Online Safety Bill: Bishop of Guildford speaks in favour of amendments on child protection

On 27th April 2023, the House of Lords debated the Online Safety Bill in committee. The Bishop of Guildford spoke on behalf of the Bishop of Derby on amendments to the bill that she had tabled concerning protection of children from exploitation and trafficking:

The Lord Bishop of Guildford: My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 128, 130 and 132, as well as Amendments 143 to 153 in this grouping. They were tabled in the name of my right reverend colleague the Bishop of Derby, who is sorry that she cannot be here today.

The Church of England is the biggest provider of youth provision in our communities and educates around 1 million of our nation’s children. My colleague’s commitment to the principles behind these amendments also springs from her experience as vice chair of the Children’s Society. The amendments in this grouping are intended to strengthen legislation on online grooming for the purpose of child criminal exploitation, addressing existing gaps and ensuring that children are properly protected. They are also intended to make it easier for evidence of children being groomed online for criminal exploitation to be reported by online platforms to the police and the National Crime Agency.

Research from 2017 shows that one in four young people reported seeing illicit drugs advertised for sale on social media—a percentage that is likely to be considerably higher six years on. According to the Youth Endowment Fund in 2022, 20% of young people reported having seen online content promoting gang membership in the preceding 12 months, with 24% reporting content involving the carrying, use or promotion of weapons.

In relation to drugs, that later research noted that these platforms provide opportunities for dealers to build trust with potential customers, with young people reporting that they are more likely to see a groomer advertising drugs as a friend than as a dealer. This leaves young people vulnerable to exploitation, thereby reducing the scruples or trepidation they might feel about buying drugs in the first place. Meanwhile, it is also clear that social media is changing the operation of the county lines model. There is no longer the need to transport children from cities into the countryside to sell drugs, given that children who live in less populated areas can be groomed online as easily as in person. A range of digital platforms is therefore being used to target potential recruits among children and young people, with digital technologies also being deployed—for example, to monitor their whereabouts on a drugs run.

More research is being carried out by the Children’s Society, whose practitioners reported a notable increase in the number of perpetrators grooming children through social media and gaming sites during the first and second waves of the pandemic. Young people were being contacted with promotional material about lifestyles they could lead and the advantages of working within a gang, and were then asked to do jobs in exchange for money or status within this new group. It is true that some such offences could be prosecuted under the Modern Slavery Act 2015, but there remains a huge disparity between the scale of exploitation and the number of those being charged under the Act. Without a definition of child exploitation for criminal purposes, large numbers of children are being groomed online and paying the price for crimes committed by some of their most dangerous and unscrupulous elders.

It is vital that we protect our children from online content which facilitates that criminal exploitation, in the same way that we are looking to protect them from sexual exploitation. Platforms must be required to monitor for illegal content related to child criminal exploitation on their sites and to have mechanisms in place for users to flag it with those platforms so it can be removed. This can be achieved by including modern slavery and trafficking, of which child criminal exploitation is a form, into the scope of illegal content within the Bill, which is what these amendments seek to do. It is also vital that the law sets out clear expectations on platforms to report evidence of child criminal exploitation to the National Crime Agency in the same way as they are expected to report content involving child sexual exploitation and abuse to enable child victims to be identified and to receive support. Such evidence may enable action against the perpetrators without the need of a disclosure from child victims. I therefore fully support and endorse the amendments standing in the name of the right reverend Prelate.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con, DCMS): Amendments 128 to 133 and 143 to 153, in the names of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby and the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, seek to ensure that priority offences relating to modern slavery and human trafficking, where they victimise children, are included in Schedule 6. These amendments also seek to require technology companies to report content which relates to modern slavery and the trafficking of children—including the criminal exploitation of children—irrespective of whether it is sexual exploitation or not. As noble Lords know, the strongest provisions in the Bill relate to children’s safety, and particularly to child sexual exploitation and abuse content. These offences are captured in Schedule 6. The Bill includes a power for Ofcom to issue notices to companies requiring them to use accredited technology or to develop new technology to identify, remove and prevent users encountering such illegal content, whether communicated publicly or privately.

These amendments would give Ofcom the ability to issue such notices for modern slavery content which affects children, even when there is no child sexual exploitation or abuse involved. That would not be appropriate for a number of reasons. The power to tackle illegal content on private communications has been restricted to the identification of content relating to child sexual exploitation and abuse because of the particular risk to children posed by content which is communicated privately. Private spaces online are commonly used by networks of criminals to share illegal images—as we have heard—videos, and tips on the commitment of these abhorrent offences. This is highly unlikely to be reported by other offenders, so it will go undetected if companies do not put in place measures to identify it. Earlier in Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Allan, suggested that those who receive it should report it, but of course, in a criminal context, a criminal recipient would not do that.

Extending this power to cover the identification of modern slavery in content which is communicated privately would be challenging to justify and could represent a disproportionate intrusion into someone’s privacy. Furthermore, modern slavery is usually identified through patterns of behaviour or by individual reporting, rather than through content alone. This reduces the impact that any proactive technology required under this power would have in tackling such content.

Lord Moylan (Con): The debate expressed a very wide range of concerns. Concerns about gang grooming and recruiting were expressed on behalf of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby and my noble friend Lady Buscombe expressed concerns about trolling of country businesses. However, I think it is fair to say that most speakers focused on the following issues. The first was the definition of legality, which was so well explicated by the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam. The second was the judgment bar that providers have to pass to establish whether something should be taken down. The third was the legislative mandating of private foreign companies to censor free speech rights that are so hard-won here in this country. These are the things that mainly concern us.

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