On 1st February 2023, the House of Lords debated the Online Safety Bill in its second reading he Bishop of Oxford spoke in the debate , raising the importance of risk assessments of harm to adults, the independence of Ofcom, and the dangers of technology facilitated crime & domestic abuse:
The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, it is an honour and privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, and all those who have spoken in this debate. As a member of your Lordships’ Committee on Artificial Intelligence and a founding member of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, I have followed the slow progress of this Bill since the original White Paper. We have seen increasing evidence that many social media platforms are unwilling to acknowledge, let alone prevent, harms of the kind this vital Bill addresses. We know that there is an all too porous frontier between the virtual world and the physical world. The resulting harms damage real lives, real families, and real children, as we have heard.
There is a growing list of priority harms and now there is concern, as well as excitement, over new AIs such as ChatGPT; they demonstrate yet again that technology has no inherent precautionary principles. Without systemic checks and balances, AI in every field develops faster than society can respond. We are and for ever will be catching up with the technology.
The Bill is very welcome, marking as it does a belated but important step towards rebalancing a complex but vital aspect of public life. I pay tribute to the Government and to civil servants for their patient efforts to address a complex set of ethical and practical issues in a proportionate way. But the job is not yet fully done.
On 1st February 2023, the Bishop of Manchester spoke in a debate on the Online Safety Bill in its second reading, encouraging the government to introduce a duty to cooperate for regulators, and highlighting issues of child protection:
The Lord Bishop of Manchester: My Lords, that is not an easy speech to follow, but I begin by declaring my interest as a Church Commissioner, as set out in the register. We have substantial holdings in many of the big tech companies. I am also vice-chair of the Church of England Ethical Investment Advisory Group. I commend the attention of noble Lords to our recent report on big tech that was published last September. There, we set out five core principles that we believe should guide our investment in and engagement with big tech companies: flourishing as persons, flourishing in relationships, standing with the marginalised, caring for creation and serving the common good. If we apply those principles to our scrutiny of this Bill, we will not only improve lives but save lives.
I will focus my remaining remarks on three areas. First, as the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, and the noble Lord, Lord McNally, have noted, the powers granted to the Secretary of State to direct Ofcom on its codes of practice and provide tactical and strategic guidance put Ofcom’s independence at risk. While I recognise that the Government have sought to address these concerns, more is required—Clauses 39 and 157 are not fit for purpose in their present form. We also need clear safeguards and parliamentary scrutiny for Secretary of State powers in the Bill that will allow them to direct Ofcom to direct companies in whatever we mean by “special circumstances”. Maintaining Ofcom’s autonomy in decision-making is critical to preserving freedom of expression more broadly. While the pace of technological innovation sometimes requires very timely response, the Bill places far too much power in the hands of the Secretary of State.
During a debate on amendments to the Public Order Bill on 30th January 2023, the Bishop of Manchester expressed concerns regarding amendments to clause 9 of the bill:
Clause 9: Offence of interference with access to or provision of abortion services.
The Lord Bishop of Manchester: My Lords, in Committee I shared my concerns about Clause 9 as it then stood. I am grateful for conversations that have taken place since. I particularly thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Sugg and Lady Barker. The latter has listened patiently and sympathetically to me and my friends on these Benches at some length.
My concerns regarding Clause 9 had nothing to do with the moral merits or otherwise of abortion; they lie in my passion to see upheld the rights of citizens of this land, both to receive healthcare and to protest. Women must be able to access lawful medical interventions without facing distressing confrontations, directed at them personally, when they are identifiable by their proximity to the clinic or hospital. At the same time, anyone who wishes to protest in general about abortion law must be able to do so lawfully, with the least restriction on where and when they may do so.
On 30th January 2023, the House of Lords debated amendments to the Public Order Bill. The Bishop of Manchester spoke in the debate, supporting amendments by Baroness Chakrabarti concerning police powers to arrest protestors for “locking on” offences:
The Lord Bishop of Manchester: My Lords, I shall speak very briefly in support of the amendment to remove Clauses 1 and 2 that my right reverend friend the Bishop of Bristol signed. She regrets that she cannot be in her place today. As the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, said, establishing new offences of locking on and being equipped for locking on have very significant consequences for the right to protest. A few days ago I got an email from a retired vicar in my diocese. He wrote to tell me he is awaiting sentencing: he has just been convicted of obstruction by gluing himself to a road during a protest by an environmental group. The judge has warned him and his co-defendants that they may go to prison. I cite his case not to approve of his actions—which I fear may serve to reduce public support for his cause rather than increase it—but because it clearly indicates to me that the police already have sufficient powers to intervene against those who are taking an active part in such protests. Anything extra, as the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, has just so eloquently illustrated, is superfluous.
The Bishop of Durham spoke in a debate on vulnerable teenagers on 26th January 2023, emphasising the negative effects of child poverty on later life:
The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, it is a real pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord McConnell; I associate myself with everything he said, particularly about adopting the recommendations. He also reminded us that this is no new problem. He talked about his experience in the 1980s; I could do the same from when I was doing youth work. You can also quote Greek writers and philosophers about the problems of young people in the era of the Greeks, so this is something we have always lived with.
I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, for securing this debate. It is always lovely to share something with someone else from this part of the north-east of England. I congratulate Anne Longfield on the report, Hidden in Plain Sight. As the Commission on Young Lives’ report demonstrates, young people falling vulnerable to violence and exploitation and entering the criminal justice system is not an issue that is shrinking, nor one that could possibly be ignored.
The effects of this problem are widespread, impacting not only the lives and futures of the young people themselves but the prosperity and security of our whole country. Such an issue cannot be resolved through sticking plasters or short-term solutions; it is instead vital that we examine and address the root causes and respond with long-term solutions.
As the report states,
“it is impossible to overestimate how important poverty is as a driver for so many of the social problems ruining and holding back lives.”
The Bishop of Durham received the following written answer on 24th January 2023:
The Lord Bishop of Durham asked His Majesty’s Government, following the President of the Republic of Rwanda’s annual end-of-year address, broadcast on 31 December 2022, what assessment they have made of (1) relations between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and (2) the ongoing conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo; and what steps they intend to take in response to that speech.
The Bishop of St Albans received the following written answer on 23rd January 2023:
The Lord Bishop of St Albans asked His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of reports of an increase in the number of pupils who are ineligible for free school meals being unable to afford lunch.
The Bishop of Leeds spoke in a debate on a report from the Constitution Committee – Respect and Co-operation: Building a Stronger Union for the 21st century, on 20th January 2023 :
The Lord Bishop of Leeds: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, and the committee, for an excellent report. I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if I do not go into the detail of the report but offer what might sound a bit of a left-field observation. The report is subtitled Building a Stronger Union for the 21st Century. However, an assumption that we often bring to these debates is that what we had in the 20th century and before will automatically persist and that everyone buys into it.
The Bishop of St Albans spoke in a debate marking the 75th Anniversary of the Empire Windrush ship to Britain, highlighting the contributions made by Caribbean immigrants and the ongoing need to challenge racism:
The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, for this important and timely debate. I thank other Members who have spoken so eloquently about the contribution of Caribbean people to this country.
In 1948, we invited Caribbean people to come to this country to help rebuild after the terrible devastation of the war. Some were welcomed; indeed, I have an auntie and uncle who, for 40 years, offered accommodation to people coming from the Caribbean. They did it joyfully and gladly and introduced them, wherever possible, into their Methodist church. However, at the same time there were many instances where they were not welcomed and, sadly, not even welcomed into some of our churches. They experienced appalling racism, which was simply shameful.
On 19th January 2023, the Bishop of Carlisle spoke in a debate to mark the lead up to International Holocaust Memorial Day:
The Lord Bishop of Carlisle: My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. Like so many others, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, for this Motion. It provides an opportunity not only to hear such moving contributions but to express from these Benches our deep appreciation of the history and values that Christians and Jews have in common, as well as the importance we attach to our ongoing dialogue, understanding and attempts to work together for the common good. Our central Christian act of worship, the Eucharist, originated in Christ’s participation in the Jewish ceremony of Passover. We note the huge contribution that Jewish people have made to British society through the centuries, which is a great expression of the significance of faith in public life.