Previous Section Index Home Page

land around Harlington and Toddington for the good of the people who live in both places and to preserve their quality and standard of life.

Following is the full text of the petitions:

[ The Petition of the campaign for a sustainable Harlington,

Declares their opposition to proposals to destroy the green belt around Harlington by building a stadium and a large industrial/commercial development on land adjacent to Junction 12 of the M1. Luton Town Football Club and the Council should find a suitable urban site for a new stadium within the boundaries of Luton.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to take steps to preserve the green belt around Harlington.

And the Petitioners remain, etc. ]


[The Petition of the campaign for a sustainable Toddington,

Declares their opposition to proposals to destroy the green belt around Toddington by building a stadium and a large industrial/commercial development on land adjacent to Junction 12 of the M1. Luton Town Football Club and the Council should find a suitable urban site for a new stadium within the boundaries of Luton.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to take steps to preserve the green belt around Toddington.

And the Petitioners remain, etc ] .


20 Feb 2008 : Column 487

Local Infrastructure (Northamptonshire)


Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to present a petition with several hundred signatures. May I declare an interest first? When I went along to meet the residents to talk about the issues in the petition I fell down one of the potholes to which they refer and that is why I might be limping tonight.

The petition reads:


20 Feb 2008 : Column 488

Cyberbullying (Children)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Liz Blackman.]

8.15 pm

Mrs. Siân C. James (Swansea, East) (Lab): I am grateful for this opportunity to raise concerns relating to cyberbullying among schoolchildren and to make my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families directly aware of a case in my constituency. She may be interested to hear that while I was preparing for the debate, teachers’ representative bodies contacted me to express their concern. They, like others, have had to develop new guidelines and advice for professionals on how to deal with such incidents.

Owing to the growth in new technology, and particularly the popularity of camera phones and video-sharing websites, there has been an increase in bullying that relies on those formats. It is commonly known as cyber-bullying. The unsavoury term most associated with cyberbullying is happy-slapping, whereby an unsuspecting victim is attacked while an accomplice records the assault, commonly with a camera phone or smart phone. A more inappropriate descriptive term could not have been coined; there is nothing happy about such incidents. Indeed, they are the ultimate humiliation and leave many young people devastated.

The Government have made tackling bullying in schools a priority, and the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), has made it clear to me that no form of bullying should be tolerated. Bullying in our schools should be taken very seriously. It is not a normal part of growing up, and it can ruin lives. My interest in cyberbullying issues developed following a complaint received from one of my constituents. The family wished to remain anonymous, and I respect and understand the reason why: they believe that their child has been through enough. The child’s father wrote to me, expressing deep concern about the fact that his son was assaulted while on school premises, and the incident posted on the video-sharing internet site YouTube. My constituent asked me to view the footage, and I was appalled by the content. His child was ambushed from behind and physically attacked in the most sickening way. The perpetrator was seen laughing, along with other pupils who aided the assault. The footage was classified on YouTube as comedy and entertainment.

I would like to make my right hon. Friend the Minister aware that the headmaster of the school took the incident very seriously. I understand that the police visited the boy who assaulted the pupil. However, my right hon. Friend will know that there is no consistent way of dealing with those problems in our schools. I hope she agrees that often young people who participate in cyberbullying mistakenly think that camera phones and the internet will provide them with anonymity, allowing them to target other young people and/or teachers without fear of identification or retribution.

I firmly believe that video-sharing and social websites have allowed young people to communicate in a positive way. I am not against people enjoying the internet, being proud of cinematography and wanting to post videos for others to enjoy, but it is clear that such sites
20 Feb 2008 : Column 489
have a darker side. They act as a channel for bullying. Recently, my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) drew our attention to the tragedy of young people, many of them seeking support and guidance, choosing to take their own lives after using social networking sites.

I recognise that the vast majority of the UK internet industry takes a responsible approach to the content that it hosts, both of its own volition and in co-operation with law enforcement and Government agencies. However, I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend worked with websites such as YouTube to prevent videos featuring such incidents involving school-age children from being uploaded. Is my right hon. Friend able to update the House on the progress of discussions with internet service providers and mobile phone networks to tackle cyberbullying among schoolchildren? The parent who contacted me says:

He is right. The moderation provided by the industry is clearly inadequate and I ask my right hon. Friend to seek ways of strengthening its role.

My constituent firmly believes that internet sharing sites hide behind the fact that as it is their customers who upload the images, they are not responsible. To remove the footage of a violent assault in a school only after a complaint is received is not acceptable. It is too late. Action should be taken at the point of uploading—a key role for the moderators. It appears that some sites profit by encouraging customers to upload material, but when that material is offensive, they seek to pass the blame on to others.

I am aware that the Government have provided new guidance in how to prevent and tackle cyberbullying in their document “Safe to Learn: embedding anti-bullying work in schools”, which was released on 21 September 2007. That is welcome, and I know that the Government have worked hard with their taskforce to try to address the problem. What further work is the Department undertaking through the cyberbullying taskforce to ensure that schools and parents are provided with the information that they need to keep children safe online? Will the Minister also update us on her work with charities such as Bullying UK and ChildLine, which are at the forefront in helping young people with these issues?

I have mentioned the concerns of parents and pupils, so let me turn now to the concerns of professionals working in our schools. The National Union of Teachers has informed me that it sees the use of new technology as positive. Even a mobile phone can be useful. Many students store assignments, notes on lessons or their timetable on their phone. In these circumstances, the possession of a mobile phone can be an opportunity to improve their learning. However, if misused, it may become an instrument of bullying or harassment directed against pupils and teachers.

There is clear abuse in our schools. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers undertook a survey which revealed that 17 per cent. of respondents had experienced some type of cyberbullying. Those incidents ranged from receiving upsetting emails and unwelcome text messages to silent phone calls and malicious use of
20 Feb 2008 : Column 490
websites and internet chat rooms. Some teachers left the profession or retired as a result of these new phenomena. What shocks me is that some cases of cyberbullying have even been reported between teaching staff.

The results of the survey showed that 53 per cent. of respondents did not know whether their school had a code of conduct to address cyberbullying, and 39 per cent. said that their schools did not. Of those whose schools have a code of conduct to address the issue, 19 per cent. said it was not properly enforced and 72 per cent. could not say whether it was enforced. Will my right hon. Friend look into these issues, particularly the confusion among some in the profession about how to deal with them? I am conscious of the fact that there are many demands on teachers and that parents often have high expectations of them, but will she work closely with teaching representative organisations to spread awareness among teachers who experience these dilemmas?

Schools face several challenges when trying to eradicate these problems. Staff in some schools are not always up to date with new technology. They need clear guidance on cyberbullying, the methods used and their rights and responsibilities when dealing with these issues. They need examples of good practice and the support of local authorities and Government.

I am sure the Minister is already aware of many of the issues and I would welcome her comments. It is time for an outright ban on all mobile phones on school premises. Alternatively, could a ban on any mobile phones that are able to take and display photographs or video clips be the answer? Through new technology it is possible to install cell phone detectors, which could help to enforce non-use policies.

There is a need for greater understanding across Government Departments. When my constituent made the initial complaint to me, I took the issues up with the Home Office. I recognise that it is the Minister’s responsibility to take the issues forward with teachers and children, but it would be helpful if she could liaise with other Departments that have similar elements of responsibility.

The Minister will know that all commercially produced films and videos are subject to classification and regulation; user-generated violent videos or video clips are not. That fuels the perception among young people that they can film acts of violence or bullying and extend that abuse on to websites. They are encouraged in their actions by the failure of internet sharing websites to take positive action and prevent such material from being posted.

The Home Office has informed me that it is not possible to prevent such videos from being uploaded; it claims that the sheer volume of them prevents screening or classification and that pre-screening could prevent the reporting of new events and the uploading of slapstick comedy films. It argues that it would be difficult to distinguish between slapstick and deliberate happy-slapping incidents. However, if we are to change the perceptions of those who participate in happy-slapping acts, perceptions across Government must also change. I am confident that the Minister will agree to take the lead in changing those perceptions.

20 Feb 2008 : Column 491

The Internet Watch Foundation is the only authorised UK organisation operating an internet hotline for the public to report their exposure to potentially illegal content online. Will the Minister make contact with the IWF and work with it on cyberbullying issues? It could develop a method whereby parents, teachers and pupils could report acts of violence among pupils online. The Home Office believes that such issues are outside its remit, but I believe that it has the knowledge and experience to help to eradicate such problems. Will the Minister work more closely with Home Office Ministers to ensure that young people have enough information to understand the implications of a happy-slapping incident? Such people could be committing a criminal act—more to the point, they are abusing fellow pupils. Interestingly, France has made happy-slapping a criminal offence. I do not wish to demonise young people or suggest that they should be criminalised for cyberbullying, but it is clearly a subject for debate across Europe and not only in Britain.

I am very aware that the Government are committed to tackling all forms of bullying in schools.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): Has my hon. Friend considered liaising with the Children’s Commissioner for Wales, who has been in post for a number of years, to pursue her aims? Will the Minister also consider that?

Mrs. James: That would be an excellent way forward, as I am sure the Minister will agree.

The guidance clearly states that bullying should never be tolerated and should always be dealt with seriously. Following the original complaint, I have become aware of an ongoing perception that it is acceptable for children to continue to film acts of violence and post them online without facing any consequences at all. Furthermore, internet websites and social network sites are failing to take responsibility for their content or for removing offensive and/or upsetting material as soon as possible. Only if we tackle that perception among young people, work with internet service providers who allow such material and support teachers in their work will we neutralise this new form of bullying and ensure the safety of the children in our schools.

8.28 pm

The Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Beverley Hughes): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mrs. James) on securing this debate and raising this important and distressing issue; I also thank my other hon. Friends, who share her concerns, for being here tonight.

Technology opens up a world of opportunities for pupils, but it also presents hazards. Cyberbullying is one of the nastiest consequences of technological development. Estimates suggest that between 11 and 34 per cent. of children have been affected. It is a particularly insidious form of bullying. Because new technology is available 24/7, bullying can continue 24/7 without respite or refuge, invisible to all but the victim and the perpetrator. The abuse—for that is what bullying is—can be compounded in this form many times over by posting it in cyberspace for all to see or by passing images to whole swathes of people at the flick of phone key. Because cyberbullying can transcend institutional boundaries, we need a broad response to conquer it, so
20 Feb 2008 : Column 492
schools, businesses, parents and young people themselves all have key roles to play. Our job in Government is to enable, to support and, in particular, to drive what must be a multifaceted response so that it has the impact that my hon. Friend and I want to see.

There is much more work to do, as my hon. Friend said, but in the past 12 months significant progress has been made. I am happy to answer her request for an update on our work, and I will respond to her specific questions as I go. As she said, schools have our anti-bullying guidance, “Safe to Learn”, which contains a specific cyberbullying section developed by Childnet International. That gives teachers all the information that they need to get to grips with cyberbullying—how to identify it, how to prevent it, and how to respond before things escalate. Above all, it meets teachers’ demands for more information and advice on the issue to ensure that they can be as savvy as their pupils and that schools have effective strategies for dealing with cyberbullying.

The guidance currently applies to English schools, but I understand that it is being considered by the Welsh Assembly for use in Wales too. Alongside that, English schools have been given additional powers and resources to tackle bullying, including cyberbullying. We have given them statutory powers to confiscate mobile phones used maliciously in and around school grounds; we have recently launched peer mentoring schemes whereby older pupils can help teachers to tackle bullying; and we are expanding the social and emotional aspects of learning programme to secondary schools following its great success in primary schools.

Cyberbullying is a new phenomenon, and understandably there are still issues to do with awareness and training to deal with it. We are continuing to work with the teaching unions and the Training and Development Agency for Schools, but “Safe to Learn” is an important start. As my hon. Friend rightly said, now that we have given schools this guidance and those powers, we need to help them to use those tools consistently. I am pleased that the school that she mentioned appears to have responded in absolutely the right way. We need all schools to apply the best practice contained in “Safe to Learn”. That means—I say this unequivocally—taking a hard line on cyberbullying. In cases where an assault has occurred—that is what happy-slapping is; it is already a criminal offence—schools should involve the police, as that school did. Equally, we will back heads to take the strongest action against pupils who use new technology to harass their teachers, because that has absolutely no place in our classrooms.

Young people themselves are another important focus. The explosion in social networking sites in recent years means that it is vital to teach children how to use the net safely and responsibly. We have responded to that need with an e-safety module as part of the key stage 3 information, communication and technology curriculum. The “Safe to Learn” guidance provides further advice on how schools can teach pupils to stay safe online and what to do if they are cyber-bullied. Last year, Childnet International developed a short film bringing to life how cyberbullying starts, what its impact can be on the victim, and how schools, parents and pupils can take active steps to prevent it. The film has been circulated to all schools as a teaching aid.

Next Section Index Home Page