09/01/20 – Baroness Benjamin’s contribution to the Queen’s Speech Debate

My Lords, almost 10 years ago in this House my maiden speech highlighted my lifelong mission to ensure that children’s well-being is at the heart of society’s thinking. So, as we start a new decade under a new Government, it is appropriate to ask: what are we, in government and in Parliament, doing to champion children’s well-being in everything we do—in every policy and initiative and every new piece of legislation? If we make children our number one priority, it will save the Treasury billions of pounds in the future because childhood lasts a lifetime. So let us put children first—it is a no-brainer.

Over the last decade we have seen childhood change rapidly, thanks to the rise of the internet, so in protecting children’s well-being we must look at the new risks they are exposed to and how we can protect them. Just like the legal requirement to wear a seatbelt in a car and the ban on buying alcohol under the age of 18, the internet should now come with appropriate safeguards.

A recent report from Barnardo’s—I declare an interest as a vice-president—found that cyberbullying had impacted on the mental health of 79% of children aged 11 to 15, and 78% had accessed unsuitable or harmful content through social media. This can have a devastating effect on children’s physical, mental and emotional health and well-being. I welcome the Government’s commitment to making the internet safer for children, but we need to see urgency.

Will the Government set out a clear timetable for the progression of the online harms White Paper, and guarantee that this will achieve effective regulation? There is overwhelming research to show that stumbling across pornography online can have a devastating impact on young children’s long-term mental health. The BBFC’s research shows that many children, some as young as seven, have stumbled across “aggressive” and “violent” pornography, with graphic content such as gang rape just one click away from every child online. Will the Minister explain why the Government have delayed bringing into force legislation that could have put in place an age gate to prevent children accessing this material? The BBFC says that it is good to go; it could still implement the Digital Economy Act. Section 3 is still on the statute book. Why has this Act not been brought into force to protect our young children’s mental health and young, innocent minds?

The Government originally said that they planned to bring in this legislation because they calculated that 1.4 million UK children see pornography every month. Why do the Government need to wait until we have a fully “coherent” approach to addressing all harmful content online, which could take years?

The Government committed in the Queen’s Speech to an online harms Bill and the concept of a duty of care, but that is just a concept. We already have practical legislation on the statute books, and the BBFC is ready to implement it immediately. The age-verification industry and the adult industry are also prepared to introduce age verification to prevent access for under-18s if the law is brought into force now. We can start tackling commercial pornographic services straightaway, then address the issue of social media in the longer term. I urge the Government—I plead with them—to take action now, to show common sense and compassion and implement the Digital Economy Act for the sake of the next generation.

Every child deserves to be protected from harm, whether on our streets or online. It is our responsibility to put in place protective factors. The Government have set out their agenda for the future of our children, which should be applauded. But what is missing? What is essential to pull everything together and give a clear indication that this Government prioritise children? The answer is a Cabinet-level Minister, with specific responsibilities for children and for the work carried out across multiple government departments to promote children’s well-being. This is very different from a Secretary of State for Education or Health. It is an appointment that could transform the way government oversees children’s issues. Let us do it. For the next decade, let us prioritise children, their well-being, and their futures. Let us make the UK the best place in the world for children to grow up.

You can also read Baroness Benjamin’s speech in Hansard.

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