Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee debates involving the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport during the 2019-2024 Parliament

Wed 28th Feb 2024
Tue 23rd May 2023
Online Safety Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage: Part 1
Tue 2nd May 2023
Online Safety Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage: Part 1
Wed 1st Feb 2023

Regional Arts Facilities

Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Excerpts
Wednesday 27th March 2024

(4 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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The noble Earl is right to point to the importance of local government, which is a bigger funder of the arts than national government or the Arts Council. It is a really important partner. He points to the things that the Government have done through the cultural tax reliefs—making them permanent is an important part of the help, alongside the support we have given to organisations in the face of rising energy costs. But, as I said in my initial answer, my department advocates for the importance of cultural spending, not just because it is a good in itself but because it is a way for local authorities to deliver many of their other statutory obligations in education and in health and well-being. That is why we capture the data and measure it in a Green Book-compliant way, so that we can have the conversation with our colleagues at the Treasury and bring the successes that we saw in the Budget, but also so that we can make that case clearly to our colleagues in local government.

Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Portrait Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, one of the most important cultural institutions in Northern Ireland is the Linen Hall library in Belfast. As a member, I would be delighted to host the Minister in the Linen Hall the next time he is in Belfast, so he can experience it for himself. It has been there since 1788 and it holds collections of national and international significance—yet it is significantly underfunded. Will the Minister think about the possibility of looking at all the UK cultural institutions that are critical to cultural well-being across the UK? I think it would be very useful to find out where the critical institutions are.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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Many elements of culture are devolved, as the noble Baroness knows, but other elements, such as the benefits through the National Lottery, apply UK-wide. I would be delighted to make the case for those benefits of our United Kingdom for cultural organisations right across the UK.

Media Bill

Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Excerpts
Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Portrait Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I draw your Lordships’ attention to my register of interests, particularly my work with broadcasters.

It is always a privilege and a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. When she was speaking about the need for labelling in terms of AI and future-proofing, it struck me that instead we seem to spend an inordinate amount of time looking at classics, reclassifying them and putting out warnings on them— I think “Mary Poppins” is the latest.

I thank the Minister for his introduction of this important Bill; I say from the outset that I fully understand and welcome the need for updating the legislative basis for broadcasting in the UK. I also associate myself with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, on foreign government interference—it is important that we describe it as that—in our media and the importance of a free press here in the United Kingdom.

I will speak principally about one area, which the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, has already referenced: the public service broadcasting commitment for traditional broadcast television—linear television. As the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee report said in March 2019, public service broadcasting is as vital as ever, and indeed, recognition was made of the need to keep PSB prominence on both linear and on-demand services. That is the area where I have concern.

The House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee in its pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Bill suggested a number of changes, including retaining the PSBs’ obligation to provide specific genres of content. It noted that as currently drafted, the genres of religion, international matters and science were removed, while retaining news and current affairs. That leads to fears, which I share, that that could mean a decrease in the provision of less commercially successful content. Given the Bill’s desire to give PSBs greater flexibility in how they deliver their remit, I do have concerns about its likely impact, particularly on religious, cultural and ethical programming.

We all want British broadcasters to compete more effectively with their international digital competitors. However, there are major public service concerns, which are shared not only by those who value public service programming but by those who are digitally deprived and wish it to be accessible to the widest possible audience.

At present, the Bill enables broadcasters to move much of their religious and ethical programming, such as it is—we have already heard a very good example of that—to digital only, where it will be inaccessible to a significant section of the population. In the case of the BBC, some licence fee payers will be paying for programmes that they cannot view. That is an important thing that we need to take cognisance of.

In the present climate of severely reduced broadcasting budgets, such a move will mean that programmes will be less widely viewed and fewer will be made. If we believe that it is vital for a healthy democracy that we have a shared knowledge and understanding of the beliefs of different faiths, and of the particular role of Christianity in our history and culture, that is a retrograde step. We should not abandon terrestrial broadcasting too quickly. For example, if the recent ITV drama series on the Post Office scandal had been available only on digital, it would not have had anything like the impact that it has had. Everyone benefits from shared broadcasting experiences, whether we are old or young, rich or poor, of differing faiths or none. Television will always deliver fantasy, entertainment and crime, but there needs to be a space for deeper things.

Frankly, there is evidence that those people who commission TV shows continually underestimate the appetite of the general public to explore spiritual and ethical issues. That ignorance of other faiths and of the importance that faith plays in the lives of so many of us is dangerous for society. There has never been a more important time in the United Kingdom to inform, educate and entertain. We should look very carefully in Committee at an amendment which brings those genres back to public service broadcasting so that the broadcasters have an appropriate amount and range of programmes—on religion and other beliefs, which I have a particular interest in, science, culture and arts, social issues, matters of international significance and matters of specialist interest. I hope that we will have the opportunity to debate such an amendment in Committee.

Online Safety Bill

Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Excerpts
Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Portrait Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I too should have spoken before the noble Lord, Lord Allan; I should have known, given his position on the Front Bench, that he was speaking on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. I was a little reticent to follow him, knowing his expertise in the technical area, but I am very pleased to do so now. I support this very important group of amendments and thank noble Lords for placing them before us. I echo the thanks to all the children’s NGOs that have been working in this area for so long.

For legislators, ambiguity is rarely a friend, and this is particularly true in legislation dealing with digital communications, where, as we all acknowledge, the law struggles to keep pace with technical innovation. Where there is ambiguity, sites will be creative and will evade what they see as barriers—of that I have no doubt. Therefore, I strongly believe that there is a need to have clarity where it can be achieved. That is why it is important to have in the Bill a clear definition of age verification for pornography.

As we have heard this evening, we know that pornography is having a devastating impact on our young people and children: it is impacting their mental health and distorting their views of healthy sexual relationships. It is very upsetting for me that evidence shows that children are replicating the acts they see in pornographic content, thinking that it is normal. It is very upsetting that, in particular, young boys who watch porn think that violence during intimacy is a normal thing to do. The NSPCC has told us that four in 10 boys aged 11 to 16 who regularly view porn say they want to do that because they want to get ideas as to the type of sex they want to try. That is chilling. Even more chilling is the fact that content is often marketed towards children, featuring characters from cartoons, such as “Frozen”, “Scooby Doo” and “The Incredibles”, to try to draw young people on to those sites. Frankly, that is unforgivable; it is why we need robust age verification to protect our children from this content. It must apply to all content, regardless of where it is found; we know, for instance, that Twitter is often a gateway to pornographic sites for young people.

The noble Lord, Lord Bethell, referred to ensuring, beyond all reasonable doubt, that the user is over 18. I know that that is a very high standard—it is the criminal law level—but I believe it is what is needed. I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that, because, if we are to protect children and if we take on the role of the fireguard, which the right reverend Prelate referred to, we need to make sure that it is as strong as possible.

Also, this is not just about making sure that users are over 18; we need to make sure that adults, not children, are involved in the content. The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, talked about adults being made to look like children, but there is also the whole area of young people being trafficked and abused into pornography production; therefore, Amendment 184 on performer age checks is very important.

I finish by indicating my strong support for Amendment 185 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin. Some, if not most, mainstream pornography content sites are degrading, extremely abusive and violent. Such content would be prohibited in the offline world and is illegal to own and to have; this includes sexual violence including strangulation, incest and sexualising children. We know that this is happening online because, as we have heard, some of the most frequently searched terms on porn sites are “teens”, “schoolgirls” or “girls”, and the lack of regulation online has allowed content to become more and more extreme and abusive. That is why I support Amendment 185 in the name of noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, which seeks to bring parity between the online and offline regulation of pornographic content.

This Bill has been eagerly awaited. There is no doubt about that. It has been long in the gestation—some people would say too long. We have had much discussion in this Committee but let us get it right. I urge the Minister to take on board the many points made this afternoon. That fireguard needs not only to be put in place, but it needs to be put in place so that it does not move, it is not knocked aside and so that it is at its most effective. I support the amendments.

Baroness Harding of Winscombe Portrait Baroness Harding of Winscombe (Con)
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My Lords, I also failed to stand up before the noble Lord, Lord Allan, did. I too am always slightly nervous to speak before or after him for fear of not having the detailed knowledge that he does. There have been so many powerful speeches in this group. I will try to speak swiftly.

My role in this amendment was predefined for me by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, as the midwife. I have spent many hours debating these amendments with my noble friend Lord Bethell, the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and with many noble Lords who have already spoken in this debate. I think it is very clear from the debate why it is so important to put a definition of age assurance and age verification on the face of the Bill. People feel so passionately about this subject. We are creating the digital legal scaffolding, so being really clear what we mean by the words matters. It really matters and we have seen it mattering even in the course of this debate.

My two friends—they are my friends—the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and my noble friend Lord Bethell both used the word “proportionate”, with one not wanting us to be proportionate and the other wanting us to be proportionate. Yet, both have their names to the same amendment. I thought it might be helpful to explain what I think they both mean—I am sure they will interrupt me if I get this wrong—and explain why the words of the amendment matter so much.

Age assurance should not be proportionate for pornography. It should be the highest possible bar. We should do everything in our power to stop children seeing it, whether it is on a specific porn site or on any other site. We do not want our children to see pornography; we are all agreed on that. There should not be anything proportionate about that. It should be the highest bar. Whether “beyond reasonable doubt” is the right wording or it should instead be “the highest possible bar practically achievable”, I do not know. I would be very keen to hear my noble friend the Minister’s thoughts on what the right wording is because, surely, we are all clear it should be disproportionate; it should absolutely be the hardest we can take.

Equally, age assurance is not just about pornography, as the noble Lord, Lord Allan, has said. We need to have a proportionate approach. We need a ladder where age assurance for pornography sits at the top, and where we are making sure that nine year-olds cannot access social media sites if they are age-rated for 13. We all know that we can go into any primary school classroom in the land and find that the majority of nine year-olds are on social media. We do not have good age assurance further down.

As both the noble Lord, Lord Allan, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, have said, we need age assurance to enable providers to adapt the experience to make it age-appropriate for children on services we want children to use. It needs to be both proportionate and disproportionate, and that needs to be defined on the face of the Bill. If we do not, I fear that we will fall into the trap that the noble Lord, Lord Allan, mentioned: the cookie trap. We will have very well-intentioned work that will not protect children and will go against the very thing that we are all looking for.

In my role as the pragmatic midwife, I implore my noble friend the Minister to hear what we are all saying and to help us between Committee and Report, so that we can come back together with a clear definition of age assurance and age verification on the face of the Bill that we can all support.

Baroness Kidron Portrait Baroness Kidron (CB)
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My Lords, I support all the amendments in this group, and will make two very brief points. Before I do, I believe that those who are arguing for safety by design and to put harms in the Bill are not trying to restrict the freedom of children to access the internet but to give the tech sector slightly less freedom to access children and exploit them.

My first point is a point of principle, and here I must declare an interest. It was my very great privilege to chair the international group that drafted general comment No. 25 on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment. We did so on behalf of the Committee on the Rights of the Child and, as my noble friend Lord Russell said, it was adopted formally in 2021. To that end, a great deal of work has gone into balancing the sorts of issues that have been raised in this debate. I think it would interest noble Lords to know that the process took three years, with 150 submissions, many by nation states. Over 700 children in 28 countries were consulted in workshops of at least three hours. They had a good shout and, unlike many of the other general comments, this one is littered with their actual comments. I recommend it to the Committee as a very concise and forceful gesture of what it might be to exercise children’s rights in a balancing way across all the issues that we are discussing. I cannot remember who, but somebody said that the online world is not optional for children: it is where they grow up; it is where they spend their time; it is their education; it is their friendships; it is their entertainment; it is their information. Therefore, if it is not optional, then as a signatory to the UNCRC we have a duty to respect their rights in that environment.

My second point is rather more practical. During the passage of the age-appropriate design code, of which we have heard much, the argument was made that children were covered by the amendment itself, which said they must be kept in mind and so on. I anticipate that argument being made here—that we are aligning with children’s rights, apart from the fact that they are indivisible and must be done in their entirety. In that case, the Government happily accepted that it should be explicit, and it was put in the Data Protection Act. It was one of the most important things that happened in relation to the age-appropriate design code. We might hope that, when this Bill is an Act, it will all be over—our job will be done and we can move on. However, after the Data Protection Act, the most enormous influx of lobbying happened, saying, “Please take the age down from 18 to 13”. The Government, and in that case the ICO, shrugged their shoulders and said, “We can’t; it’s on the face of the Bill”, because Article 1 of the UNCRC says that a child is anyone under the age of 18.

The evolving capacities of children are central to the UNCRC, so the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, which I very much share, that a four year-old and a 14 year-old are not the same, are embodied in that document and in the general comment, and therefore it is useful.

These amendments are asking for that same commitment here—to children and to their rights, and to their rights to protection, which is at the heart of so much of what we are debating, and their well-being. We need their participation; we need a digital world with children in it. Although I agreed very much with the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and her fierce defending of children’s rights, there are 1 billion children online. If two-thirds of them have not seen anything upsetting in the last year, that rather means that one-third of 1 billion children have—and that is too many.

Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Portrait Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I did not intend to speak in this debate but I have been inspired by it.

I was here for the encryption debate last week, which I did not speak in. One of the contributions was around unintended consequences of the legislation, and I am concerned about unintended consequences here.

I absolutely agree with the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, around the need for children to engage on the internet. Due to a confidence and supply agreement with the then Government back in 2017, I ensured that children and adults alike in Northern Ireland have the best access to the internet in the United Kingdom, and I am very proud of that. Digital literacy is covered in a later amendment, Amendment 91, which I will be strongly supporting. It is something that everybody needs to be involved in, not least our young people—and here I declare an interest as the mother of a 16 year-old.

I have two concerns. The first was raised by my friend the noble Lord, Lord Weir, around private companies being legally accountable for upholding an international human rights treaty. I am much more comfortable with Amendments 187 and 196, which refer to Ofcom. I think that is where the duty should be. I have an issue not with the convention but with private companies being held responsible for it; Ofcom should be the body responsible.

Secondly, I listened very carefully to what the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, said about general comment No. 25. If what I say is incorrect, I hope she will say so. Is general comment No. 25 a binding document on the Government? I understood that it was not.

Baroness Kidron Portrait Baroness Kidron (CB)
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We need to see the UNCRC included in the Bill. The convention is never opened up again, and how it makes itself relevant to the modern world is through the general comments; that is how the Committee on the Rights of the Child would interpret it.

Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Portrait Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee (Non-Afl)
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So it is an interpretive document. The unintended consequences piece was around general comment No. 25 specifically having reference to children being able to seek out content. That is certainly something that I would be concerned about. I am sure that we will discuss it further in the next group of amendments, which are on pornography. If young people were able to seek out harmful content, that would concern me greatly.

I support Amendments 187 and 196, but I have some concerns about the unintended consequences of Amendment 25.

Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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My Lords, I think this may have been a brief interlude of positivity. I am not entirely convinced, in view of some of the points that have been made, but certainly I think that it was intended to be.

I will speak first to Amendments 30 and 105. I do not know what the proprieties are, but I needed very little prompting from the LEGO Group to put forward amendments that, in the online world, seek to raise the expectation that regulated services must go beyond purely the avoidance of risk of harm and consider the positive benefits that technology has for children’s development and their rights and overall well-being. It has been extremely interesting to hear that aspect of today’s debate.

It recognises that through the play experience of children, both offline and online, it has an impact on the lives of millions of children that it engages with around the world, and it recognises the responsibility to ensure that, wherever it engages with them, the impact is positive and that it protects and upholds the rights of children and fosters their well-being as part of its mission.

Online Safety Bill

Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Excerpts
Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Portrait Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I am very thankful to be in this House to discuss this Bill. I know many Lords have commented on the Bill being rather late but, being a relatively new Peer, I am pleased to be able to contribute to this debate—it is something I have been active on, in another place, for quite some time. So I congratulate the Minister on bringing the Bill to the House.

Everything that a person sees on social media is there as a result of a decision taken by the platform that runs it—a point very powerfully made by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron—and we have heard the tragic outworking of that for children in this debate. In an article in the Daily Telegraph on 13 December last year, it was reported that Meta knew it was prompting content harmful to teenagers—that was in an internal document leaked to CBS News. It suggested that Meta knew Instagram was pushing girls toward dangerous content.

I will not repeat the many valuable points that have been made on the safety of children—I support them all and will be supporting the amendments from the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron—but I want to make a number of further points, some of which are unfortunately born from personal experience, somewhat like those the noble Baroness, Lady Anderson, made earlier. Women and girls are disproportionately affected by abuse online. While I do acknowledge the user empowerment duties in Clause 12 and the triple lock, I am concerned that the Government’s proposals do not go far enough to protect women and girls. They put an onus on individual users to protects themselves, and while the individual can choose to opt out, it does not protect millions of others from being able to see the content.

As well as fearing for vulnerable women and girls who see such content, I am concerned at the chill factor to women and girls getting involved in public life. Many potential political candidates have said to me that they could not go through what I endure online, and so they do not. That is not good for democracy and not good for encouraging women to come forward. Therefore, I support the proposal to produce a code of practice on violence against women and girls modelled on Carnegie UK’s previous work on hate speech, and that it should be introduced as an amendment to Clause 36. I thank Carnegie UK for its work, over a long period of time, on these issues.

Additionally, it has to be said that some of the trolling against politicians and people who speak out on issues is undoubtedly orchestrated. I hope that that level of orchestration by vicious online mobs—the pile-on that the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, referred to—can be looked into as well. I hope the Minister will be cognisant of that point.

I am pleased that anonymity has been raised in the Chamber this evening. The argument goes that if everyone had to be identified and verified online, this would prevent whistleblowers and others, such as the victims of violence, coming forward and speaking out, so they need anonymity. I understand that argument but, given that the majority of abuse and criminal activity comes from anonymous accounts, surely there could be a way to protect genuine free speech users from those who overstep the line and threaten violence. I believe this could be achieved by platforms holding the ID of users behind a firewall that could be breached only if there were reasonable grounds to suspect that a criminal offence had been committed. There are those who use anonymity as a cloak of protection from criminal law. That needs to be challenged. I recognise that this is a cross-jurisdictional issue. However, it is one we need to tackle in this House.

Finally, I support and endorse the amendments being brought forward by the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, on those under 18 accessing pornography, particularly on robust age verification and a clear definition of pornographic content. I commend the work of the noble Lord and the coalition of NGOs that have been working with him. I thank them for their clear papers on this issue.

I support the principle of the Bill, but we will have a lot of work to do to strengthen it. I look forward to taking part in that.