies, including, for example, the Royal Society of Biology?
Absolutely, in addition to the organisations I listed earlier. The initial views are that finding something to which we can attribute the cause is unlikely, but Professor Henderson has suggested that the university sector will be well placed to extend research in this area, and he is working with it to see what further research can be done.
My Lords, I declare my agricultural interests as in the register. I would like the Minister to return to the reply he gave to the noble Lord, Lord Deben, when he explained that British agriculture and those engaged in it would not be, with their products, competing against people who operate under lower environmental and welfare standards. How does that square with the remarks of his noble friend, the noble Lord, Lord Johnson of Lainston, on the Trade (Australia and New Zealand) Bill, where he told the House that the standards in Australia were lower than those in this country?
Our policy is that agricultural products taken in as part of a trade deal cannot be imported into this country if they fall beneath our standards of animal welfare and environmental protection. That is the policy in the agricultural chapter of the Australia deal; it is the first time such a chapter in a trade deal has said that.
Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill
My Lords, I have it in command from His Majesty the King to acquaint the House that His Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, has consented to place his interest, so far as it is affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.
It is my privilege to move the Third Reading of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill in this House today. As we have discussed in debate, it is essential that we forge ahead with the Bill now to help address the many challenges we are facing across our food system and environment.
During the Bill’s passage through the other place, we saw record-breaking heat and drought and now, as it nears the end of its journey, we are managing the impacts of winter flooding. Precision-breeding technology is one of the tools we can use to develop plants that are more productive, more resilient to extreme weather, and less reliant on fertilisers and pesticides. This technology will help support our farmers to grow and harvest better, improve the health and welfare of animals, and provide healthier and more nutritious foods for consumers.
We have some of the best scientists and research institutes in the world, and we want to encourage this exciting research and translate it into tangible benefits. I recently had the pleasure of visiting Professor Jane Langdale at the University of Oxford, where I learned about her cutting-edge work developing high-yielding rice varieties for smallholder farmers. I heard how you can precision breed drought-resistant varieties. That is exactly the kind of work we want to see. I know that this is happening across the country, including at the John Innes Centre at Rothamsted, the Roslin Institute and many more places. I left Oxford with the warm glow—no doubt some noble Lords might feel that it was naive but I felt it was genuine—one gets from the belief that we have actually done something good here, which will benefit people in not just this country but abroad.
By introducing a more proportionate and science-based regulatory framework, we want to encourage innovation and enable new breeds of plants and animals to be released for field trials and brought to market more easily. We want to encourage this innovation responsibly. Following the Bill’s passage, we will continue to work with experts and other stakeholders to develop measures to safeguard animal welfare before we bring the measures in the Bill into force in relation to animals.
I thank all those who have supported the Bill and those who put it through its paces to ensure it will deliver on its vision of proportionate and safe regulation of precision-breeding technologies. The specialist expertise that the noble Lords, Lord Krebs, Lord Trees, Lord Winston and Lord Cameron of Dillington, have brought to the debates has been invaluable. As we are all aware, this is a scientific policy area with which some of us do not always feel at ease. It was a truly extraordinary experience to hear the level of understanding and knowledge in some of the exchanges. I really thank many noble Lords for their wisdom and for ensuring the appropriate direction of debates.
I also thank noble Lords on the Front Benches for their invaluable contributions. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, has led well-considered scrutiny, and I thank her for her debate on this legislation. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, has provided extensive input to these debates, for which I am grateful. I thank other noble Lords from all sides of the House for their interest and engagement, which has undoubtedly improved the Bill. I know that we had some arguments and that not everyone will have been happy with precisely where we ended up, but it was an enormously beneficial experience to have the debates that we did.
Finally, I want to thank the Bill team, who were led by Fiona White, Emily Bowen, Elizabeth Bates and Elena Kimber, and the Bill policy team, parliamentary counsel and the Food Standards Agency, which worked so hard on the Bill. I thank noble Lords for their support and input into these important debates. I beg to move.
My Lords, I realise that the Chamber is filling up and getting ready for the next debate, which is very important, but I would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, for his good humour, patience and flexibility during the passage of the Bill. I also thank the Bill team for their help in answering our queries, along with the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayman of Ullock and Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and all those on the Labour Benches, including the noble Lord, Lord Winston, who made a very valuable contribution to the Bill.
As the Minister has said, the expertise of the noble Lords, Lord Krebs, Lord Trees and Lord Cameron of Dillington, was absolutely invaluable. I really enjoyed the exchanges across the Chamber on this very technical Bill. I cannot sit down without mentioning the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, who also brought a great deal of expertise to it. My noble friend Lady Parminter supported me brilliantly; we could not have got where we are without her, so I thank her for that.
There were excellent cross-party debates and we reached a reasonable conclusion. We did not get everything that we wanted but we got a satisfactory result and I thank the Minister for that.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, for her comment and want briefly to pick up one point from the Minister on Report. He gave the assurance
“that I will be open to any suggestions”
“a forum or fora for a wider conversation with the public”.—[Official Report, 25/1/23; col. 278.]
I hope the Minister will confirm that; I am hoping to outreach with him in the coming weeks to do that. The Minister did not refer to the fact that the Welsh and Scottish Governments have both rejected the legislative consent Motions for the Bill to apply to their countries. Can he provide any more information on where the Government are going forward with that?
Two things have happened since we finished Report. The European Patent Office has revoked an EU patent for heme proteins in plant-based meat alternatives, an issue which was also the subject of litigation in the US. In Committee, we talked a lot about patent issues. We did not go back to them on Report but that certainly raises lots of those issues from Committee. Finally, since our debate we have had a statement from the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes on so-called precision-bred organisms. Many people are reaching out to me to say that it does not resolve the issues of labelling and other regulatory issues, so I draw that response to the Minister’s attention.
My Lords, this was at times a very complex and sometimes challenging Bill, particularly for a non-scientist such as myself; I think both the Minister and I were on a steep learning curve. I thank everybody who provided detailed information and support during the course of this Bill. It really was invaluable as we moved through its progress.
I also thank all noble Lords who took part in the debate. A lot of people spent a lot of time going into detail and depth on this, which was really important when you consider its nature. In particular, I would like to thank: my noble friends Lord Winston and Lady Jones of Whitchurch; the noble Lords, Lord Krebs, Lord Trees and Lord Cameron; the noble Baronesses, Lady Bakewell and Lady Parminter, with whom I worked closely, on the Opposition Benches; and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. There was a lot of very clear insight and knowledge that came through noble Lords’ contributions on this Bill, which is one of the reasons why this House is so good at improving legislation—I think this Bill really demonstrated that.
I would also like to thank the officials for their time and their patience with me and my many questions. It was very much appreciated from the Opposition Benches. Finally, I thank the Minister for his time and the constructive way he worked with those of us on the Opposition Benches. It is very much appreciated.
I thank the noble Baroness for her kind thanks.
To answer the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett—and I thank her for her challenge in this debate and this Bill—I am very keen to continue a conversation about how we raise people’s awareness about how this technology can help, or unravel some of the mystery that might surround people who are concerned about it at times. I assure her that will be the case.
On the question of Scotland and Wales, I hope in time they will see what we are doing and the direction in which the EU is moving on this. I hope they will listen to farmers and institutions like the Roslin Institute, Bangor and Aberystwyth universities, and the James Hutton Institute, and understand that this is an area where it is possible to develop technologies and where, if we all work together, Britain can be a leader. With that, I beg to move.
Bill passed and sent to the Commons.
Online Safety Bill
My Lords, I am very glad to be here to move the Second Reading of the Online Safety Bill. I know that this is a moment which has been long awaited in your Lordships’ House and noble Lords from across the House share the Government’s determination to make the online realm safer.
That is what this Bill seeks to do. As it stands, over three quarters of adults in this country express a concern about going online; similarly, the number of parents who feel the benefits outweigh the risks of their children being online has decreased rather than increased in recent years, falling from two-thirds in 2015 to barely over half in 2019. This is a terrible indictment of a means through which people of all ages are living increasing proportions of their lives, and it must change.
All of us have heard the horrific stories of children who have been exposed to dangerous and deeply harmful content online, and the tragic consequences of such experiences both for them and their families. I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, who arranged for a number of noble Lords, including me, to see some of the material which was pushed relentlessly at Molly Russell whose family have campaigned bravely and tirelessly to ensure that what happened to their daughter cannot happen to other young people. It is with that in mind, at the very outset of our scrutiny of this Bill, that I would like to express my gratitude to all those families who continue to fight for change and a safer, healthier online realm. Their work has been central to the development of this Bill. I am confident that, through it, the Government’s manifesto commitment to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online will be delivered.
This legislation establishes a regulatory regime which has safety at its heart. It is intended to change the mindset of technology companies so that they are forced to consider safety and risk mitigation when they begin to design their products, rather than as an afterthought.
All companies in scope will be required to tackle criminal content and activity online. If it is illegal offline; it is illegal online. All in-scope platforms and search services will need to consider in risk assessments the likelihood of illegal content or activity taking place on their site and put in place proportionate systems and processes to mitigate those risks. Companies will also have to take proactive measures against priority offences. This means platforms will be required to take proportionate steps to prevent people from encountering such content.
Not only that, but platforms will also need to mitigate the risk of the platform being used to facilitate or commit such an offence. Priority offences include, inter alia: terrorist material, child sexual abuse and exploitation, so-called revenge pornography and material encouraging or assisting suicide. In practice, this means that all in-scope platforms will have to remove this material quickly and will not be allowed to promote it in their algorithms.
Furthermore, for non-priority illegal content, platforms must have effective systems in place for its swift removal once this content has been flagged to them. Gone will be the days of lengthy and arduous complaints processes and platforms feigning ignorance of such content. They can and will be held to account.
As I have previously mentioned, the safety of children is of paramount importance in this Bill. While all users will be protected from illegal material, some types of legal content and activity are not suitable for children and can have a deeply damaging impact on their mental health and their developing sense of the world around them.
All in-scope services which are likely to be accessed by children will therefore be required to assess the risks to children on their service and put in place safety measures to protect child users from harmful and age inappropriate content. This includes content such as that promoting suicide, self-harm or eating disorders which does not meet a criminal threshold; pornography; and damaging behaviour such as bullying.
The Bill will require providers specifically to consider a number of risk factors as part of their risk assessments. These factors include how functionalities such as algorithms could affect children’s exposure to content harmful to children on their service, as well as children’s use of higher risk features on the service such as livestreaming or private messaging. Providers will need to take robust steps to mitigate and effectively manage any risks identified.
Companies will need to use measures such as age verification to prevent children from accessing content which poses the highest risk of harm to them, such as online pornography. Ofcom will be able to set out its expectations about the use of age assurance solutions, including age verification tools, through guidance. This guidance will also be able to refer to relevant standards. The Bill also now makes it clear that providers may need to use age assurance to identify the age of their users to meet the necessary child safety duties and effectively enforce age restrictions on their service.
The Government will set out in secondary legislation the priority categories of content harmful to children so that all companies are clear on what they need to protect children from. Our intention is to have the regime in place as soon as possible after Royal Assent, while ensuring the necessary preparations are completed effectively and service providers understand clearly what is expected. We are working closely with Ofcom and I will keep noble Lords appraised.
My ministerial colleagues in another place worked hard to strengthen these provisions and made commitments to introduce further provisions in your Lordships’ House. With regard to increased protections for children specifically, the Government will bring forward amendments at Committee stage to name the Children’s Commissioner for England as a statutory consultee for Ofcom when it is preparing a code of practice, ensuring that the experience of children and young people is accounted for during implementation.
We will also bring forward amendments to specify that category 1 companies—the largest and most risky platforms—will be required to publish a summary of their risk assessments for both illegal content and material that is harmful to children. This will increase transparency about illegal and harmful content on in-scope services and ensure that Ofcom can do its job regulating effectively.
We recognise the great suffering experienced by many families linked to children’s exposure to harmful content and the importance of this Bill in ending that. We must learn from the horrific events from the past to secure a safe future for children online.
We also understand that, unfortunately, people of any age may experience online abuse. For many adults, the internet is a positive source of entertainment and information and a way to connect with others; for some, however, it can be an arena for awful abuse. The Bill will therefore offer adult users a triple shield of protection when online, striking the right balance between protecting the right of adult users to access legal content freely, and empowering adults with the information and tools to manage their own online experience.
First, as I have outlined, all social media firms and search services will need to tackle illegal content and activity on their sites. Secondly, the Bill will require category 1 services to set clear terms of service regarding the user-generated content they prohibit and/or restrict access to, and to enforce those terms of service effectively. All the major social media platforms such as Meta, Twitter and TikTok say that they ban abuse and harassment online. They all say they ban the promotion of violence and violent threats, yet this content is still easily visible on those sites. People sign up to these platforms expecting one environment, and are presented with something completely different. This must stop.
As well as ensuring the platforms have proper systems to remove banned content, the Bill will also put an end to services arbitrarily removing legal content. The largest platform category 1 services must ensure that they remove or restrict access to content or ban or suspend users only where that is expressly allowed in their terms of service, or where they otherwise have a legal obligation to do so.
This Bill will make sure that adults have the information they need to make informed decisions about the sites they visit, and that platforms are held to their promises to users. Ofcom will have the power to hold platforms to their terms of service, creating a safer and more transparent environment for all.
Thirdly, category 1 services will have a duty to provide adults with tools they can use to reduce the likelihood that they encounter certain categories of content, if they so choose, or to alert them to the nature of that content. This includes content which encourages, promotes, or provides instructions for suicide, self-harm or eating disorders. People will also have the ability to filter out content from unverified users if they so wish. This Bill will mean that adult users will be empowered to make more informed choices about what services they use, and to have greater control over whom and what they engage with online.
It is impossible to speak about the aspects of the Bill which protect adults without, of course, mentioning freedom of expression. The Bill needs to strike a careful balance between protecting users online, while maintaining adults’ ability to have robust—even uncomfortable or unpleasant—conversations within the law if they so choose. Freedom of expression within the law is fundamental to our democracy, and it would not be right for the Government to interfere with what legal speech is permitted on private platforms. Instead, we have developed an approach based on choice and transparency for adult users, bounded by major platforms’ clear commercial incentives to provide a positive experience for their users.
Of course, we cannot have robust debate without being accurately informed of the current global and national landscape. That is why the Bill includes particular protections for recognised news publishers, content of democratic importance, and journalistic content. We have been clear that sanctioned news outlets such as RT, formerly Russia Today, must not benefit from these protections. We will therefore bring forward an amendment in your Lordships’ House explicitly to exclude entities subject to sanctions from the definition of a recognised news publisher.
Alongside the safety duties for children and the empowerment tools for adults, platforms must also have effective reporting and redress mechanisms in place. They will need to provide accessible and effective mechanisms for users to report content which is illegal or harmful, or where it breaches terms and conditions. Users will need to be given access to effective mechanisms to complain if content is removed without good reason.
The Bill will place a duty on platforms to ensure that those reporting mechanisms are backed up by timely and appropriate redress mechanisms. Currently, internet users often do not bother to report harmful content they encounter online, because they do not feel that their reports will be followed up. That too must change. If content has been unfairly removed, it should be reinstated. If content should not have been on the site in question, it should be taken down. If a complaint is not upheld, the reasons should be made clear to the person who made the report.
There have been calls—including from the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, with whom I look forward to working constructively, as we have done heretofore—to use the Bill to create an online safety ombudsman. We will listen to all suggestions put forward to improve the Bill and the regime it ushers in with an open mind, but as he knows from our discussions, of this suggestion we are presently unconvinced. Ombudsman services in other sectors are expensive, often underused and primarily relate to complaints which result in financial compensation. We find it difficult to envisage how an ombudsman service could function in this area, where user complaints are likely to be complex and, in many cases, do not have the impetus of financial compensation behind them. Instead, the Bill ensures that, where providers’ user-reporting and redress mechanisms are not sufficient, Ofcom will have the power to take enforcement action and require the provider to improve its user-redress provisions to meet the standard required of them. I look forward to probing elements of the Bill such as this in Committee.
This regulatory framework could not be effective if Ofcom, as the independent regulator, did not have a robust suite of powers to take enforcement actions against companies which do not comply with their new duties, and if it failed to take the appropriate steps to protect people from harm. I believe the chairman of Ofcom, the noble Lord, Lord Grade of Yarmouth, is in his place. I am glad that he has been and will be following our debates on this important matter.
Through the Bill, Ofcom will have wide-ranging information-gathering powers to request any information from companies which is relevant to its safety functions. Where necessary, it will be able to ask a suitably skilled person to undertake a report on a company’s activity—for example, on its use of algorithms. If Ofcom decides to take enforcement action, it can require companies to take specific steps to come back into compliance.
Ofcom will also have the power to impose substantial fines of up to £18 million, or 10% of annual qualifying worldwide revenue, whichever is higher. For the biggest technology companies, this could easily amount to billions of pounds. These are significant measures, and we have heard directly from companies that are already changing their safety procedures to ensure they comply with these regulations.
If fines are not sufficient, or not deemed appropriate because of the severity of the breach, Ofcom will be able to apply for a court order allowing it to undertake business disruption measures. This could be blocking access to a website or preventing it making money via payment or advertising services. Of course, Ofcom will be able to take enforcement action against any company that provides services to people in the UK, wherever that company is located. This is important, given the global nature of the internet.
As the Bill stands, individual senior managers can be held criminally liable and face a fine for failing to ensure their platform complies with Ofcom’s information notice. Further, individual senior managers can face jail, a fine or both for failing to prevent the platform committing the offences of providing false information, encrypting information or destroying information in response to an information notice.
The Government have also listened to and acknowledged the need for senior managers to be made personally liable for a wider range of failures of compliance. We have therefore committed to tabling an amendment in your Lordships’ House which will be carefully designed to capture instances where senior managers have consented to or connived in ignoring enforceable requirements, risking serious harm to children. We are carefully designing this amendment to ensure that it can hold senior managers to account for their actions regarding the safety of children, without jeopardising the UK’s attractiveness as a place for technology companies to invest in and grow. We intend to base our offence on similar legislation recently passed in the Republic of Ireland, as well as looking carefully at relevant precedent in other sectors in the United Kingdom.
I have discussed the safety of children, adults, and everyone’s right to free speech. It is not possible to talk about this Bill without also discussing its protections for women and girls, who we know are disproportionately affected by online abuse. As I mentioned, all services in scope will need to seek out and remove priority illegal content proactively. There are a number of offences which disproportionately affect women and girls, such as revenge pornography and cyberstalking, which the Bill requires companies to tackle as a priority.
To strengthen protections for women in particular, we will be listing controlling or coercive behaviour as a priority offence. Companies will have to take proactive measures to tackle this type of illegal content. We will also bring forward an amendment to name the Victims’ Commissioner and the domestic abuse commissioner as statutory consultees for the codes of practice. This means there will be a requirement for Ofcom to consult both commissioners ahead of drafting and amending the codes of practice, ensuring that victims, particularly victims and survivors of domestic abuse, are better protected. The Secretary of State and our colleagues have been clear that women’s and girls’ voices must be heard clearly in developing this legislation.
I also want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the concerns voiced over the powers for the Secretary of State regarding direction in relation to codes of practice that currently appear in the Bill. That is a matter on which my honourable friend Paul Scully and I were pressed by your Lordships’ Communications and Digital Committee when we appeared before it last week. As we explained then, we remain committed to ensuring that Ofcom maintains its regulatory independence, which is vital to the success of this framework. As we are introducing ground-breaking regulation, our aim is to balance the need for the regulator’s independence with appropriate oversight by Parliament and the elected Government.
We intend to bring forward two changes to the existing power: first, replacing the “public policy” wording with a defined list of reasons that a direction can be made; and secondly, making it clear that this element of the power can only be used in exceptional circumstances. I would like to reassure noble Lords—as I sought to reassure the Select Committee—that the framework ensures that Parliament will always have the final say on codes of practice, and that strong safeguards are in place to ensure that the use of this power is transparent and proportionate.
Before we begin our scrutiny in earnest, it is also necessary to recognise that this Bill is not just establishing a regulatory framework. It also updates the criminal law concerning communication offences. I want to thank the Law Commission for its important work in helping to strengthen criminal law for victims. The inclusion of the new offences for false and threatening communications offers further necessary protections for those who need it most. In addition, the Bill includes new offences to criminalise cyberflashing and epilepsy trolling. We firmly believe that these new offences will make a substantive difference to the victims of such behaviour. The Government have also committed to adding an additional offence to address the encouragement or assistance of self-harm communications and offences addressing intimate image abuse online, including deep- fake pornography. Once these offences are introduced, all companies will need to treat this content as illegal under the framework and take action to prevent users from encountering it. These new offences will apply in respect of all victims of such activity, children as well as adults.
This Bill has been years in the making. I am proud to be standing here today as the debate begins in your Lordships’ House. I realise that noble Lords have been waiting long and patiently for this moment, but I know that they also appreciate that considerable work has already been done to ensure that this Bill is proportionate and fair, and that it provides the change that is needed.
A key part of that work was conducted by the Joint Committee, which conducted pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill, drawing on expertise from across both Houses of Parliament, from all parties and none. I am very glad that all the Members of your Lordships’ House who served on that committee are speaking in today’s debate: the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron; the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara and Lord Knight of Weymouth, who have very helpfully been called to service on the Opposition Front Bench; the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, who speaks for the Liberal Democrats; as well as my noble friends Lord Black of Brentwood and Lord Gilbert of Panteg.
While I look forward to the contributions of all Members of your Lordships’ House, and will continue the open-minded, collaborative approach established by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and her predecessors—listening to all ideas which are advanced to make this Bill as effective as it can be—I urge noble Lords who are not yet so well-versed in its many clauses and provisions, or who might be disinclined to accept at first utterance the points I make from this Dispatch Box, to consult those noble Lords before bringing forward their amendments in later stages of the Bill. I say that not to discourage noble Lords from doing so, but in the spirit of ensuring that what they do bring forward, and our deliberations on them, will be pithy, focused, and conducive to making this Bill law as swiftly as possible. In that spirit, I shall draw my already too lengthy remarks to a close. I beg to move.
My Lords, like many in your Lordships’ House, I am relieved to be finally speaking on the Second Reading of this important Bill. I am very grateful to the Minister for his introduction. Despite being central to a recent manifesto and having all-party support, it has taken nearly six years to get us to this moment, as the Minister alluded to. A revolving door of four Prime Ministers and seven changes in Secretary of State have not exactly been conducive to this process.
But it is also fair to say that the Bill has been strengthened by consultation and by the detailed pre-legislative scrutiny carried out by the Joint Committee, to whom I pay tribute. It means that this version of the Bill bears a very welcome resemblance to the Joint Committee’s report. I also thank the Communications and Digital Select Committee for its ongoing work and warmly acknowledge the long-term campaigning work of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and others in and outside this House.
It seems that every passing week reminds us why stronger online regulation is needed. Just today, we read that the influence of Andrew Tate, despite his being in custody in Romania, has whipped up a storm of rape and death threats directed to my colleague in the other place, Alex Davies-Jones. And writ large is the damning verdict of the inquest into Molly Russell’s death. I want to pay tribute to the determination of her father, Ian, who is present with us today.
In today’s digital age, social media is everywhere: in our homes, workplaces and schools. With the rise of virtual reality, it is also in our heads. It is a central influence on what we buy and think, and how we interact and behave. The power and money at stake are enormous, yet the responsibilities are minimal and accountability lacking.
The focus of this long and complex Bill is on reducing the seemingly ever-increasing harms caused by social media services and search engines, whose algorithms generate detailed pictures of who we are and push us towards certain types of content, even if it impacts on our physical and mental health. As we know, Molly Russell tragically took her own life after having been bombarded with material relating to depression, self-harm and suicide.
Many platforms have upped their game since, but the need for this legislation has not diminished: there remain too many cases of children and vulnerable adults being exposed to digital content that is simply not appropriate. I welcome the arrival of the Bill, but it is too late and, due to recent changes, arguably too narrow. We must now do what we can to get it on the statute book as soon as possible.
The Government have committed to changes in your Lordships’ House, but we need to see the detail, and soon, not least because of the significant public and stakeholder interest. It has become fashionable to leave major changes to legislation until Report stage, leaving noble Lords unsighted and limiting the scope for improvement. I hope the Minister will commit to bucking this trend and give noble Lords early sight of the Government’s thinking.
On these Benches, we will, as always, work constructively with colleagues across the House, and hopefully with the Minister too, as we have already been doing. But, in so doing, we must acknowledge that this Bill is unlikely to be the last word. A future Labour Government will want to return to these issues, to tidy up any deficiencies that are identified once the Bill becomes law.
I now turn to some of our priorities. I am in no doubt that other noble Lords will add to this list. There is a legitimate concern around the decision of Ministers to take powers of direction over what is supposed to be an independent regulator and to leave so much to secondary legislation. The need for flexibility is indeed understood, but Parliament must have an active role, rather than being sidelined.
On the protection of children, despite notable progress by many platforms, too many failings exist. Several children’s charities have put forward important recommendations. The NSPCC has called for user advocacy to influence future regulation, while Barnardo’s wants restrictions on access to online pornography, holding the Government to their previous promises.
The scrapping of legal but harmful provisions means a lack of protection for vulnerable adults. The Samaritans, for example, is keen to ensure that self-harm provisions properly capture vulnerable adults as well as children. We understand that defining the term is difficult, but a solution has to be found.
On anti-Semitism, racism and general abuse, the Government shifted policy in response to a former Conservative leadership hopeful who said that we cannot legislate for hurt feelings. We believe in free speech, but it is not clear that DCMS has found the right balance with its triple shield. The toggle system may prevent users from seeing categories of harmful material, but it will still exist and influence others unless the Government compel an auto-on setting.
On violence against women and girls, I welcome the commitments made in relation to cyberflashing and making controlling behaviour a priority offence. I hope the Minister confirms that there will be work with an extensive range of relevant stakeholders to build on the amendments already made, and to identify and close potential loopholes in forthcoming text.
We find it unacceptable that the Government have stripped back the Bill’s media literacy provisions at a time when these skills are more important than ever. I am grateful to organisations such as Full Fact for highlighting the need to equip people of all ages, but particularly children, with the skills necessary to identify misinformation and disinformation. We have all seen the damage caused by vaccine disinformation, not only on Covid but on HPV. This extends to other areas; social media is awash with misleading material on nutrition, breastfeeding and natural health remedies, to name but a few. Once again, we acknowledge that some platforms perform well in response to such issues, but the recent takeover of Twitter has highlighted how swiftly and radically that can change.
I know that the Minister has been working on this agenda for some time and that he wants to get it right. We can all share our own experiences or those of friends or family in respect of online harm and abuse. We can also all cite ways in which technological innovation has improved our lives. We therefore all have a stake in improving this legislation. We have a long and complex process ahead of us, but uniquely there is no political divide on the Bill. Therefore I hope that in the finest traditions of your Lordships’ House we will work together to improve what is before us, while recognising that this is unlikely to be the last word.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, and the spirit of co-operation they have both shown in introducing the Bill. On our side we will be led by my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones, who is keeping his powder dry for the summing up.
I was pleased that there was praise for the pre-legislative scrutiny, which is a very useful tool in our locker. I was a member of the Puttnam committee, which in 2002 looked at what became the last Communications Act, and I took two lessons from that. The first was the creation of Ofcom as a regulator with teeth; it is important that we go forward with that. The other was the Puttnam amendment adding the protection of citizens’ interests to that of consumer interests as part of its responsibilities. Those twin responsibilities—to the consumer and the citizen—are valuable when addressing this Bill.
It is worth remembering that, although it may be a future Labour Government who deal with this, my experience is that this is not a dress rehearsal; this is the main event and we should seize the day. It has been 20 years since the last Bill, six years since the Green Paper, and five years since the White Paper, with a cavalcade of Secretaries of State. This House is entitled to stress-test and kick tyres in today’s debate and in Committee to see if the powers and scope meet the threats, challenges and opportunities posed by this technology.
We will play our part in delivering a Bill which is fit for purpose, but the Government must play theirs by being flexible in their approach in response to legitimate concerns and sensible amendments addressing them. The noble Baroness, Lady Merron, has already voiced concerns about powers left in the hands of future Secretaries of State. We will study what has been said this afternoon on those matters.
We welcome the Bill’s focus on protecting children. I do not think anybody who went to the presentation on the evidence in the Molly Russell inquest could have left with anything other than a determination that something must be done about this. Equally, the concerns of End Violence Against Women and other groups pose questions on whether this legislation goes far enough in the protections needed, which will have to be tested. There are real worries about the lack of minimum requirements for terms of service and the removal of risk assessment for adults. The noble Lord, Lord Bethell, has been raising very pertinent questions about age verification and access to pornography. The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, and I intend to raise questions in Committee about the free pass given to newspapers by this legislation, although much of their activity is now online. There is no specific commitment, as has been said, to expand media literacy, despite it being a major recommendation of the Puttnam committee 20 years ago.
The internet has been an amazing catalyst for change, innovation and creativity. But those benefits have come at a price of targeted actions designed to cause harms to individuals and institutions. On all Benches we believe that freedom of expression is important, but liberal democracies have a right to provide a framework of protection against those who seek to harm it. Much will depend on the response to legislation and regulation by the internet companies. The public are not stupid; they can differentiate between tick-box exercises and compliance, between profit maximisation and social responsibility. The noble Lord, Lord Grade, is also not stupid and I wish him well as chair of Ofcom.
My work on the Puttnam committee 20 years ago was among the most satisfying of my parliamentary life. I hope we will all have similar feelings when we complete our work on this Bill.
My Lords, I declare my interests as chair of 5Rights Foundation and the Digital Futures Commission, my positions at Oxford and LSE and at the UN Broadband Commission and the Institute for Ethics in AI, as deputy chair of the APPG on digital regulation and as a member of the Joint Committee on this Bill.
As has already been mentioned, on Monday I hosted the saddest of events, at which Ian Russell and Merry Varney, the Russell family’s solicitor, showed parliamentarians images and posts that had been algorithmically recommended to Molly in the lead-up to her death. These were images so horrible that they cannot be shown in the media, so numerous that we could see only a fraction, and so full of despair and violence that many of the adult professionals involved in the inquest had to seek counselling. Yet in court, much of this material was defended by two tech companies as being suitable for a 14 year-old. Something has gone terribly wrong. The question is: is this Bill sufficient to fix it?
At the heart of our debates should not be content but the power of algorithms that shape our experiences online. Those algorithms could be designed for any number of purposes, including offering a less toxic digital environment, but they are instead fixed on ranking, nudging, promoting and amplifying anything to keep our attention, whatever the societal cost. It does not need to be like that. Nothing about the digital world is a given; it is 100% engineered and almost all privately owned; it can be designed for any outcome. Now is the time to end the era of tech exceptionality and to mandate a level of product safety so that the sector, just like any other sector, does not put its users at foreseeable risk of harm. As Meta’s corporate advertising adorning bus stops across the capital says:
“The metaverse may be virtual, but the impact will be real.”
I very much welcome the Bill, but there are still matters to discuss. The Government have chosen to take out many of the protections for adults, which raises questions about the value and practicality of what remains. In Committee, it will be important to understand how enforcement of a raft of new offences will be resourced and to question the oversight and efficacy of the remaining adult provisions. Relying primarily on companies to be author, judge and jury of their own terms of service may well be a race to the bottom.
I regret that Parliament has been denied the proper opportunity to determine what kind of online world we want for adults, which, I believe, we will regret as technology enters its next phase of intelligence and automation. However, my particular concern is the fate of children, whose well-being is collateral damage to a profitable business model. Changes to the Bill will mean that child safety duties are no longer an add-on to a generally safer world; they are now the first and only line of defence. I have given the Secretary of State sight of my amendments, and I inform the House that they are not probing amendments; they are necessary to fill the gaps and loopholes in the Bill as it now stands. In short, we need to ensure that child safety duties apply to all services likely to be accessed by children. We must ensure the quality control of all age-assurance systems. Age checking must not focus on a particular harm, but on the child; it needs to be secure, privacy-preserving and proportionate, and it must work. The children’s risk assessment and the list of harms must cover each of the four Cs: content harm, conduct harm, contact harm and commercial harm, such as the recommendation loops of violence and self-hatred that push thousands of children into states of misery. Those harms must be in the Bill.
Coroners and bereaved parents must have access to data relevant to the death of a child to end the current inhumane arrangement whereby bereaved families facing the devasting loss of their child are forced to battle, unsuccessfully, with tech behemoths for years. I hope that the Minister will reiterate commitments made in the other place to close that loophole.
Children’s rights must be in the Bill. An unintended consequence of removing protections for adults is that children will now cost companies vastly more developer time, more content moderation and more legal costs than adults. The digital world is the organising technology of our society, and children need to be online for their education and information to participate in civic society—they must not be kicked out.
I thank all those who have indicated their support, and the Secretary of State, the Minister and officials for the considerable time they have given me. However, I ask the Minister to listen very carefully to the mood of the House this evening; the matters I have raised are desperately urgent and long-promised, and must now be delivered unequivocally.
While millions of children suffer from the negative effects of the online world, some pay with their lives. I am a proud supporter of a group of bereaved parents for online safety, and I put on the record that we remember Molly, Frankie, Olly, Breck, Sophie and all the others who have lost their lives. I hope that the whole House will join me in not resting until we have a Bill fit for their memory.
My Lords, that is not an easy speech to follow, but I begin by declaring my interest as a Church Commissioner, as set out in the register. We have substantial holdings in many of the big tech companies. I am also vice-chair of the Church of England Ethical Investment Advisory Group. I commend the attention of noble Lords to our recent report on big tech that was published last September. There, we set out five core principles that we believe should guide our investment in and engagement with big tech companies: flourishing as persons, flourishing in relationships, standing with the marginalised, caring for creation and serving the common good. If we apply those principles to our scrutiny of this Bill, we will not only improve lives but save lives.
I will focus my remaining remarks on three areas. First, as the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, and the noble Lord, Lord McNally, have noted, the powers granted to the Secretary of State to direct Ofcom on its codes of practice and provide tactical and strategic guidance put Ofcom’s independence at risk. While I recognise that the Government have sought to address these concerns, more is required—Clauses 39 and 157 are not fit for purpose in their present form. We also need clear safeguards and parliamentary scrutiny for Secretary of State powers in the Bill that will allow them to direct Ofcom to direct companies in whatever we mean by “special circumstances”. Maintaining Ofcom’s autonomy in decision-making is critical to preserving freedom of expression more broadly. While the pace of technological innovation sometimes requires very timely response, the Bill places far too much power in the hands of the Secretary of State.
Secondly, while the Bill encompasses activity within the remit of regulators beyond Ofcom, it is largely silent on formal co-operation. I encourage the Government to introduce a general duty to co-operate with other regulators to ensure a good and effective enforcement of the various regulatory regimes. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm whether the Government will commit to looking at this once more.
Finally, I turn, as others have done, to the protection of children. The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, has just spoken powerfully. Can we really claim that this Bill serves to mitigate the harm that children face online when consultation of children has so far been lacking? I welcome the Minister’s remarks about the Children’s Commissioner in this regard, but we can and should go further. In particular, we should centre our decisions on promoting children’s well-being rather than on simply minimising harm. My right reverend friend the Bishop of Durham regrets that he is unable to be in his place today. I know he plans to raise these questions as the Bill progresses.
Related to this, we must ensure that any activity online through which children are groomed for criminal exploitation is monitored. A reporting mechanism should be brought in so that such information is shared with the police. My right reverend friend the Bishop of Derby is unable to speak today, but as vice- chair of the Children’s Society, she will follow these issues closely.
This Bill has arrived with us so late and so overcrowded that I had begun to think it was being managed by my good friends at Avanti trains. However, here at last it is. I look forward to working with noble Lords to improve this important and welcome legislation. It is my hope that, as we continue to scrutinise and improve the Bill, we will move ever closer to fulfilling those five core principles I set out: flourishing as persons, flourishing in relationships, standing with the marginalised, caring for creation and serving the common good.
My Lords, I draw attention to my interests as a trustee of the Loughborough Wellbeing Centre, director of Santander and the Financial Services Compensation Scheme, chair of the Association of British Insurers and board member at Grayling. In fact, I could draw attention to all my interests, because what we are debating today, with online search engines and online platforms, are organisations that reach into every corner of our lives now. I want to thank current Ministers for getting us to this stage. We have heard that this is long overdue regulation. I plead guilty to being one of the “cavalcade” of previous Secretaries of State mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, but I am pleased that I have played my part in keeping this Bill on the road.
When we have passed this legislation, the UK will be world leading. That needs to be recognised, but it also means that this legislation is new and not easy, as we have heard. Polling from More in Common has said that in a list of six comparative European countries, the British are most likely to say that the Government are not doing enough to regulate social media platforms. In the brief time available, I want to set out some key themes and amendments which I hope to raise in Committee.
I welcome the criminal offences relating to violence against women and girls added to the Bill, but the whole environment of these platforms, where such online violence has become normalised and misogyny allowed to flourish unchecked, needs to change. I am afraid that adding selected offences is insufficient, and I will be calling for a specific code of practice, to be drafted by Ofcom, that the platforms and search engines will need to follow to show that they are taking the proliferation of violence against women and girls seriously.
We will hear today many arguments about freedom of speech and expression, but what about the right to access and participation online without being abused and harassed? Online violence against women and girls curtails women’s freedom of expression. The advice to avoid social media—which I myself, as a Member of Parliament, received from the authorities and the police—respects no one’s freedoms. As we have heard, women and girls are 27 times more likely to experience harassment online.
We have also heard from Luke Pollard in the other place a mention of incels. While this is a complicated topic, unfortunately what is true is that data from the Center for Countering Digital Hate has found that visits to incel websites are only increasing every day, and the content on them is getting more extreme. Many small platforms hosting incels set their own terms and conditions, allowing for violent and misogynistic discussions. How the Bill tackles those issues will be of great importance and a subject of discussion in this House.
I was disappointed that the legal but harmful restrictions were dropped, but I understand why Ministers chose to do so. However, I agree that, as we have already heard, the user empowerment toggle should be set to “on” by default. Just because a user decides not to see abusive and harmful content does not mean that it is not there, either influencing others or, where it is unfortunately necessary, for the user to see so that they can provide evidence to the authorities, including the police. I include my own experience of having seen that abuse, gathering it and then sending it to the authorities. If we have the toggle set to “off”, in relation to violence against women and girls the onus will yet again be on women to protect themselves, rather than the abuser being compelled to cease their abuse. Related themes to explore in Committee will be the minimum standards needed for risk assessments, as well as minimum standards for platforms’ terms and conditions; the publication of risk assessments to create a culture of transparency on the part of service providers; and further detail on how the information gathered by Ofcom under Clause 68 is to be used.
We will hear discussion—we already have—about the welcome creation of the offence of sending communication which encourages serious self-harm. However, as we have heard, Samaritans has pointed out that all such content needs to be regulated across all platforms for all users. Turning 18 does not stop young people being vulnerable to suicide or self-harm content. I also support the calls by Vicky Ford and others to specifically include eating disorders within the self-harm clause.
It was my pleasure last year to chair this House’s special committee on the Fraud Act 2006 and digital fraud. Time is short, but there will be more to say on the issues of fraud, as well as independent researchers’ access to information. My noble friend the Minister has mentioned senior manager liability. We will wait to see what the clause introduced says, but it needs to be sufficiently tough to change the culture.
I will absolutely support the amendment proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and that proposed by my noble friend Lord Bethell, on age verification for online pornography.
I was recently at an event in this building with tech companies, including a major search engine, who complained that, via the Bill, the Government are experimenting on them. I put it to them then, and I say now, that these companies have experimented on us, particularly our children and vulnerable adults, for years without facing the consequences of the illegal and harmful material across their platforms and search engines. The Bill is long overdue. I look forward to the debates and amendments.
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan—and slightly intimidating. I draw the House’s attention to my register of interests: I am a director of the Antisemitism Policy Trust and a director of HOPE not hate, and I remain the chief executive of Index on Censorship. I have also had appalling experiences online. In all these capacities I have been intimately involved with the passage of this legislation over the last two years. Like every one of your Lordships, I desperately want to see a better and safer internet for all users, especially children and the most vulnerable, but I worry about the unintended consequences of certain clauses, particularly for our collective and legal right of freedom of expression.
There are certain core premises that should guide our approach to online regulation. What is legal offline should be legal online. We need secure and safe communication channels to protect us all of us, but especially dissidents and journalists, so end-to-end encryption needs to be safeguarded. Our ability to protect our identities online can be life-saving, for domestic violence victims as much as for political dissidents, so we need to ensure that the principle of online anonymity is protected. Each of these principles is undermined by the current detail of the Bill, and I hope to work with many of your Lordships in the weeks ahead to add additional safeguards.
However, some of my greatest concerns about the current proposals relate to illegal content: the definition of what is illegal, the arbiters of illegality and, in turn, what happens to the content. The current proposals require the platforms to determine what is illegal content and then delete it. In theory this seems completely reasonable, but the reality will be more complicated.
I fear what a combination of algorithms and corporate prosecution may mean for freedom of expression online. The risk appetite of the platforms is likely to be severely reduced by this legislation. Therefore, I believe that they are likely to err on the side of caution when considering where the illegality threshold falls, leading to over-deletion. This will be compounded by the use of algorithms rather than people to detect nuance and illegal content.
I will give your Lordships an example of an unintended consequence this has already led to. A video of anti-government protests in Lebanon was deleted on some current platforms because an algorithm picked up only one word of the Arabic chants: Hezbollah, an organisation rightly proscribed in the UK. But the video actually featured anti-Hezbollah chants. It was an anti-extremism demonstration and, I would speculate, contained anti-extremist messaging that many of us would like to see go viral rather than be deleted.
Something is already twice as likely to be deleted from a platform by an algorithm if it is in Urdu or Arabic, rather than English. This will become even more common unless we tighten the definition of illegality and provide platforms with a digital evidence locker where content can be stored before a final decision on deletion is made, thus protecting our speech online.
The issue of deletion is deeply personal for me. Many of your Lordships may be aware that, as a female Jewish Labour Member of the other place, I was subjected to regular and vicious anti-Semitic and misogynist online abuse—abuse that too often became threats of violence and death. Unfortunately, these threats continue and have a direct effect on my personal security. I know when I am most vulnerable because I see a spike in my comments online. These comments are monitored—thankfully not by me—and, when necessary, are referred to the police, with the relevant evidence chain, so that people can be prosecuted.
Can the Minister explain how these people will be prosecuted for harassment, or worse, if the content is automatically deleted? How will I know if someone is threatening to kill me if the threat has already gone? I genuinely believe that the Government wish to make people safer online, as do we all, but I fear that this Bill will not only curtail free speech online but make me and others much less safe offline. There is significant work to do to make sure that is not the case.
My Lords, the internet is a double-edged sword. It enables people to connect with work, education, information and social activities. It gives visibility to those often hidden from society. But it can be a dangerous place for many, especially disabled people, many of whom are vulnerable to attack merely for who they are. I want to focus on the indiscriminate abuse that disabled people face online.
In January 2019, the Petitions Committee published its report Online Abuse and the Experience of Disabled People, following a petition by Katie Price about her son Harvey. The committee heard evidence of extreme levels of abuse, not only on social media but in online games, web forums and in media website comments. As one disabled poet and writer wrote:
“I’ve been called an ‘it’ many times—‘What is IT doing?’ … I’ve had remarks about how I look in my wheelchair, and a few times the statements, ‘You should have been aborted’, and, ‘You don’t deserve to live’”,
and, “Why are you online?” The committee rightly concluded that the law was not fit for purpose.
The Bill does not do enough to address such abuse. The other place recently weakened the protections for disabled people, replacing the provisions on legal but harmful content with a triple shield of duties to remove illegal content for adults and harmful content for under-18s, and to empower adult users.
Under Clause 12, social media companies must now tackle content which is abusive or incites hatred towards disabled people. That is encouraging, but it is the companies that decide that, so in practice it may not change anything. We know that moderating social media is the Wild West. There is no consistency between platforms. It depends on the algorithms they use and the discretion of their moderators.
Clause 18 adds to those problems, requiring platforms also to consider freedom of expression and privacy issues. They will be in an impossible position, caught between competing claims for protection from abuse and freedom of speech. At the very least, the legal but harmful provisions must be restored.
Greater control for disabled people using social media is laudable. They must be consulted on the best way to achieve that. The Bill says that terms of service must be “clear and accessible”. It should provide for Ofcom to give guidance with input from disabled people. It should not be left to social media services to set their own standards.
Consistency is also vital for the way the verification process works. Clause 57 refers to “verification … of any kind” and “clear and accessible” explanations. Ofcom’s guidance will be crucial on both issues, with disabled people’s input essential. It should be mandatory to follow the guidance.
Will the Minister assure me that he will address these matters before Committee? Will he meet me and disability organisations which have expertise in this field for guidance? This is a landmark Bill and very welcome. Let us ensure that it works for everybody, especially those who need it most.
My Lords, it is an honour and privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, and all those who have spoken in this debate. As a member of your Lordships’ Committee on Artificial Intelligence and a founding member of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, I have followed the slow progress of this Bill since the original White Paper. We have seen increasing evidence that many social media platforms are unwilling to acknowledge, let alone prevent, harms of the kind this vital Bill addresses. We know that there is an all too porous frontier between the virtual world and the physical world. The resulting harms damage real lives, real families, and real children, as we have heard.
There is a growing list of priority harms and now there is concern, as well as excitement, over new AIs such as ChatGPT; they demonstrate yet again that technology has no inherent precautionary principles. Without systemic checks and balances, AI in every field develops faster than society can respond. We are and for ever will be catching up with the technology.
The Bill is very welcome, marking as it does a belated but important step towards rebalancing a complex but vital aspect of public life. I pay tribute to the Government and to civil servants for their patient efforts to address a complex set of ethical and practical issues in a proportionate way. But the job is not yet fully done.
I will concentrate on three particular areas of concern with the draft Bill. First, removal of risk assessments regarding harm to adults is concerning. Surely every company has a basic moral duty to assess the risk of its products or services to customers and consumers. Removal can only undermine a risk-based approach to regulation. Can the Minister explain how conducting a risk assessment erodes or threatens freedom of speech? My second concern, mentioned by others, is the Secretary of State’s powers in relation to Ofcom. This country has a record of independence of our own media regulators. Others have touched on that, so I will not elaborate. The third area of concern I wish to raise is the Bill’s provision—or rather lack of provision—over disinformation of various kinds. I currently serve on your Lordships’ Environment and Climate Change Committee; climate disinformation and medical disinformation inflict substantial harms on society and must be included in user empowerment tools.
Other right reverend Prelates will raise their own concerns in the forthcoming Committee. My right reverend friend the Bishop of Gloucester believes that it is imperative that we prevent technology-facilitated domestic abuse, as well as bring in a code of practice to keep women and girls safe online. To help young people flourish, we should look at controlling algorithmically served content, restrictions on face and body-editing apps, as well as improving media literacy overall. She is unable to speak today, but will follow these issues closely.
The Bill is vital for the health of children and adults, and the flourishing of our whole society. I look forward to progress being made in this House.
My Lords, I refer to my registered interests, in particular my work with Common Sense Media, a US not-for-profit that is focused on internet safety for children. What a pleasure it is to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford—my local bishop, no less. I always find it a great thing that it is our Bishops who read their speeches from iPads; we have iBishops in this Chamber who are far more technologically advanced than the rest of us. What a pleasure it is to see our national treasure the Arts Minister on the Front Bench; yesterday he launched the 2021 report of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which displays ancient treasures dug up from many centuries ago. I thought he might be presented with the first consultation paper on the Online Safety Bill, because it has taken so long to get to the stage where we are today.
A dozen years ago, when we talked about the impact of the internet, we were actually focused on copyright infringement; that was the big issue of the day. It is quite instructive to think about what happened there; it was a combination of technology, but also business solutions, licensing and the creation of companies such as Spotify that had an impact. But piracy remains with us, and will continue to remain with us because of the internet.
I like to think that the Jurassic journey of the Online Safety Bill began with an Adjournment debate by the then Member for Devizes, Claire Perry, who began a debate about protecting children from adult content on the internet, which is one of the most important issues. That led to her being commissioned to do a review by the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, and that began the ball rolling. But Prime Minister David Cameron’s biggest intervention, which I remember well, was to tackle Google on the issue of child sex abuse. At the time the prevailing mood, which still prevails, was that politicians do not understand technology—you cannot regulate the internet, “Get your tanks off our lawn”. But Cameron said, “We will legislate unless you do something”, and Google, which said it was impossible, eventually came up with something like 150,000 search terms which would give a non-search return and refer the searcher to get some help, frankly—that is what the page would come up with.
That was instructive because it was a combination of government action, but in tackling child sexual abuse we had relied on not-for-profits, such as the Internet Watch Foundation. As we debate a piece of legislation and call on the Government to do this or that, it is important to remember that the internet has always had many governors, if you like—civic society, business, not-for-profits and charities—all of which must continue to play an important role in internet policing, as must the platforms themselves, where technology has improved in leaps and bounds. We have heard some of the criticisms of the technology they use and the impact it has on the people who are relied on by some of these technology companies to police content. Nevertheless, they have made progress. We must also remember that the platforms are not publishers or broadcasters; they are still new technology.
I unequivocally support the Bill—frankly, in whatever form it takes once your Lordships have fully considered it. It must be passed because it is time to regulate the internet. Ofcom is absolutely the right regulator to do this. I have been hugely impressed by the amount of work it has put into preparing for this role. The overall approach taken in the Bill is the right one: to police not every piece of content but the terms and conditions. This week, Ofcom published a very important document pointing out that transparency, holding the platforms to account and exposing how they regulate their content will make a massive difference.
The Government have made the right compromise on legal but harmful. I counsel against the Christmas tree effect of wanting to hang every single different concern on to the Bill; let us keep our eye on the prize. Having said that, I will fully support my noble friend Lord Bethell in his points on age verification and the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, with her amendment.
This is the end of the beginning. The Bill will not eradicate all the nasty things we see on the internet but, for the first time, the platforms will be accountable. It is very important to support this legislation. The Minister did not mention the European Union’s important legislation on this issue, but we are beginning to make progress across the world.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow other noble Lords on this issue. This legislation is undoubtedly long overdue. Without doubt, the internet has changed the way in which we live our lives. For many this change has been positive. However, the internet, in particular social media, has created a toxic online world. We have only to listen to the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and my noble friend Lady Anderson to realise that. As a result, the internet has become abusive, misogynistic and dangerous. Many noble Lords from across the House have personal experience of this toxic world of online abuse. Any measures that seek to place curbs and limits on that type of content are to be welcomed.
While it is important to protect adults from abuse online, it is more important that we get the Bill’s protections right for children. I welcome its provisions in respect of age verification, but for many across the House it is a surprise that we are even debating age verification. Legislation was passed in 2017 but inexplicably not implemented by the Government. That legislation would have ensured that age verification was in place to protect children over five years ago. While the Bill includes age assurance measures, it is disappointing that its provisions are not as robust as those passed in 2017. Also, it is concerning that age verification is not uniformly applied across Parts 3 and 5. What actions and steps will the Minister and his colleagues take in Committee with government amendments on this issue?
As this Bill makes progress through this House, it will be important to ensure that age verification is robust and consistent, but we must also ensure that what happened to the Digital Economy Act cannot be allowed to happen to this legislation. The Government cannot be allowed to slow down or even abandon age verification measures. This Bill, while welcome, needs to be amended to ensure that age verification is actually implemented and enforced. This must happen as quickly as possible after the Bill becomes law. I believe that age verification should be in place no later than six months after this Bill is passed.
The need for robust age verification is beyond any reasonable argument. Children should be protected from viewing harmful content online. The law in this regard should be simple. If a platform contains pornographic content, children should be prevented from viewing it. More than that, pornography that is prohibited offline should be prohibited online. Reading the provisions of this Bill carefully, it is my belief that the Bill falls short in both regards.
I look forward to the passage of this Bill through the House and, while it is a very welcome development to be discussing and having this Bill, it is important that the provisions and clauses within it are totally strengthened.
My Lords, I have two observations, two pleas, one offer of help and four minutes to deliver all this, so here goes.
Observation one is that this Bill is our answer to the age-old question of “quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” or, in the vernacular, “Who watches the watchmen?” With several thousand strokes of the pen, Parliament is granting to itself the power to tell tens of thousands of online services how they should manage their platforms if they wish to access the UK market. Parliament will give directions to Ofcom about the outcomes it wants to see and Ofcom will translate these into detailed instructions and ensure compliance through a team of several hundred people that the platforms will pay for. In-scope services will be given a choice—pay up and follow Ofcom’s instructions or get out of the UK market. We are awarding ourselves significant superpowers in this Bill, and with power comes great scrutiny as I am sure will happen in this House.
My second observation is that regulating online content is hard. It is hard because of scale. If regulating traditional media is like air traffic controllers managing a few thousand flights passing over the UK each day, then regulating social media is more like trying to control all the 30 million private cars that have access to UK roads. It is hard because it requires judgment. For many types of speech there is not a bright line between what is legal and illegal so you have to work on the basis of likelihoods and not certainties. It is hard because it requires trade-offs—processes designed to remove “bad” content will invariably catch some “good” content and you have to decide on the right balance between precision and recall for any particular system, and the noble Baroness, Lady Anderson of Stoke-on-Trent, has already referred to some of these challenges with specific examples.
I make this observation not to try and elicit any sympathy for online services, but rather some sympathy for Ofcom as we assign it the most challenging of tasks. This brings me to my first plea, which is that we allow Ofcom to make decisions about what constitutes compliance with the duties of care in the Bill without others second-guessing it. Because judgments and trade-offs are a necessary part of content moderation, there will always be people who take opposing views on where lines should have been drawn. These views may come from individuals, civil society or even Ministers and may form important and valuable input for Ofcom’s deliberations. But we should avoid creating mechanisms that would lead to competing and potentially conflicting definitions of compliance emerging. One chain of command—Parliament to Ofcom to the platforms—is best for accountability and effective regulation.
My second plea is for us to avoid cookie banner syndrome. The pop-ups that we all click on when visiting websites are not there for any technical reason but because of a regulatory requirement. Their origins lie in a last-minute amendment to the e-privacy directive from Members of the European Parliament who had concerns about online behavioural advertising. In practice, they have had little impact on advertising while costing many millions and leaving most users at best mildly irritated and at worst in greater risk as they learn to click through anything to close banners and get to websites.
There are several elements in this Bill that are at risk of cookie banner syndrome. Measures such as age and identity verification and content controls can be useful if done well but could also be expensive and ineffective if we mandate solutions that look good on paper but do not work in practice. If you see me mouthing “cookies” at you as we discuss the Bill, please do not see it as an offer of American biscuits but as a flag that we may be about to make an expensive mistake.
This brings to me to my final point, which is an offer of technical advice for any noble Lords trying to understand how the Bill will work in practice: my door and inbox are always open. I have spent 25 years working on internet regulation as poacher turned gamekeeper, turned poacher, turned gamekeeper. I may have a little more sympathy with the poachers than most politicians, but I am all gamekeeper now and keen to see this Bill become law. For those who like this kind of thing, I share more extensive thoughts on the Bill than I can get into four minutes in a blog and podcast called “Regulate Tech”.
My Lords, I thank Mencap and the Royal College of Psychiatrists for their briefings. I will speak against the change in the other place which waters down the protections offered to adults, and focus in particular on adults without capacity.
The original Bill included protections for adults under the umbrella of “legal but harmful”, which gave robust directions to platforms on what content to remove. These protections must be reinstated; the triple shield is not enough. Your Lordships are presented with a system where social media platforms must filter only
“to the extent that it is proportionate to do so”,
assuming that all adults are capacitous all of the time and that they will be responsible for making their own choices to avoid seeing harmful content.
I recognise that there is an intended new duty for services to undertake a risk assessment on the impact of certain material on children, and to tackle the promotion of sites which share harmful content and to prevent children witnessing it, but this applies just to children. I agree with my noble friend Lady Kidron that tech companies must design for safety, just as we expect in the physical environment.
My main point is that there is no clear distinction between childhood and adulthood when it comes to mental health. I am concerned about the mental health consequences for anybody, whether child or adult, of seeing some of the images, messaging and push notifications which relentlessly pursue anyone who has ever engaged with one of the horrific sites like those seen by 14 year-old Molly Russell. These images are harmful to 14 year-olds; they are harmful to 24 year-olds; and they are harmful to 74 year-olds. Once seen, it is very hard to unsee them.
Misinformation and negative messaging are harmful to anyone who may struggle to belong and feel valued, whether at a vulnerable moment in their lives or as part of an ongoing struggle with depression. One in 20 Google searches is for health-related information. People in the UK apparently make 27 searches a minute for “depression”, 22 a minute for “stress”, and 21 a minute for anxiety. Given the waiting times for mental health support in the community, perhaps it is unsurprising that people seek help online. This Bill must have an emphasis on prevention. The Bill places duties on regulated providers but, as of June 2022, more than 500 hours of video were uploaded to YouTube every minute. This is content created and viewed by its users at a rate where any reactionary approach is doomed to fall quickly behind.
As legislators we must think of society as a whole, not just those who are fully engaged and economically productive citizens who currently feel invulnerable. Making sure that legislation works for people with a learning disability and those who may not have the understanding needed to protect themselves from harmful content should not be an add-on. Could the Minister suggest how the Bill could deliver greater protections to people with a learning disability or other cognitive or mental health reason for increased risk of online harm?
As I have said before, if we could get it right for people with learning disabilities, we could actually get it right for everyone.
My Lords, I am humbled to speak in this debate among many noble Lords who have spent years involved in or campaigning for this landmark legislation. I salute all of them and their work.
Like many, I support some parts of this Bill and am sceptical about others. The tension between free speech, privacy and online safety is not an easy one to resolve. We all accept, however reluctantly, that one Bill cannot cure all social ills—indeed, neither should it try. In fact, when it comes to online regulation, this is not the only legislation that is urgent and necessary: the digital markets, competition and consumer Bill is a critical, yet still missing, piece of the jigsaw to us achieving a strong regulatory framework. I hope the Government will bring it forward swiftly.
As my noble friend Lord Vaizey has already said, I see this Bill as the beginning of online regulation and not the end. I see it as our opportunity to make a strong start. For me, the top priority is to get the regulatory fundamentals right and to ensure we can keep updating the regime as needed in the years ahead. With my chair of the Communications and Digital Committee hat on, I will focus on key changes we believe are needed to achieve that. As I cannot do that justice in the time available, I direct any keen readers to our committee’s website, where my letter to the Secretary of State is available.
First, the regulator’s independence is of fundamental importance, as the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, and others have already mentioned. The separation of powers between the Executive and the regulator is the cornerstone of media regulation in western Europe. Any government powers to direct or give guidance should be clearly defined, justified and limited in scope. The Online Safety Bill, as it stands, gives us the opposite. Future Governments will have sweeping powers to direct and interfere with Ofcom’s implementation of the regulations.
I will come, in a moment, to my noble friend the Minister’s proposed remedy, which he mentioned in his opening remarks, but I stress that this is not a general complaint from me or the committee about executive overreach. Many of the Bill’s executive powers are key to ensuring the regime is responsive to changing needs, but there are some powers that are excessive and troubling. Clause 39 allows the Secretary of State to direct Ofcom to change its codes of practice on regulating social media firms. That is not about setting priorities; it is direct and unnecessary interference. In our view, the Government’s proposed amendment to clarify this clause, as my noble friend described, remains inadequate and does not respect the regulator’s independence. Clause 39 also empowers the Secretary of State to direct Ofcom in a private form of ping-pong as it develops codes of practice. This process could in theory go on for ever before any parliamentary oversight comes into play. Other powers are equally unnecessary. Clause 157 contains unconstrained powers to give “guidance” to Ofcom about any part of its work, to which it must have regard. Again, I fail to see the need, especially since the Government can already set strategic priorities and write to Ofcom.
Moving on, my committee is also calling for risk assessments for adult users to be reinstated, and this has already been mentioned by other noble Lords. That would have value for both supporters and critics of “legal but harmful”, by requiring platforms to be transparent about striking the balance between allowing adult users to filter out harmful content and protecting freedom of speech and privacy.
Finally, given the novel nature of the Bill, I hope the Government will reconsider their unwillingness to support the setting up of a Joint Committee of Parliament to scrutinise digital regulation across the board. This would address many general and specific concerns about implementation and keeping pace with digital developments that have been raised recently. Parliament needs to properly discharge its responsibilities, and fragmented oversight via a range of committees will not be good enough in this new, modern world.
Overall, and with all that said, I commend my noble friend and his colleagues for getting us to this point. I look forward to, and will support him in, completing the passage of this legislation in good order.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, and so many other fine speeches today. I should remind your Lordships of my interests. In particular, I have been working with GoBubble, which provides social media filtering technology. I was also a member of the Joint Committee on this Bill and was previously on the Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam.
Right at the heart of this Bill are just two interrelated factors. First, there are bad actors: people who deliberately or carelessly do harm to others both in the real world and virtually, both physically and mentally. Our problem is how content from these bad actors interacts with the systems and processes in the online world that personalise and amplify that content. In 2021, 44% of all global spending on advertising was with Meta and Alphabet-owned businesses. Their platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, are machines with the objective of maximising engagement time on the platform in order to sell more advertising.
The machines have no ethics; they have business objectives. If that means feeding outrageous, disturbing or harmful content, so be it. If that means pushing at Molly Russell content that has now been implicated by the coroner in her death, so be it. If that means the corruption of children, self-harm or fraud, so be it. Whatever turns you on, keeps you engaged and keeps you on the platform is what the machines will push your way. This week, the Children’s Commissioner for England reported that one in five boys watch porn at least every day; that more than half of frequent users seek out violent sex acts; and that Twitter is the site where the highest proportion report seeing explicit sexual content.
The platforms are not all bad but the harms of manipulation and corruption are real and urgent. We must, and will, work together to get this Bill improved and passed by the summer. In doing so, our job with this Bill is to impose ethics on the algorithms used by platforms. This is less about bad content and more about systems. It is about content takedown and content suppression. It is as much about freedom of reach as freedom of speech. For too many people—especially women and girls, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, mentioned—their freedom of expression is constrained by platforms because they are shouted down and abused. They need better protection.
Without change, vulnerable adults with learning difficulties will not be protected by this Bill. Without change, the corruption of truth and democracy by the likes of Trump and Putin will continue. Without change, the journalistic and democratic exemptions in the Bill will be exploited by the likes of Tommy Robinson to spread bile. Without change, content from the likes of Andrew Tate will continue to be amplified. His videos have been viewed more than 13 billion times on TikTok alone, including by any of our children whom we have allowed an account. Teachers, parents and grandparents cannot keep up with what is going on with children online; they need ongoing education and help. I am afraid that Ofcom is not cutting through with its media literacy duty. We must use this Bill to change that. We need to constrain the Secretary of State’s powers over Ofcom so that it is properly independent and give young people themselves more influence over the regulator.
There is much to do. This is as important a job of work as any I have been a part of during my 22 years in Parliament. I look forward to working with all Peers to deliver a Bill that prevents harm, criminalises abusers and overlays human ethics on to these machines of mass manipulation.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Kidron for her tenacious moral leadership on this issue. I remind noble Lords that, when we passed the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act, none of us predicted tobacco companies’ development and marketing of vapes with higher and more addictive nicotine content than that in cigarettes. It was a simple lesson.
A gap now in this Bill is the difficult issue of “legal but harmful”. We should not focus on the difficulty of defining this, but rather on the design and standards of algorithms that internet platforms use to commercial advantage, dodging any responsibility for what happens and blaming the end user.
Before the Government amended Clauses 12 and 13, category 1 service providers would have been forced to risk-assess across their sites and provide information on this in their terms of service, including how harmful content was to be managed. But this is now gone and as a result, the digital environment will not be detoxified as originally intended. What pressures, if any, were exerted on government by commercial and other sources to amend these clauses?
It matters that the Bill now treats people under 18 and over 18 very differently, because the brain’s development and peak addictive potential from puberty does not stop at 18. Those in their 20s are at particular risk.
The social media platforms act commercially, pushing out more content, including online challenges, as their algorithms pick up a keyword—whether spelled correctly or incorrectly—a mouse hovering over an image or a like response. Currently, platforms judge addiction and profit by the time spent on a platform, but that is not how addictions work. Addiction is the reward-reinforcing behaviour that evokes a chemical response in the brain that makes you want more. Hence the alcoholic, the gambling addict, the drug addict and so on keep going back for more; the sex addict requires ever more extreme images to gain stimulation; the user will not switch off access.
Those whose emotional expression is through abuse and violent behaviour find more ways to abuse to meet their urge to control and vent feelings, often when adverse childhood experiences were the antecedent to disastrous destructive behaviour. The unhappy young adult becomes hooked in by the images pushed to them after an internet search about depression, anorexia, suicidal ideation and so on. The algorithm-pushed images become compulsive viewing, as ever more are pushed out, unasked for and unsearched for, entrapping them into escalating harms.
Now, the duties in Clause 12 are too vague to protect wider society. The user should be required to opt in to content so that it can be followed, not opt out. The people controlling all this are the platform companies. They commission the algorithms that push content out. These could be written completely differently: they could push sources of support in response to searches for gambling, eating disorders, suicidal ideation, dangerously extreme sex and so on. Amending the Bill to avoid escalating harms is essential. Some of the harms are ones we have not yet imagined.
The platform companies are responsible for their algorithms. They must be made responsible for taking more a sophisticated, balanced-risk approach: the new technology of artificial intelligence could detect those users of their platforms who are at particular risk. In daily life offline, we weigh up risk, assessing harms and benefits in everything, filtering what we say or do. Risk assessment is part of life. That does not threaten freedom of speech, but it would allow “legal but harmful” to be addressed.
The Bill presents a fantastic opportunity. We must not throw it away.
My Lords, I declare my interest, as set out in the register, as a member of the advisory council of the Free Speech Union.
This is an important Bill. It has taken time to get to us, and rightly so. Many important requirements have to be balanced in it—the removal of illegal material, and the protection of children, as we have heard so movingly already today. But, as legislators, we must also have an eye on all elements of public policy. We cannot eliminate every evil entirely, except at unacceptable cost to other objectives and, notably, to free speech.
The Bill, as it was developing last summer, was damaging in many ways to that objective. At times I was quite critical of it, so I welcome the efforts that have been made by the new broom and new team at DCMS to put it in a better place. It is not perfect, but is considerably better and less damaging to the free speech objective. In particular, I welcome the removal of the so-called legal but harmful provisions, their replacement with a duty to empower users and the decision to list out the areas that this provision applies to, rather than leaving it to secondary legislation. I also welcome the strengthening of provisions to protect the right to free speech and democratic debate more broadly, although I will come on to a couple of concerns, and the dropping of the new harmful communications offence in the original Bill. It is clear, from what we have heard so far today, that there will be proposals to move backwards—as I would see it—to the original version of the Bill. I hope that the Government will be robust on that, having taken the position that they have.
Although the Bill is less damaging, it must still be fit for purpose. With 25,000 companies in its scope, it also affects virtually every individual in the country, so it is important that it is clear and usable and does not encourage companies to be too risk averse. With that in mind, there are areas for improvement. Given the time constraints, I will focus on free speech.
I believe that in a free society, adults—not children but adults—should be able to cope with free debate, if they are given the tools to do so. Noble Lords have spoken already about the abuse that they get online, and we all do. I am sure I am not unique in that; some if it drifts into the real world as well, from time to time. However, I do not look to the Government to defend me from it. I already have most of the tools to turn that off when I want to, which I think is the right approach. It is the one that the Government are pursuing. Free speech is the best way of dealing with controversial issues, as we have seen in the last few weeks, and it is right for the Government to err on the side of caution and not allow a chilling effect in practice.
With this in mind, there are a couple of improvements that I hope the Government might consider. For example, they could require an opt-out from seeing the relevant “legal but harmful” content, rather than an opt-in to see it, and ensure those tools are easy to use. There is otherwise a risk that risk-averse providers will block controversial content and people will not even know about it. It could be useful to require providers to say how they intend to protect freedom of speech, just as they are required to say explicitly how they will manage the Clause 12 provisions. Without that, there is some risk that freedom of speech may become a secondary objective.
To repeat, there has been considerable improvement overall. I welcome my noble friend the Minister’s commitment to listen carefully to all proposals as we take the Bill through in this House. I am happy to support him in enabling the passage of this legislation in good order soon.
My Lords, I welcome the Bill, but regret the time it has taken to arrive. To make the UK the safest place in the world to be online, it must be strengthened, and I will support amendments that would ensure greater protection for children through proper age assurance. The damage to children from exploitation by social media cannot continue. The state must regulate, using severe penalties, to force platforms to behave with greater responsibility as they cannot be trusted to self-regulate. The rise in suicide and self-harm and the loss of self-esteem are ruining young lives. The platforms must take greater responsibility; they have the money and the technology to do this but need stronger incentives to act, such as the promised executive criminal liability amendment.
Ofcom faces a formidable challenge in policing companies to adhere to its terms and conditions about content moderation. Heavy fines are not enough. Ofcom will need guidance in setting codes of practice from not only the three commissioners but NGOs, such as the Internet Watch Foundation, and an advocacy body for children to continually advise on emerging harms. A new regulatory regime to address illegal and harmful content online is essential but, having removed legal but harmful from the original Bill, we lost the opportunity to detoxify the internet.
Concentrating on the big platforms will miss the growth of bespoke platforms that promote other harms such as incel culture, a threat to women but also to young men. Incels, involuntarily celibates, use mainstream platforms such as YouTube to reel in unsuspecting young men before linking them to their own small, specialist websites, but these are outside the scope of category 1 provision and therefore any minimum standards. These sites include not only sexist and misogynistic material but anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic and transphobic items, and even paedophilia. One of the four largest incel forums is dedicated to suicide and self-harm. HOPE not hate, the anti-fascist campaign, has warned that smaller platforms used by the far right to organise and radicalise should be under the same level of scrutiny as category 1 platforms.
User empowerment features, part of the triple shield, such as options to filter out content from unverified users and abusive content, put the onus on the user to filter out material rather than filters being turned on by default. Ofcom must ensure a statutory duty to promote media literacy by the largest platforms as part of their conditions of service. The Bill should make children’s risk assessment consistent across all services, and should tackle the drivers of harm and the design of the service, not just the content.
I welcome the new offences targeting harmful behaviour, including epilepsy trolling, cyber flashing and the sending of manufactured deepfake intimate images without consent. Despite the Bill adding controlling or coercive behaviour to the list of priority offences, more needs to be done to protect women, one in three of whom has experienced online abuse. Ofcom must add a mandatory code of practice regarding violence against women and girls so that tech companies understand they have a duty to prioritise their safety.
The Bill must prevent the relentless promotion of suicide and self-harm that has destroyed the lives of young people and their families. I commend the bravery of Ian Russell, who is campaigning to prevent other deaths following the tragic suicide of his daughter, Molly. I back the amendments from the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, to ensure that coroners and bereaved families can access social media content. I applaud all those campaigners who want to see the Bill implemented urgently, and I will work with other noble Lords to strengthen it.
My Lords, I support this important Bill, but with some concerns. As drafted, it does not go far enough to fully protect children and young people online. The consequences of the policies we decide in this Bill will affect the whole of society in decades to come.
I have been working on the online pornography issue for the last 10 years. In April 2017, this House passed legislation that required age verification for pornography websites to prevent children accessing them. We were promised that social media platforms would be included later on, but that did not happen. It is hard to believe that almost six years ago this House passed the Digital Economy Act, whose Part 3 was never implemented by this Government. So here we are, still debating age verification for pornography. This is simply unacceptable—a shocking failure of society. It is now time to act fast, and we must make sure that we do it right.
I am concerned that the Bill does not go as far as what was passed in 2017. Even if the Bill is passed, I do not believe that it will deliver age verification quickly. If Ofcom’s road map on the implementation of the Bill is to be believed, it could be three years before enforcement proceedings are issued against pornography websites that allow children to access them.
Research by the BBFC found that children as young as seven are innocently stumbling across pornography online and that 51% of all children aged 11 to 13 have watched pornography online—according to Barnardo’s, 54 million times. We are creating a conveyor belt of children addicted to porn, which will affect their long-term well-being and sexual behaviour.
A fundamental problem with the Bill is that it does not deal with pornography as a harm. The Government state that it is designed to ensure that what is lawfully unacceptable offline would also be unacceptable online. However, in respect of pornographic content, the Bill as drafted does not meet that goal. Material that is extreme and prohibited offline is widely available online. Evidence shows that consumption of extreme and prohibited material, such as content that sexualises children—and that includes adults dressing up as children—can lead on to the viewing of illegal child sexual abuse material and an interest in child sex abuse. It is not only children who are at risk: men who watch extreme and prohibited material online are more likely to be abusive towards women and girls.
What is needed is a stand-alone part of the Bill that deals with all pornographic content and sets out a clear definition of what pornography is. Once defined, the Bill should require any website or social media platform with content that meets that definition to ensure that children cannot access that material, because porn can be a gateway to other harms. Contrary to what some people believe, technology exists that can accurately age-verify a user without compromising that person’s privacy. The groundwork is done, and as more countries implement this type of legislation, the industry is becoming increasingly equipped to deal with age verification. France and Germany are already taking legal action to enforce their own laws on the largest adult websites, with several already applying age checks. There is no reason why this cannot be implemented and enforced within six months of the Bill becoming law. If that is too hard for the social media platforms, they can simply remove porn from their pages until they are ready to keep that harm away from our kids.
Childhood lasts a lifetime, and we have the opportunity to ensure that pornography is not a harm inflicted on our children. We owe it to them. I declare an interest as vice-president of Barnardo’s.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a series producer of online and linear content. I, like many noble Lords, can hardly believe that this Bill has finally come before your Lordships’ House. It was in 2017, when I first joined the Communications and Digital Committee, that we started to look at online advertising. We went on to look at regulating the internet in three separate inquiries. I am pleased to see some of those recommendations in the Bill.
It is not surprising that I support the words of the present chair of the committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, when she said that the Secretary of State still has far too many powers over the regulator. Draft codes of practice, in which Ofcom can give the parameters and direction for the tech companies, and the review of their implementation, are going to be central in shaping its terms of service. Generally, in democracies, we are seeing regulators of the media given increasing independence, with Governments limiting themselves to setting up their framework and then allowing them to get on with the task at hand. I fear the Bill is not doing that. I understand that the codes will be laid before Parliament, but I would support Parliament having a much stronger power over the shaping of those regulations.
I know that Labour supports a Select Committee having the power to scrutinise this work, but having served on the Communications and Digital Committee, I fear that the examination of consultations from Ofcom would monopolise its entire work. I support the pre-legislative committee’s suggestion of a Joint Committee of Parliament, whose sole job would be to examine regulations and give input. I will support amendments to this effect.
I am also worried about Clauses 156 and 157. I listened to the Minister when he said that amendments to the Secretary of State’s powers of guidance will be brought before the House and that they will be used only in exceptional circumstances. However, the list of subjects on which I understand the Minister will then be able to intervene is still substantial, ranging from public safety through economic policy and burdens to business. Are the Government prepared to consider further limiting these powers to intervene?
I will also look at risk assessments in the Bill. They need to go further than illegal content and child safety. The empowerment lists in Clause 12 are not risk assessed and do not seem to have enough flexibility for what noble Lords know is an ever-changing world of harms. The volume of online content means that moderation is carried out by algorithms. During the inquiries in which I was involved, we were told repeatedly that algorithms are very bad at distinguishing humour and context when deciding on harmful content. Ensuring that the platforms’ systems moderate correctly is difficult. There was a recent case of that: the farcical blocking by Twitter of the astronomer Dr Mary McIntyre, whose account was suspended because her six-second video of a meteor shower was mistaken by the Twitter algorithms for a porn video. For weeks, she was unable to get any response from Twitter. Such mistakes happen only too frequently. Dr McIntyre’s complaint is only one of millions made every year against the tech companies, for being either too keen or not keen enough to take down content and, in some cases, to block accounts. So the Bill needs to include a risk assessment which looks at the threat to free speech from any changes in those systems. Ofcom needs to be able to create those risk assessments and to produce annual reports which can then be laid before a Joint Committee for Parliament’s consideration. That should be supported by an ombudsman.
I would also like to see the definition of safety duties on platforms to take down illegal content changed from “reasonable grounds” to the platform being aware that the content is “manifestly illegal”—and, if possible, for third parties, such as the NCA, to be involved in the process. That will reduce the chance of chilling free speech online as much as possible.
I am also aware that there has been concern over the duties to protect news publishers and journalistic content. Like other noble Lords, I am worried that the scope in respect of the latter is drawn too widely in the Bill, and that it covers all content. I would support amendments which concentrate on protecting journalism in the public interest. The term “in the public interest” is well known to the courts, is present in Section 4 of the Defamation Act, and is used to great effect to protect journalism which is judged to be in the public interest.
I welcome the Bill after its long journey to this House. I am sure that the hard work of fellow Peers and collaboration with the Minister will ensure that it leaves this House in a clearer, more comprehensive and safer state. The well-being of future generations of internet users in this country depends on us getting it right.
My Lords, it is an enormous privilege to follow so many powerful speeches. My second daughter was born in the year Facebook launched in the UK and Apple sold its first iPhone. Today she is 15; she has lived her whole life in a digitally enabled world. She has undoubtedly benefited from the great things that digital technology brings, but, throughout that life, she has had no meaningful legal protection from its harms.
A number of noble Lords have referenced the extraordinarily moving and disturbing briefing that Ian Russell and his lawyer, Merry Varney, gave us on Monday. When I went home from that briefing, first, I hugged my two teenage girls really close, and then I talked to them about it. My 15 year-old daughter said, “Mum, of course, I know about Molly Russell and all the awful content there is on social media. Didn’t you realise? When are all you adults going to realise what’s going on and do something about it?” The Bill is important, because it is the beginning of us doing something about it.
It is also a huge Bill, so we need to be careful not to let perfect be the enemy of the good. Like other noble Lords, I urge this House to focus on the critical areas where we can improve this already much debated and discussed Bill and try to resist the temptation to attach so many baubles to it that it no longer delivers on its core purpose of protecting our children online. So, like others, I will focus my remarks on three structural changes that I hope will help make the Bill more effective at driving the positive changes that, I think, everyone in this House intends: first, the consequences for senior managers of not complying with the legislation; secondly, how compliance is defined and by whom; and, finally, which services are included.
To change digital platforms and services to protect children is not impossible—but it is hard, and it will not happen by itself. Tech business models are simply too driven by other things; development road maps are always too contested with revenue-raising projects, and competition for clicks is just too intense. So we need to ask ourselves whether the incentives in the Bill to drive compliance are strong enough to counter the very strong incentives not to.
It is clear that self-regulation will not work, and relying on corporate fines is also not enough. We have learned in other safety-critical industries and sectors that have needed dramatic culture change, such as financial services, that fines alone do not drive change. However, once you name an individual as responsible for something, with serious consequences if they fail, change happens. I look forward to the government amendment that I hope will clearly set out the consequences for named senior managers who do not deliver on their overall online safety responsibilities.
The second area I highlight is how compliance is defined. Specifically, the powers that the Bill grants the Secretary of State to amend Ofcom’s proposed code of conduct are far too wide. Just as with senior tech managers, the political incentives not to focus on safety are too strong. Almost every Minister I have ever met is keen to support tech sector growth. Giving the Secretary of State the ability to change codes of conduct for economic reasons is asking them to trade off economic growth against children’s safety—the same trade-off that tech companies have failed to make over the last 15 years. That is not right, it is not fair on the Ministers themselves, and it will not deliver the child protections we are looking for.
The third area I will cover—I will be very brief—has been highlighted by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. It is important that we capture all the services that are accessed by children. If not, we risk creating a dangerous false sense of security. Specifically, I am worried about why app stores are not covered. In the physical world—I say this as an erstwhile retailer—retailers have long come to terms with the responsibilities they bear for ensuring that they do not sell age-restricted products to children. Why are we shying away from the same thing in the digital world?
There are many other things I would support, not least the amendments proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. I finish by simply saying that the most important thing is that the Bill is here. We need to do this work—our children and grandchildren have waited far too long.
My Lords, this is indeed a huge, complex and courageous Bill which deserves widespread support. Despite some welcome government amendments during its passage in the other place, there are residual concerns about guarantees of freedom of expression and access to information, as well as the degree to which the regulator, Ofcom, is independent of government control.
It is widely acknowledged by the Government themselves and the majority of those who have spoken to the Bill that the right to free speech is a fundamental aspect of our democracy, and that any restriction must be fully justified in the public interest. Public interest includes the freedom to access unwelcome, unpopular and even offensive material, if only to be able to refute it. It is also accepted that a functioning democracy needs new ideas and robust debate. That said, it is a fine and difficult line to draw between offensive material and illegal content. In their efforts, the Government have sought to protect above all the safety of children.
I start with a presumption in favour of free speech and a multiplicity of voices. Clauses 18 and 28 state that providers must
“have particular regard to the … users’ right to freedom of expression”
and to protecting users from breaches of any laws relating to privacy. This would be achieved by rigorous impact assessments of safety measures and policies, any infringements of which must be made publicly available. However, the definition of democratically important material as information
“specifically intended to contribute to democratic political debate in the United Kingdom”
remains vague, and other strict requirements on protecting children in the Bill could condemn offensive but necessary democratic content.
Clause 160 refers to false information intended
“to cause non-trivial psychological or physical harm”.
It may, in many cases, be entirely obvious when such harm is intended, but not in all cases. On whom does the burden of proof lie and what recourse does an individual have to appeal false accusations?
The stricture that democratically important content be preserved is by no means fully guaranteed by the following powers set out in the Bill. There is a potential danger of undue restriction that lies in the degree of control from the Secretary of State and his or her relationship with Ofcom; the terms and conditions of service for category 1 providers; the options, or lack of them, for user control of online material; and the role of Parliament.
Draft codes of practice are to be submitted to the Secretary of State, who could require Ofcom to modify codes in the interests of national security or public safety. The Secretary of State will pass any statement on strategic priorities to Ofcom, but parliamentary approval would be by means only of the negative resolution procedure.
The Secretary of State can issue guidance and directions to Ofcom, which in turn has a crucial role in acting against a provider that is not complying with the requirement to fulfil duties under the Act, including the imposition of fines of up to £18 million and “business disruption measures”—in other words, outright censorship. Although such drastic action could occur only in the case of a breach of the terms of service, there would be no restriction on taking down content to comply with other duties—for example, if it was judged that the content might be “likely” to be accessed by children. This, it is feared, would encourage providers to play safe. Furthermore, the terms and conditions can be altered at will by the provider.
The age verification process would necessarily require the user to register with a provider, preventing any casual access by adults. Furthermore, to remove unnecessary barriers to information, the controls available to the user should be a genuine option and not imposed by default.
This is a truly important Bill and I congratulate the authors and campaigners, as well as the Government, on bringing it to this advanced stage. I nevertheless believe that it could be further improved to ensure that the most liberal interpretations of online freedom of expression remain at the heart of our democracy.
My Lords, the Secretary of State, Michelle Donelan, has acknowledged that protecting children is the very reason that this Bill exists. If only the Government had confined themselves to that crucial task. Instead, I worry that the Bill has ballooned and still could be a major threat to free expression of adults. I agreed with much of what the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, just spoke about.
Like some other noble Lords here, I am delighted that the Government have dropped the censorious “legal but harmful” clauses. It was disappointing to hear Labour MPs in the other place keen to see them restored. In this place, I have admired opposition resistance to assaults on civil liberties in, for example, the Public Order Bill. Perhaps I can appeal for consistency to be just as zealous on free speech as a foundational civil liberty. I urge those pushing versions of censoring “legal but harmful” for adults to think again.
The Government’s counter to many freedom of expression concerns is that free speech is protected in various clauses, but stating that service providers must have regard to the importance of protecting users’ rights of freedom of speech is incredibly weak and woolly, giving a second-class status whencontrasted with the operational safety duties that compel companies to remove material. Instead, we need a single comprehensive and robust statutory duty in favour of freedom of expression that requires providers to ensure that free speech is not infringed on by measures taken to comply with other duties. Also, free speech should be listed as a relevant duty for which Ofcom has to develop a code of practice.
The Bill requires providers to include safety provisions for content in their terms of service. However, no similar requirement for free speech exists. It seems ironic that a Bill that claims to be clipping the power of big tech could actually empower companies to police and censor legal material in the name of safety, via the commercial route of terms and conditions.
The Government brush off worries that big tech is being encouraged to limit what UK citizens say or read online by glibly asserting that these are private companies and that they must be free to develop their own terms of service. Surely that is disingenuous. The whole purpose of the legislation is to interfere in private companies, compelling them to adhere to duties or face huge penalties. If the Government do not trust big tech with users’ safety, why do they trust them with UK citizens’ free speech rights? Similarly, consider the user empowerment duties. If users ask that certain specified types of legal content are blocked or filtered out, such as hate or abuse, it is big tech that has the power to decide what is categorised under those headings.
Only last year, amendments put forward in this House on placing convicted sex-offending trans prisoners on the female estate were labelled online as hate-fuelled, transphobic abuse. However, with the ability to hear all sides of the debate online, and especially in the light of recent events in Scotland around the Gender Recognition Act, more and more people realise that such views are not hate but driven by concerns about safeguarding women’s rights. Would such a debate be filtered out online by overcautious labelling by big tech and the safety duties in its Ts and Cs?
Finally, like others, I am worried that the Secretary of State is given too much power—for example, to shape Ofcom’s codes of practice, which is a potential route for political interference. My concerns are fuelled by recent revelations. In the US, Elon Musk’s leaked Twitter files prove that, in the run-up to the 2020 election, Joe Biden’s presidential campaign routinely flagged up tweets and accounts that it wanted removed, influencing the suppression of the New York Post’s Hunter Biden laptop exposé. Here in the UK, only this week, a shocking Big Brother Watch report reveals that military operatives reported on online dissenting views on official Covid lockdown policies to No. 10 and the DCMS’s counter-disinformation unit, allowing Whitehall’s hotlines to giant media companies to suppress this legal content. Even the phrase “illegal” in the Bill can be politically weaponised, such as with the proposal to censor content allegedly promoting small boat crossings.
Free speech matters to democracy, and huge swathes of this Bill could threaten both unless we amend it appropriately.
My Lords, I begin by thanking the House of Lords Library and various organisations for their briefings on the Bill. One of the ways I want to approach this discussion is to talk about where I think there is consensus and where there will need to be further debate. Of course, as many noble Lords have said, there will be incredible trade-offs, and there are many issues people feel strongly about.
There is consensus on the issue of protecting children, and I pay tribute the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for her work over many years on this, as well as that of other noble Lords. There is consensus on making sure that, where companies have terms and conditions, they actually enforce them. We have to be aware of that. There is obviously consensus on tackling sites promoting suicide and other self-harm measures.
Where there are concerns on my part is around freedom of expression. Quite often, everyone says that they are in favour of freedom of expression until they are offended, and then they find a reason not to be. There are also concerns about the Secretary of State’s power to intervene and influence the online safety regime. I agree with other noble Lords that Ofcom should remain independent from the Secretary of State but I am aware of public choice theory; institutions could be captured by political bias, so we have to be careful about that.
Noble Lords will submit amendments to bring back into the Bill the issue of harm to adults, but I would add a note of caution: how subjective is “harm”? A quick example is how Muslims reacted to the Danish cartoons. Some would have found them distasteful; some would have said they were harmed by them. Does that mean they should have been banned or taken down? How do we face these challenges in a free society? Can we be as technologically neutral as possible? Can we be careful of rent-seeking by organisations that will peddle their products and claim that they have the best age-assurance technology or something like that? Although we want the solution, let us make sure there is a thriving market to ensure that we get the better solutions. Regulation always lags developing technology; we will want this Bill to be as dynamic as possible, but that may require some secondary legislation, which I know many noble Lords are often sceptical about.
I really want to focus on unintended consequences, not because I am against the Bill but to warn of the difficult issues we are going to have to look at. First, companies will be acting as police but may take an overcautious approach. In the other place, and here, people talked about criminal liability with some of the directives, but think about the impact of criminal liability on other legislation—for example, financial companies when it comes to politically exposed persons. We all know the unintended consequences of that from being overcautious.
Adult verification is another issue. Whatever we think about pornography, it is legal. What people will be concerned about is whether they can verify their age in an anonymous way. They will be concerned whether their data will be used later to blackmail them; will verification drive users to the dark web? Not everything on the dark web is illegal. Some authoritarian regimes such as Russia, China, Saudi, Iran and Venezuela have tried to ban the Tor Browser, but are we going to follow them? There are also ways around it. One way that terrorists have been known to share information was to create an email account, share the password and username, and leave messages for each other in the drafts folder. How do we tackle that without impacting on all users of the internet? How do we also make sure that firms enforce their terms and conditions and, in doing so, do not water them down?
I know that there are many questions, but I hope that we will work through them, and others that have been raised, so that we have a Bill that is proportionate, workable and effective, and that protects children, women and girls, and vulnerable adults.
My Lords, I generally welcome the Bill and I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for the great work she has done. In the Bill, I particularly welcome the movement towards greater protection for children than we have had hitherto. I share the concern of the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, that there may be difficulties, including the age-verification system, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Kamall. I am in favour of age verification and I would like to see it implemented quickly. I would also like the Minister to assure us that, having waited so long, if we find that there are loopholes in it, we can find some mechanism to fill those loopholes fairly quickly—perhaps a commitment to using secondary legislation rather than having to wait for so long, as we have done in the past.
My second concern relates to Clause 12, which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford raised and which the nobles Baronesses, Lady Hollins and Lady Finlay, also spoke to, on the protection of adults from risk and harm. I do not think enough attention has been paid to what is happening with pornography and with mental health. Here I declare an interest as the founder and vice-chair of an All-party Group for the Twelve Steps Recovery Programme from Addiction. Addiction is not just about alcohol. AA started the 12-step programme but it has been extended over the years to a whole range of other addictions—not least drugs, gambling and overeating, and in particular it is growing quite extensively in the sexual field. We have a range of 12-step programmes operating, including for SLA—sex and love addiction—and sexual addiction. As to the latter, an ever-increasing number of people are in grave trouble due to the effects of pornography, not just solely on themselves but consequently the rest of their family in a whole range of different ways.
It is quite interesting that of the number of people watching pornography—mainly men—between midnight and 4 am is the time when most porn sites are being visited. These are affecting people mentally, affecting their work and affecting their relationships. The Bill as it stands does not address that issue sufficiently well. They had a go at it in the Commons and were persuaded that the approach was incorrect. Pornography is growing. We must protect the freedom of speech and what we circulate, but equally we must protect standards. In turn, we must make sure that we are not creating in certain areas a decadence that we have not had before that is damaging to society.
I hope that we might look again at Clause 12 and try to find a way for some accommodation to be found between the Government’s viewpoint and the views being expressed by people such as the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. It is important that we do so; if not, we will have to start campaigning privately. If we cannot get it through law, we will have to bring together those concerned about pornography and look for ways to bring to the attention of people that it must be drawn to a halt or at least diminished, given the extent and pace at which it is growing at present. I think it can be done. We have a dry January; why should we not, in the month of December, encourage people not to engage in pornography? At least it would capture attention. If we want to have a better society, we should be diminishing this practice rather than growing it.
My Lords, it is an honour to follow the intriguing suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, about December—which I will not repeat at this moment. I declare my interest as a former head of public affairs at the BBC who heavily lobbied this House in 1995 and 1996 to bring about the Broadcasting Act which set BBC online on its way. I am proud to say that BBC online remains a beacon of responsible content to show the rest of the world. I am also co-chair of the all-party group on media literacy and patron of Student View, which works in over 100 schools around the country to deliver media literacy.
In the original draft Bill, media literacy was not a central point but an important point of commitment. It has since been removed from the final legislation in front of us. As the Minister said in his introduction, there are multiple provisions in the legislation which cater for enabling adults to make sensible use of their media journey. However, there is very little, other than protections for children, to enable children to make intelligent understanding of their media journey.
According to the National Literacy Trust, in its assessment a few years ago, only 2% of children had the critical thinking skills necessary to be able to distinguish between fact and fiction online, and 90% of teachers say they are in favour of media literacy but feel that they do not have the skills to be able to teach it. They also feel that the vast majority of children they teach who discuss media issues consistently in the classroom do not understand the difference between truth and misinformation.
I want to keep it simple and say two things to the Minister and one to the Opposition. First, to the Minister, given the level of fines which should become apparent as a response to abuse of this legislation, money will be available to empower media literacy programmes inside and outside of schools. There should be no excuse that there is no money; the money in fines should go not just towards Ofcom’s costs but towards improving the capability of the next generation to navigate the media landscape. Will the Minister and the Government consider that?
It is obvious that media literacy is not in this Bill now because the Government argued it was essentially an education matter. In that case, will the Minister commit the Government—as he speaks for the Government —to bringing forward a media literacy education Bill before the next election? If it is not possible and there is to be a Labour Government after the next election, will the Labour Front Bench commit to bringing forward a media literacy education Bill, rather than simply letting this issue drift into the long grass? The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, can answer that directly at the end and make a commitment on behalf of the Labour Front Bench we can all hold him to account on.
There also needs to be substantial support for teaching teachers to understand and navigate a forest that they do not necessarily know how to enter or exit. That should be part of teacher development and support. Can we also consider the costs of misinformation and how it is damaging our social fabric? Can the Minister request of the Treasury that it brings forward cost assessments of the damage of misinformation?
My Lords, the internet is in so many ways a wonderful new continent, discovered only in my adult lifetime. But like older territories it has not been the unadulterated bastion of freedom and equality that its pilgrim and founding mothers and fathers would have dreamt of. While it has created enormous opportunities for expression, interconnection and learning, it has also allowed the monetising of hate and abuses of power up to and including serious criminal offences to the detriment of children and other vulnerable people.
To a large extent, big tech corporations with monopolistic power have become the new imperium, colonising this new continent without the desire, expertise, independence or accountability to properly regulate of police it. Further, as the technology has moved at a breath-taking pace, national Parliaments and Governments have lagged behind in even fulfilling their basic duties to resource the enforcement of existing criminal law online or, indeed, to ensure sufficient tax raising from the new emperors who can employ former senior politicians for their lobbying, influence national elections via their products and seek to further their hegemony even beyond our shrinking, burning planet.
Alongside corporate and governmental neglect, there have been abuses of people’s rights and freedoms by state and non-state entities around the world. It is very possible to be too permissive in allowing private abuse and simultaneously too interventionist so as to abuse political power. Noble Lords would be wise to hold on to that duality as they undertake the most anxious line-by-line scrutiny of this Bill. With that in mind, given the length, novelty and complexity of this draft legislation, I regret the short time allocated today. The sheer number of speakers should have justified two days of Second Reading, if only to prevent de facto Second Reading speeches in Committee.
Legislation is required and the perfect should not be the enemy of a first attempt at the possible. However, given the fast developing and global landscape, further legislation will no doubt follow. Ultimately, I believe that His Majesty’s Government should seek to pioneer a global internet and AI treaty in due course—or at least, a Labour Government should. For one thing, the black boxes of advanced algorithms must be made transparent and subject to legal control so as not to entrench inequality, discrimination and hate.
That may sound ambitious, but it will take that kind of ambition—the kind of ambition that we saw in the post-war era to establish some notion of an international rule of law and fundamental rights and freedoms in the real world truly to establish a proper rule of law with protected human rights in the virtual one. At the very least, what is already criminal should be policed online. However, we should be wary of outsourcing too much of that policing role to corporations without at least binding them more directly to the free expression and personal privacy protection duties that bind Ofcom, police and prosecutors under the Convention on Human Rights.
Furthermore, we should look again at tightening up over-broad public order offences, such as causing alarm or distress under Section 5 of the Public Order Act, before allowing them to constitute priority illegal content for proactive removal. Conversely, will the Minister confirm that, for example, euphemistic sex for rent adverts targeting poor, vulnerable women, in particular, will be a priority under Section 52 of the Sex Offences Act? As this experiment in national regulation of an international phenomenon develops, the power of the Executive to direct Ofcom sets a dangerous politicising precedent for regimes elsewhere. They should be removed.