House of Lords
Tuesday 2 May 2023
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich.
The following Acts were given Royal Assent:
Mobile Homes (Pitch Fees) Act,
Ballot Secrecy Act,
Employment (Allocation of Tips) Act,
Pensions Dashboards (Prohibition of Indemnification) Act,
Public Order Act.
My Lords, we are committed to making enfranchisement simpler and cheaper for leaseholders. We will abolish marriage value, cap the treatment of ground rents in the enfranchisement calculation and prescribe rates to be used, saving some leaseholders thousands of pounds. An online calculator will also be introduced to make it simpler for leaseholders to find out how much it will cost them to enfranchise. We are due to bring forward further leaseholder reforms later in this Parliament.
My Lords, there is a specific problem with any lease extension granted in blocks of flats after 14 February 2022, as they are not protected by the Building Safety Act 2022. When will that be put right? Secondly, the Minister will have seen the interview her predecessor—the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh—gave to the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership on 14 April, which raised grave doubts about the promised leasehold reform Bill being in the King’s Speech. Does she understand the concern and worry that has caused leaseholders, and will she bring those worries and concerns to the attention of the Secretary of State?
My noble friend—or, rather, the noble Lord opposite; the number of times he brings this Question means I think of him as a friend —is quite right that, if you are a qualifying leaseholder and extend or vary your lease, you may surrender your existing lease and be granted a new lease. As the new lease will not have been granted before 14 February 2022, the statutory leaseholder protections in the Building Safety Act will not apply. We are looking to legislate to resolve this issue as soon as parliamentary time allows. In the meantime, before seeking a new extended or varied lease, leaseholders should seek legal advice and seek to come to agreements with landlords to apply the same protections as contractual terms.
I am very sorry, but I did not answer the second question. He asked whether I would bring the letter to leaseholders from the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, to the attention of the Secretary of State. I have already done so.
My Lords, further to the Answer which my noble friend has just given to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, will the protection to which my noble friend has just referred be retrospective so those leaseholders who extended their leases after February last year will get the protection she referred to?
Is my noble friend aware that the general tenor of the Answer she has given this afternoon is enormously welcome and a demonstration of the statements made in the last 12 months that our Government believe in not only modernising leasehold but the whole structure of the housing market in the United Kingdom?
I thank my noble friend for that question—or statement, I think. Yes, we have made it very clear all along, in answering every question that I have been asked at this Dispatch Box, that we are going to bring forward further leasehold reform and it will be in this Parliament.
My Lords, my recent experience of helping leaseholders in a retirement block near me leads me to ask: does the Minister accept that going to the final arbiter of leasehold disputes, which is the First- tier Tribunal, is a long, off-putting, expensive, complex process? Can she reassure us that, when the renters reform Bill finally arrives, it will address this unsatisfactory service which, I can bear testimony to, really is a serious detriment to leaseholders seeking fair treatment?
My Lords, when this new legislation gets published, can the Minister ensure that the exemptions on certain pretty ordinary houses on the Isles of Scilly, which the Duchy of Cornwall has opposed for so many years, will be included and they will be able to buy their leases like everybody else? I would have mentioned it to His Majesty this morning, but my train was late.
My Lords, over 20 years ago we introduced the law of commonhold, and I think I contributed to a textbook on the subject as a junior barrister. In the years since, I think only about 20 commonholds have been established. I know the Law Commission looked at this a couple of years ago, and commonhold is designed to be a better alternative to leasehold without the complications. Can the Minister explain what is happening to update commonhold and to encourage the adoption of it?
The noble Earl brings up a very interesting point. Commonhold, as he knows, allows home owners to own the freehold of a unit, such as a flat, within buildings and it is commonplace in places such as Australia, New Zealand, the US and Canada. Unlike leasehold, commonhold does not run out, there is no third-party landlord and owners are in control of the costs and decisions affecting the management of their buildings. Commonhold was introduced in this country in 2002, but for some reason it has not taken off and, as the noble Earl says, there are currently fewer than 20 commonhold developments. In 2020, the Law Commission recommended reforms to reinvigorate commonhold as an alternative to leasehold ownership, and the Government are looking at this and will respond in due course.
Would my noble friend agree that, with the shortage of leasehold properties and the extensive number of good landlords that there are across the country, it is important, when we have the new legislation, to ensure that not only are tenants protected—because of course, rightly, they must have protection in their own homes—but we are careful about the balance around putting too much burden on landlords to the extent that we may drive good ones out of the market? I declare my interests as set in the register.
My noble friend is absolutely right: this is a balance. There are a lot of exceptionally good landlords in this country, but there are a few that are not good—in fact, you could probably call them rogue. It is important that whatever legislation we put through gets that balance right, protecting tenants and good landlords but ensuring that we get rid of those rogue landlords.
Does the Minister recognise the distress and anxiety caused to leaseholders and, indeed, the degree of uncertainty that still exists? Could she explain to us why the opportunity was not taken in the levelling-up Bill to include leaseholders? They are signally not included in it, and so many other things are.
It has been very helpful to hear the assurance that we will see leasehold reform before the end of this Parliament, but could my noble friend push to have the Bill published? It is going to be very complex, with issues around enfranchisement, the right to manage and encouraging and reinvigorating commonhold. Can we publish the Bill so that we can begin the pre-legislative scrutiny as soon as possible?
We have had this question before, but I can tell my noble friend that we are trying to get the Bill here. We have a short period of time, it is a complex Bill and—I am going to be totally honest with noble Lords—it will not get here for pre-legislative scrutiny, but we will get it in shortly.
Voter Authority Certificates
My Lords, over 89,500 applications have been received for voter authority certificates. The Government have never had a target for applications and are pleased with the initial rollout. A three-stage evaluation will begin after May’s elections, seeking to understand how the policy measures are implemented and their impact on electors and election staff. Publication of the first review is expected in November 2023, with further reviews after each of the next UK general elections.
My Lords, the Government estimated that around 2 million people who are on the electoral register do not have one of the forms of photo ID required this year. Around 1.6 million of those people have elections on Thursday—but the figures show that more than 1.5 million do not have the local authority certificate and will be unable to vote on Thursday, unless by any chance they have acquired another form of photo ID in the meantime. So perhaps 1.5 million people could be denied their vote. Is the spending of £180 million of taxpayers’ money over 10 years a successful investment for the Conservatives if it blocks this many people from voting?
My Lords, there are multiple reasons why voters have chosen not to apply for a voter authority certificate at this time. Not everyone will have elections in their area, for a start, and not everyone will choose to vote in a polling station. Those who vote by post or by proxy will not need voter identification and therefore have no need to apply for a VAC. While we would not seek to predict turnout on 4 May, in previous local elections over the past decade a significant proportion of votes have been cast by post. For example, in the May 2022 local elections, postal votes comprised 38% of overall turnout and proxy votes a further 1%. We also have to accept that, while we hope that every elector takes part in the democratic process, this is simply never going to be the case and many will choose not to vote. The cost of this is £2.42 per elector over a 10-year period.
My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that the best form of voter authority certificate would be an identity card? Will she also reflect on her own remarks about postal voting? Where there has been manifest corruption in recent years, it has been not at the ballot box in the station but among postal voters.
My Lords, if I heard the Minister correctly, she said there would be a review this autumn on these local election results and another review after the next general election and so on. What is the point of a review if things will continue to go on as if nothing has happened, no matter how bad the election was in terms of voter turnout? Surely, what is required if the review shows a drop in voter turnout is not another review but an abandonment of the whole policy.
I do not think it is an abandonment of the whole policy. We expect the Electoral Commission, as an independent regulator, to provide some analysis and some early, interim reports on the May elections some time this summer. We will learn from that and, if any changes need to be made, we will consider those changes.
Yes, my Lords; it is in legislation that local authorities will count the numbers, anonymously, of electors who are turned away and we will look at those and at all the other evidence from the electoral returning officers when we look at how this has worked.
No, I do not, because it was the Labour Party, supported by the Liberal Democrat Party, that agreed in 2003 to Northern Ireland having a similar system. They voted for it and I cannot understand why they are not voting for it this time.
My Lords, we have heard about the review, but the review has to be meaningful, otherwise it is pointless. So, given that the Minister has previously stated that this will consider evidence from polling stations, what exactly will that evidence include, what steps have been taken to prepare for it and what guidance has been given to electoral staff?
Both the Electoral Commission and the Government have been working with electoral staff continuously since the Act came in. What will be collected at polling stations will include the numbers and the reasons why electors have been turned away, if they have, whether they returned and whether they voted later, as well as other aspects of the policy. This will just be adding to what they would normally collect in a polling station.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that there seem to be different restrictions in different local authorities before they issue ID cards? I had a message from someone who had been on the electoral roll since 1999. They were initially denied a certificate and had to go back with four different proofs of ID before the authority agreed to issue one. Is this normal practice, and will she look into it?
My Lords, I take this opportunity to thank noble Lords on all sides who supported the passage of the Ballot Secrecy Act, which was given Royal Assent a few moments ago. Further to this particular Question, can I ask my noble friend to re-emphasise the fact that those people who return, having previously been refused the ballot, will be recorded as well, so that there will be a clear record not only of those who are turned away but who return?
My Lords, the Minister is making a pretty bad fist of a very poor case. She mentioned 2003 in Northern Ireland, where there was manifest data on impersonation. If she does not know the difference between Northern Ireland and the British mainland over the past 40 years—before 2003—I cannot really help her. But 2003 was also the year when voluntary biometric ID cards were introduced, in an attempt to make sure that access to public services was not misused, to help in the control of immigration, to make sure that there could not be voter impersonation on the British mainland, and for a dozen other good reasons.
That scheme was unilaterally abolished by the Liberal Party when they were in the coalition. They are the very same people who are now crying out for some decent method of identification. It is the only way to make sure that there is no impersonation in voting.
My Lords, I do understand what happened in Northern Ireland in 2003. Let us get it right. Personation in polling stations is very difficult to identify and prove. By definition, it is a crime of deception. If you listen to the people of Northern Ireland, you will hear that they are more satisfied with their voting system than people in this country. We should allow our residents to be as satisfied with ours. If you look at what comes from polling, you will see that two out of three people in this country would feel more confident in the voting system if there were photo ID.
Schools: “Ghost Children”
My Lords, the pandemic was a shock to education. Sickness absence increased, and persistent absence challenges were exacerbated: the persistent absence rate was 22.5%—approximately 1.6 million pupils—in the last academic year. This year, persistent absence has fallen from 25% in the autumn to 21.2% last term. This remains too high. Our priority is to reduce absence, and our strategy includes new, stronger expectations on schools, trusts and local authorities, and targeted support for them.
My Lords, in evidence to the Commons Select Committee inquiry on persistent absence, the Children’s Commissioner gave three reasons for it: special educational needs not being met in school; anxiety or mental health issues arising post Covid; and those who have simply not gone back to school. Given the long-term impact on children’s life chances and potential safeguarding concerns, can the Minister assure the House that the Government are treating this issue seriously?
I absolutely can reassure the House of that. I express my thanks to the Children’s Commissioner for her work in this area, particularly on children who are not on any school roll at all and are missing education entirely. The noble Baroness may be aware that we set up an attendance alliance, chaired by the Secretary of State, which meets monthly and is working with a number of experts in the field, sharing best practice with schools and other stakeholders to make sure that we get children back to school as quickly as possible.
My Lords, this has the potential to be a major safeguarding issue, which many professionals are concerned about. What are His Majesty’s Government doing to help schools work with local social services teams to ensure that we have identified who these children are, that their risk is assessed and that they are given the proper support that they need?
There is a safeguarding risk, but there is also a danger of conflating different groups of children. Of those who are persistently absent—those who miss 10% or more of sessions in school—the vast majority have authorised absence for sickness reasons. However, the right reverend Prelate is right that we need to focus on particularly vulnerable children; we have set out new guidance with expectations that local authorities should have termly targeted support meetings with schools to put together a plan for exactly the sort of pupil to which the right reverend Prelate refers.
My Lords, the Minister will agree that education is essential for every child, not just for academic study but for their emotional and social development. Does someone actually visit the homes of these children to ascertain why they are not in school and to remind their parents that there is a statutory duty entitling the child to a proper education?
The noble Lord is right that education is essential, for the reasons that he gave. Whether and by whom a child’s door might be knocked on will depend on whether they have a social worker, but best practice in these cases is clear and we see many schools and trusts doing it: knocking on the doors of children who are not in school and trying to do so as early as possible, before it becomes a persistent issue.
My Lords, the Minister will be aware that a number of children’s charities are high- lighting that children and young people—often from disadvantaged backgrounds and less academically able—are saying that they do not want to go to school, and their parents are saying, “We’ll home educate you”. These children then claim to be home-educated but home education is not taking place, and because home educators do not have to register, we have no knowledge of whether a proper education is taking place, the quality of any education being provided or whether those children are being safeguarded. Is it not time that the Government brought in a quick Bill on home education?
As the noble Lord may agree, I am not sure that a home education Bill would be quick. More importantly, we support the rights of parents to educate their children at home and know that many parents are very committed and do a fantastic job. Equally, we cannot overlook the rising numbers of children being home educated. We remain committed to introducing statutory local authority registers of children not in school, but in the meantime we are working closely with local authorities on a voluntary basis to collect that data. I recently met the chair of the ADCS to discuss this exact point.
My Lords, guidance on school absence refers to multiagency and whole-family approaches but not to family hubs, which specialise in this for children aged nought to 19, not just the early years. They exist in more than half of English local authorities, but the Family Hubs Network—which I co-founded, as recorded in my entry in the register—finds many schools not engaging with them. Will the Minister commit to updating the guidance to refer specifically to family hubs so that they become the starting point for addressing anxiety and other underlying issues affecting our children?
I thank my noble friend for his work in this area and I agree with him that very often persistent absence will not be the only issue that is going on in a family; therefore, the nature of family hubs is ideal to address this. The department has commissioned a team of 10 expert attendance advisers who are working with every local authority and with multi-academy trusts to help address issues of persistent absence. As part of that support, those advisers strongly recommend and encourage engagement with family hubs.
My Lords, following the question from and answer to the Liberal Democrat Benches, the Secretary of State very helpfully replied to a letter signed by Peers all around the House saying that she would like to find the time to create a local authority register. When is that time going to be? Quite apart from home-educated children, where, as the Minister says, standards of education vary from good to non-existent, there are a large number of excluded children who make very good targets for recruitment into gangs and other criminal activities.
As I said, we would need primary legislation to bring in statutory registers; until a legislative opportunity is available, we will work very hard to make the voluntary registers work. There are very high rates of return from local authorities—over 90% of them are returning their data on a voluntary basis.
My Lords, I want to pursue the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Storey. Home education has been growing dramatically in this country and following on from the Ofsted processes in schools there is a growing concern that many children are not obtaining the level of education that they should have. Children who are home educated are under very few regulations, and it is necessary for something to be done, rather than leaving this in a nebulous state with local authorities.
I am sorry that my noble friend feels that it is in a nebulous state; I do not think the local authorities who are working on this would necessarily agree with him. I point him to my earlier answers in relation to the legislative timetable, and we are also keen to make sure that home-educating parents who are struggling receive support so that they can give their children a good education if that is the right thing for them.
My Lords, a whole-family approach to absenteeism needs co-ordination at the local and national government level, with family hubs becoming the go-to place where families can access wide-ranging support. Further to the question asked by my noble friend Lord Farmer, what can His Majesty’s Government do to shift the focus away from the education provider in the community, and towards these hubs as a place where parents of children of all ages can get the co-ordinated help they need for often complex issues such as persistent absenteeism?
I respectfully say to my noble friend that we do not want to steer families away from the education provider. The relationship between school and family is an extremely important one, which we need to reinforce and build up as much as possible. But it is clear that the family hub model provides the opportunity to join up different forms of attendance support to families, in partnership with the school.
BBC: Appointment and Resignation of Chair
My Lords, the BBC is a world-class broadcaster and cultural institution which produces some of the very best television and radio in the world. We understand and respect Richard Sharp’s decision to stand down. His Majesty’s Government and the BBC board both want to see stability for the corporation. We want to ensure an orderly transition and will launch a process to identify and appoint a new permanent chairman.
My Lords, last week’s report found Richard Sharp to be wrong in not declaring his close links with Boris Johnson when applying for the job of BBC chair. The facts have been clear for some time, so while we welcome the report, this matter could and should have been resolved much earlier. Does the Minister accept that this sorry episode has caused damage both to the BBC’s reputation and to confidence in the public appointments process? With Prime Minister Rishi Sunak promising integrity at every level of his Government, why was it left to Mr Sharp to resign rather than him being dismissed weeks ago?
It is right that an independent process was commissioned and allowed the time to run. Mr Sharp himself has said that he regrets the impact this has had on the corporation he has faithfully served. Mr Heppinstall’s report says:
“Overall, DCMS officials conducted a good and thorough process”.
There are some helpful lessons for all in his investigation, which we will look at and take forward as appropriate.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a former director-general of the BBC. This episode will not damage the BBC—there, I agree with the Minister. It has been around for 100 years, and it is a wonderful institution. It will quickly ride through this sorry affair. The damage that has been done is to the Government’s own process for making public appointments. The Heppinstall report is a truly shocking read. Will the Government now overhaul the process for making public appointments?
I agree with the first part of what the noble Lord says. The news today about the BBC’s work launching the emergency radio service in Sudan is another testament to the fantastic work it does not just in this country but around the world. As I have said, Mr Heppinstall’s report concluded that:
“Overall, DCMS officials conducted a good and thorough process”.
There are some lessons in his report. We will carefully consider its findings and respond in due course.
My Lords, would it preferable if Ministers and holders of public office were, in fact, suspended when being investigated for various situations, such as bullying or arranging loans and things like that for the Prime Minister? Should they not be suspended rather than being allowed to continue with their employment while an investigation takes place?
It is important that there is a thorough and swift investigation in cases such as this, and that is what has happened here; Adam Heppinstall has produced a thorough report. He has looked into this carefully and brought forward his conclusions. Richard Sharp has resigned, and we understand and respect his reasons for doing so.
My Lords, it is very nice to have a Tory voice in this debate. I declare my interest as a presenter on Times Radio. Richard Sharp was an excellent chair of the BBC, and he has been extremely harshly treated—not least by that terrible cartoon in the Guardian over the weekend. However, I echo the noble Lord, Lord Birt: one of things that is clear from this report, and something we all knew at the time, is who the Government’s favoured candidate for the position was. This does a disservice to the Government because it prevents excellent candidates putting themselves forward and giving them a genuine choice. I know the Minister will simply play a completely straight bat as he answers this Question, but he must know that the Government should have a much more open process for the appointment of the next chair of the BBC.
I completely agree with what my noble friend says about the brilliant work done by Richard Sharp during his time as chairman of the BBC and with the comments he made about the deplorable cartoon in the Guardian, which I am glad was pulled. The Adam Heppinstall report rightly points to the impact that the publication of candidates’ names in the media can have on the public appointments process, and we echo the concerns he raised there. The process to appoint a new permanent chairman will be run in a robust, fair and open manner, in accordance with the governance code.
My Lords, when I was a councillor and somebody knocked on my door to say that they were applying for a school caretaker’s job or a dinner assistant’s job, I would say, “Congratulations; I hope you do well. I will now take no part in the selection because I now have an interest: I know who you are”. The noble Lord opposite is right: the Government must make sure that the appointments process is open and that lobbying will actually be a disadvantage rather than the way you get on, which is the way the Government have been behaving.
Ministerial responsibility is a core principle of the public appointments system. It is important that the process is run and is seen to be run in accordance with that code, and that people declare the things they are required to declare, so that people know. However, there are other independent panel members who are appointed to appointment panels to make sure that there is independence in the system. These are decisions on which Ministers are entitled to take a view, in line with the Government’s code.
My Lords, nothing the Minister has said so far can give us any confidence that the process is not going to still be influenced by No. 10 Downing Street. Therefore, is it not absolutely imperative that a system of selection be produced that makes it clear that whoever the incumbent is in No. 10, they will not have undue or improper influence on this appointment? I say this as someone who was once head of the political office in No. 10, so I know how that, under successive Governments, there is a desire to interfere. The Government have an opportunity now to create a really transparent, open system, but they have to have the will to do it as well.
The process for appointing the chair of the BBC is set out in the BBC’s royal charter. It requires an appointment to be made by Order in Council following a fair and open competition. By convention, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport recommends the appointment to the Lord President of the Council, and the Prime Minister recommends the appointment to His Majesty the King. It is important that the process be followed and that all public appointments be set out and conducted in accordance with the Government’s code.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a freelance broadcaster for the BBC. Does the Minister agree that there is a parallel here with your Lordships’ House? For example, we read endless headlines about prime ministerial appointments to the House but very little about the hours and hours of scrutiny that go into legislation. So it is with the BBC, but this has very little to do with the workforce, who produce programmes day in, day out. It has more to do, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Birt, with the selection and appointment process.
I agree with the noble Lord. Indeed, Mr. Sharp pointed in his own resignation statement and letters to his regret at the distraction this has caused to the corporation. We are very lucky indeed to have the BBC in this country, producing the world-class television and radio content I mentioned in my first response.
My Lords, we know that he disclosed the possible conflict to the Cabinet Secretary. Why did the Cabinet Secretary not disclose or tell him to disclose that conflict to those responsible for making the recommendation? When the Government are reviewing the process for these public appointments, will they ensure that the rules on potential conflicts of interest say that all those people involved in making recommendations or making the eventual choice need to have the declaration of interest made known to them? It seems to be an obvious point, which was overlooked by some otherwise perfectly sensible people on this occasion.
Adam Heppinstall’s report makes it clear that the governance code puts the obligation to make a disclosure on the candidate and not on others. He has looked into this matter and concluded that Mr Sharp accepted that he should have disclosed the matter to the panel and apologised for his error. Given that error, he tended his resignation, and the Government understand and respect his reason for doing so.
Flags (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2023
Motion to Approve
Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Thursday 27 April.
“I am grateful to the right honourable gentleman for the Question. On Friday, the Defence Secretary met his counterparts at Ramstein air base for the 11th meeting of the Ukraine defence contact group. The focus was on accelerating the delivery of military aid packages for Ukraine as they plan to expel Russian forces from illegally occupied Ukrainian territory. The message from Ramstein was clear: international support for Ukraine is growing. More countries than ever are attending; donations are increasing, and their delivery is accelerating.
We are one of the leading providers of military support for Ukraine and were the first country to donate modern main battle tanks. We have now completed delivery of this matériel and training package, which included a squadron of Challenger 2 tanks, along with their ammunition, spares, and armoured recovery vehicles; AS-90 self-propelled guns, sufficient to support two brigades with close support artillery; more than 150 armoured and protected vehicles; and hundreds more of the most urgently needed missiles, including for air defence.
The UK-led international fund for Ukraine encourages donations from around the world and stimulates industrial supply of cutting-edge technologies for Ukraine’s most vital battlefield requirements. The first bidding round raised £520 million-worth of donations, receiving 1,500 expressions of interest from suppliers across 40 countries. The second bidding round opened on 11 April, and the UK is calling for further national donations and is calling on industry to provide its most innovative technologies, especially for air defence.
A total of 14,000 Ukrainian recruits have now returned from the UK to defend their homeland, trained and equipped for operations, including trench clearance, battlefield first aid, crucial law of armed conflict awareness, patrol tactics and rural environment training. In all its dimensions, the higher quality of training for Ukrainian soldiers provided by the UK armed forces and their counterparts from nine other nations has proven battle-winning against Russian forces. The UK will develop the training provided according to Ukraine’s requirements, including the extension to pilots, sailors and marines. It is now expected to reach 20,000 trained recruits this year.”
My Lords, I thank the Government for their comments on Ukraine but can the noble Baroness ensure that Statements are more regularly made to Parliament? The Defence Secretary last made a Statement on Ukraine in January, and I think that all of us, in both Houses, would welcome the opportunity to hear more often of progress and be able to question the Government about it.
The Minister in the other place said that the focus at last week’s meeting in Ramstein was on accelerating the delivery of military aid packages. Can the Minister say how the Government intend to accelerate the progress of the provision of these weapons, and in particular how we intend to accelerate the progress of the provision of air defence weapons?
I thank the noble Lord for his observations. I listened with interest to his view that we should devote more time to the consideration of matters in Ukraine, and I quite understand that he makes that point very seriously. I am certainly aware of fairly regularly appearing at this Dispatch Box to answer questions on Ukraine, which I am very happy to do. I am also aware that, in this House, we had an exceedingly good debate on 9 February, in which I think the noble Lord participated and in which I and my noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon participated on behalf of the Government. Certainly in this House we are trying to ensure that your Lordships are kept informed. However, I am sure that noble Lords will share with me if they have any reservations about seeking more information, and I will endeavour to facilitate the provision of that.
On the specific point which the noble Lord raises about the provision of equipment, I have observed before that the thrust of this, apart from the dominant roles played by the United Kingdom and the United States, really comes from acting in concert with other partners and allies. As the noble Lord will be aware, on 21 April, at Ramstein, the US hosted the Ukraine defence contact group, which discussed further co-ordinated military support to Ukraine. This is done in conjunction and co-ordination with our partners.
A very important part of this is the international donor co-ordination centre, which makes sense of getting all the things in and then providing them to Ukraine as efficiently and effectively as possible. The other important element of all this is the International Fund for Ukraine, which has reached urgent bidding round 2, launched on 11 April. Requirements are being released in phases, the first two of which are for air defence, which closed on 26 April, and long-range strike, which will close on 4 May. Further requirements under that urgent bidding round 2 will be raised via the Defence Sourcing Portal in a phased approach over the coming weeks. I think your Lordships will understand that there is a coherent pattern here. We cannot do this randomly or indiscriminately; we have to make sure that it is part of a sensible, conjoined approach.
My Lords, Op Interflex, the training of Ukrainian recruits here in the United Kingdom by UK Armed Forces and our NATO allies, has been a tremendous success. However, it takes up quite a lot of the contingent capability of our Armed Forces. I simply ask this: will it continue?
My Lords, His Majesty’s Government’s commitment to Ukraine is very welcome, but in the past few weeks we have had additional commitments in Sudan. Can the Minister reassure the House that the MoD has the resources to enable us to work in both countries? One common link is the Wagner Group. What assessment have the Government made of finally proscribing that group?
I thank the noble Baroness for raising an important point. We have resources and assets to cover those contingency demands on our personnel. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to what I thought was, once again, the impressive professionalism and commitment of our Armed Forces personnel in effecting a safe evacuation of British nationals, and indeed other personnel, from Sudan.
I think we all in this House agree that the Wagner Group is an odious organisation. We do not comment regularly on whether we are going to proscribe an organisation or designate it a transnational criminal organisation—these are matters we keep within our confidence—but I can say that we have taken action. The UK has now sanctioned more than 1,500 individuals and more than 120 entities in response to Putin’s war in Ukraine. This includes the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin and his family, and Dmitry Utkin. We are taking action against the group.
My Lords, media reports suggest that Russia has made increasing attacks by air on Ukraine. What assessment have His Majesty’s Government made of Ukraine’s ability to resist these attacks and not submit to a loss of air superiority against the Russians?
I say to the noble and gallant Lord that I think that the evidence to date has been that Ukraine has mounted an extraordinarily courageous and very effective response to Russian air aggression. Among the many types of equipment we have supplied to Ukraine, we have included anti-aircraft missile systems that can be launched from both land and ship.
My Lords, for the obvious reason that we must at all costs avoid an escalation of this war, Ukraine’s allies have equipped Ukraine for a defensive war, but now all the talk is about offensives. Attacking is certainly much more difficult than defending. If all the Leopard 2 tanks that have been promised arrive, will there be sufficient to break through the Russian defences? Who is going to provide the air support that will be necessary for any offensive to be effective?
Obviously we remain engaged with Ukraine on its immediate needs and how best we, in conjunction with partners, can respond to them. I am not at liberty to disclose operational matters, for reasons widely understood. We constantly monitor the situation, and we will continue to do whatever we can to support Ukraine as it tries to repel this illegal invader.
Will my noble friend use her influence to see whether, in future Ukraine Statements, we could learn a little more about the state of internal morale inside Russia in the face of the appalling slaughter, which is almost reminiscent of the First World War? The level of morale in Russia itself, and the pressures on the Government, may be the decisive factor in ensuring that this hideous horror comes to an end. Does she see any comparison with the Russian mood when Russian troops had to retreat from failure in Afghanistan, which of course helped to bring about the collapse of the whole Soviet Union in those days?
Many people will be in sympathy with the important point made by my noble friend. We do everything that we can through intelligence outlets to try to ascertain what is happening in Russia—what the mood is and what the sentiment is. It is difficult to elicit any specific information, apart from a general observation that there is now evidence that morale is being impacted by this illegal war in Ukraine. Increasingly within Russia, as a consequence of that war, the brutal effect upon families who have lost loved ones or seen loved ones seriously injured is beginning to tell its own story. My noble friend makes an important point. I wish that I had some more specific instrument available to me to ascertain in detail what he asks. We continue to monitor the situation as best we can.
My Lords, I have a question on the high-level strategic purpose of the UK’s support and the international support for Ukraine. To an interested observer, it appears to be an attempt to allow Ukraine neither to lose badly nor to win decisively. The net result is a sustained, mutually hurting stalemate. Can the Minister comment on the morality of that? Would it be fair to say that pragmatism has trumped morality in UK policy?
The morality is that, when someone behaves in an inexcusably illegal and brutal fashion, it must be resisted, in the interests of international respect for upholding law and for a country’s sovereignty. That is what Ukraine is doing, supported by many countries around the world. How Ukraine wishes to approach that conflict is not for me to interpret or advance an opinion upon, but, as the noble and gallant Lord is aware, everyone understands the propriety of what Ukraine is doing. The United Kingdom, with our allies and partners, will support Ukraine as very best we can.
Police Uplift Programme
My Lords, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place:
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a Statement about the Government’s police uplift programme.
Today is a significant day for policing. We can officially announce that our unprecedented officer recruitment campaign has met its target. We said we would recruit an additional 20,000 officers, and we have. We have recruited 20,951 additional officers. This means that we now have a record 149,572 officers across England and Wales.
This is the culmination of a colossal amount of work from forces, the National Police Chiefs’ Council, the College of Policing, the Home Office and beyond. They have my heartfelt gratitude and admiration. I feel honoured and privileged to be holding the baton as we pass the finishing line. I am especially grateful to my right honourable friends the Members for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, Witham and North West Hampshire. Their vision and leadership were instrumental in helping us reach this point, and I know they will share my delight today. I pay tribute too to my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, who has energetically steered the campaign to its successful conclusion, and to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister for his continued support and encouragement.
This was not a simple task. There have been challenges along the way and people doubted our prospects of success, but by sticking to the course and believing unequivocally in the cause, we have done it. To every single new recruit who has joined up and helped us reach our goal, I say thank you. There is no greater or more noble example of public service, and they have chosen a career like no other. Not everyone will be as happy as we are today. Criminals must be cursing their luck, and so they should, because we are coming after them.
Not only are there more officers than ever before but the officer workforce is more diverse than it has ever been. There are now 53,083 female police officers in post, compared with 39,135 in 2010. There are 12,087 officers identifying as ethnic minorities, compared with 6,704 in 2010. There are more officers working in public protection, in local policing and in crime investigations. There are now 725 more officers working in regional organised crime units tackling serious and organised crime, as we promised.
While it is right that today we pause and reflect on the success of the uplift programme, this is not the end. This is not just about hitting a number. It is about making a real and tangible difference to the lives of people we serve and the communities they live in. It is the latest step in our mission to crush crime and make our country safer. The public want to see bobbies on the beat; we have delivered. The public want courageous and upstanding public servants in whom they can have pride and, most importantly, whom they can trust. Now the public quite rightly expect forces to maximise the increased strength and resources available to them. They want to see criminals caught and locked up, and to feel safe and secure, whether in their homes, online or out and about. They want the police to focus on the issues that matter most to them.
We have made good progress already. Crime is going in the right direction, falling in England and Wales by 50% since 2010, excluding fraud and computer misuse, with burglary falling 56%, robbery by 57% and criminal damage by 65% over the same period. Figures also show reductions in homicide, serious violence and neighbourhood crime since December 2019. On homicide, reductions are being made, with the numbers 6% lower than in December 2019 as of September 2022. Now we need policing to work with partners to ensure that these reductions are maintained.
Crime is a broad and ever-evolving menace, which is why we are addressing it from all angles. We are acting to turn the tide on drugs misuse through our 10-year strategy, and our crackdown on county lines has yielded excellent results. We have stepped up efforts to tackle domestic abuse, violence against women and girls, and child sexual abuse. Our twin-track approach to tackling serious violence is bedding in and having a real impact. We are supporting law enforcement in the ongoing fight against serious and organised crime, terrorism, cybercrime and fraud. We have shown that when our constituents raise concerns about an issue, we listen and we act. That was demonstrated recently with the publication of our comprehensive plan to drive anti-social behaviour out of our communities and neighbourhoods.
We will keep up the momentum. We will challenge and support the police in equal measure. We expect police forces to maintain officer numbers at the levels delivered by the uplift and are pushing them to drive up standards and drive down crime. It is vital that forces seize this opportunity. As the Home Secretary has made clear, common-sense policing is the way forward. This is our mantra, and it should be a guiding principle for forces too.
For the Government’s part, we are holding up our side of the bargain. That includes measures I announced earlier this month to cut red tape that gets in the way of real police work. It includes the steps we are taking on ethics, integrity and conduct, as policing strives to secure and retain public trust, which has been shaken by recent reports and cases. Before I finish, I want to highlight that I will be holding a drop-in surgery here in the large ministerial room from 3 pm today for any colleagues who wish to discuss the uplift programme.
We said we would recruit 20,000 additional police officers; we have delivered. We said we would bear down relentlessly on crime; we have delivered. I am proud of what we have achieved, but there is more to come. To the decent, law-abiding majority, I say this: we have got your back. Your safety is our number one priority. My message to the criminals is this: we are coming for you, you will be caught and you will face justice.
More police, less crime, safer streets and common-sense policing: those are the pillars upon which our approach is built. Today, as we mark another hugely significant step forward in that mission, we reaffirm our commitment to do everything in our power to protect the public. I commend this Statement to the House.”
Well, there you go. I thank the Government for their Statement, and the information they have provided regarding this police uplift programme. This is not, however, year nought of a new Government. It is the 13th year of this Government. Where are the Government pretending to have been for the last 13 years? They cut police numbers by 20,000 and now, having reversed those cuts, want us all to clap them for it and to praise them for this brilliant achievement. Why would we do that?
We all want more police, and we all congratulate them on the work that they do on our behalf. But is it not the case that the last decade and more of police cuts has had appalling consequences, as the Government were warned? Let us look at some of the consequences. Is it not the case that the numbers of arrests and of crimes solved have halved? Is it not the case that since 2015 the charge rate has dropped by two-thirds?
In case the Minister feels that this is just Labour Party propaganda—that we would say that—I quote from three articles in the Daily Telegraph from the last 18 months; there are too many but I chose just these three: “Record low of just 5.8pc of crimes solved”, “Police fail to solve a single theft in more than eight out of 10 neighbourhoods”, and “Police criticised for failing to solve one million thefts and burglaries”. I could go on.
Police cuts have had consequences, particularly as we saw with the complete and utter decimation of neighbourhood policing. How will we see a restoration of this? How will we see a restoration of that visible police presence—crimes investigated, victims supported and criminals prosecuted? How will the police uplift programme deliver that? Instead of fancy phrases about criminals being frightened and so on, the public would have wanted to hear from the Government how the police uplift programme will deal with some of the consequences that they face in their everyday lives in their neighbourhoods.
Following the recent awful findings of inquiries into the police such as that on the murder of Sarah Everard and, most recently, the Casey review, how will the police uplift programme restore trust and confidence in our officers? Does the programme deal with the fact, not mentioned by the Minister, that 8,000 police community support officers were cut—alongside 6,000 police staff, including some of the most specialised officers in forensics, digital and many other such examples?
Of course, anyone would welcome more police officers, but this is not a reform programme. It does not deal with many of the crucial issues facing our police. Boasting about restoring the police numbers that you have cut simply will not do it. What is needed, alongside increased numbers, is a proper programme to restore neighbourhood policing, proper training and accreditation, ensuring that all crimes—including so-called low-level crimes such as anti-social behaviour, bike theft and many others—are properly investigated, with trust and confidence restored. How does the police uplift programme do any of that? We have heard not a word.
The Home Secretary said on TV last week that what has happened over the last 10 years is irrelevant. Does the Minister agree with that, or does he agree with me that it is not irrelevant if you were a victim of theft, rape or violence against women, or if it was your bike, your car or your shed targeted for theft or attack?
I finish with this crucial challenge to the Government: does the police uplift programme deal with the lack of police on the street, on the front line? Does it deal with the fact that 90% of crimes are unsolved? Does it deal with the lack of policing experience, such as in the case of detectives? Does it deal with low levels of public confidence? More police are welcome, of course, but proper reform is needed alongside that, not the populist rhetoric that we have just heard.
My Lords, this is obviously a Statement that the Government are pleased to make but, unfortunately, the rhetoric does not lead to change, which is what the public will be looking for. A huge number of questions fall out of the programme and tell you something about the way in which policing takes place in this country.
What we are seeing, of course, is that record numbers of police are leaving the police force while new people come in. Does this record number of police leaving mean that we are basically trading inexperience for experience? In 2021-22, the last year for which figures are available, 8,117 police officers left the profession; that is a 20-year high. Can the Minister tell us whether that figure is reflected in the figures up to the end of March this year and whether, again, we are seeing that change? Clearly, what we need is an experienced profession.
The second thing that the uplift programme shows is the number of people in various age groups within the new police forces around the country. If you look carefully the figures for those aged 55 and over, you see that they represent only some 1.8% of the police force. Has that figure been shared, not in this financial year but in previous years? Is that an accelerating figure, with the number of older police officers declining? At present 38% of the force are aged 45 or over. Was that figure higher or lower in the past?
The other question that needs raising is how police officers are recruited. We have had a series of questions back and forth with the Minister about the way in which police officers are recruited and we know that some 50% of all recruited police officers do not have a face-to-face interview with another police officer. I know that the Minister has replied to my questions and said that this is being altered. I have read what the Government intend to do with the police college and to make that change work, but we certainly need to be reassured that the right people are getting into the police force and we are not seeing the sort of problems that we have seen in the very recent past.
If you want true community policing, what sense does it make to lose all the community support officers that we have had? Since 2015, 4,000 police support officer posts have been lost and since 2019, given that that is the bedrock date that the Minister wants to work from, 1,284 community police officer posts have been lost. The great advantage for those of us who remember the way in which those support officers worked around our communities is that they were seen on the streets; they were what you might call “bobbies on the beat”. They were an essential part of that. As the Minister knows, you do not put one policeman on the beat; you used to put a policeman with a PCSO. So it is two police officers now, because the number of PCSOs has dropped.
The real test of this measure is: will the quality and nature of the service that people get change? Some 275 car thefts per day in the past year went unsolved, and just 3.4% of car thefts resulted in a charge. Also, 574 burglaries went unsolved and only 6% resulted in a charge. The sort of result that people want to see is people being charged and found guilty of the crimes that are being committed against them. Clearly that has not happened. The test for the Government is how community policing is going to work in the future. A recent Savanta poll found that four in 10 UK adults have installed in the past year CCTV, stronger locks, alarm systems or camera doorbells, all of which demonstrates that people are worried about crime and about these crimes being detected, which they have not been as yet.
One thing absent from the Statement is any mention of cybersecurity. Those of us who have been privileged to hear what is happening in this Parliament will know of the battle against those who are trying to burst into the security of our nation. Can the Minister tell us what resource is going to go into the battle of the future against those who are causing cybercrime?
Finally, there is the issue of head count versus full-time equivalents. The Government in the published Statement say that there is little difference—some 1% or 2%. However, 1% or 2% of experienced people who are doing the work that we want to see done is a considerable number. What we are seeing here is a shell without the interior. The interior has to be made to work for the communities of this country and I am not certain that that is the progress which the Government have made.
My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their comments. Since I arrived in your Lordships’ House, every debate and Question has been a demand for more from the Government—money, resources and so on. We have finally delivered more, on time and on budget, and, if I am honest, I am a bit disappointed with the response. However, I will do my best to answer the questions that have been put to me.
To forestall any questions about fraud and the cybersecurity aspects that will be asked, I will alert noble Lords to the fact that the fraud strategy is going to be published this week. There will be more to be said on that, and as a consequence I am not able to go into detail about it.
Before I go into detailed answers to the questions, the data that I read out in the Statement was in fact a little out of date, because on Thursday last week the Crime Survey for England and Wales published its latest data, which takes us up to December 2022. That shows that all crime, excluding fraud and computer misuse, has fallen by 52% since March 2010, from 9.5 million incidents in the year ending March 2010 to 4.65 million in the year ending December 2022—a reduction of 4.978 million.
The latest data from the crime survey shows a 12% decrease in all CSEW crime since the year ending March 2020 and a 14% decrease in all crime since the year ending December 2019. There were 1.5 million incidents of neighbourhood crime estimated by the crime survey for the year ending December 2022, a fall of 26%, compared with the year ending March 2020. I could go on, but I think the data supports the fact that the police have been doing a good job and, hopefully, with this uplift in numbers, will continue to do so. I remind the House that there are now over 149,500—more than ever before. The Government are determined to cut crime and make our streets safer. Over the course of the police uplift programme, 46,505 new recruits have joined police forces. I will come back to that in a moment.
The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked about charge rates. I agree that the current data on charge rates is concerning. We expect police forces to get the basics right, to focus on common-sense policing and to work with partners across the criminal justice system to see more criminals charged and prosecuted. But that is a shared responsibility and the system needs to work better to catch criminals and help victims of crime.
With regard to online crime, as I said, the fraud strategy will be published this week. However, to put some numbers on that, we have already committed £400 million over the next three years to bolster law enforcement’s response to economic crime. The strategy will set out a co-ordinated response from government, law enforcement and the private sector to better protect the public and increase the disruption and prosecution of fraudsters.
The subject of vetting has quite rightly come up. The Government have been clear that all police forces must meet the high standards that the public expect, and that forces must root out those who are unfit for service at the very first opportunity. It is of the utmost importance that robust processes are in place to stop the wrong people joining the police in the first place, which is why we have invested in improving recruitment processes and supporting vetting as part of the £3 billion of funding provided to forces to recruit and maintain officers. New recruits will have been vetted in line with the College of Policing’s Vetting Code of Practice and relevant vetting APP, which were first established in 2017. The APP is due for an upgrade very shortly, as noble Lords will be aware.
On neighbourhood policing, there are now more officers working in public protection, local policing and crime investigations. Thousands of additional officers are already out on the streets, and the latest data available shows that overall 91% of police officers were in front-line roles. The uplift programme provides the opportunity to ensure that we have the officers that policing needs, both to respond to the increase in demand and to take a more proactive response to managing that demand, including crime prevention.
The noble Lord, Lord German, asked about the attrition rates. We have made it very clear to police forces that the large investment we have put into policing means that we expect officer numbers across England and Wales to be maintained throughout 2023-24. The police uplift programme was designed to provide a genuine uplift of 20,000 officers that accounts for attrition rates. Voluntary resignation rates in policing are at less than 3%, which is low compared to other sectors. Policing is obviously a career like no other, and the results of our latest survey of new recruits showed a positive onboarding experience overall: 82% of respondents are satisfied with the job, and 77% intend to continue as police officers for the rest of their working lives. Those numbers are very encouraging.
The noble Lord also asked me, perfectly reasonably, about face-to-face contact. In February, the College of Policing wrote to all chief constables with updated and reissued guidance on post-assessment in-force interviews. The college reiterated the importance of those interviews and that all forces should deliver them using college assessment standards to ensure the same quality nationally. The college expected forces to have implemented the updated guidance by the end of last month. Following the issuing of new guidance by the college on post-online assessment centre interviews, the latest data provided by the college shows that 38 forces are currently using a post-assessment interview and that four plan to do so with their next cohorts.
The noble Lord, Lord German, also mentioned CCTV—as if it somehow indicates against the quality of the data I have already shared with your Lordships’ House, and that there is more, shall I say, concern about crime in local areas. Of course, people are right to be concerned. However, perhaps it also demonstrates that this equipment and technology is cheaper and more readily available than ever before and, more to the point, that it can be installed on a Sunday afternoon by oneself.
The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, is quite right: the numbers have consequences for everyday lives, which is why I believe that your Lordships’ House should support them. I certainly do not believe that any of this is irrelevant.
My Lords, I welcome the tenor and content of the Statement my noble friend the Minister read out. However, does he agree with me that one of the principal problems our police forces have is the lack of quality in their leadership at middle-rank and senior-rank levels? Will he consider looking at the way the Armed Forces trains its officers to ensure that, when police officers take positions of senior command, they are prepared and wholly trained for such awesome responsibilities?
My noble friend makes some solid points. It is undeniable that some of the incidents which have been seen over the past few years, and which are coming to light now, are a consequence of a failure of leadership. I am pleased that the leadership of the country’s main police force is in very good hands, and I support Sir Mark Rowley of the Metropolitan Police in the work he has to do. My noble friend also makes some very good points about leadership more generally. I believe—and I will be asking about this more frequently—that the College of Policing is working on the reinstatement of a national police college to ensure rigorous, nationally consistent standards.
My Lords, it is no fault of the Minister, but metaphors about passing batons and crossing finishing lines will be seen to be complacent and even insensitive by many victims of sexual and violent crime in particular. I share the concerns expressed repeatedly on all sides of your Lordships’ House that, when reversing drastic police cuts in a hurry, there will be issues with the quality of recruitment, vetting, training and discipline, as we have heard. So, rather than constantly batting this off to the College of Policing, will the Government take responsibility and propose a clear timeline for a legislative framework of standards across the nation for all those vital matters?
The noble Baroness will be aware that a number of ongoing reviews on matters such as dismissals are due to conclude very shortly. She makes some very good points about victims, and we are committed to delivering justice for victims and putting some of the vile offenders referred to behind bars for longer, but there is obviously still a long way to go. We have previously discussed at the Dispatch Box some of the factors the noble Baroness mentioned and, while I will not go into them in detail again, I note that programmes such as Operation Soteria are delivering meaningful results.
The noble Lord was quite right in saying that I was going to mention fraud. The Statement says that crime is falling, excluding fraud. Fraud remains a substantial growth industry and now accounts for over 40% of all crime against the individual. The noble Lord agreed last week that the current level of law enforcement resources aimed at it is insufficient. He skilfully shot my fox earlier by referring to the national fraud strategy that is to be issued this week, which is an improvement on “imminently” and “shortly”. How many of these 20,591 officers who have been recruited have specialist fraud skills?
The noble Lord asks a question which I cannot answer at the moment. I will endeavour to find out those statistics and I would hope that some of those questions about resourcing will be dealt with on publication of the strategy this week. As regards the overall uplift, as I said earlier, 91% of the new intake, as it were, are involved in frontline policing.
My Lords, while the diversity statistics my noble friend outlined are encouraging, in terms of women and ethnic minorities they are still not proportionate to the population. Is not one of the issues that many police forces have, particularly the Met, retaining those staff? Can my noble friend outline how we are going to monitor—maybe with swifter inspections from His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services—whether they retain their female and ethnic minority staff and promote them at the same rate as their white officers?
My noble friend makes some very good points. Obviously, as she would expect me to say, these are matters for local police forces themselves. However, I absolutely take the point, and we should all be involved in making sure that retention and lack of attrition remains as it is.
My Lords, I find it pretty astonishing that the Government should call for national rejoicing that they have finally got the level of policing up to the level of 13 years ago, under the last Labour Government. An apology for all the cuts that were made in the early years of this Government would be in order. As for comments in the Statement such as criminals now “must be cursing their luck” because the figures have gone up, the inevitable response is that immediately after 2010, criminals must have been rejoicing at the savage cuts made to policing—to dangerous levels—in many cities in this country.
The Minister still has not answered a couple of specific questions that were put to him. First, we are told that these 20,000 new recruits have been recruited since 2019. How many people have left the police service during that precise period, and is that allowed for in describing the number of police officers available today? Secondly, this mass recruitment is obviously to be welcomed, but can he tell us how many of these new recruits actually leave the police service before they have completed their probationary period? It is no use having the police officers unless they give a substantial period of service after they have been trained.
My Lords, in fact there are more policemen than under the last Labour Government: 3,542 more, to be precise. The fact is that demand for policing has changed since 2010, which is why in 2019 the Government made this commitment to increase the number of police officers by 20,000, to help the police respond. I am afraid that I cannot say how many of this new intake will complete their probationary period, as, obviously, some will still be in their probationary period. I will endeavour to find out the statistics and come back to the noble Lord. On the number who left, I have already gone into the statistics in some detail on the number who were recruited, as well as the attrition statistics.
My Lords, it is very good to hear the Minister speak about police uplift. I am certainly not asking for more and more but I am asking for more join-up. I am really concerned about the “we are coming for you” rhetoric being part of the solution, and the sense that if we simply arrest more people and send more people to prison, we will reduce reoffending. There was nothing in the data about the high rate of reoffending. Unless we look at what is going on in our prisons, at how we rehabilitate people and address some of the systemic issues relating to why people offend in the first place, we will not be doing that join-up across the criminal justice system. I am really concerned about the rhetoric whereby, if you arrest more people and lock them up for longer, our streets will be safer; the data simply does not reflect that. Will the Minister say more about the join-up across the whole of the criminal justice system?
The right reverend Prelate has made some very good points. The public would expect charge, arrest and prevention rates to increase from the current levels. However, without work on reoffending and the criminal justice system in the round, as the right reverend Prelate suggests, I think that things will fail to improve as much as we would all like. I cannot give her any precise details but, when it comes to the drug strategy, work is being done between the Ministry of Justice, the criminal justice system more generally and the Home Office on reoffending and referring people to preventive programmes at an earlier stage. That should yield some results.
Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to Paul Sanford, who was appointed Norfolk chief constable in 2021? He made it among his priorities to clamp down on the county lines and low-level antisocial behaviour, and he has succeeded in both areas. However, is the Minister aware that rural counties such as Norfolk, Suffolk and Lincolnshire are facing quite profound problems with the police funding formula? As a consequence, Paul Sanford’s predecessor had to scrap the police community support officer programme. What can the Minister say about those counties that have suffered relative to other counties in funding and their desire to reinstate that programme in future?
I thank my noble friend for his question and I am happy to join him in congratulating the chief constable whom he has mentioned. As for the funding formula, I do not have the precise details in front of me. However, as I said in the Statement, the demand has changed over the past 10 years. If the funding has changed, that will be a reflection of the change in demand.
My Lords, the Minister’s Statement refers to the importance of public trust. As the House will know, in the case of the Metropolitan Police, that is understandably very low—indeed, the Metropolitan Police is itself on probation. To follow up his answer to my noble friend a moment ago about probation, do the Government keep figures on the current number of police officers in the Metropolitan Police who are on probation? Do the Government have an estimate of those who are expected to pass through their probation to become finally qualified police officers?
I am glad that the noble Viscount has raised the subject of the Metropolitan Police. It is a little disappointing that it is one of the only forces—in fact, the only force—that did not meet its targets in police uplift, with only an additional 3,468 officers recruited, whereas the target was for 4,557, and the funding was there to do that. As for the probationary statistics that the noble Viscount asked for, as I said in answer to an earlier question, I am afraid that I do not have them to hand, but I shall endeavour to find them and communicate them to the noble Viscount.
My Lords, as the Minister said, it is not just about hitting a target; it is also about public trust. How concerned is he about the media reports around police recruitment of unsuitable so-called rogue candidates being given jobs, precisely to meet government targets? The police inspectorate has said explicitly that hundreds of people have joined the police in the past three years who simply should not have. If the Minister recognises this, what is he going to do to address it?
I hope that I have gone into reasonable detail about the standards of vetting that are required and expected. I also point out that there were 10 applicants for every job, which implies—or should imply, at least—that there is a reasonable pool from which to choose and, I hope, get the right people. That is of course not a guarantee that there will not be a few bad apples in this particular barrel, but I sincerely hope that there are not—but perhaps I might be surprised if there are not as well.
My Lords, even with the police uplift programme, since 2010 there are 9,000 fewer police officers, and 6,000 fewer on the beat in real terms. Does the Minister think that this programme is sufficient, given that 90% of crimes go unsolved every year, or are the Government considering further action?
My Lords, the noble Baroness asks me to comment on operational policing matters. I have talked a bit about neighbourhood policing activities; I have also, on a number of occasions, said that 91% of policemen are involved in front-line activities. These are really issues that should be debated between police and crime commissioners and chief constables, depending on the area.
My Lords, as my noble friend Lord Bellingham said, rural crime takes on a life of its own. North Yorkshire was the first police force, I understand, to create a rural task force. Will the Home Office give a specific target for rural crime to ensure that the funding for such task forces is secured going forward?
My noble friend will be aware that, as I said in answer to the previous question, these are operational matters for chief constables and police and crime commissioners—and, of course, in the case of police and crime commissioners, the people who elect them.
My Lords, this will not wash. The people outside know that crime is going up; they know that there are not the police numbers on the street. How will the Government make sure that these criminals get longer sentences when there are no places in prison for them?
My Lords, the noble Lord is wrong: crime is going down and there are more police officers than ever before. That is according to the Crime Survey for England and Wales, which the Office for National Statistics recognises as the most reliable source of those statistics. As for inviting me to comment on sentencing practices and so on, which obviously stray into the responsibilities of other government departments, I am not going to do that.
My Lords, the Minister has given us a great deal of data this afternoon. However, the proportion of front-line officers is lower today than in any year since 2011, while the proportion of officers in organisational support is higher today than in any year since 2011. Have the Government considered the merits of committing to a target for putting more police and PCSOs on the streets in our nations and regions?
I say to the noble Baroness that, again, that is an invitation to comment on operational policing matters, which depend very much on local circumstances. However, 91% of all police are currently in front-line roles and, as I have already said, the nature of that—the demand, if you like—has changed over the last decade and it would not be wise for me to speculate as to how that demand has changed in various local areas.
My Lords, just last week we heard that the Met Police may be failing to identify serial killers, in the wake of the appalling case of Stephen Port. The report identified five key failings: lack of training; poor supervision; unacceptable record-keeping; confusing policies; and inadequate intelligence procedures. How are the Government urgently supporting the Met to fix this?
The Government’s support for Sir Mark Rowley has been very clear indeed, and I am happy to wish him very well in his endeavours over the coming months. He has a very large set of responsibilities on his shoulders and, as far as I can see, he is discharging them well. The noble Lord asked me about operational policing in London. He will be aware that the responsibility for that, as the police and crime commissioner, is with the Mayor of London.
My Lords, while the Government make a virtue of the fact that police numbers in England have started to turn marginally upwards, in Northern Ireland we have reached a point at which the security threat is the highest it has been for many years from terrorist and dissident organisations, and yet the number of police officers in Northern Ireland is perhaps the lowest it has been in many decades, if not the entire history of the state. What representations have Ministers been making to their colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office to ensure that the citizens of Northern Ireland are given an equal level of protection from crime and terrorist actions?
The picture that the noble Lord paints is obviously concerning. I will say that this is not a marginal uplift but a substantial uplift. As regards specific circumstances in Northern Ireland, I am afraid I cannot answer his question on the numbers, but I will investigate and come back to him.
My Lords, I think there is general agreement that trust has declined since 2010. We need to restore that as best we can. Knowing the Minister, I was rather surprised by his throwaway line in response to some of the questions about trust. When he said that there will be “a few bad apples”, I found that rather complacent. The police inspectorate has said that, of the people being recruited into the police force, some hundreds have come in within the past three years who should not be there. We know the plan that has been set in place to try to avoid a repetition of this in the future, but what is happening to try to root out the 300 or so that are around?
I am sorry if I sounded complacent to the noble Lord. It was really just a reflection on the statistics of this, as with any normal distribution—the noble Lord will know how normal distributions of population cohorts and so on work out. That is all that that comment was meant to reflect. As regards the numbers of police that have been recruited, I have commented extensively on the vetting processes. The dismissals review, which I referred to earlier, is concluding this month. I hope that we will have a lot more to say very soon on how that process will be strengthened.
My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right. I am sorry if I seemed to evade the question. The simple fact of the matter is that I cannot comment on the strategy because I have not seen it, it is due to be published this week, and it will address all the various questions that the noble Lord has asked me—in other words, I do not know.
My Lords, as we have heard from my noble friend Lady Lawrence, even with the police uplift programme, there is still a shortage of over 9,000 police officers. As well as the decimation of neighbourhood policing that that has caused, many of the officers lost in earlier rounds of cuts will have been among the most experienced and highly trained; for example, officers trained in specialist intelligence, firearms and dealing with sexual offences. This has put immense pressure on those left behind to hold the fort and may explain, for example, why only 1% of rape offences reach a conviction. What assessment have the Government carried out of the impact of this loss of experience, and how long will it take to build back up so that the specialist officer posts can be filled?
The noble Baroness is right to talk about specialist skills and experience. I do not recognise the 9,000 number: as I have said repeatedly this afternoon, we have record numbers of police. I am afraid I cannot answer, as with the question that the noble Lord, Lord German, asked, about age distribution and so on. I can say that certain specific programmes, such the one I referenced earlier, Operation Soteria, are delivering very strong results. The necessary people are being trained in the right way in dealing with some of the things that are of significant public concern.
Online Safety Bill
Committee (4th Day)
Relevant document: 28th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee
Clause 11: Safety duties protecting children
23: Clause 11, page 10, line 9, at beginning insert “eliminate,”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would require user to user services to eliminate identified risks to children from their platforms in addition to mitigating and managing them.
My Lords, this large group of 33 amendments is concerned with preventing harm to children, by creating a legal requirement to design the sites and services that children will access in a way that will put their safety first and foremost. I thank my co-sponsors, the noble Baronesses, Lady Kidron and Lady Harding, and the noble Lord, Lord Knight. First of all, I wish to do the most important thing I will do today: to wish the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, a very happy birthday.
My co-sponsors will deal with some of the more detailed elements of the 30 amendments that we are dealing with. These will include safety duties, functionality and harm, and codes of practice. I am sure that the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson and Lord Knight, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford will speak to their own amendments.
I will provide a brief overview of why we are so convinced of the paramount need for a safety by design approach to protect children and remind digital companies and platforms, forcibly and legally, of their obligation to include the interests and safety of children as a paramount element within their business strategies and operating models. These sites and services are artificial environments. They were designed artificially and can be redesigned artificially.
In her testimony to the US Senate in July 2021, the Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen put her finger on it rather uncomfortably when talking about her erstwhile employer:
“Facebook know that they are leading young users to anorexia content … Facebook’s internal research is aware that there are a variety of problems facing children on Instagram … they know that severe harm is happening to children”.
She was talking about, probably, three years ago.
On the first day of Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Allan, who is not with us today, used the analogy of the legally mandated and regulated safe design of aeroplanes and automobiles and the different regimes that cover their usage to illustrate some of our choices in dealing with regulation. We know why aeroplanes and cars have to be designed safely; we also know that either form of transportation could be used recklessly and dangerously, which is why we do not allow children to fly or drive them.
First, let us listen to the designers of these platforms and services through some research done by the 5Rights Foundation in July 2021. These are three direct quotes from the designers:
“Companies make their money from attention. Reducing attention will reduce revenue. If you are a designer working in an attention business, you will design for attention … Senior stakeholders like simple KPIs. Not complex arguments about user needs and human values … If a senior person gives a directive, say increase reach, then that’s what designers design for without necessarily thinking about the consequences”.
Companies know exactly what they need to do to grow and to drive profitability. However, they mostly choose not to consider, mitigate and prioritise to avoid some of the potentially harmful consequences. What they design and prioritise are strategies to maximise consumption, activity and profitability. They are very good at it.
Let us hear what the children say, remembering that some recent research indicates that 42% of five to 12 year-olds in this country use social media. The Pathways research project I referred to earlier worked closely with 21 children aged 12 to 18, who said: “We spend more time online than we feel we should, but it’s tough to stop or cut down”. “If we’re not on social media, we feel excluded”. “We like and value the affirmations and validations we receive”. “We create lots of visual content, much of it about ourselves, and we share it widely”. “Many of us are contacted by unknown adults”. “Many of us recognise that, through using social media, we have experienced body image and relationships problems”.
To test whether the children in this research project were accurately reporting their experiences, the project decided to place a series of child avatars—ghost children, in effect—on the internet, whose profiles very clearly stated that they were children. It did this to test whether these experiences were true.
They found—in many cases within a matter of hours of the profiles going online—proactive contacting by strangers and rapid recommendations to engage more and more. If searches were conducted for eating disorders or self-harm, the avatars were quickly able to access content irrespective of their stated ages and clearly evident status as children. At the same time they were being sent harmful or inappropriate content, they also received age-relevant advertising for school revision and for toys—the social media companies knew that these accounts were registered as children.
This research was done two years ago. Has anything improved since then? It just so happens that 5Rights has produced another piece of research which is about to be released, and which used the exact same technique—creating avatars to see what they would experience online. They used 10 avatars based on real children aged between 10 and 16, so what happened? For an 11 year-old avatar, Instagram was recommending images of knives with the caption “This is what I use to self-harm”; design features were leading children from innocent searches to harmful content very quickly.
I think any grandparents in the Chamber will be aware of an interesting substance known as “Slime”—a form of particularly tactile playdough which one’s grandchildren seem to enjoy. Typing in “Slime” on Reddit was one search, and one click, away from pornography; exactly the same thing happened on Reddit when the avatar typed in “Minecraft”, another very popular game with our children or grandchildren. A 15 year-old female avatar was private-messaged on Instagram by a user that she did not follow—an unknown adult who encouraged her to link on to pornographic content on Telegram, another instant messaging service. On the basis of this evidence, it appears that little or nothing has changed; it may have even got slightly worse.
By an uncomfortable coincidence, last week, Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, published better than expected results and saw its market value increase by more than $50 billion in after-hours trading. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Meta, proudly announced that Meta is pouring investment into artificial intelligence tools to make its platform more engaging and its advertising more effective. Of particular interest and concern given the evidence of the avatars was his announcement that since the introduction of Reels, a short-term video feed designed specifically to respond to competition from TikTok, its AI-driven recommendations had boosted the average time people spend on Instagram by 24%.
To return to the analogy of planes and cars used by the noble Lord, Lord Allan, we are dealing here with planes and cars in the shape of platforms and applications which we know are flawed in their design. They are not adequately designed for safety, and we know that they can put users, particularly children and young people, in the way of great harm, as many grieving families can testify.
In conclusion, our amendments propose that companies must design digital services that cater for the vulnerabilities, needs, and rights of children and young people by default; children’s safety cannot and must not be an afterthought or a casualty of their business models. We are asking for safety by design to protect children to become the mandatory standard. What we have today is unsafe design by default, driven by commercial strategies which can lead to children becoming collateral damage.
Given that it is the noble Baroness’s birthday, I am sure we can feel confident that the Minister will have a positive tone when he replies. I beg to move.
It is a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Russell and to thank him for his good wishes. I assure the Committee that there is nowhere I would rather spend my birthday, in spite of some competitive offers. I remind noble Lords of my interests in the register, particularly as the chair of 5Rights Foundation.
As my noble friend has set out, these amendments fall in three places: the risk assessments, the safety duties and the codes of practice. However, together they work on the overarching theme of safety by design. I will restrict my detailed remarks to a number of amendments in the first two categories. This is perhaps a good moment to recall the initial work of Carnegie, which provided the conceptual approach of the Bill several years ago in arguing for a duty of care. The Bill has gone many rounds since then, but I think the principle remains that a regulated service should consider its impact on users before it causes them harm. Safety by design, to which all the amendments in this group refer, is an embodiment of a duty of care. In thinking about these amendments as a group, I remind the Committee that both the proportionality provisions and the fact that this is a systems and processes Bill means that no company can, should or will be penalised for a single piece of content, a single piece of design or, indeed, low-level infringements.
Amendments 24, 31, 77 and 84 would delete “content” from the Government’s description of what is harmful to children, meaning that the duty is to consider harm in the round rather than just harmful content. The definition of “content” is drawn broadly in Clause 207 as
“anything communicated by means of an internet service”,
but the examples in the Bill, including
“written material … music and data of any description”,
once again fail to include design features that are so often the key drivers of harm to children.
On day three of Committee, the Minister said:
“The Bill will address cumulative risk where it is the result of a combination of high-risk functionality, such as live streaming, or rewards in service … This will initially be identified through Ofcom’s sector risk assessments, and Ofcom’s risk profiles and risk assessment guidance will reflect where a combination of risk in functionalities such as these can drive up the risk of harm to children. Service providers will have to take Ofcom’s risk profiles into account in their own risk assessments for content which is illegal or harmful to children”.—[Official Report, 27/4/23; col. 1385.]
However, in looking at the child safety duties, Clause 11(5) says:
“The duties … in subsections (2) and (3) apply across all areas of a service, including the way it is designed, operated and used”,
but subsection (14) says:
“The duties set out in subsections (3) and (6)”—
which are the duties to operate proportionate systems and processes to prevent and protect children from encountering harmful content and to include them in terms of service—
“are to be taken to extend only to content that is harmful to children where the risk of harm is presented by the nature of the content (rather than the fact of its dissemination)”.
I hesitate to say whether that is contradictory. I am not actually sure, but it is confusing. I am concerned that while we are reassured that “content” means content and activity and that the risk assessment considers functionality, “harm” is then repeatedly expressed only in the form of content.
Over the weekend, I had an email exchange with the renowned psychoanalyst and author, Norman Doidge, whose work on the plasticity of the brain profoundly changed how we think about addiction and compulsion. In the exchange, he said that
“children’s exposures to super doses, of supernormal images and scenes, leaves an imprint that can hijack development”.
Then, he said that
“the direction seems to be that AI would be working out the irresistible image or scenario, and target people with these images, as they target advertising”.
His argument is that it is not just the image but the dissemination and tailoring of that image that maximises the impact. The volume and frequency of those images create habits in children that take a lifetime to change—if they change at all. Amendments 32 and 85 would remove this language to ensure that content that is harmful by virtue of its dissemination is accounted for.
I turn now to Amendments 28 and 82, which cut the reference to the
“size and capacity of the provider of the service”
in deeming what measures are proportionate. We have already discussed that small is not safe. Such platforms such as Yubo, Clapper and Discord have all been found to harm children and, as both the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, told us, small can become big very quickly. It is far easier to build to a set of rules than it is to retrofit them after the event. Again, I point out that Ofcom already has duties of proportionality; adding size and capacity is unnecessary and may tip the scale to creating loopholes for smaller services.
Amendment 138 seeks to reverse the exemption in Clause 54 of financial harms. More than half of the 100 top-grossing mobile phone apps contain loot boxes, which are well established as unfair and unhealthy, priming young children to gamble and leading to immediate hardship for parents landed with extraordinary bills.
By rights, Amendments 291 and 292 could fit in the future-proof set of amendments. The way that the Bill in Clause 204 separates out functionalities in terms of search and user-to-user is in direct opposition to the direction of travel in the tech sector. TikTok does shopping, Instagram does video, Amazon does search; autocomplete is an issue across the full gamut of services, and so on and so forth. This amendment simply combines the list of functionalities that must be risk-assessed and makes them apply on any regulated service. I cannot see a single argument against this amendment: it cannot be the Government’s intention that a child can be protected, on search services such as Google, from predictive search or autocomplete, but not on TikTok.
Finally, Amendment 295 will embed the understanding that most harm is cumulative. If the Bereaved Parents for Online Safety were in the Chamber, or any child caught up in self-harm, depression sites, gambling, gaming, bullying, fear of exposure, or the inexorable feeling of losing their childhood to an endless scroll, they would say at the top of their voices that it is not any individual piece of content, or any one moment or incident, but the way in which they are nudged, pushed, enticed and goaded into a toxic, harmful or dangerous place. Adding the simple words
“the volume of the content and the frequency with which the content is accessed”
to the interpretation of what can constitute harm in Clause 205 is one of the most important things that we can do in this Chamber. This Bill comes too late for a whole generation of parents and children but, if these safety by design amendments can protect the next generation of children, I will certainly be very glad.
My Lords, it is an honour, once again, to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and the noble Lord, Lord Russell, in this Committee. I am going to speak in detail to the amendments that seek to change the way the codes of practice are implemented. Before I do, however, I will very briefly add my voice to the general comments that the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and the noble Lord, Lord Russell, have just taken us through. Every parent in the country knows that both the benefit and the harm that online platforms can bring our children is not just about the content. It is about the functionality: the way these platforms work; the way they suck us in. They do give us joy but they also drive addiction. It is hugely important that this Bill reflects the functionality that online platforms bring, and not just content in the normal sense of the word “content”.
I will now speak in a bit more detail about the following amendments: Amendments 65, 65ZA, 65AA, 89, 90, 90B, 96A, 106A, 106B, 107A, 114A—I will finish soon, I promise—112, 122ZA, 122ZB and 122ZC.
I am afraid I may well have done.
That list shows your Lordships some of the challenges we all have with the Bill. All these amendments seek to ensure that the codes of practice relating to child safety are binding. Such codes should be principles-based and flexible to allow companies to take the most appropriate route of compliance, but implementing these codes should be mandatory, rather than, as the Bill currently sets out, platforms being allowed to use “alternative measures”. That is what all these amendments do—they do exactly the same thing. That was a clear and firm recommendation from the joint scrutiny committee. The government’s response to that joint scrutiny committee report was really quite weak. Rather than rehearse the joint scrutiny committee’s views, I will rehearse the Government’s response and why it is not good enough to keep the Bill as it stands.
The first argument the Government make in their response to the joint scrutiny report is that there is no precedent for mandatory codes of conduct. But actually there are. There is clear precedent in child protection. In the physical world, the SEND code for how we protect some of our most vulnerable children is mandatory. Likewise, in the digital world, the age-appropriate design code, which we have mentioned many a time, is also mandatory. So there is plenty of precedent.
The second concern—this is quite funny—was that stakeholders were concerned about having multiple codes of conduct because it could be quite burdensome on them. Well, forgive me for not crying too much for these enormous tech companies relative to protecting our children. The burden I am worried about is the one on Ofcom. This is an enormous Bill, which places huge amounts of work on a regulator that already has a very wide scope. If you make codes of conduct non-mandatory, you are in fact making the work of the regulator even harder. The Government themselves in their response say that Ofcom has to determine what the minimum standards should be in these non-binding codes of practice. Surely it is much simpler and more straightforward to make these codes mandatory and, yes, to add potentially a small additional burden to these enormous tech companies to ensure that we protect our children.
The third challenge is that non-statutory guidance already looks as if it is causing problems in this space. On the video-sharing platform regime, which is non-mandatory, Ofcom has already said that in its first year of operation it has
“seen a large variation in platforms’ readiness to engage with Ofcom”.
All that will simply make it harder and harder, so the burden will lie on this regulator—which I think all of us in this House are already worried is being asked to do an awful lot—if we do not make it very clear what is mandatory and what is not. The Secretary of State said of the Bill that she is
“determined to put these vital protections for … children … into law as quickly as possible”.
A law that puts in place a non-mandatory code of conduct is not what parents across the country would expect from that statement from the Secretary of State. People out there—parents and grandparents across the land—would expect Ofcom to be setting some rules and companies to be required to follow them. That is exactly what we do in the physical world, and I do not understand why we would not want to do it in the digital world.
Finally—I apologise for having gone on for quite a long time—I will very briefly talk specifically to Amendment 32A, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Knight, which is also in this group. It is a probing amendment which looks at how the Bill will address and require Ofcom and participants to take due regard of VPNs: the ability for our savvy children—I am the mother of two teenage girls—to get round all this by using a VPN to access the content they want. This is an important amendment and I am keen to hear what my noble friend Minister will say in response. Last week, I spoke about my attempts to find out how easy it would be for my 17 year-old daughter to access pornography on her iPhone. I spoke about how I searched in the App Store on her phone and found that immediately a whole series of 17-plus-rated apps came up that were pornography sites. What I did not mention then is that with that—in fact, at the top of the list—came a whole series of VPN apps. Just in case my daughter was naive enough to think that she could just click through and watch it, and Apple was right that 17 year-olds were allowed to watch pornography, which obviously they are not, the App Store was also offering her an easy route to access it through a VPN. That is not about content but functionality, and we need to properly understand why this bundle of amendments is so important.
My Lords, I was not going to speak on this group, but I was provoked into offering some reflections on the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, especially his opening remarks about cars and planes, which he said were designed to be safe. He did not mention trains, about which I know something as well, and which are also designed to be safe. These are a few initial reflective points. They are designed in very different ways. An aeroplane is designed never to fail; a train is designed so that if it fails, it will come to a stop. They are two totally different approaches to safety. Simply saying that something must be designed to be safe does not answer questions; it opens questions about what we actually mean by that. The noble Lord went on to say that we do not allow children to drive cars and fly planes. That is absolutely true, but the thrust of his amendment is that we should design the internet so that it can be driven by children and used by children— so that it is designed for them, not for adults. That is my problem with the general thrust of many of these amendments.
A further reflection that came to mind as the noble Lord spoke was on a book of great interest that I recommend to noble Lords. It is a book by the name of Risk written in 1995 by Professor John Adams, then professor of geography at University College London. He is still an emeritus professor of geography there. It was a most interesting work on risk. First, it reflected how little we actually know of many of the things of which we are trying to assess risk.
More importantly, he went on to say that people have an appetite for risk. That appetite for risk—that risk budget, so to speak—changes over the course of one’s life: one has much less appetite for risk when one gets to a certain age than perhaps one had when one was young. I have never bungee jumped in my life, and I think I can assure noble Lords that the time has come when I can say I never shall, but there might have been a time when I was younger when I might have flung myself off a cliff, attached to a rubber band and so forth—noble Lords may have done so. One has an appetite for risk.
The interesting thing that he went on to develop from that was the notion of risk compensation: that if you have an appetite for risk and your opportunities to take risks are taken away, all you do is compensate by taking risks elsewhere. So a country such as New Zealand, which has some of the strictest cycling safety laws, also has a very high incidence of bungee jumping among the young; as they cannot take risks on their bicycles, they will find ways to go and do it elsewhere.
Although these reflections are not directly germane to the amendments, they are important as we try to understand what we are seeking to achieve here, which is a sort of hermetically sealed absence of risk for children. I do not think it will work. I said at Second Reading that I thought the flavour of the debate was somewhat similar to a late medieval conclave of clerics trying to work out how to mitigate the harmful effects of the invention of movable type. That did not work either, and I think we are in a very similar position today as we discuss this.
There is also the question of harm and what it means. While the examples being given by noble Lords are very specific and no doubt genuinely harmful, and are the sorts of things that we should like to stop, the drafting of the amendments, using very vague words such as “harm”, is dangerous overreach in the Bill. To give just one example, for the sake of speed, when I was young, administering the cane periodically was thought good for a child in certain circumstances. The mantra was, “Spare the rod and spoil the child”, though I never heard it said. Nowadays, we would not think it morally or psychologically good to do physical harm to a child. We would regard it as an unmitigated harm and, although not necessarily banned or illegal, it is something that—
My Lords, I respond to the noble Lord in two ways. First, I ask him to reflect on how the parents of the children who have died through what the parents would undoubtedly view as serious and unbearable harm would feel about his philosophical ruminations. Secondly, as somebody who has the privilege of being a Deputy Speaker in your Lordships’ House, it is incumbent and germane for us all to focus on the amendment in question and stay on it, to save time and get through the business.
Well, I must regard myself as doubly rebuked, and unfairly, because my reflections are very relevant to the amendments, and I have developed them in that direction. In respect of the parents, they have suffered very cruelly and wrongly, but although it may sound harsh, as I have said in this House before on other matters, hard cases make bad law. We are in the business of trying to make good law that applies to the whole population, so I do not think that these are wholly—
My Lords, if the internet were a toy, aimed at children and used only by children, those remarks would of course be very relevant, but we are dealing with something of huge value and importance to adults as well. It is the lack of consideration of the role of adults, the access for adults and the effects on freedom of expression and freedom of speech, implicit in these amendments, that cause me so much concern.
I seem to have upset everybody. I will now take issue with and upset the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, with whom I have not engaged on this topic so far. At Second Reading and earlier in Committee, she used the phrase, “childhood lasts a lifetime”. There are many people for whom this is a very chilling phrase. We have an amendment in this group—a probing amendment, granted—tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, which seeks to block access to VPNs as well. We are in danger of putting ourselves in the same position as China, with a hermetically sealed national internet, attempting to put borders around it so that nobody can breach it. I am assured that even in China this does not work and that clever and savvy people simply get around the barriers that the state has erected for them.
Before I sit down, I will redeem myself a little, if I can, by giving some encouragement to the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, on Amendments 28 and 32 —although I think the amendments are in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool. These amendments, if we are to assess the danger posed by the internet to children, seek to substitute an assessment of the riskiness of the provider for the Government’s emphasis on the size of the provider. As I said earlier in Committee, I do not regard size as being a source of danger. When it comes to many other services— I mentioned that I buy my sandwich from Marks & Spencer as opposed to a corner shop—it is very often the bigger provider I feel is going to be safer, because I feel I can rely on its processes more. So I would certainly like to hear how my noble friend the Minister responds on that point in relation to Amendments 28 and 32, and why the Government continue to put such emphasis on size.
More broadly, in these understandable attempts to protect children, we are in danger of using language that is far too loose and of having an effect on adult access to the internet which is not being considered in the debate—or at least has not been until I have, however unwelcomely, raised it.
My Lords, I assure your Lordships that I rise to speak very briefly. I begin by reassuring my noble friend Lord Moylan that he is loved in this Chamber and outside. I was going to say that he is the grit in the oyster that ensures that a consensus does not establish itself and that we think hard about these amendments, but I will revise that and say he is now the bungee jumper in our ravine. I think he often makes excellent and worthwhile points about the scope and reach of the Bill and the unintended consequences. Indeed, we debated those when we debated the amendments relating to Wikipedia, for example.
Obviously, I support these amendments in principle. The other reason I wanted to speak was to wish the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron—Beeban—a happy birthday, because I know that these speeches will be recorded on parchment bound in vellum and presented to her, but also to thank her for all the work that she has done for many years now on the protection of children’s rights on the internet. It occurred to me, as my noble friend Lady Harding was speaking, that there were a number of points I wanted to seek clarity on, either from the Minister or from the proponents of the amendments.
First, the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, mentioned the age-appropriate design code, which was a victory for the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. It has, I think, already had an impact on the way that some sites that are frequented by children are designed. I know, for instance, that TikTok—the noble Baroness will correct me—prides itself on having made some changes as a result of the design code; for example, its algorithms are able, to a certain extent, to detect whether a child is under 13. I know anecdotally that children under 13 sometimes do have their accounts taken away; I think that is a direct result of the amendments made by the age-appropriate design code.
I would like to understand how these amendments, and the issue of children’s rights in this Bill, will interact with the age-appropriate design code, because none of us wants the confetti of regulations that either overlap or, worse, contradict themselves.
Secondly, I support the principle of functionality. I think it is a very important point that these amendments make: the Bill should not be focused solely on content but should take into account that functionality leads to dangerous content. That is an important principle on which platforms should be held to account.
Thirdly, going back to the point about the age-appropriate design code, the design of websites is extremely important and should be part of the regulatory system. Those are the points I wanted to make.
In relation to how my noble friend Lord Moylan is approaching the Bill, I would say this: having been a Minister when the British Government—and, indeed, other Governments—had no power at all, it was very telling when the then Prime Minister threatened Google with legislation on the issue of child abuse images, saying, “If you do not do something, I will legislate”.
At that time, I was on the tech side of the argument. Google went from saying, “It is impossible to do anything” to identifying 130,000 phrases that people might type into search engines when searching for child abuse images, which, in theory—I have not tried this myself, I hasten to add—would come up with no return and, indeed, a warning that the person in question was searching for those images.
Again, I say to my noble friend Lord Moylan—who I encourage to keep going with his scepticism about the Bill; it is important—that it is a bit of a dead end at any point in his argument to compare us with China. That is genuinely comparing apples with oranges. When people were resisting regulation in this sphere, they would always say, “That’s what the Chinese want”. We have broadcasting regulation and other forms of health and safety regulation. It is not the mark of an autocratic or totalitarian state to have regulation; platforms need to be held to account. I simply ask the proponents of the amendments to make it clear as they proceed how this fits in with existing regulations, such as the age-appropriate design code.
My Lords, I want, apart from anything else, to speak in defence of philosophical ruminations. The only way we can scrutinise the amendments in Committee is to do a bit of philosophical rumination. We are trying to work out what the amendments might mean in terms of changing the Bill.
I read these amendments, noted their use of “eliminate” —we have to “eliminate” all risks—and wondered what that would mean. I do not want to feel that I cannot ask these kinds of difficult questions for fear that I will offend a particular group or that it would be insensitive to a particular group of parents. It is difficult but we are required as legislators to try to understand what each other are trying to change, or how we are going to try to change the law.
I say to those who have put “eliminate” prominently in a number of these amendments that it is impossible to eliminate all risks to children—is it not?—if they are to have access to the online world, unless you ban them from the platforms completely. Is “eliminate” really helpful here?
Previously in Committee, I talked a lot about the potential dangers, psychologically and with respect to development, of overcoddling young people, of cotton wool kids, and so on. I noted an article over the weekend by the science journalist Tom Chivers, which included arguments from the Oxford Internet Institute and various psychologists that the evidence on whether social media is harmful, particularly for teenagers, is ambiguous.
I am very convinced by the examples brought forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron—and I too wish her a happy birthday. We all know about the targeting of young people and so forth, but I am also aware of the positives. I always try to balance these things out and make sure that we do not deny young people access to the positives. In fact, I found myself cheering at the next group of amendments, which is unusual. First, they depend on whether you are four or 14—in other words, you have to be age-specific—and, secondly, they recognise that we do not want to pass anything in the Bill that actually denies children access to either their own privacy or the capacity to know more.
I also wanted to explore a little the idea of expanding the debate away from content to systems, because this is something that I think I am not quite understanding. My problem is that moving away from the discussion on whether content is removed or accessible, and focusing on systems, does not mean that content is not in scope. My worry is that the systems will have an impact on what content is available.
Let me give some examples of things that can become difficult if we think that we do not want young people to encounter violence and nudity—which makes it seem as though we know what we are talking about when we talk about “harmful”. We will all recall that, in 2018, Facebook removed content from the Anne Frank Centre posted by civil rights organisations because it included photographs of the Holocaust featuring undressed children among the victims. Facebook apologised afterwards. None the less, my worry is these kinds of things happening. Another example, in 2016, was the removal of the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph “The Terror of War”, featuring fleeing Vietnamese napalm victims in the 1970s, because the system thought it was something dodgy, given that the photo was of a naked child fleeing.
I need to understand how system changes will not deprive young people of important educational information such as that. That is what I am trying to distinguish. The point made by the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, about “harmful” not being defined—I have endlessly gone on about this, and will talk more about it later—is difficult because we think that we know what we mean by “harmful” content.
Finally, on the amendments requiring compliance with Ofcom codes of practice, that would give an extraordinary amount of power to the regulator and the Secretary of State. Since I have been in this place, people have rightly drawn my attention to the dangers of delegating power to the Executive or away from any kind of oversight—there has been fantastic debate and discussion about that. It seems to me that these amendments advocate delegated powers being given to the Secretary of State and Ofcom, an unelected body —the Secretary of State could amend for reasons of public policy in order to protect children—and this is to be put through the negative procedure. In any other instance, I would have expected outcry from the usual suspects, but, because it involves children, we are not supposed to object. I worry that we need to have more scrutiny of such amendments and not less, because in the name of protecting children unintended consequences can occur.
I want to answer the point that amendments cannot be seen in isolation. Noble Lords will remember that we had a long and good debate about what constituted harms to children. There was a big argument and the Minister made some warm noises in relation to putting harms to children in the Bill. There is some alignment between many people in the Chamber whereby we and Parliament would like to determine what harm is, and I very much share the noble Baroness’s concern about pointing out what that is.
On the issue of the system versus the content, I am not sure that this is the exact moment but the idea of unintended consequences keeps getting thrown up when we talk about trying to point the finger at what creates harm. There are unintended consequences now, except neither Ofcom nor the Secretary of State or Parliament but only the tech sector has a say in what the unintended consequences are. As someone who has been bungee jumping, I am deeply grateful that there are very strict rules under which that is allowed to happen.
My Lords, I support the amendments in this group that, with regard to safety by design, will address functionality and harms—whatever exactly we mean by that—as well as child safety duties and codes of practice. The noble Lord, Lord Russell, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Harding and Lady Kidron, have laid things out very clearly, and I wish the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, a happy birthday.
I also support Amendment 261 in the name of my right reverend friend the Bishop of Oxford and supported by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and the noble Viscount, Lord Colville. This amendment would allow the Secretary of State to consider safety by design, and not just content, when reviewing the regime.
As we have heard, a number of the amendments would amend the safety duties to children to consider all harms, not just harmful content, and we have begun to have a very interesting debate on that. We know that service features create and amplify harms to children. These harms are not limited to spreading harmful content; features in and of themselves may cause harm—for example, beautifying filters, which can create unrealistic body ideals and pressure on children to look a certain way. In all of this, I want us to listen much more to the voices of children and young people—they understand this issue.
Last week, as part of my ongoing campaign on body image, including how social media can promote body image anxiety, I met a group of young people from two Gloucestershire secondary schools. They were very good at saying what the positives are, but noble Lords will also be very familiar with many of the negative issues that were on their minds, which I will not repeat here. While they were very much alive to harmful content and the messages it gives them, they were keen to talk about the need to address algorithms and filters that they say feed them strong messages and skew the content they see, which might not look harmful but, because of design, accentuates their exposure to issues and themes about which they are already anxious. Suffice to say that underpinning most of what they said to me was a sense of powerlessness and anxiety when navigating the online world that is part of their daily lives.
The current definition of content does not include design features. Building in a safety by design principle from the outset would reduce harms in a systematic way, and the amendments in this group would address that need.
My Lords, I support this group of amendments. Last week, I was lucky—that is not necessarily the right word—to participate in a briefing organised by the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, with the 5Rights Foundation on its recent research, which the noble Lord referred to. As the mother of a 13 year-old boy, I came away wondering why on earth you would not want to ensure safety by design for children.
I am aware from my work with disabled children that we know, as Ofcom knows from its own research, that children—or indeed anyone with a long-term health impact or a disability—are far more likely to encounter and suffer harm online. As I say, I struggle to see why you would not want to have safety by design.
This issue must be seen in the round. In that briefing we were taken through how quickly you could get from searching for something such as “slime” to extremely graphic pornographic content. As your Lordships can imagine, I went straight back to my 13 year-old son and said, “Do you know about slime and where you have you seen it?” He said, “Yes, Mum, I’ve watched it on YouTube”. That echoes the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron—to whom I add my birthday wishes—that these issues have to be seen in the round because you do not just consume content; you can search on YouTube, shop on Google, search on Amazon and all the rest of it. I support this group of amendments.
I too wish my noble friend Lady Kidron a happy birthday.
I will speak to Amendment 261. Having sat through the Communications Committee’s inquiries on regulating the internet, it seemed to me that the real problem was the algorithms and the way they operated. We have heard that again and again throughout the course of the Bill. It is no good worrying just about the content, because we do not know what new services will be created by technology. This morning we heard on the radio from the Google AI expert, who said that we have no idea where AI will go or whether it will become cleverer than us; what we need to do is to keep an eye on it. In the Bill, we need to make sure that we are looking at the way technology is being developed and the possible harms it might create. I ask the Minister to include that in his future-proofing of the Bill, because, in the end, this is a very fast-moving world and ecosystem. We all know that what is present now in the digital world might well be completely changed within a few years, and we need to remain cognisant of that.
My Lords, we have already had some very significant birthdays during the course of the Bill, and I suspect that, over many more Committee days, there will be many more happy birthdays to celebrate.
This has been a fascinating debate and the Committee has thrown up some important questions. On the second day, we had a very useful discussion of risk which, as the noble Lord, Lord Russell, mentioned, was prompted by my noble friend Lord Allan. In many ways, we have returned to that theme this afternoon. The noble Baroness, Lady Fox, who I do not always agree with, asked a fair question. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, said, it is important to know what harms we are trying to prevent—that is how we are trying to define risk in the Bill—so that is an absolutely fair question.
The Minister has shown flexibility. Sadly, I was not able to be here for the previous debate, and it is probably because I was not that he conceded the point and agreed to put children’s harms in the Bill. That takes us a long way further, and I hope he will demonstrate that kind of flexibility as we carry on through the Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord Moylan, and I have totally different views about what risk it is appropriate for children to face. I am afraid that I absolutely cannot share his view that there is this level of risk. I do not believe it is about eliminating risk—I do not see how you can—but the Bill should be about preventing online risk to children; it is the absolute core of the Bill.
As the noble Lord, Lord Russell, said, the Joint Committee heard evidence from Frances Haugen about the business model of the social media platforms. We listened to Ian Russell, the father of Molly, talk about the impact of an unguarded internet on his daughter. It is within the power of the social media companies to do something about that; this is not unreasonable.
I was very interested in what the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, said. He is right that this is about algorithms, which, in essence, are what we are trying to get to in all the amendments in this really important group. It is quite possible to tackle algorithms if we have a requirement in the Bill to do so, and that is why I support Amendment 261, which tries to address to that.
However, a lot of the rest of the amendments are trying to do exactly the same thing. There is a focus not just on moderating harmful content but on the harmful systems that make digital services systematically unsafe for children. I listened with great interest to what the noble Lord, Lord Russell, said about the 5Rights research which he unpacked. We tend to think that media platforms such as Reddit are relatively harmless but that is clearly not the case. It is very interesting that the use of avatars is becoming quite common in the advertising industry to track where advertisements are ending up—sometimes, on pornography sites. It is really heartening that an organisation such as 5Rights has been doing that and coming up with its conclusions. It is extremely useful for us as policymakers to see the kinds of risks that our children are undertaking.
We were reminded about the origins—way back, it now seems—of the Carnegie duty of care. In a sense, we are trying to make sure that that duty of care covers the systems. We have talked about the functionality and harms in terms of risk assessment, about the child safety duties and about the codes of practice. All those need to be included within this discussion and this framework today to make sure that that duty of care really sticks.
I am not going to go through all the amendments. I support all of them: ensuring functionalities for both types of regulated service, and the duty to consider all harms and not just harmful content. It is absolutely not just about the content but making sure that regulated services have a duty to mitigate the impact of harm in general, not just harms stemming from content.
The noble Baroness, Lady Harding, made a terrific case, which I absolutely support, for making sure that the codes of practice are binding and principle based. At the end of the day, that could be the most important amendment in this group. I must admit that I was quite taken with her description of the Government’s response, which was internally contradictory. It was a very weak response to what I, as a member of the Joint Committee, thought was a very strong and clear recommendation about minimum standards.
This is a really important group of amendments and it would not be a difficult concession for the Government to make. They may wish to phrase things in a different way but we must get to the business case and the operation of the algorithms; otherwise, I do not believe this Bill is going to be effective.
I very much take on board what about the noble Viscount said about looking to the future. We do not know very much about some of these new generative AI systems. We certainly do not know a great deal about how algorithms within social media companies operate. We will come, no doubt, to later amendments on the ability to find out more for researchers and so on, but transparency was one of the things our Joint Committee was extremely keen on, and this is a start.
My Lords, I too agree that this has been a really useful and interesting debate. It has featured many birthday greetings to the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, in which I obviously join. The noble Lord, Lord Moylan, bounced into the debate that tested the elasticity of the focus of the group, and bounced out again. Like the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, I was particularly struck by the speech from the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, on the non-mandatory nature of the codes. Her points about reducing Ofcom’s workload, and mandatory codes having precedent, were really significant and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
If I have understood it correctly, the codes will be generated by Ofcom, and the Secretary of State will then table them as statutory instruments—so they will be statutory, non-mandatory codes, but with statutory penalties. Trying to unravel that in my mind was a bit of a thing as I was sitting there. Undoubtedly, we are all looking forward to the Minister’s definition of harm, which he promised us at the previous meeting of the Committee.
I applaud the noble Lord, Lord Russell, for the excellent way in which he set out the issues in this grouping and—along with the Public Bill Office—for managing to table these important amendments. Due to the Bill’s complexity, it is an achievement to get the relatively simple issue of safety by design for children into amendments to Clause 10 on children’s risk assessment duties for user-to-user services; Clause 11 on the safety duties protecting children; and the reference to risk assessments in Clause 19 on record-keeping. There is a similar set of amendments applying to search; to the duties in Clause 36 on codes of practice duties; to Schedule 4 on the content of codes of practice; and to Clause 39 on the Secretary of State’s powers of direction. You can see how complicated the Bill is for those of us attempting to amend it.
What the noble Lord and his amendments try to do is simple enough. I listened carefully to the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, as always. The starting point is, when designing, to seek to eliminate harm. That is not to say that they will eliminate all potential harms to children, but the point of design is to seek to eliminate harms if you possibly can. It is important to be clear about that. Of course, it is not just the content but the systems that we have been talking about, and ensuring that the codes of practice that we are going to such lengths to legislate for are stuck to—that is the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Harding—relieving Ofcom of the duty to assess all the alternative methods. We certainly support the noble Lord, Lord Russell, in his amendments. They reinforce that it is not just about the content; the algorithmic dissemination, in terms of volume and context, is really important, especially as algorithms are dynamic—they are constantly changing in response to the business models that underpin the user-to-user services that we are debating.
The business models want to motivate people to be engaged, regardless of safety in many ways. We have had discussion of the analogy on cars and planes from the noble Lord, Lord Allan. As I recall, in essence he said that in this space there are some things that you want to regulate like planes, to ensure that there are no accidents, and some where you trade off freedom and safety, as we do with the regulation of cars. In this case, it is a bit more like regulating for self-driving cars; in that context, you will design a lot more around trying to anticipate all the things that humans when driving will know instinctively, because they are more ethical individuals than you could ever programme an AI to be when driving a car. I offer that slight adjustment, and I hope that it helps the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, when he is thinking about trains, planes and automobiles.
In respect of the problem of the business models and their engagement over safety, I had contact this weekend and last week from friends much younger than I am, who are users of Snap. I am told that there is an AI chatbot on Snap, which I am sure is about engaging people for longer and collecting more data so that you can engage them even longer and, potentially, collect data to drive advertising. But you can pay to get rid of that chatbot, which is the business model moving somewhere else as and when we make it harder for it to make money as it is. Snap previously had location sharing, which you had to turn off. It created various harms and risks for children that their location was being shared with other people without them necessarily authorising it. We can all see how that could create issues.
Does the noble Lord have any reflections, talking about Snap, as to how the internet has changed in our time? It was once really for adults, when it was on a PC and it was only adults who had access to it. There has, of course, been a huge explosion in child access to the internet because of the mobile phone—as we have heard, two-thirds of 10 year-olds now have a mobile phone—and an app such as Snap now has a completely different audience from the one it had five or 10 years ago. Does the noble Lord have any reflections on what the consequences of the explosion of children’s access to applications such as Snap has been on those thinking about the harms and protection of children?
I am grateful to the noble Lord. In many ways, I am reminded of the article I read in the New York Times this weekend and the interview with Geoffrey Hinton, the now former chief scientist at Google. He said that as companies improve their AI systems, they become increasingly dangerous. He said of AI technology:
“Look at how it was five years ago and how it is now. Take the difference and propagate it forwards. That’s scary”.
Yes, the huge success of the iPhone, of mobile phones and all of us, as parents, handing our more redundant iPhones on to our children, has meant that children have huge access. We have heard the stats in Committee around the numbers who are still in primary school and on social media, despite the terms and conditions of those platforms. That is precisely why we are here, trying to get things designed to be safe as far as is possible from the off, but recognising that it is dynamic and that we therefore need a regulator to keep an eye on the dynamic nature of these algorithms as they evolve, ensuring that they are safe by design as they are being engineered.
My noble friend Lord Stevenson has tabled Amendment 27, which looks at targeted advertising, especially that which requires data collection and profiling of children. In that, he has been grateful to Global Action Plan for its advice. While advertising is broadly out of scope of the Bill, apart from in respect of fraud, it is significant for the Minister to reflect on the user experience for children. Whether it is paid or organic content, it is pertinent in terms of their safety as children and something we should all be mindful of. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, that as I understand it, the age-appropriate design code does a fair amount in respect of the data privacy of children, but this is much more about preventing children encountering the advertising in the first place, aside from the data protections that apply in the age-appropriate design code. But the authority is about to correct me.
Just to add to what the noble Lord has said, it is worth noting that we had a debate, on Amendment 92, about aligning the age-appropriate design code likely to be accessed and the very important issue that the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, raised about alignment of these two regimes. I think we can say that these are kissing cousins, in that they take a by-design approach. The noble Lord is completely right that the scope of the Bill is much broader than data protection only, but they take the same approach.
I am grateful, as ever, to the noble Baroness, and I hope that has assisted the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey.
Finally—just about—I will speak to Amendment 32A, tabled in my name, about VPNs. I was grateful to the noble Baroness for her comments. In many ways, I wanted to give the Minister the opportunity to put something on the record. I understand, and he can confirm whether my understanding is correct, that the duties on the platforms to be safe is regardless of whether a VPN has been used to access the systems and the content. The platforms, the publishers of content that are user-to-user businesses, will have to detect whether a VPN is being used, one would suppose, in order to ensure that children are being protected and that that is genuinely a child. Is that a correct interpretation of how the Bill works? If so, is it technically realistic for those platforms to be able to detect whether someone is landing on their site via a VPN or otherwise? In my mind, the anecdote that the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, related, about what the App Store algorithm on Apple had done in pushing VPNs when looking for porn, reinforces the need for app stores to become in scope, so that we can get some of that age filtering at that distribution point, rather than just relying on the platforms.
Substantially, this group is about platforms anticipating harms, not reviewing them and then fixing them despite their business model. If we can get the platforms themselves designing for children’s safety and then working out how to make the business models work, rather than the other way around, we will have a much better place for children.
My Lords, I join in the chorus of good wishes to the bungee-jumping birthday Baroness, Lady Kidron. I know she will not have thought twice about joining us today in Committee for scrutiny of the Bill, which is testament to her dedication to the cause of the Bill and, more broadly, to protecting children online. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, is right to note that we have already had a few birthdays along the way; I hope that we get only one birthday each before the Bill is finished.
Very good—only one each, and hopefully fewer. I thank noble Lords for the points they raised in the debate on these amendments. I understand the concerns raised about how the design and operation of services can contribute to risk and harm online.
The noble Lord, Lord Russell, was right, when opening this debate, that companies are very successful indeed at devising and designing products and services that people want to use repeatedly, and I hope to reassure all noble Lords that the illegal and child safety duties in the Bill extend to how regulated services design and operate their services. Providers with services that are likely to be accessed by children will need to provide age-appropriate protections for children using their service. That includes protecting children from harmful content and activity on their service. It also includes reviewing children’s use of higher-risk features, such as live streaming or private messaging. Service providers are also specifically required to consider the design of functionalities, algorithms and other features when delivering the child safety duties imposed by the Bill.
I turn first to Amendments 23 and 76 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Russell. These would require providers to eliminate the risk of harm to children identified in the service’s most recent children’s risk assessment, in addition to mitigating and managing those risks. The Bill will deliver robust and effective protections for children, but requiring providers to eliminate the risk of harm to children would place an unworkable duty on providers. As the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, my noble friend Lord Moylan and others have noted, it is not possible to eliminate all risk of harm to children online, just as it is not possible entirely to eliminate risk from, say, car travel, bungee jumping or playing sports. Such a duty could lead to service providers taking disproportionate measures to comply; for instance, as noble Lords raised, restricting children’s access to content that is entirely appropriate for them to see.
It is part of the philosophical ruminations that we have had, but the point here is that elimination is not possible through the design or any drafting of legislation or work that is there. I will come on to talk a bit more about how we seek to minimise, mitigate and manage risk, which is the focus.
Amendments 24, 31, 32, 77, 84, 85 and 295, from the noble Lord, Lord Russell, seek to ensure that providers do not focus just on content when fulfilling their duties to mitigate the impact of harm to children. The Bill already delivers on those objectives. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, noted, it defines “content” very broadly in Clause 207 as
“anything communicated by means of an internet service”.
Under this definition, in essence, all communication and activity is facilitated by content.
I hope that the Minister has in his brief a response to the noble Baroness’s point about Clause 11(14), which, I must admit, comes across extraordinarily in this context. She quoted it, saying:
“The duties set out … are to be taken to extend only to content that is harmful to children where the risk of harm is presented by the nature of the content (rather than the fact of its dissemination)”.
Is not that exception absolutely at the core of what we are talking about today? It is surely therefore very difficult for the Minister to say that this applies in a very broad way, rather than purely to content.
I will come on to talk a bit about dissemination as well. If the noble Lord will allow me, he can intervene later on if I have not done that to his satisfaction.
I was about to talk about the child safety duties in Clause 11(5), which also specifies that they apply to the way that a service is designed, how it operates and how it is used, as well as to the content facilitated by it. The definition of content makes it clear that providers are responsible for mitigating harm in relation to all communications and activity on their service. Removing the reference to content would make service providers responsible for all risk of harm to children arising from the general operation of their service. That could, for instance, bring into scope external advertising campaigns, carried out by the service to promote its website, which could cause harm. This and other elements of a service’s operations are already regulated by other legislation.
I apologise for interrupting. Is that the case, and could that not be dealt with by defining harm in the way that it is intended, rather than as harm from any source whatever? It feels like a big leap that, if you take out “content”, instead of it meaning the scope of the service in its functionality and content and all the things that we have talked about for the last hour and a half, the suggestion is that it is unworkable because harm suddenly means everything. I am not sure that that is the case. Even if it is, one could find a definition of harm that would make it not the case.
Taking it out in the way that the amendment suggests throws up that risk. I am sure that it is not the intention of the noble Lord or the noble Baroness in putting it, but that is a risk of the drafting, which requires some further thought.
Clause 11(2), which is the focus of Amendments 32, 85 and 295, already means that platforms have to take robust action against content which is harmful because of the manner of its dissemination. However, it would not be feasible for providers to fulfil their duties in relation to content which is harmful only by the manner of its dissemination. This covers content which may not meet the definition of content which is harmful to children in isolation but may be harmful when targeted at children in a particular way. One example could be content discussing a mental health condition such as depression, where recommendations are made repeatedly or in an amplified manner through the use of algorithms. The nature of that content per se may not be inherently harmful to every child who encounters it, but, when aggregated, it may become harmful to a child who is sent it many times over. That, of course, must be addressed, and is covered by the Bill.
The Bill requires providers to specifically consider as part of their risk assessments how algorithms could affect children’s exposure to illegal content and content which is harmful to children on their service. Service providers will need specifically to consider the harm from content that arises from the manner of dissemination —for example, content repeatedly sent to someone by a person or persons, which is covered in Clause 205(3)(c). Providers will also need to take steps to mitigate and effectively manage any risks, and to consider the design of functionalities, algorithms and other features to meet their illegal content and child safety duties. Ofcom will have a range of powers at its disposal to help it assess whether providers are fulfilling their duties. That includes the power to require information from providers about the operation of their algorithms.
Can the Minister assure us that he will take another look at this between Committee and Report? He has almost made the case for this wording to be taken out—he said that it is already covered by a whole number of different clauses in the Bill—but it is still here. There is still an exception which, if the Minister is correct, is highly misleading: it means that you have to go searching all over the Bill to find a way of attacking the algorithm, essentially, and the way that it amplifies, disseminates and so on. That is what we are trying to get to: how to address the very important issue not just of content but of the way that the algorithm operates in social media. This seems to be highly misleading, in the light of what the Minister said.
I do not think so, but I will certainly look at it again, and I am very happy to speak to the noble Lord as I do. My point is that it would not be workable or proportionate for a provider to prevent or protect all children from encountering every single instance of the sort of content that I have just outlined, which would be the effect of these amendments. I will happily discuss that with the noble Lord and others between now and Report.
Amendment 27, by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, seeks to add a duty to prevent children encountering targeted paid-for advertising. As he knows, the Bill has been designed to tackle harm facilitated through user-generated content. Some advertising, including paid-for posts by influencers, will therefore fall under the scope of the Bill. Companies will need to ensure that systems for targeting such advertising content to children, such as the use of algorithms, protect them from harmful material. Fully addressing the challenges of paid-for advertising is a wider task than is possible through the Bill alone. The Bill is designed to reduce harm on services which host user-generated content, whereas online advertising poses a different set of problems, with different actors. The Government are taking forward work in this area through the online advertising programme, which will consider the full range of actors and sector-appropriate solutions to those problems.
I understand the Minister’s response, and I accept that there is a parallel stream of work that may well address this. However, we have been waiting for the report from the group that has been looking at that for some time. Rumours—which I never listen to—say that it has been ready for some time. Can the Minister give us a timescale?
I cannot give a firm timescale today but I will seek what further information I can provide in writing. I have not seen it yet, but I know that the work continues.
Amendments 28 and 82, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Russell, seek to remove the size and capacity of a service provider as a relevant factor when determining what is proportionate for services in meeting their child safety duties. This provision is important to ensure that the requirements in the child safety duties are appropriately tailored to the size of the provider. The Bill regulates a large number of service providers, which range from some of the biggest companies in the world to small voluntary organisations. This provision recognises that what it is proportionate to require of providers at either end of that scale will be different.
Removing this provision would risk setting a lowest common denominator. For instance, a large multinational company could argue that it is required only to take the same steps to comply as a smaller provider.
Amendment 32A from the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, would require services to have regard to the potential use of virtual private networks and similar tools to circumvent age-restriction measures. He raised the use of VPNs earlier in this Committee when we considered privacy and encryption. As outlined then, service providers are already required to think about how safety measures could be circumvented and take steps to prevent that. This is set out clearly in the children’s risk assessment and safety duties. Under the duty at Clause 10(6)(f), all services must consider the different ways in which the service is used and the impact of such use on the level of risk. The use of VPNs is one factor that could affect risk levels. Service providers must ensure that they are effectively mitigating and managing risks that they identify, as set out in Clause 11(2). The noble Lord is correct in his interpretation of the Bill vis-à-vis VPNs.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for engaging in dialogue while I am in a sedentary position, but I had better stand up. It is relevant to this Committee whether it is technically possible for providers to fulfil the duties we are setting out for them in statute in respect of people’s ability to use workarounds and evade the regulatory system. At some point, could he give us the department’s view on whether there are currently systems that could be used —we would not expect them to be prescribed—by platforms to fulfil the duties if people are using their services via a VPN?
This is the trouble with looking at legislation that is technologically neutral and future-proofed and has to envisage risks and solutions changing in years to come. We want to impose duties that can technically be met, of course, but this is primarily a point for companies in the sector. We are happy to engage and provide further information, but it is inherently part of the challenge of identifying evolving risks.
The provision in Clause 11(16) addresses the noble Lord’s concerns about the use of VPNs in circumventing age-assurance or age-verification measures. For it to apply, providers would need to ensure that the measures they put in place are effective and that children cannot normally access their services. They would need to consider things such as how the use of VPNs affects the efficacy of age-assurance and age-verification measures. If children were routinely using VPNs to access their service, they would not be able to conclude that Clause 11(16) applies. I hope that sets out how this is covered in the Bill.
Amendments 65, 65ZA, 65AA, 89, 90, 90B, 96A, 106A, 106B, 107A, 114A, 122, 122ZA, 122ZB and 122ZC from the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, seek to make the measures Ofcom sets out in codes of practice mandatory for all services. I should make it clear at the outset that companies must comply with the duties in the Bill. They are not optional and it is not a non-statutory regime; the duties are robust and binding. It is important that the binding legal duties on companies are decided by Parliament and set out in legislation, rather than delegated to a regulator.
Codes of practice provide clarity on how to comply with statutory duties, but should not supersede or replace them. This is true of codes in other areas, including the age-appropriate design code, which is not directly enforceable. Following up on the point from my noble friend Lady Harding of Winscombe, neither the age-appropriate design code nor the SEND code is directly enforceable. The Information Commissioner’s Office or bodies listed in the Children and Families Act must take the respective codes into account when considering whether a service has complied with its obligations as set out in law.
As with these codes, what will be directly enforceable in this Bill are the statutory duties by which all sites in scope of the legislation will need to abide. We have made it clear in the Bill that compliance with the codes will be taken as compliance with the duties. This will help small companies in particular. We must also recognise the diversity and innovative nature of this sector. Requiring compliance with prescriptive steps rather than outcomes may mean that companies do not use the most effective or efficient methods to protect children.
I reassure noble Lords that, if companies decide to take a different route to compliance, they will be required to document what their own measures are and how they amount to compliance. This will ensure that Ofcom has oversight of how companies comply with their duties. If the alternative steps that providers have taken are insufficient, they could face enforcement action. We expect Ofcom to take a particularly robust approach to companies which fail to protect their child users.
My noble friend Lord Vaizey touched on the age-appropriate design code in his remarks—
My noble friend the Minister did not address the concern I set out that the Bill’s approach will overburden Ofcom. If Ofcom has to review the suitability of each set of alternative measures, we will create an even bigger monster than we first thought.
I do not think that it will. We have provided further resource for Ofcom to take on the work that this Bill will give it; it has been very happy to engage with noble Lords to talk through how it intends to go about that work and, I am sure, would be happy to follow up on that point with my noble friend to offer her some reassurance.
Responding to the point from my noble friend Lord Vaizey, the Bill is part of the UK’s overall digital regulatory landscape, which will deliver protections for children alongside the data protection requirements for children set out in the Information Commissioner’s age-appropriate design code. Ofcom has strong existing relationships with other bodies in the regulatory sphere, including through the Digital Regulation Co-operation Forum. The Information Commissioner has been added to this Bill as a statutory consultee for Ofcom’s draft codes of practice and relevant pieces of guidance formally to provide for the ICO’s input into its areas of expertise, especially relating to privacy.
Amendment 138 from the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, would amend the criteria for non-designated content which is harmful to children to bring into scope content whose risk of harm derives from its potential financial impact. The Bill already requires platforms to take measures to protect all users, including children, from financial crime online. All companies in scope of the Bill will need to design and operate their services to reduce the risk of users encountering content amounting to a fraud offence, as set out in the list of priority offences in Schedule 7. This amendment would expand the scope of the Bill to include broader commercial harms. These are dealt with by a separate legal framework, including the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations. This amendment therefore risks creating regulatory overlap, which would cause confusion for business while not providing additional protections to consumers and internet users.
Amendment 261 in the name of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford seeks to modify the existing requirements for the Secretary of State’s review into the effectiveness of the regulatory framework. The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that all aspects of a regulated service are taken into account when considering the risk of harm to users and not just content.
As we have discussed already, the Bill defines “content” very broadly and companies must look at every aspect of how their service facilitates harm associated with the spread of content. Furthermore, the review clause makes explicit reference to the systems and processes which regulated services use, so the review can already cover harm associated with, for example, the design of services.
Amendments 291, 292, and 293 seek to ensure that companies’ child safety duties apply to a broader range of functionalities which can facilitate harm online. The current list of functionalities in the Bill is not exhaustive. Services will therefore need to assess the risk from any feature or functionality of their service which enables user interaction and could cause harm to users.
The points raised in these amendments are covered already in the Bill in the places I have set out. I will consult the official record of this debate to see whether there are any areas which I have not followed up, but I invite noble Lords not to press their amendments in this group.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response. I think the entire Chamber will be thankful that I do not intend to respond in any great detail to almost one hour and three-quarters of debate on this series of amendments—I will just make a few points and suggestions.
The point that the noble Baroness made at the beginning about understanding the design and architecture of the systems and processes is fundamental, both for understanding why they are causing the sorts of harm that they are at the moment and for trying to ensure that they are designed better in future than they have been to date. Clearly, they are seriously remiss in the harms that they are inflicting on a generation of young people.
On the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, about trying to make Ofcom’s job easier— I can see the noble Lord, Lord Grade, in the corner— I would hope and anticipate that anything we could suggest that would lead the Government to make Ofcom’s job slightly easier and clearer would be very welcome. The noble Lord appears to be making an affirmatory gesture, so I will take that as a yes.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, that I fully understand the importance of waving the flag of liberty and free speech, and I acknowledge its importance. I also acknowledge the always-incipient danger of unintentionally preventing things from happening that can and should happen when you are trying to make things safer and prevent harm. Trying to get the right balance is extraordinarily difficult, but I applaud the noble Lord for standing up and saying what he said. If one were to judge the balance of the contributions here as a very rough opinion poll, the noble Lord might find himself in the minority, but that does not necessarily mean that he is wrong, so I would encourage him to keep contributing.
I sympathise with the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, in trying to find the right balance; it is something that we are all struggling to do. One of the great privileges we have in this House is that we have the time to do it in a manner which is actively discouraged in the other place. Even if we go on a bit, we are talking about matters which are very important—in particular, the pre-legislative scrutiny committee was able to cover them in greater detail than the House of Commons was able to do.
The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, was right. In the same way as they say, “Follow the money”, in this case it is “follow the algorithms”, because it is the algorithms which drive the business model.
On the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Knight, regarding the New York Times article about Geoffrey Hinton, one of the architects of AI in Google, I would recommend that all your Lordships read it to see somebody who has been at the forefront of developing artificial intelligence. Rather like a character in a Jules Verne novel suddenly being slightly aghast at what they have created—Frankenstein comes to mind—it makes one pause for thought. Even as we are talking about these things, AI is racing ahead like a greyhound in pursuit of a very fast rabbit, and there is no way that we will be able to catch up.
While I thank the noble Minister for his reply, as when we debated some of the amendments last week where the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, spoke about the train journey she took when she was trying to interrogate and interpret the different parts of the Bill and was trying to follow the trail and understand what was going on to the extent that she became so involved that she missed her station, I think there is a real point here about the fact that this Bill is very complex to follow and understand. Indeed, the way in which the Minster had to point to all the different points of the compass—so to speak—both within the Bill and without it in many of the answers that he gave to some of the amendments indicates to me that the Bill team is finding it challenging to respond to some of them. It is like filling in one of those diagrams where you join the dots, and you cannot quite see what it is until you have nearly finished. I find it slightly disturbing if the Bill team and some of the officials appear to be having a challenging time in trying to interpret, understand and explain some of the points we are raising; I would hope and expect that that could be done much more simply.
One of the pleas from all of us in a whole variety of these amendments is to get the balance right between legislating what it is that we want to legislate and making it simple enough to be understandable. At the moment, a criticism of this Bill is that it is extraordinary difficult to understand in many parts. I will not go through all the points, but there are some germane areas where it would be extremely helpful to pursue with the Minister and the Bill team some of the points we are trying to make. Many of them are raised by a variety of outside bodies which know infinitely more about it than I do, and which have genuine concerns. We have the time between Committee and Report to put some of those to bed or at least to understand them better than we do at the moment. We will probably be happy and satisfied with some of the responses that we receive from the department once we feel that we understand them, and perhaps more importantly, once we feel that the department and the Bill team themselves fully understand them. It is fair to say that at the moment we are not completely comfortable that they do. I do not blame the Minister for that. If I were in his shoes, I would be on a very long holiday and I would not be returning any time soon. However, we will request meetings—for one meeting, it would be too much, so we will try to put this into bit-size units and then try to dig into the detail in a manageable way without taking too much time to make sure that we understand each other.
With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 23 withdrawn.
Amendment 24 not moved.
25: Clause 11, page 10, line 13, at end insert—
“(c) uphold children’s rights per the United Kingdom’s obligations as a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), with reference to General Comment No. 25 (2021) from the Committee on the Rights of the Child on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would mean regulated services would have to have regard for the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to ensure children are treated according to their evolving capacities, in their best interests, in consideration of their wellbeing and are not locked out of spaces that they have a right to participate in and to access.
My Lords, I am sorry that it is me again—a bit like a worn 78. In moving Amendment 25, I will speak also to Amendments 78, 187 and 196, all of which speak to the principle of children’s rights as set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and, more specifically, how those rights are applied to the digital world as covered in the United Nations’ general comment No. 25, which was produced in 2021 and ratified by the UK Government. What we are suggesting and asking for is that the principles in this general comment are reflected in the Bill. I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Harding, Lady Kennedy and Lady Bennett, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton—who is not with us—for adding their names to these amendments and for their support.
The general comment No. 25 that I mentioned recognises that children’s rights are applicable in the digital world as well as the real world. These amendments try to establish in the Bill the rights of children. Believe it or not, in this rather lengthy Bill there is not a single reference—as far as we can discern—specifically to children’s rights. There are a lot of other words, but that specific phrase is not used, amazingly enough. These amendments are an attempt to get children’s rights specifically into the Bill. Amendments 30 and 105 in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Knight, also seek to preserve the well-being of children. Our aims are very similar, but we will try to argue that the convention would achieve them in a particularly effective and concise way.
The online world is not optional for children, given what we know—not least from some of the detailed and harrowing experiences related by various of your Lordships in the course of the Bill. The fact that the online world is not optional for children may be worrying to some adults. We have all heard about parents, grandparents and others who have direct experience of their beloved coming to harm. By contrast, it is also fascinating to note how many senior executives, and indeed founders, of digital companies forbid their own children from possessing and using mobile phones, typically until they are 12 or 14. That is telling us something. If they themselves do not allow their children to have access to some of the online world we are talking about so much, that should give us pause for reflection.
Despite the many harms online, there is undoubted good that all children can benefit from, including in terms of their cognitive and skills development, social development and relationships. There are some brilliant things which come from being online. It is also beneficial because having age-appropriate experiences when they are online is part of their fundamental rights. That, essentially, is what these amendments are about.
Throughout the many years that the Bill has been in gestation, we have heard a lot about freedom of speech and how it must be preserved. Indeed, in contrast to children’s rights not being mentioned once in the Bill, “freedom of expression” appears no less than 49 times. I venture to suggest to your Lordships that there is a degree of imbalance there which should cause us to pause and reflect on whether we have that balance quite right.
I will not go into detail, but the UNCRC is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history, and it is legally binding on the states which are party to it. The UK is a signatory to this convention, yet if we do not get this right in the Bill, we are in danger of falling behind some of our global counterparts. Although I recognise that saying the name of this organisation may bring some members of the governing party out in a rather painful rash, the EU is incorporating the UNCRC into its forthcoming AI Act. Sweden has already incorporated it into law at a different level, and Canada, New Zealand and South Africa are all doing the same. It is not anything to be worried about. Even Wales incorporated it into its domestic law in 2004, and Scotland did so in 2021. This appears to be something that the English have