20 Nov 2014 : Column 535

20 Nov 2014 : Column 535

House of Lords

Thursday, 20 November 2014.

11 am

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Worcester.

Kashmir: Line of Control


11.06 am

Asked by Lord Hussain

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of peace and stability in the south Asian region, particularly in the light of the current tension and cross-border firing between India and Pakistan at the Kashmir Line of Control.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Anelay of St Johns) (Con): My Lords, we are concerned about the recent incidents that have taken place on both sides of the line of control and international border between India and Pakistan. Our long-standing position is that it is for India and Pakistan to find a lasting resolution that takes into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. It is not for the United Kingdom to prescribe a solution or to mediate in finding one.

Lord Hussain (LD): I thank the Minister for that Answer. We know that India and Pakistan have been to war three times over Kashmir. If any of these tensions escalate into another war, now that both countries are nuclear powers, that war could well be nuclear. Hence, is it not incumbent on the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, including Great Britain, to help to de-escalate the tension across the line of control, demilitarise the Kashmir region and help to create a conducive environment for the Kashmiri people to have their right to self-determination, as we have seen given to the Scottish people in recent weeks?

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I recognise my noble friend’s family background. He was raised in the Pakistani-administered state of Kashmir, so I realise that he has long-standing experience and ties. He has also worked hard for Kashmiri charities in this country, and I admire that. It is indeed in everyone’s interest that there is peace, security and prosperity in south Asia. The UK will do all that it can to encourage India and Pakistan to take the steps necessary to strengthen their relationship. However, the pace and scope of their dialogue has to be for them to determine, not for others.

Baroness Warsi (Con): My Lords, in the light of Britain’s neutral position on this matter, what is the Government’s position on the role of British nationals of Pakistani origin fighting for the Pakistani army, and British nationals of Indian origin fighting in the Indian army?

20 Nov 2014 : Column 536

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, the position of the British Government on those who decide to take up arms overseas is determined on a case-by-case basis. Clearly, British nationals have the right to travel overseas. My noble friend asks the question against the background of the severe situation in Syria and Iraq. I hope and assume that she is not in any way trying to draw a parallel between British people who are engaged in any activities in India, Pakistan, the Indian-administered part of Kashmir or the Pakistani-administered part of Kashmir and those who are engaged in the horrific activities in Syria and Iraq.

Lord Singh of Wimbledon (CB): My Lords, this week is Inter Faith Week in which we explore commonalities between our different faiths and look to knock down these false barriers of belief that divide people up in the way that was done at partition. Bearing that in mind, will the Minister agree that the partition of the subcontinent on a religious basis—a basis of false, irreconcilable religious differences—was a huge mistake?

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, the agreements reached between India and Pakistan were for them to reach and not for the British Government to criticise, but the noble Lord raises serious questions about the way in which—throughout all human history—there has been strife either based on religion or for which religion has been used as a reason. He brings a very measured and reflective point to this debate today and I am grateful to him.

Lord Ahmed (Non-Afl): My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that elections are no substitute for a free, fair and impartial plebiscite as promised by the United Nations in 1948 and 1949, and therefore that the forthcoming elections in Indian-administered Kashmir would not be a substitute for that outstanding promise of the United Nations, which should be given to the people of Kashmir?

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, there is a long history indeed to the dispute; that has already been drawn to our attention. Subsequent to the United Nations Security Council Resolution 47, there have been further developments. The noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, will know of the Simla Agreement which now forms, as I understand it, the basis of the negotiations between India and Pakistan. It is clear that India and Pakistan themselves have the opportunity to take peaceful measures bilaterally to resolve the issue, taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. There are elections ahead, and they have always in the past been judged by the international community to be free and fair.

Lord Hughes of Woodside (Lab): My Lords, understanding that this is a very sensitive issue, will the Minister reflect that over the many decades which have passed, the British Government have frequently intervened to try to get some sense into a difficult situation, and that we should not set our face entirely against trying to play some sort of mediation role or at least some sort of role to stimulate proper development?

20 Nov 2014 : Column 537

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, the noble Lord raises an important point; there are ways in which we can assist both India and Pakistan to be more prosperous and to have a greater understanding of their role in international society. We can also discuss with both countries their attitude towards human rights—and I can say that that does go ahead. We are certainly very active in negotiations on trade matters with both countries. For example, my noble friend Lady Verma was in India only last week on just that matter, so I am grateful to the noble Lord for those points.

Arts Council: Spending Outside London


11.14 am

Asked by Baroness Nye

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the Arts Council’s spending outside London.

Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Con): My Lords, the Government want everyone to have the opportunity to experience arts and culture wherever they live. Currently 60% of the Arts Council’s grant in aid and 70% of lottery funding is invested outside London, and the Arts Council intends to build on this further over the next three years.

Baroness Nye (Lab): I thank the noble Lord for his reply. London’s role as a cultural centre is, of course, crucial but there is an imbalance in grant in aid, which the Arts Council cannot rectify due to cuts. The disproportionate cuts to local authorities in the most disadvantaged areas affect their ability to support local arts bodies as they would like. What advice would the Minister give to those struggling arts bodies outside the M25, and does he agree with those who argue that National Lottery funding for the arts should be allocated on an equal per capita basis?

Lord Gardiner of Kimble: My Lords, there were some important points there. The point about London, which the noble Baroness made, is that it is currently the cultural centre and, I think, the cultural capital of the world. We must ensure that that remains the case because so much of what happens in London goes out on tour. There are many examples of touring companies based in London, probably 78% of whose activity is outside London. That is important. There are many good examples of local authorities all around the country, including Durham, Lincolnshire, Wakefield and Portsmouth, which recognise that arts and heritage are routes to economic growth.

Lord Shipley (LD): My Lords, more than 80% of private giving to the arts goes to London-based organisations. Does the Minister agree that the Government and the Arts Council need to redouble their efforts to get more private giving to go outside London, not least because many institutions headquartered in London are deriving substantial profits from the work they do outside London?

20 Nov 2014 : Column 538

Lord Gardiner of Kimble: My Lords, all these points lead to the feature on which we need to concentrate—partnership. This involves the ability for London-based institutions to tour the country and the fact that our museums are loaning all around the country. These are happening and the examples are increasing.

The Earl of Clancarty (CB): My Lords, does not the Minister accept that this squabble will not in any measure be resolved until we have again a proper level of public subsidy of the arts, including local authority funding in the regions and—it has to be said—in London, where small companies are struggling as much as anywhere else?

Lord Gardiner of Kimble: My Lords, I do not think that the arts sector feels that it should be immune to the current economic conditions. Restoring the national economy is absolutely vital to ensure that we have the funding we need for the arts. That is the important point. In fact, I think that the arts sector recognises that in the last spending review it had a positive outcome, given national conditions.

Lord Howarth of Newport (Lab): My Lords, is it not inconceivable that the Arts Council should cease to fund our great national cultural institutions, many of which are, for historical reasons, located in London? I join the Minister and other noble Lords in pressing the point about local authorities. If we are to make up the deficit of funding in the regions, surely it is important to find better scope to enable local authorities to support the arts, as well as continuing to diversify various sources of funding. Should we not congratulate the Arts Council on the extent to which it has succeeded in sustaining funding for the arts outside London?

Lord Gardiner of Kimble: I think that it is universally and widely accepted that the Arts Council is doing a very good job in difficult circumstances that we all acknowledge. There have been some interesting developments regarding the way in which a number of innovative councils have been looking at how to deliver services on the arts and heritage more efficiently, whether by setting up charitable trusts, creating mutuals, outsourcing or sharing services. There are many good examples of local authorities of all political compositions doing well in that.

Lord Rooker (Lab): My Lords, will the Minister have a word with his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government in respect of some of the schemes it administers for arts outside London? Recently, under one scheme it is administering, it changed the closing date for applications while the process was under way, thereby depriving hundreds of small arts groups around the country of the chance to complete their applications. That has to be unfair, and is bad administration. The Arts Council does not operate like that; this was a central government department.

Lord Gardiner of Kimble: My Lords, it would be most helpful if I could have a conversation with the noble Lord so that I can take back specifically the point that he has made.

20 Nov 2014 : Column 539

Baroness Thornton (Lab): My Lords, given the fact that we all agree that local authorities are major players in supporting the arts, museums, libraries and so on, what does the Minister think about the recent Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee report highlighting the Government’s ignorance of the key role of local authorities in supporting arts and culture? It said that the committee was “staggered” that the Arts Minister Ed Vaizey could not recall a single conversation with any local authority. Is this now being addressed?

Lord Gardiner of Kimble: My Lords, that Select Committee report was interesting. I assure your Lordships that its contents will be looked at thoroughly by DCMS Ministers. There is £720 million of local authority money—that is, taxpayers’ money—going into the arts. That is a lot of money. I know that times are difficult, but they are doing very well with that amount.

Lord Stirrup (CB): My Lords, did the Minister see the chair of the Arts Council’s recent article, which stressed how investment in arts and culture can help to stimulate in our cities not just social success but economic success, and does he agree with that position?

Lord Gardiner of Kimble: I wholeheartedly endorse what the noble and gallant Lord has said. In fact, the department is very conscious of the economic, social and intrinsic value of arts and heritage. That is part of the work that the department is undertaking.

Lord Foster of Bishop Auckland (Lab): My Lords, the Minister mentioned favourably the county of Durham. However, even there, with regard to the Heritage Lottery Fund, the people of County Durham put in 30p per head and receive only 12p in grant funding.

Lord Gardiner of Kimble: I understand what the noble Lord is saying. That is precisely why the Arts Council is looking at moving the trend to the regions and I think that that will bear fruit. I want to go back to the importance of the working partnership between institutions that we cherish in London and those outside. There is a great cross-referencing of art and material from regional museums to London and vice versa.

Lord Tyler (LD): My Lords, to illustrate the point that my noble friend the Minister just made about that partnership between Arts Council support in London and what happens in the provinces, those of us who are lucky enough to see beamed into our local cinemas the most excellent productions from London—from the Royal Opera House and the Royal Shakespeare Company, for example—experience, at second hand but at cheaper cost, the very extensive work that is being done in London.

Lord Gardiner of Kimble: My Lords, I think it is so that more than 75% of cinema audiences looking at Royal Opera House productions live outside London. Those are the sorts of changes and new ideas that are making culture and the arts so much more accessible. What a great success they have been.

20 Nov 2014 : Column 540

Afghanistan: Development Strategy Post-2014


11.22 am

Asked by The Earl of Sandwich

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their development strategy for Afghanistan post-2014.

Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth (Con): My Lords, DfID is committed to maintaining development assistance to Afghanistan of £178 million per annum until at least 2017. Our assistance will be focused on supporting peace, security and political stability, improving lives and opportunities for women and girls, promoting economic stability, growth and jobs, and helping the state to deliver improved services.

The Earl of Sandwich (CB): I thank the Minister for that reply. He will know that violence against women in Afghanistan is continuing unabated. Only last weekend Mrs Shukria Barakzai, a prominent woman MP, survived a suicide attack. Will the London conference that is coming up signal a new emphasis on women’s rights and the economic empowerment of women, and will DfID also put more resources into the elimination of violence against women, which has become our national strategic priority?

Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth: The noble Earl is quite right to draw attention to the importance of the situation regarding violence against women in Afghanistan and to the importance of the London conference on Afghanistan, which will be opened by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister on 3 December. It certainly will be looking at that issue. The attempt on the life of Shukria Barakzai was awful. She was not badly hurt—just minor injuries. It is worth noting that progress is being made in relation to women. She is one of 69 women MPs.

Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead (Lab): My Lords, following on from the comment made by the noble Earl, will the Minister tell us what other plans there are for dealing with the security, protection and support of women human rights defenders, who of course have a huge role to play in the transition period in the future in Afghanistan? Does he agree with Amnesty International that a lot more could and should be done in Afghanistan on that point? For example, is the Minister able to confirm that DfID and the FCO have developed, as recommended in EU guidelines, a country-specific plan designed to improve the protection offered to human rights defenders in Afghanistan?

Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth: First, I congratulate the noble Baroness on the work that she does in this field. It is well acknowledged. She will be aware that there is a programme, which is jointly funded by Australia and the United Kingdom, dealing with violence against women. That is a very welcome development. This country should be very proud of what we do in relation to aid. We are committing, and spending, 0.7% of GNP, which is well above other nations.

20 Nov 2014 : Column 541

We should take pride in that as a Government and as a country. As I say, this issue will be addressed at the London conference: it is clearly a very important one.

Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope (LD): Does my noble friend agree that the best thing we can do is to help build capacity and effectiveness in the parliamentary and presidential institutions in Afghanistan? To that end, will he look favourably at any programmes over the next four or five years that support the work of women in elective offices in Afghanistan? They are struggling to have their voices heard but they do have a very important role to play in the future development of their country.

Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth: My noble friend is absolutely right in that. It is of great significance that both President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah are set on a programme of democratisation in Afghanistan and improving civil institutions. It is worth noting that there are 69 women MPs in Afghanistan. Many of them will be at the London conference. It is also worth noting that there are now women in senior roles in business, public service, the police and, indeed, the army in Afghanistan. Progress is being made.

Lord Craig of Radley (CB): My Lords, what contribution will the Armed Forces make to taking forward the DfID strategy outlined by the Minister? In particular, will any cost that falls to the Ministry of Defence be met by interdepartmental transfer from DfID?

Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth: The noble and gallant Lord raises an important issue. This is about not just development but ensuring that the defence forces within Afghanistan are properly trained. There is a commitment of £70 million a year going forward towards that. We are training officers and the defence forces are now substantially Afghan led. We are not part of the defence forces as such but we send defence advisers and, as I say, people to assist with training at the defence academy there, which is run on Sandhurst lines and is known sometimes as Sandhurst in the sand. It is an important part of what we are doing out there.

Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab): My Lords, perhaps I may return to the London conference as I asked a supplementary question on it last week. Can we be assured that women will have a full role in the London conference and that the Government will take every possible step to ensure that they are able to participate by allowing them proper visa access?

Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth: I thank the noble Lord for that question. I do not think that anybody can doubt the Government’s commitment on this. There will be full participation by women. Anybody who doubts that has only to look at what the Secretary of State, my right honourable friend Justine Greening, is doing in that regard.

20 Nov 2014 : Column 542

Baroness Fookes (Con): Does my noble friend agree that, if women are to be empowered and encouraged, it has to start with universal education for girls? What plans have we there?

Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth: My noble friend is absolutely right to raise that key issue, which relates to education, antenatal care and health services for women. Substantial progress has been made. Currently, 6.7 million people are receiving education in Afghanistan, of whom 3 million are girls. Much still needs to be done but that is significant progress over the past decade.

Lord Campbell-Savours (Lab): My Lords, is not one measure of our success, or lack of it, regarding the future strategy in Afghanistan the price of heroin on the streets of London?

Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth: The noble Lord raises a key point regarding the future development of Afghanistan and the seemingly intractable problem of dealing with the drugs trade. This demands a long-term solution not just in Afghanistan but on the streets of London and elsewhere in the West. Often noble Lords and others may think that Afghanistan is not a country rich in natural resources but it is worth noting that there are other sources of income. There are $2 trillion worth of minerals in Afghanistan. The challenge is to ensure that we develop that and ensure that the people of Afghanistan are the beneficiaries of it.

Baroness Manzoor (LD): I thank noble Lords for their indulgence. My question is about human rights abuses against women in Afghanistan, Kashmir and other parts of the world. Can the Minister say whether there is consistency in foreign policy in terms of aid?

Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth: My noble friend is right that this is a key issue in Afghanistan. It is being addressed by the UK Government, not least in the way that the aid budget is handled. We can see that in Afghanistan with particular problems relating to the empowerment of women and to ensuring that violence against women is dealt with.

UK Economy: Tourism


11.30 am

Asked by Lord Lee of Trafford

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of tourism on the United Kingdom economy.

Lord Lee of Trafford (LD): I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and in doing so declare an interest as chairman of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions.

Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Con): My Lords, tourism is a major part of the UK economy. Deloitte estimates that it will contribute £61.1 billion directly to the economy this year, supporting nearly 1.8 million jobs. This rises to £133.6 billion and 3.15 million jobs when

20 Nov 2014 : Column 543

indirect impacts on the wider economy are included. Tourism is central to our plans for growth and we are working with the sector to achieve this.

Lord Lee of Trafford: My Lords, national tourism policy is to boost tourism in and to the regions. However, the way that air passenger duty is imposed runs counter to this. It is a flat tax, the only differential being between different classes of travel. Thus, if flying a national carrier, business class, London to Moscow return, air passenger duty represents only 2% of the total cost of the fare plus APD, whereas flying a budget carrier, London to Glasgow return, finds APD equating to 87% of the total cost. Is not this a nonsense, and will my noble friend urge his Treasury colleagues to look at the way in which APD is levied if we really want to encourage and boost regional tourism?

Lord Gardiner of Kimble: My Lords, obviously the first thing I must say is that matters of taxation are for the Chancellor; the Treasury continually reviews all taxation matters. I understand my noble friend’s point about percentages, but the band A rate is £13 and is going to remain that for four years. I do not think it is a considerable sum but it does, in total, contribute nearly £3 billion to the Treasury.

Lord Wigley (PC): My Lords, does the Minister accept that tourism is particularly important in Wales and that overseas tourism brings a disproportionately greater amount of revenue to the Welsh economy? If so, will he take up the matter with VisitBritain and encourage it to turn every stone to ensure that visitors do not just come to London but reach other parts of the UK?

Lord Gardiner of Kimble: My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord. This is why I am very pleased that there is a new £1.5 million Visit Wales campaign, for example, to bring more German visitors to Wales. It is a great experience for them as well as for visitors from America and Ireland. Visit Wales is working with VisitBritain and all the other tourism organisations to ensure that the experiences of all Britain and Great Britain are enjoyed.

Lord Geddes (Con): My Lords, did my noble friend read the recent article in the papers suggesting that the so-called mansion tax would be a threat to and might lead to the closure of many of the stately homes of this country, which attract an enormous number of tourists? In that context, I hasten to add that I have no interest to declare.

Lord Gardiner of Kimble: My Lords, the first thing to say is that rural Britain, country houses and heritage sites are an enormous draw to people visiting. The Chinese, for instance, say that one of the principal reasons that they want to come to this country is because of our countryside. I think the truth is that, if the mansion tax were implemented, very few mansions would be clobbered but a lot of smaller houses would.

20 Nov 2014 : Column 544

Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab): My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that the growth of the working poor is a matter of great concern? Will he join me in calling on all employers in the tourism industry to commit as soon as possible to paying all employees the living wage?

Lord Gardiner of Kimble: My Lords, the Government are clear that, where the living wage is affordable for a company, we encourage it to pay it.

Lord Spicer (Con): My Lords, how can you have a successful tourist industry if your major airports are full up?

Lord Gardiner of Kimble: That is why we are very keen to hear the reports as to how we can address the matter.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab): My Lords, the good news about the tourism industry is that there are many flexible jobs in areas of relatively high unemployment, more jobs for women and a higher number of SMEs. This is to be welcomed but the bad news, as we have just heard, is that these are generally low-paid jobs with limited opportunities for training. They offer little, if any, chance for apprenticeships and there is increasing use of zero-hour contracts. As a result there is a rising tide of job insecurity in the sector. Does the Minister have a plan, and what precisely will it achieve?

Lord Gardiner of Kimble: There is very much a plan. That is precisely why the Prime Minister announced that the next phase of trail-blazers would be attributed to the tourism and hospitality sector. That is very much ongoing. The British Hospitality Association has pledged to create 300,000 jobs by 2020. Many reputable companies are running apprenticeship schemes. There is masses going on in the Government’s apprenticeship scheme and in other companies.

Lord Shipley (LD): My Lords, language barriers can exist for individual tourists travelling outside London to the nations and to the regions of England, and there are barriers to doing things such as purchasing rail tickets cheaply. We need to ensure that people have access to appropriate foreign languages when they visit historic homes, and so on. Do the Government have any plans to look at ways in which foreign tourists who are trying to travel outside London can be assisted both in our transport systems and their destinations when their English is not at the highest level?

Lord Gardiner of Kimble: My Lords, it is clearly very important, through VisitBritain, VisitEngland and the other organisations, that the welcome given to visitors who do not speak English is as accommodated as possible. That is precisely why, for instance, in the China Welcome campaign many more museums are ensuring that Mandarin is part of the repertoire. I hope that will be the case throughout the country. I will discuss that point with officials.

20 Nov 2014 : Column 545

Business of the House

Timing of Debates

11.36 am

Moved by Baroness Stowell of Beeston

That the debate on the Motion in the name of Lord Roberts of Llandudno set down for today shall be limited to two hours and that in the name of Baroness Kidron to three hours.

Motion agreed.

Employment Rights Act 1996 (Application of Sections 75G and 75H to Adoptions from Overseas) Regulations 2014

Shared Parental Leave and Paternity and Adoption Leave (Adoptions from Overseas) Regulations 2014

Statutory Shared Parental Pay (Adoption from Overseas) Regulations 2014

Employment Rights Act 1996 (Application of Sections 75A, 75B, 75G, 75H, 80A and 80B to Parental Order Cases) Regulations 2014

Paternity, Adoption and Shared Parental Leave (Parental Order Cases) Regulations 2014

Statutory Shared Parental Pay (Parental Order Cases) Regulations 2014

Motions to Approve

11.36 am

Moved by Baroness Neville-Rolfe

That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 13 October be approved.

Relevant document: 9th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. Considered in Grand Committee on 17 November.

Motions agreed.

Azure Card

Motion to Take Note

11.37 am

Moved by Lord Roberts of Llandudno

That this House takes note of the Azure Card.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno (LD): My Lords, I rise to draw attention to the extreme humanitarian suffering being caused by the Azure card. A system that was designed to prevent short-term destitution has instead enforced long-term destitution on thousands of people.

20 Nov 2014 : Column 546

We appreciate very much those voluntary organisations without which no humane response to certain needs could be found. For instance, I checked on the Whitechapel Mission in the East End of London, and last year 4,932 different people used its services; 15,712 people used the showers; and 105,136 breakfasts were served to homeless and other people. Without the voluntary sector, churches and other places, many people would be at a total loss. We thank all these organisations for the tremendous work that they do.

The Azure card—many people do not even know what it is—was introduced in November 2009. It has subjected thousands of refused asylum seekers to distress and discrimination. That need not have happened. My hope this morning is that the system can be looked at again this morning, and possibly even changed. I thank the Red Cross and Refugee Action for all their information and support.

The Azure card and Section 4 support do not allow asylum seekers to meet their basic needs and live in dignity. It creates unnecessary suffering for people who are already in desperate situations. Research found that 85% of the refugee support organisations felt that their clients were left hungry because Section 4 support is insufficient. Ninety per cent of those on Section 4 regularly miss a meal. Ninety-two per cent of the organisations surveyed felt that their clients on Section 4 support were unable to maintain good health. Just as worryingly, the organisations find that the card makes users a target for discrimination: 72% of Azure card users reported having their card refused during the past six months. Seventy per cent of clients have experienced poor treatment from shop staff, and users experience feelings of embarrassment and anxiety when using the card.

How did this situation come about? Until 1999 all asylum seekers had access to a reduced rate of social security benefits, in the form of cash. The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 introduced two new separate asylum support systems. One—Section 95 support—was for asylum seekers still in process. The other—Section 4 support—was for refused asylum seekers willing but unable to return to their country of origin. So in 1999 cash support was replaced by a voucher system.

Asylum seekers were unable to travel; they could not get from place to place because they had no cash, only vouchers. So asylum seekers in, say, Vauxhall, could not travel to, say, Whitechapel, where there is a first-class used clothing store in the Whitechapel Mission. Often the services are there, but they are inaccessible. This leads to isolation and social exclusion of already vulnerable and marginalised people. It hampers their ability to engage properly with the asylum process. With regard to their efforts to return, they cannot even travel to where they have to make their inquiries, and they have no means to pay for travel to legal representatives or health services. I hope that this can be rectified, because we know that small problems can quickly snowball into unnecessary crisis.

In response to a recent Written Question of mine, the Government indicated that as of this month, 4,395 people had been living with the Azure card for more than six months. That means that 4,395 people under the protection and care of the United Kingdom were

20 Nov 2014 : Column 547

not even getting enough to eat, and were prevented from working their way out of this poverty—a poverty unnecessarily forced upon them. In October 2013, 1,228 people had been in receipt of Section 4 support for between two and six years, while 205 had been receiving support for more than six years. Therefore, 43% of people in receipt of Section 4 support in October 2013 had been living with Azure card payments for more than two years.

We must remember that people qualify for Section 4 support only if they co-operate with voluntary return, or if they can prove that they are unable, through no fault of their own, to leave the UK. They are not refuseniks; they are not criminals; they are not absconders. These are honest people who are co-operating with the system, and we are treating them inhumanely. The message from refugee support agencies is clear: refused asylum seekers have been forced to endure destitution and discrimination at the hands of a system that need not exist. The decision to replace the old voucher system with the card, instead of simple cash, has harmed the very people the Government were trying to protect. By not abolishing the card, the Government are refusing to recognise the humanitarian crisis that it is causing.

The reality is that the Azure card has solved none of the problems it was designed to address. As with the voucher system it replaced, the Azure card stigmatises refused asylum seekers and does not provide adequately for their basic living needs. It has led to the very people we are trying to protect going hungry, and it is singling them out for discrimination. This system need not exist.

If the Government will not listen to the moral argument for abolition, perhaps they will consider the financial one. Since its inception, the Azure card has already cost the Exchequer £1.5 million to administer, with the annual costs currently estimated at £200,000. The voucher system was scrapped in 2002 because the then Home Secretary, the right honourable David Blunkett, believed it to be too slow, vulnerable to fraud and unfair to both asylum seekers and local communities. Despite this condemnation in 2002, it was reintroduced in 2005 for those on Section 4 on the basis that cash would be an incentive for them to remain in the United Kingdom. In 2007, the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights declared that the Section 4 voucher scheme to be “inhumane and inefficient”. I repeat: that was the opinion of the Joint Committee on Human Rights of this Parliament. It went on to state:

“It stigmatises refused asylum seekers and does not adequately provide for basic living needs”.

It is the same story again. There is no evidence that the voucher system encourages refused asylum seekers to leave the UK. In 2013, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee concluded:

“Section 4 is not the solution for people who have been refused asylum but cannot be returned”.

The Azure payment card was introduced in November 2009 and implemented in the UK in February 2010, when once again the voucher system was deemed not fit for purpose. As things currently stand, people on Section 4 support have no access to cash and they are

20 Nov 2014 : Column 548

not allowed to work. They receive £35.39 a week via a prepayment Azure card. Accommodation is provided under the section. We are delighted with that, but it is not of their choice. The card can be used to buy food, essential toiletries, clothing and credit for mobile phones. Single people with no dependants are not allowed to carry over more than £5 at the end of each week, or it would show that they were making a profit out of the system. In fact, because of the unjust carryover limit, from November 2009 to December 2010, the estimated amount of unspent credit recovered from the Azure card during the first year of its operation was £650,000. The total value at the moment, for 2011 to 2013, is around £100,000 every year. That is money which is unclaimed and unused. It is just like taking food from the mouths of the hungry.

The card is accepted by only a limited number of retailers who have been persuaded by the Home Office to join the scheme. They are Asda, Boots, the Co-op, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, the Early Learning Centre, Morrison’s and Mothercare. The card can also be used in charity shops which are organised by the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. There is a great difference in price when you buy food. You can buy it in a budget shop or at one of the main stores. There is a massive difference in the prices. The Daily Mirror last Monday highlighted the difference in the price of groceries that could be purchased in various supermarket chains. It cost nearly twice as much in one store to buy the same items as in another—£47.04 as against £27.84. I will not name the shops involved. Also, the card cannot be used in a street market, bargain shop or discount store. As I said, it cannot be used for travel. Refused asylum seekers who are supported under Section 4 are prohibited from accessing public transport at all but the most limited times.

I suggest that it is time to withdraw this part of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, which prohibits the provision of cash under Section 4. It causes asylum seekers to feel discriminated against and unworthy. We are trying to give people dignity. We are trying to make people feel that they belong, even though their circumstances are not our circumstances. We need to provide them with funding that will meet their basic needs and to recognise that support must often be provided for much longer than the current system has envisaged.

In 2009 the benefit was £35. It has not increased. Asylum seekers are still trying to meet their needs with the cash that they would have received in 2009. There has not been any notice taken at all of the increase in prices. I speak to my noble friend the Minister a lot about these things. Would it not be much better to give someone cash in hand that they were able to use as they wished, rather than spend £1.5 million on administering the scheme?

Can we abolish the Azure card this afternoon? If we cannot go all the way, I suggest—and I just have a wee bit of time to do it—that we must conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the Azure card programme and make a comparison between the cost of the card and the cost of the cash. We must conduct an annual audit of the impact of the Azure card on its users and report to the Home Affairs Select Committee. We must try to expand—I know this is not always easy—the

20 Nov 2014 : Column 549

network of participating retailers to include smaller budget shops, charity shops, chains and, if possible, some market stalls. I do not know how one would do it. It will need some thinking through.

We should abolish the restrictions on what can be purchased using the Azure card—although alcohol and tobacco should remain things you cannot buy with it. We should abolish the carryover limit, which prevents people saving for larger or more expensive items. At the moment, if you want to buy a winter coat, you cannot do it because you do not have enough, although you might have £5 extra you could pay towards it next week. Could we look at that?

We must provide access to simple and up-to-date information to those who handle these cards—retailers and advice agencies—to train the staff so they do not refuse people who are have a legitimate use for their card. We must translate the information so that those who speak other languages know what it is all about. If the card fails, we must provide emergency vouchers that can be used if there is a technical problem. Possibly we could have a helpline, free from both landlines and mobiles, that can be used for other systems to help people when the system goes wrong. People should be able to check the balance of their online accounts by telephone or some other way.

There is much that can be done. I am convinced in my bones, as a fair-minded Welshman, that we could do something today to make the system more humane, to make people feel this is not undermining their dignity. I look forward with great interest to the contributions in this debate.

The Earl of Sandwich (CB): My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord for interrupting. He has made a very cogent case, but I think we are missing one link. For whatever reason these Section 4 asylum seekers are unable to return, it is obviously not fear of persecution. That has been dealt with.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: I am sorry. I did not quite get that comment. My hearing is not so good.

The Earl of Sandwich: I shall try again. I wonder whether the noble Lord could help the House with the reasons why Section 4 failed asylum seekers are unable to return home—because, presumably, fear of persecution has already been dealt with.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: The only answer I can give the noble Lord is that there are so many different circumstances in so many parts of the world. Certainly we can look into it together, and possibly we will come to an understanding. I beg to move.

11.54 am

Earl Attlee (Con): My Lords, on these occasions, I normally start mycontribution with the words, “I am grateful to my noble friend for introducing his debate”. Today, I am a little confused. We often have difficulties with noble Lords tabling very wide Questions for Short Debate and then getting a lot of speakers who want to contribute. Today, my noble friend has raised a very specific issue, the Azure card, which has not

20 Nov 2014 : Column 550

attracted many speakers for a two-and-a-half-hour debate. However, it illustrates that there is always the possibility of a debate coming up in your Lordships’ House even if neither the usual channels nor the party groups would have chosen it.

Before I explain why I cannot support my noble friend’s position, despite the very skilful way in which he has laid out his stall, it may be helpful to the House if I explain what my position is on wider and more topical immigration issues. I am a supporter of free movement within the Community. I think that Jack Straw got his figures wrong when he did not place transitional controls on accession states, but I believe that he was right not to do so. We cleaned up because the best-quality immigrants came to us from the accession states. When we hit the buffers in 2008, we did not get the unemployment that we could have expected because the surplus labour tended to go home or go elsewhere. This applied particularly to the construction industry, which took some time to recover. Of course, we need better arrangements for future accessions. In particular, the controls need to stay in place until the GDP per capita of the acceding state has risen sufficiently. We also need to tighten up on benefits, because it is a principle of free movement of labour, not free movement of benefit claimants—and I think that that is the position of the party opposite. I make this point to illustrate and prove that I am not anti-immigration.

We are proud of our asylum system, and we have a great system of justice and the rule of law. We can therefore be confident that, when an asylum seeker has been refused asylum and has exhausted his or her appeal rights, he or she is not a genuine refugee, is not entitled to be here and, most importantly, is not entitled to develop a life in the UK. Briefings that I have received suggest that our better benefits system for asylum seekers does not encourage people to seek asylum here. But if that is the case, why is there such a problem at Calais, where refugees are prepared to risk their lives trying to get here? I love France; it is warmer there; the food is better; and the culture is very similar. Since most refugees come from colder climates than our own, it seems a bit odd that they would rather be here than in, say, southern France. The logic is inescapable: it is better to be a refugee in the UK than in most other European countries.

On the point raised by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, about why refugees want to stay here if it has been proven through our legal system that they are not a genuine refugee, my understanding is that we can remove refused asylum seekers only to their country of origin or, if they have travel documents, to another country. We know that, in quite a few cases, there are practical difficulties in doing that. I also believe that we cannot remove to a third country even if it welcomes migrant labour—I cannot believe that we do not offer that opportunity when it is appropriate. I rather suspect that the refused asylum seeker would have a better standard of living here, under Section 4, than in many countries of origin or in those countries which welcome or even are dependent on migrant workers. I accept that being on Section 4 support will be uncomfortable. However, the system was put in place by the previous Government. This Government have continued with these arrangements, and I believe that it is the right

20 Nov 2014 : Column 551

approach. To make the changes proposed by my noble friend would only make the problem worse, particularly with refugees taking greater personal risk to get to the EU or UK.

I urge the Minister to keep the current system, with some minor refinements. However, I suggest that she listens to one suggestion from the noble Lord, Lord Roberts: raising the rate of Section 4 support in line with inflation. I know that there has been analysis that suggests that Section 4 support is currently sufficient, but the difficulty of not making regular increases is that you end up at some point having to make a large increase at a politically inconvenient time. It is much better to have small steady increases so that we can be confident that we are providing the right level of support.


The Earl of Listowel (CB): My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the thoughtful speech of the noble Earl, Lord Attlee. What he said about the contribution of immigrants to this country reminded me of an experience last night. I spoke to Alison Baum, who is the chief executive of Best Beginnings, at the launch of her new baby app. This is an app that pregnant mothers and mothers who have just had infants can use and gives videos of how best, for instance, to breast-feed a baby. I was introduced to her father, Professor Baum, and I heard her husband playing in a band, another Professor Baum, and she told me about her brother, another Professor Baum. I met her son who is very enthusiastic about his education and looks likely to be a further professor Baum—or perhaps not quite of that name. Her father told me about the origins of his family. When I asked him where they started to become professors, he said, “Well, we came out of middle Europe in the 1930s with no education, but in our culture we have an appetite to learn”, and that is what they did. I hope that supports what the noble Lord was saying.

I have long felt concerned about the need to moderate and manage the flow of migration in considering the pressures that exist, as migration is often in those areas where the poorest people live, where the housing is short and where there are difficulties in employment. It is a very difficult and complex issue and needs a very complex and sophisticated response.

Let me also say how grateful I am to the coalition Government for getting families out of detention once they have failed asylum. I think that is an important step forward. I have welcomed it before, but this is an appropriate time to note that as well.

I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, for raising this important debate. He does an extremely important job in continuing to raise in our minds the needs of this particularly vulnerable group of people in our country. I was also grateful for the briefing that he arranged from the Red Cross last night. I am really grateful to him for what he is doing in this area.

There is a very helpful note from the Library, from which it is worth just highlighting what the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee recommended in regard to Section 4 in October 2013. It said:

“Section 4 is not the solution”,

and it went on to say that there should be “a better way forward” for refused asylum seekers.

20 Nov 2014 : Column 552

The Library note also highlights the points that the noble Lord has made about the numbers. The Azure card is supposed to be a short-term answer to the problem, yet the table in the note shows that more than 1,400 of these people using an Azure card have been using it for over two years and 127 have been using it for more than six years. It was very disturbing last night to see a video of a family—I think they had two daughters—who had been on it for maybe four or five years. They then won their appeal, and they were off it and back in the country again. I have many concerns about the Azure card and I support the noble Lord’s request that it should be rethought and abolished, but if that is not possible I hope that the Government will choose to moderate its usage.

I would also like to highlight briefly that, although these individuals and families may have been refused asylum, that does not mean that they do not come from a nation where some kind of Hitler has been running the country for some time; it just means that he may have been removed or have moderated his activity. Often they have had horrific experiences in the place that they have come from. Coming to this country is very difficult. Going through the asylum process itself is traumatic—repeatedly hoping for the best but often having one’s hopes dashed. They often come from dysfunctional countries. For example, I remember visiting Angola previously, to which it is probably safe to return but where people live in fear of the police. I do not want to cast aspersions on any particular country—there are many dysfunctional countries out there—but one can have a great deal of sympathy for people even if they do not fit the criteria necessary to meet an asylum claim.

I am particularly concerned about the isolation of families, to which the Azure card may contribute. A recent report sponsored by the Maternity Mental Health Alliance, produced by the London School of Economics and entitled, The Costs of Perinatal Mental Health Problems, highlighted that the annual cost to this country of not adequately treating perinatal anxiety, depression and psychosis was £8.1 billion. The cost per individual birth is £10,000—a huge cost. Most of it, the report highlights, is constituted in the way that maternal depression, anxiety and so on impact on the relationship with the infant and result in the child’s failure to thrive because of a poor bond in its earliest years with the mother. The report highlights the fact that we should think carefully about the impact of what we are doing to the families under the Section 4 arrangement.

Looking at the figures, I roughly calculate that mothers-to-be will have approximately an additional £2 per week through their pregnancy to meet their needs. I welcome the fact that, a few years ago, the Government decided that pregnant mothers needed additional support and made more available—there is an additional £250 one-off and, sorry, an additional £3 a week. However, I ask the Minister to talk to experts in the field to find out whether that is enough to meet the nutritional requirements, to buy cots, and so on. I do not know what the rationale was for the changes and I would like to know that.

20 Nov 2014 : Column 553

I come back to the issue of isolation. Over the years, from speaking with mothers when visiting Sure Start centres, it has been impressed on me how important it is for parents’ mental health to feel that they are part of a community and are not isolated. For example, a father who had mental health issues told me that being part of a group in a Sure Start centre, meeting other parents over coffee, was important to his recovery. When I spoke to mothers in temporary accommodation—thanks to the work of Barnardo’s and its Families in Temporary Accommodation project—they were able to meet on a weekly basis but they highlighted issues of isolation. In London, there is such a shortage of housing that they may be placed in temporary accommodation a long way from their family, friends and ethnic group. Some of them had to take a number of buses to reach those friends and family. When I accompanied a health visitor on a visit to an African woman with her new-born boy who were living in a house in multiple occupation in Waltham Forest, the health visitor had just a few minutes to make an impact on this woman, who was in tears about her situation when we were there—her partner was back in Africa somewhere, she knew nobody and the only support that she received was from the local church. In that short time, the health visitor had to try to give her the right advice, listen to her concerns and encourage her to go to the local Sure Start centre to begin to make some connections there.

All these experiences, along with conversations with experts working with such mothers, highlight to me that isolation has a terrible, negative impact on perinatal mental health. Conversely, it is very helpful for such mothers’ mental health to connect them with support in that sensitive period. Even if the Azure card is as harmful as many of us think it is, if we provide mothers with the right support and they can feel a sense of solidarity, they can probably manage to survive the difficulties that might arise.

I ask the Minister why availability of transport payments on the Azure card is very limited, and whether the Government will think about extending and expanding that. I think that one can pay for mobile phone top-ups on the Azure card, but I hope that the Government might think about making the payment, particularly to mothers in the perinatal period, a bit more generous and perhaps making it easier for them to call their home countries, and friends and others in this country. Finally, I am not quite clear about the roll-over arrangements. I know that there is generally a limit of £5 per week that can be carried over to the next. Perhaps with families it works differently, but I am concerned that if a parent wants to buy a Christmas or birthday present for a child they should be able to save up over a period of time to do that. I would like clarification on that.

As I said, the Secretary of State in the other place said that this is a supposed to be a temporary arrangement, yet for many families it is far from temporary, and I am concerned about that. There are purposes for this—I see that, and I expect that the Minister will say so—but I wonder whether they justify the harm that this seems to cause.

20 Nov 2014 : Column 554

I should also have mentioned the matter raised by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, about stigma. There are two issues here. First, a family using this card in a local shop may mean that people with whom they are acquainted get to know their status, which may be unhelpful for them and further isolate them. Secondly, there is a question about their perception of themselves. If they go into a shop and they have to produce a special card and then experience a kind of looking down the nose from others in the shop, this may reinforce their sense of difference and isolation. If they are in a vulnerable time in their lives, for instance in or shortly after pregnancy, it may also make it harder for them to reach out to people, in their community possibly, but also to other indigenous people—it may make it harder for them to make those bonds, friendships and acquaintances that are so important.

To conclude, having followed the issue of families in detention in Yarl’s Wood for many years, I would like to say one more time, in the context of the anniversary today of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, that I am grateful to the coalition Government for deciding to treat families in this particular area so much better than they were treated in the past. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

12.14 pm

The Lord Bishop of Worcester: My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, for securing this debate on a very important matter. The churches have long held, and maintained in this House, that those who have applied for asylum and who are not allowed to do paid work should be given enough financial help to maintain a decent basic standard of living for themselves and their families. Indeed, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York has more than once led delegations on this theme. Surely every person who is in this country should be treated in accordance with our values. If we wish to dissuade people from coming to this country without the legal right to be here, it is wrong to try to send a message by treating asylum applicants, even when appeal rights are exhausted, in a way unworthy of our values.

Of course, this debate is about those who have come to the end of the appeal process but, for one reason or another, cannot be removed to their home country. They may or may not hold full or partial responsibility for the impossibility of removing them; in many cases, it is not their fault at all. As we have heard, the Government provide basic accommodation and around £5 a day for a single person. As the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, has rightly drawn attention to, one of the issues is the fact that it is not possible for this to be rolled over. He drew attention to the difficulty in buying coats, but other basic essentials, such as a pair of shoes, also become impossible to purchase.

However, we are looking particularly at the issues associated with the Azure card itself. As has already been stated, one of the big problems with the Azure card is that it can be used only in certain outlets. I understand that the card system is designed to eliminate as far as possible the possibility of fraud but it is surely disproportionate to make a system so fraud-proof that it does not achieve its proper objectives.

20 Nov 2014 : Column 555

There are other questions about the way in which the system operates so that, as has been pointed out, only certain outlets accept the card. I am not exactly sure why that is the case and I would be grateful for clarification from the Minister. It has been suggested to me that it is because the money is issued under contract by a private company which has contractual relationships with other private companies—retailers—for mutual benefit. If that is the case, I would be very concerned.

Attention has been drawn to problems that asylum seekers using Azure cards face in London. In my own diocese, the churches are very committed to working with asylum seekers and I have heard heart-rending stories from those who work with asylum seekers in Halesowen about the way in which asylum seekers are forced to walk quite some considerable distance—a matter of miles on occasions—with children simply to buy milk from one of the outlets at which the Azure card can be used, even though there is a shop next door to them.

Last weekend a large group of people from all over the country met at the Sanctuary Summit in Birmingham. Part of the communiqué from that summit reads:

“It cannot be right that people are left destitute in modern Britain, banned from working but denied support. Until they are granted protection and can work, asylum seekers should receive sufficient support to meet their essential living needs while in the UK”.

I support that statement. It is by no means clear that the Azure card system is currently succeeding in meeting what were reasonable aims.

I join the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, in asking the Minister for a review of the Azure card system. If it is not abolished, there is much scope for improving its efficiency, convenience and flexibility so that individuals and families, who are some of the most vulnerable in our midst, can retain a degree of dignity and freedom as they face the uncertainties of the future.

12.19 pm

Lord Naseby (Con): My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend for enabling us to debate an issue that I confess I knew relatively little about until I saw that it was to be debated today. I also pay tribute to the Library for the extensive brief that it provided for Members and for answering the questions that I asked of it yesterday afternoon, which were ready at 10.30 this morning.

Your Lordships will not need reminding that this is about failed asylum seekers. It is not about asylum seekers in general but those whose cases have been considered very carefully by the Home Office. Personally, I pay tribute to the work of the Home Office on asylum seekers. That is not an easy job, particularly with the situations that we face in the world today, and those officers who handle that work do it exceedingly well. That does not mean that there are not mistakes made on occasion but, nevertheless, the bulk of the work is done exceptionally well.

In the debate today, we are talking about just over 2,500 people who have been refused asylum and who are provided with this card. I jotted a note on the points that my noble friend made in his speech. If a

20 Nov 2014 : Column 556

card is refused at a retailer that is partaking in the scheme, that is totally wrong and I would hope very much that if there is evidence from the churches or whoever that a member of the scheme is refusing the cards, that could be taken up with senior management and sorted out. It is worth looking at the list that my noble friend quite rightly quoted, which covers probably as much as 85% of the grocery trade in the United Kingdom. It covers the leading chemist in the United Kingdom—Boots—charity shops, which are very much in high streets up and down the country, and the Salvation Army.

On the winter coat issue raised by my noble friend, I doubt that you would get a winter coat in any of our supermarkets at the sort of price that would be possible with the amount of money available on the card. Nevertheless, the charity shops are doing a wonderful job on that and have done so for years, not just for asylum seekers but for hundreds of different people. I do not think that winter coats or that sort of example are relevant.

I am concerned about the carryover that is being talked about. It is quite right that the scheme should have the discipline of having no more than a £5 carryover. If the card is not being used to its full potential by those in receipt of it, that does not suggest to me that they are on the poverty line. It might be very interesting to do a survey on why this carryover money, which is now more than £160,000, is available.

Turning to the grocery market, I do not think I have to declare an interest but, for some 20 years, I used to do the advertising for some of the major grocery chains. I had other accounts, which were major brands for sale in the grocery outlets. I am not sure how recently my noble friend has been shopping. I certainly go shopping, which I suppose is inherent in the fact that I used to be involved in that world. There is a huge amount of fierce competition in the grocery trade. No one grocer doubles the prices of another, certainly not for the basic foodstuffs. In fact, there has been next to no price inflation over the last five years on basic foodstuffs, by which I mean milk, bread and so on. Indeed, I suggest that if my noble friend talked to one of the partaking companies, he would discover that at every one of those major supermarkets, at around 5 pm that supermarket will decide that goods that are fresh but going out of date have to be cut in price. He will find that bread and fresh produce are cut to hugely low prices. If these failed asylum seekers are not aware of that, it is high time someone told them that this is what happens. I offer the opportunity to other noble Lords: I have been to see what happens on the ground, and maybe others want to do the same.

There is a point about transport, and I hope my noble friend can have a little look at it. I am not sure that everyone here will necessarily have a pensioner’s bus pass—of course not, because there is a wide spectrum of age in this House—but I certainly have one, and I am sure that many others do as well. Maybe some scheme could be organised whereby this very limited number of people could be integrated into that scheme.

With regard to vouchers, your Lordships should be aware that vouchers are all very well because they can be redeemed against certain products, but there is a

20 Nov 2014 : Column 557

terrible temptation for them to be converted into cash and for it not to be used for the essentials of life. We are all human and, even for a failed asylum seeker, that cash is likely to go on alcohol, cigarettes and possibly even the betting shop. The new card is a far better scheme than the old voucher scheme. Above all, there is one thing that we have to remember. I hope that the House will bear with me if I mention the comment made by the former Minister for Immigration in the other place, Damian Green, who said that the cards are more restrictive because they reflect the temporary nature of the people concerned and that limitations are necessary, not least because public funds are limited.

The problem, though, is that more than half the people in the current situation are here for more than two years and, as has been mentioned, some for more than six years. I do not know why the Home Office cannot really get a grip on those who have been here for a long time. We know that there are legal firms that specialise in this area and produce a host of reasons why a particular applicant should not be deported, but somehow there has to be a truce for dealing with this situation because that relationship is totally unacceptable.

With the leave of the House, I shall turn for a second to the bigger scene. Overnight I did a bit of work on the numbers and types of people involved. I draw attention to the figures from Eurostat that I cut out about a fortnight ago from the Financial Times. The one fact that sprang out to me from that article was that the UK today is the most generous acceptor of non-EU immigration. We took 30.2% of the share of the 2.4 million residence permits. That is a huge number, so the background is that we are not usually restrictive but we are understanding and generous. That is welcome, but the immigrants have to be genuine, and for me that is the key determinant.

We see that reflected in the Home Office’s statistics. The last year for which figures are published is 2013, and understandably we see that the number of refugees is rising; they are now 33% of those who are granted asylum. That does not surprise me and I am sure it does not surprise anyone else in the Chamber—we have only to look at the situation in the Middle East to understand what the pressures are. Conversely, the refusals are falling, and that is understandable. The interesting thing to me is that the Home Office appears to be making progress on those who come under the category of “not recognised as refugees but given leave to remain”. In other words, these people are not refugees. Historically, the percentage used to be somewhere between 10% and 15%; this is now down to 5%. These are economic migrants who claimed that they needed asylum for refugee reasons, but they do not and have been found to be seeking asylum to improve their position in life.

Members of the House will know that I take a particular interest in Sri Lanka so last night I asked for Sri Lankan figures for three years. I asked for the figures for 2003, which was a time when the war was going on, but not with any great pressure, and peace negotiations were in progress. At that time the UK received 705 applications, granted 117 and refused 1,355 because the Home Office found that the vast majority of these people were economic migrants.

20 Nov 2014 : Column 558

For 2008, at the height of the war, I expected to see—understandably—a very high figure. There were 1,473 applications, 206 grants and 668 refusals. I also asked for the figure for 2013. There is peace now so that if you are a Tamil you can go to the north as much as you like and you can work where you like without particular permission. I was amazed to discover that, in contrast to the figure of 2008 when the war was at is height—1,473—in 2013, 1,811 people from Sri Lanka came here seeking asylum.

The Home Office does not break this down into whether they are Muslims or Tamils or Sinhalese, but my guess is that they are Tamils. I am surprised because I asked our British High Commission the other week about those that had been returned. It has a scheme whereby if you are returned as a refused asylum seeker you can ring up the British High Commission on a secret line and complain or ask for help. It has not had a single returned asylum seeker who has complained. I checked with the Australian High Commission because it has a similar scheme. It has had well over 1,000 Tamils come back from Australia with only one complaint. I am therefore led to believe that the vast majority of these people now—looking at the figures, their number equates to nearly a quarter of the refusals—are here seeking economic migrant status. Frankly, it is time for Her Majesty’s Government to look more closely at exactly what is happening on the ground in Sri Lanka as opposed to what they are being told is happening by the British Tamils Forum and other pressure groups. I use that as a particular example as it is one about which I know something in depth.

I conclude by once again thanking my noble friend for putting this on the agenda. I have looked at the scheme as far as I can in the time available and I think it is basically fine. It needs some fine-tuning and I hope the Minister will take it away and have a look at the areas that can and should be fine-tuned. There are two other aspects. Noble Lords have all made the point that there is something wrong when asylum seekers have been here for more than two years. Somehow we have to resolve that problem. I cannot pretend to know how it can be resolved but, specifically, now that I have looked at the evidence supplied by the Home Office on the Sri Lankan figures, it is time for a review of the cases from Sri Lanka and recognition that the vast majority of those now coming here who seek asylum are certainly not refugees. The Sri Lankan economy is doing well and life is quiet—there are no bombs or anything else—so most of those must be refused, but sadly at the moment that is not happening.

12.34 pm

Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab): My Lords, we should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, for raising this issue. I do not suppose he expected that such a narrowly drafted Motion that we take note of the Azure card would provoke such a wide-ranging debate. It has been helpful. I listened to his speech, which he gave with his customary passion. Initially, I think he was arguing for the abolition of the card, but later in his speech he talked about ways to change or modify it. A number of points came up in the speeches of all noble Lords. I should say at the

20 Nov 2014 : Column 559

outset that, like the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, I am grateful for the briefing I received. I thought that the Library Note was particularly helpful and detailed. We should thank those in the Library who prepared it.

I suspect that the subject of this debate would have puzzled most people who may not have heard of the Azure card and may not be aware that there is support for those who have been refused asylum and, for whatever reason, are waiting to return to their country of origin. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, asked about the reasons for this. There are cases where for genuine reasons such removal is not immediately possible. Government data show that the numbers are relatively small, but I always think that in cases such as this statistics do not tell you very much, because they do not tell the underlying story. These are people who have been refused asylum in the UK and have exhausted all routes to be allowed to stay in the UK, so there must be exceptional and special reasons why they do not leave and, in some cases, are provided temporarily with state support.

There are therefore different issues to consider, which have come out in the speeches. The first is the principle of whether it is considered appropriate or efficient for there to be a support system for failed asylum seekers that is operated separately from any other system. Secondly, there are the practical implications about whether the system in operation is as efficient and effective as it should or could be. The third issue, which we ranged around slightly, is about process of asylum and whether cases are being dealt with as quickly, and therefore as humanely, as possible.

On the first issue, anyone who seeks asylum in this country and is ultimately refused is expected to return to their country of origin as soon as possible. It is only in exceptional cases that those who have been refused would continue to receive state support—what has become known as Section 4 support, part of which is the Azure card. One of those exceptional circumstances would be that the individuals are seeking judicial review; otherwise, they would have to be destitute and able to prove that they are taking all reasonable steps to leave—

Earl Attlee: It is my recollection that if your application for judicial review has been accepted by the courts you go back to Section 95.

Baroness Smith of Basildon: That is the case, once applications for judicial review have been accepted, but during the application process they come under Section 4. I am grateful to the noble Earl for helping to clarify that.

As I say, the individuals must be destitute and prove that they are taking all reasonable steps to leave the UK, unless they are medically unable to do so through ill health or if, for other reasons, it is pretty much impossible for them to leave immediately. It is right that in those exceptional circumstances, whether or not someone has a legal right to remain in the UK, we should provide temporary support to ensure that people are not destitute. The key word here is “temporary”, and it is of great concern how long some people have been receiving such Section 4 support. It is hard to imagine the circumstances of those who have been on

20 Nov 2014 : Column 560

Section 4 support for more than a year. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, tried to deal with that issue.

I understand that the average time for which someone receives such support is nine months—sometimes much less. However, the fact that anybody should be in that position for six or more years, as 127 people are at present, is incredible. I suspect that each one of them has very specific reasons, but there is neither the time, and nor is it appropriate, to go into them in this debate. However, I would like the Minister to help me, either today or in writing: what proportion and number of cases receive Section 4 support for one year or less, and for two years or less? The point that I am trying to get to is that the circumstances in which this is long-term support, which was never intended, must be exceptional. The fact that there are 127 people in such exceptional circumstances is alarming and distressing. I would like to know more about the reasons behind the figures.

The whole point of support—including Section 95 support—for those seeking asylum was that it would always be a temporary measure. The issues of delays in the system must be addressed. However, after listening to the debate and from my reading beforehand, I wonder whether those long-term delays should be approached in a completely different way. Delays of five to six years are far too long when we are dealing with Section 4 support.

I come to my second point on whether the Azure card is as efficient and effective as it could be. As we have heard, it is pre-loaded with funds and provided alongside accommodation. It was brought in because of concerns about potential abuse of the voucher system that was then in place, and was intended to be more effective and efficient. The importance of it to those who use it means that it must be efficient. I am grateful to the Red Cross and others who drew attention to a number of problems that they found with the operation and administration of the card. A number of those relate to problems that arise because of delays in people being able to leave the UK, but others relate to the operation of the card itself.

First, there is the issue of limited shops. Clearly, it is an issue if anyone on a limited budget, for whatever reason, is limited to which shops they use. The reasons that cash is not provided is understandable, but it means that those using the cards will pay higher prices for essential items. I listened to the point made about that by the noble Lord, Lord Naseby. I think he said that 85% of the grocery trade is covered. However, that is not the same as 85% of the outlets that are available. Those figures may also predate the fall in profits of the big supermarkets and the rise in the low-cost supermarkets that many people who are not on benefits, but earning a living, are trying to use now to save money; so we would probably find that the figure is not quite as good.

Lord Naseby: If I can help the House, Aldi is relevant in the sense that it is quite well distributed around the country. Lidl is relatively tiny and of course, as the noble Baroness knows, all the others are just convenience shops.

Baroness Smith of Basildon: They are tiny and they are growing; but convenience shops may be helpful if they are closer to somebody. There are also issues

20 Nov 2014 : Column 561

about being able to shop in markets, for example, where prices are lower. For me, the range of shops is an issue, in that if people are limited in the shops they can use, they end up paying higher prices in many cases. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, recognised this when he told the House in May that:

“There are ongoing discussions with other outlets that may be interested in joining the scheme”.—[Official Report, 14/5/14; col. WA 501.]

It would be very helpful if the noble Baroness could say something about the outcome of those discussions and what progress has been made since May.

The noble Lord, Lord Naseby, also raised the issue of travel, and other noble Lords raised concerns about it. I congratulate him on using his bus pass; I am sure that he is very grateful to the Labour Government for providing it.

I come now to the administrative problems that have been raised. The Government make it clear that the percentage of technical problems is quite small. That is accurate, but when we look at the numbers rather than percentages it gives cause for concern. Some 3,600 unsuccessful transactions were due to technical faults and more than 100,000 because they were not being used in the shops in which they can be used. What happened in those cases—did people go hungry? Is there any follow-up on cards that have failed, for whatever reason, and is there any follow-up from the people administering the scheme where that has happened? We are talking about fewer than 3,000 people who have Azure cards, so it would be interesting to know whether the contract to operate the cards includes any follow-up behaviour when transactions fail.

One further administrative problem is that more transactions were rejected because there being insufficient funds on the card than for any other reason—more than 200,000, which is a lot in terms of the number of people who have Azure cards. Helpfully and properly, there is a helpline, although there are some issues with it. It is operated by Sodexo and it will advise how much is on the card. I am concerned at suggestions that the use of that helpline should be charged for if it is used too often. Given that a transaction can be rejected as quickly for being lp over the limit as for being £5 over the limit, I would have thought we would want people to check the amount available on the card before they go shopping. I would be grateful for the Minister’s comments on that point.

What should concern us all is poor decision-making and the time it takes for asylum and other immigration decisions to be made. I have raised this in your Lordships’ House on many occasions in debates we have had on immigration issues over the last few years. Too often the initial decision has been found to be wrong. In recent years, 50% of appeals in First-tier Tribunal immigration cases fought by the Home Office have been successful, which means that in many cases Home Office decision-making about who can remain in the country has been as accurate as flipping a coin. That is unacceptable and is not fair to anybody. There has to be far greater confidence in the system. There is little doubt that poor-quality decision-making leads to far more appeals because of lack of confidence in the system.

20 Nov 2014 : Column 562

Not only is it wrong in principle to make people wait any longer than necessary for a decision on their application and to have a system so flawed that there is little confidence in that decision when it is first made, there is also a false economy in making poor decisions as the appeal process and the money spent supporting people while that is ongoing and while they await decisions is a significant sum for the taxpayer. Therefore, improving the quality and speed of Home Office decisions has to be a priority. I confirm that that would be a key priority for a Labour Government.

The biggest difference that could be made to help solve some of the difficulties so many asylum seekers face as they try to live their lives waiting for a decision would be to have that decision made as quickly as possible. There are clearly problems in the implementation of the system of people waiting for decisions. The High Court recently found the Home Secretary’s decision to freeze support for asylum seekers to be flawed and made without reference to the evidence available of what support they might need. That kind of mismanagement increases the difficulties and the destitution faced by many and is just not acceptable.

What we need to do to move forward is establish a transparent and robust evidence-based review into the way asylum support rates are calculated to ensure that people are not left destitute and the taxpayer is not unfairly burdened. It seems appropriate for the Azure card to be included in any such review but, ultimately, we need to be more efficient and supportive in removing people when their options to stay in the UK have been exhausted. Obviously, ideally, once their application is refused and their route to staying in the UK has been exhausted, they should leave the country quickly and efficiently. People are waiting far too long for removal, whether voluntary or otherwise. That is a serious problem and is not fair to anybody. Cases where people are unable to stay for exceptional reasons should also be dealt with. I am horrified that people have been on the Azure card system for six years and more. The Azure card should only ever be a stopgap in somebody’s life. Section 4 support was only ever meant to be a short-term, temporary stopgap.

This has been a thoughtful debate. The Minister has been asked a number of questions and I hope that she will address them today.

12.47 pm

Baroness Williams of Trafford (Con): My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate, particularly my noble friend Lord Roberts who is a very passionate advocate on this subject, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, said. I agree with the noble Baroness that this has been a thoughtful debate and, I think, a constructive one.

It is probably best if I set the background to this debate. The Government provide support and assistance to destitute asylum seekers by using the powers in Section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. This type of support generally consists of accommodation and a cash allowance to cover the person’s essential living needs. We provide this assistance to enable us to meet international obligations, most particularly by

20 Nov 2014 : Column 563

ensuring that persons seeking asylum, many of whom will, of course, have a genuine case, are not forced to abandon their claims and return to their countries because of destitution.

We do not usually accommodate or otherwise assist failed asylum seekers because in the vast majority of cases they can reasonably be expected to avoid the consequences of destitution by returning to their own countries. However, as an exception, we provide a different type of support under Section 4 of the 1999 Act—many noble Lords have mentioned this—where there is an unavoidable obstacle preventing the person’s immediate departure: for example, if they are too sick to travel or need time to obtain a necessary travel document. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, asked why people would be on that type of support. We also provide assistance to failed asylum seekers who have made further submissions relating to their asylum claim which, although found to be without merit in the vast majority of cases, have to be dealt with through a process that takes time. Different types of assistance therefore serve different purposes.

Section 4 assistance consists of accommodation plus a weekly allowance to meet essential living needs. The allowance is provided through the Azure card, which can be used to buy food and other essential items. The value of the allowance is rightly less than the allowances provided to asylum seekers, reflecting the different purposes of the separate support systems. One is aimed at meeting the needs of people still seeking asylum, a substantial number of whom will be granted refugee status and have a long future in the UK. The other offers a temporary fix for people who are not refugees and in nearly all cases need to be making arrangements to go home.

The legislation explicitly rules out cash being provided, as a result of an amendment brought in by the previous Government via the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006. This Government have looked at the matter afresh, as a result of the proposed amendments to the Immigration Act passed earlier in the year, but have no plans to change the law. Many noble Lords have touched on this. We need to provide a balance between meeting people’s basic living needs and processing their asylum claims in an efficient and speedy manner. However, we are always looking at ways of improving the operation of the card. Officials talk regularly to voluntary sector providers and partners about how such improvements can be made. As one practical example of this co-operation, we will shortly be bringing in changes to allow card users to carry over extra credit on the card from one week to the next. This suggestion was made by the Red Cross in a recent report and by many noble Lords in the Chamber today and I am pleased to be able to make this announcement. Currently, credit is limited to £5 unless the person has children. The change is designed to enable people to plan how they spend their allowance more effectively.

We are also considering how we can implement sensible suggestions about providing further information about the terms and conditions of the card and clearer information about how to apply for extra assistance that is available to those on Section 4 support; for

20 Nov 2014 : Column 564

example, the provision of travel tickets not only to attend essential medical appointments but to undertake other types of necessary travel.

We also look for opportunities to extend the range of outlets that accept the card, although this is ultimately a matter for the particular retailers. In the run-up to this debate, we again approached other retailers such as Aldi and Lidl. They are not willing to have the card at this time. In the round, the Azure card is essentially a pre-paid debit card that can be used at most of the main UK supermarket chains. It serves substantially the same purpose as other debit cards used by shoppers. The Government are satisfied that it is an effective means of ensuring that those on Section 4 support are able to buy food and other items to meet their living needs. It is a shame that other outlets will not accept the card. I do not think that there is an impediment to their accepting the card. My noble friend Lord Roberts and I have spoken about this. Ultimately, a bit more of a push might be needed from voluntary organisations—indeed, from Members of your Lordships’ House—to encourage them to do so.

I turn to points made by noble Lords in the debate. My noble friend Lord Roberts brought up a number of points, the first being on the thanks that we owe to the voluntary organisations that provide different types of support not just to failed asylum seekers but to asylum seekers generally. I echo my noble friend’s comments. Without the voluntary sector, this country would be a poorer place in all sorts of ways. He talked about the Red Cross survey, which should probably be seen in context in that it sampled only 11 people. I am not decrying any of its findings, but the sample was quite limited. He and other noble Lords talked about travel to legal offices or health services. All asylum seekers, or failed asylum seekers under Section 4 support, are always housed within two to three miles of shops. However, I take on board a comment made by the right reverend Prelate about somebody living next door to a shop that they cannot actually use. That was a good point and additional pressure needs to be put on those shops to be a bit more accommodating. I have no reason to believe that they cannot accept the card.

My noble friend talked about replacing the card with cash. This goes back to the point about striking the right balance between processing claims quickly and not having a system that incentivises new claims that might not have been made were it not for an easier system. I am not saying we should make the system difficult for people, but we should try to prevent encouraging new claims. He talked about dignity, mental health, and so on, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, talked about the anxious effect on families. I cannot disagree that somebody with a family who not only sought asylum but had the claim refused must be in a state of extreme anxiety. The noble Earl mentioned a pregnant woman, for example, and the effect on foetal health must be extreme. Again, that goes back to needing to process claims quickly—70% of appeals are processed within six months. However, that does not undermine the figures for the people who stay here for more than a year, and as the noble Baroness said, sometimes up to six years.

20 Nov 2014 : Column 565

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, asked about the number of people on support for under a year. That figure is 684. I will come back to her on the two-year figure, which she asked for, but the number of those on support for more than a year and fewer than five years is 3,013. There is no doubt that the system needs to be speeded up. The speedier it is, the less anxiety will be caused to families.

My noble friend Lord Roberts also asked about the administrative costs of the card. It is not hugely expensive; it is about £200,000 per year, and there is a helpline. I was shocked to hear—I think I heard it right—that overuse of the helpline could lead to charges. I am happy to be corrected on that.

Baroness Smith of Basildon: No, that was in the note prepared by the House of Lords Library. The Asylum Support Appeals Project reported that and that is something that has to be looked at.

Baroness Williams of Trafford: I would be happy to come back to the noble Baroness on that, because it is a good idea for people to want to know exactly where they are up to in terms of their credit limits, just as we may want to know where we are up to on our bank accounts.

The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, asked why people are here. I hope that I have explained the reasons why people would be on Section 4 support. My noble friend Lord Attlee spoke about the contribution of immigrants to this country. When we talk about immigration now, we often talk about it almost as a scourge. However, this country is a nation of immigrants and, speaking as an immigrant, I can say that many of us have contributed both to the economy of this country and to its cultural richness. Nevertheless, we have to get it right in terms of people who are coming to contribute to the economy and those who, as my noble friend pointed out, will risk their lives to come here for reasons other than work.

My noble friend also asked whether the Government would reconsider the level of payments on the card. I understand that the Government reconsider this every year, and at this point we do not intend to increase the level. I also take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, about the High Court ruling, and I will write to her and to my noble friend on that subject, in terms of the level of the payment, and put a copy in the Library.

The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, asked about the numbers on Section 4 support. The numbers are about 5,000, and 70% of the claims are processed within six months. Of course, that means that 30% of claims are not processed within six months.

Baroness Smith of Basildon: The noble Baroness says that 70% of the claims are processed. Does she mean that 70% of the applications received the money in that time, or for that time?

Baroness Williams of Trafford: When a claimant is appealing a failed claim, they will be paid during the time of their appeal—yes. I hope that that answers the noble Baroness’s question.

20 Nov 2014 : Column 566

The noble Earl also talked about the cost to families in terms of dignity, and the stigma of being not just an asylum seeker but a failed asylum seeker. I have to concur with that. Again, the more quickly we can process the claims, the better. There is also the travel issue, which I think I have already addressed.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester said that the card can be used only in certain outlets. Again, I hope I have addressed that point by explaining that the card can be used only in outlets that wish to accept it. The right reverend Prelate talked about someone living next door to a shop but not being able to use the card in it. He also talked about allowing flexible use of the Azure card or abolishing it. The Government have no intention of abolishing the card, but I agree that if markets, or any other retail outlets, were more willing to accept it, that would make the process easier and more dignified for all involved.

My noble friend Lord Naseby asked what happens if a card is refused. My understanding is that it will be replaced, or vouchers will be provided immediately. Obviously, there is a helpline to ring. I do not think that anybody would be left hungry because of a failure of the card. He also asked about carryover, and I am pleased to say that carryover would now be allowed without restrictions. He also talked about the range of supermarkets—I think I have gone through that—and about transport. We are continuing to look at where transport arrangements can be more flexible. Certainly, someone on Section 4 support can apply for travel tickets to see a doctor, to go to the Home Office or to access legal support. My noble friend said that the UK was a most generous country. That is true. We pride ourselves on our democracy and our rule of law, on our compassion and on how we treat asylum claimants. But obviously there remain some efficiencies to be derived in the asylum system where claims have failed.

I think that I have addressed all noble Lords’ points. I hope that I have addressed those made by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, sometimes by weaving them in to my responses to various other noble Lords. She said that anyone going through an appeal is on Section 4 support, and that is absolutely correct; I think that was in response to a point made by my noble friend Lord Attlee.

Baroness Smith of Basildon: My understanding is that Section 4 support comes after somebody has exhausted the appeals system.

Baroness Williams of Trafford: They are appealing against their failed application; it is during the appeal process, I understand. I will write to the noble Baroness, because I am not sure that she is satisfied. It is when an asylum seeker has had their asylum claim rejected and is appealing against that.

I shall now conclude, because my time is up. I will check whether there is anybody whose questions I have not answered sufficiently, and if so I will write to them in due course.

1.08 pm

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, I appreciate the Minister’s approach very much. This is not an easy time to debate this subject, but often our debates on

20 Nov 2014 : Column 567

such subjects depend on the spirit of the participants—whether they are positive and eager to do something that enhances people’s lives, or whether they are those who will keep on putting hindrances in people’s way. I thank the Minister for taking that very positive attitude.

I have not achieved the abolition of the Azure card—that is possibly the next step—but we can now go ahead and discuss this in a positive way. There is nothing black about it; it is something that we can discuss together, and together we can achieve a great deal of what the organisations involved, such as the British Red Cross and the Refugee Council, want us to do in the interests of every individual. They are all individuals, whether they are in dire poverty, or whether they are in the depths of Wales. We are always dealing with individuals; they are always people. As I say, I think that we can now work positively and actively with the organisations involved in these matters. I would like to see regular meetings with them to discuss the problems from their viewpoint as well as from the point of view of this House.

In spite of not getting what I want, I feel that the whole tenor today has been one of encouragement. I want to say thank you for that, and I look forward to the next step, which in due course may possibly be the abolition of the Azure card. We need a payment that is more relevant and fit for purpose for those who are suffering through no fault of their own. Their time here should not be spent in dire poverty. Again, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part. I appreciate that very much indeed.

Motion agreed.

UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: Digital Impact

Motion to Take Note

1.10 pm

Moved by Baroness Kidron

That this House takes note of the impact of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child on children’s and young people’s online and digital interactions.

Baroness Kidron (CB): My Lords, today we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is a legally binding international agreement that carefully balances the necessity for children to be the guardians of their own interests alongside our need to act as responsible guardians of them. The 54 articles of the convention cover a complex matrix of scenarios, but when combined they stipulate that,

“the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration … In all actions concerning children”.

In March 1989, also 25 years ago, Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s proposal for the world wide web gave birth to a technological revolution which changed immeasurably almost every aspect of a young person’s life. While the experience of childhood has been revolutionised by technology, the necessity for children to be the guardians

20 Nov 2014 : Column 568

of their own interests and our need to be responsible guardians of them remains exactly the same as it was 25 years ago.

Today’s debate does not seek to establish whether web-based technologies are good or bad. My own view is that these technologies bring with them unparalleled opportunity, breathtaking imagination and the tantalising promise of a better world. But any technology that brings about such fundamental change in the way we behave, the way we do business and the way we communicate is bound to present challenges. In the case of the two momentous events of 25 years ago, they present some demanding contradictions. The digital world is one of infinite possibility, but it was not designed with children in mind. I look forward to the contributions of noble Lords from all sides of the House on a wide set of issues. Many of my own comments will concern Article 16 covering a child’s right to privacy. But first I must declare an interest as one of the founders of iRights, a broad coalition of civil society organisations and young people working together to create an agreed framework for promoting and implementing children’s rights online. Among the 100 or more signatories to iRights are UNICEF UK, the Children’s Rights Alliance for England and the National Children’s Bureau, all of whom provided briefing for today’s debate.

Article 16 determines that:

“No child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his or her honour and reputation”.

It is estimated that 98% of nine to 16 year-olds in the UK are online, while recent Ofcom research indicates that the vast majority are accessing the net through portable devices such as smartphones and tablets. In a young person’s hands these are powerful tools that hold the possibility of creativity and invention and allow them to access the world’s vast knowledge. But this is not a neutral arrangement. As children shop, play, learn, research and upload, they are giving up their personal information. We are familiar with the attacks on “honour and reputation” and with the risks of overexposure. Multiple surveys suggest that between a quarter and a third of young people online have been upset by what others have posted or shared about them. The 2014 Ofcom report explains that:

“Some intrinsic aspects of the online environment served to facilitate risk-taking”,

as young people experiment with identify formation and use the cover of anonymity to communicate with strangers, view inappropriate content, and be critical or even cruel to one another.

However, research also shows that young people do not fully appreciate how the indelible nature of data contributes to their reputation and the reputations of others. A reputation, once it is established, is extremely difficult to change. But preserving reputation is just one dimension of a digital identity. The gathering of personal information and of the activities of its users has become the primary commercial driver of the web, creating in its wake a real-time record of childhood. Increasingly, the use of GPS technology tracks not only what children have used their phones for, but where they were at the time. Their most intimate

20 Nov 2014 : Column 569

details and cursory winks provide data as they go about their daily lives. Data are the building blocks for a system of personal profiling where an algorithm can access the preferences and activities of a child however young with no promise of how or when they might be used—in perpetuity. These data, casually signed away by children who are often without legal capacity or cultural understanding of the consequences, create a digital legacy that is built up beyond the knowledge or sight of parents and guardians, and often beyond the comprehension of the young people themselves. The data gathered may indeed be of a benign nature, but put together, they profile a young person before they are fully formed.

The ideal of privacy allows individuals to define themselves, to reveal or conceal; it is not to hide only that which is wrongdoing, but also perhaps something that is special, precious or simply personal. We know that on occasion our dignity is challenged by the misunderstanding of others or by our actions being judged out of context. A digital identity is very low on context. Childhood is a time of rapid personal development and experimental social interaction. It is a time when change is a requirement, not a fault. What we know from neuroscience is that the brain is plastic and develops according to use and experience, and that the concept of consequence is one of the last things to develop as a child grows to maturity.

The convention lays emphasis on privacy for children and provides for a balance of interference that includes both protections and privileges based on the overarching notion that we must act in,

“the best interests of the child”.

Arguably, data gathering on this scale from minors is not unlawful, but I believe that we have the balance wrong. The subject of this debate is as broad as the convention itself. There are many stakeholders: parents, teachers, those who design and deliver technology, corporations and government. All are putting technology at the centre of their services, and not least the young themselves. Like the internet, the 54 articles of the UNCRC are interconnected, mirroring key aspects of the children’s complex lives and needs, and within them lie so many contradictions.

It is worth noting, however, that, however anxious we feel about some people’s online activity, it is very often of great benefit to them. The mental health charity YoungMinds states clearly that everyone who is concerned about the emotional well-being of young people needs to acknowledge that thousands of them get emotional support from online communities, thereby upholding the principle enshrined in Article 24, which encompasses a child’s right to appropriate physical and mental health information advice and support. This is just one of dozens of charities and third-sector organisations that reach out to the young through digital technology.

Article 13 describes the right to freedom of expression and raises the question of access. I will always argue for according the same rights online that children enjoy in the analogue world, but it is absolutely the case that children need equal access to the web. The findings of a large-scale study by Oxford University’s

20 Nov 2014 : Column 570

Department of Education are that teenagers who do not have access to the internet in their home are,

“clearly missing out both educationally and socially”.

With access, however, come challenges. Article 19 determines that a child must be protected from,

“physical and mental violence … including sexual abuse”.

The noble Baroness, Lady Shields, who has guided Her Majesty’s Government and worked successfully with industry, is an expert in this field. I look forward to hearing her maiden speech in this debate.

Forgive me for reiterating this point: this debate is not about whether web and digital technology are good or bad. They are here. It is about how we best deliver children’s rights, inform them of their responsibility and build their resilience when using technology that is fast becoming the organising technology of our society.

In their briefing the four Children’s Commissioners of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland refer to Articles 28 and 29 as a right to “a three dimensional education”. No education can be three-dimensional in the 21st century unless it puts the digital and internet technologies at its heart. The O2 report The Future Digital Skills Needs of the UK Economy states that we are about to experience a skills gap where 745,000 jobs requiring digital skills may go unfilled—jobs that could go to young people, who, we know, suffer disproportionately from unemployment. Yet the decade-long survey by the London School of Economics, EU Kids Online, run by Professor Sonia Livingstone, cites young people as still being at the bottom of the digital ladder of opportunity and states that we must move the young from “information-seeking” to the top-of-the-ladder activities that promote creative and civic engagement.

I welcome the Government’s new computing curriculum in schools and the work of the “maker movement”, which is setting its sights on teaching children and young people to be digital creators. In seeking to provide for the “best interests” of the child as a “primary consideration”, however, we must make sure that we define digital literacy as not only an ability to create and code but also a critical understanding of the pushes and pulls designed into the technology itself and its emerging social norms.

In this regard, we need to redouble efforts to teach the teachers, and not only those who will deliver the new computing programme. Professor Peyton Jones, in his evidence to the Digital Skills Committee, said that IT teachers,

“feel underequipped to deliver that change in a short time”.

He referred to the computing curriculum as an “entirely new subject” because of its very great breadth—which is to be celebrated. It is imperative that not only teachers of the computing curriculum have confidence in their skills but also teachers right across the curriculum, parents and policymakers. The issues emerging from the digital world should be a central component of PSHE, and PSHE should be statutory in all schools, whatever their status.

It is not possible, in the time available, to capture the totality of what a rights-based approach could provide for young people in the digital world. It will take the good will of industry and involve all stakeholders, including Members of our own House. Over the past

20 Nov 2014 : Column 571

few days, many colleagues kindly took the time to contact me in order to say how important they thought the subject of this debate. At the same time, they suggested that their own lack of technological knowledge prevented them from speaking in the Chamber today. Many of those noble Lords have the sort of experience that I can only dream of—in law, mental health, education, the EU, offending and medicine. This is not a question of technology. This is a question of how we step into the digital space alongside children and young people to learn and understand its implications for their lives now and in the future. Our role is to apply our wisdom, our values and their rights enshrined in the UNCRC.

I have been able to raise only a few of the issues at stake, and I know other noble Lords will follow me. I would, however, like to ask the Minister if Her Majesty’s Government will commit to a review that would report on how we might implement all relevant articles of the UNCRC in the context of web-based and digital technologies. This would be a review process that in the spirit and letter of the convention has the “best interests” of the child as its “primary consideration”.

Finally, will the Minister consider how best Her Majesty’s Government might support parliamentarians in furthering their own understanding of the digital world, and in doing so put our own House in order? None of us can afford to be absent from the digital debate. I am very grateful to those who have chosen to speak, and I look forward to hearing the contributions of all noble Lords. I beg to move.

1.28 pm

Lord Framlingham (Con): My Lords, it is with great trepidation that I follow the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, because she was saying that she knew of many Members of your Lordships’ House who did not feel they were sufficiently qualified to enter into this debate. I am afraid that I am one of those people who has the temerity to take part today, but I am grateful to her because she has introduced the debate expertly and comprehensively, and dealt with almost every aspect of the convention that we are here to talk about.

I am going to be followed by people who know far more about this field than I do—particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, who is going to make her maiden speech this afternoon. As a layman, I want to issue a warning about the damage being done to our children by what are described in the title of this debate as young people’s “online and digital interactions”.

How many times, in how many debates, have we heard someone say, “The welfare of the child is paramount”? We say this constantly, but do we really mean it? If we do mean it and believe it, what, as legislators, are we doing about it? The world is becoming increasingly insensitive to the care and needs of our children. To grow up happily, children need stability as well as love. The very sad reduction in the role of the traditional family in our national life is denying many children the stability they need.

Children are not modernised in the womb. They emerge naked, empty and vulnerable, totally unaware of what their surroundings will be like. If it is a boy, he

20 Nov 2014 : Column 572

does not know whether he will be asked to fight with Harold at Hastings, to take sides in the Civil War or maybe go off to Flanders in 1914. Children know nothing until we start to shape them.

For thousands of years, the influences on children’s lives were their parents, family and friends. As they grew up, it would be school friends, teachers and workmates. Suddenly, whether we admit it or not, we have created a parallel universe—a world into which, once they are old enough to press a button or two, children can disappear and we cannot follow or have any idea of what they are doing. It becomes for them a source of entertainment. For some it is a refuge: a place to meet new people, a place to experiment away from supervision. They may talk to people whose real identity they do not know and whose motives may be dubious.

Imagine your child or grandchild perhaps being told by total strangers, children or adults whom neither you nor they have ever met the most intimate details of any and every aspect of life without anyone realising what they are hearing or seeing. There is the very obvious danger of children being persuaded to enter into dangerous relationships—now commonly known as grooming.

I looked at some of the statistics in the report that we are talking about today and I found all of them horrifying. In 2013, 37% of five to seven year-olds used the internet every day. In just one month, December 2013, 44,000 children aged six to 11 visited an adult website. I could go on. Quite frankly, as I said, I find the statistics relating to this debate on the convention utterly horrifying.

When children are young and vulnerable, images and ideas, whether good or bad, leave impressions and help form character traits that last a lifetime and have a huge effect for good or ill on their future happiness. Part of the answer, obviously, is strong, wise parental control, but this by itself cannot work. Many parents will not worry, do not see the size of the problem or simply do not have or make the time to supervise. Even the best parents cannot be on duty every minute—and a minute is perhaps all it takes for serious harm to be done.

As a matter of the greatest urgency, a way must be found to control, edit and supervise what at least our very youngest children can access. As I have said, I am not technically competent enough even to begin to suggest how this might be done, but there must be people who know how we can at least try. Surely those who invented the so-called social media can help us to tame the creature they have created.

One thing is certain: we simply cannot do nothing, for that would be to admit that we have produced a monster that is beyond our control, and the long-term effects on our children will be catastrophic. History will show whether all these new contrivances, whether it be the internet, websites, Google, Facebook, YouTube or even Snapchat, have brought us more good than harm. For the sake of our nation’s children, we must do all we can as quickly as possible to tip the scales the right way. Going online must not be allowed to send our children off course.

20 Nov 2014 : Column 573

1.34 pm

Baroness Benjamin (LD): My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on securing this important debate, as it coincides with the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. She persuaded me to speak in her debate and it is an honour to do so. I also look forward with great interest to hearing the maiden speech of my noble friend Lady Shields and welcome her to the House.

After 25 years of the UN’s Convention on the Rights for the Child, this should be the gold standard by which the United Kingdom measures all its provision for its youngest citizens. As Article 3 states, we are required to act in the best interests of children at all times and think about how our decisions will affect them. As I say repeatedly, childhood lasts a lifetime and children’s early experiences form lasting foundations, so it is our duty to get it right. For nearly 40 years, I have worked for and with children and young people, and my mission in life is to secure the very best for them in society and to make sure that all parts of our society put them first. Children have rights that need to be considered and promoted, and that includes their rights within the new-age, online world.

At this point, I want to acknowledge all the children and young people who have taken their lives because of the influence of online abuse, content and negative experiences—practices such as cyberbullying, sexual abuse, anorexia or suicide sites, all involving boys and girls. These tragic incidents are becoming more and more commonplace in today’s society, bringing pain, suffering and sadness to families across the country. Let us not forget them.

I am the chair of the All-Party Group for Children’s Media and the Arts. Since its formation in 2012, we have been concerned that decisions about the internet and children are not properly thought through, because, too often, the internet is seen by adults as separate from the rest of the child’s life. Public opinion and policymakers seem to lurch from knee-jerk reaction to knee-jerk reaction. Yes, the internet is full of predators, full of bullies, full of silly games, and children must be protected from all this. But the internet is also full of important and valuable things such as information, knowledge, news, fun and friendship.

The UNCRC states that children have just as much right to these things as they do to safety and security, so we need to find a way to teach our children and young people how to navigate their way safely, how to be discerning, and how to evaluate and judge what they see, hear and do. It is encouraging that Ofcom’s research states that some older children are beginning to make judgments about the truthfulness of online content, including search engine results and how accurately people present themselves online. However, we still do not know the long-term psychological effects on young minds and whether they will be harmful—the jury is still out on this.

Yes, all of this is food for thought, and I am glad that we are having this debate today, especially when so much of the popular digital space is occupied and controlled by a small handful of powerful players such as Facebook, Twitter and Google. They have a huge and largely unnoticed influence upon our children,

20 Nov 2014 : Column 574

gathering information about their users with each mouse click, and controlling what information their search engines offer back. Such power and influence over young people is not tolerated in traditional media. I ask the Minister: why is this allowed to happen in the cyberworld? Who do these powerful players answer to in this country? This is an important question. Why? Because we are entering a new age: the cyber age. In decades to come we may regret not paying enough attention to the controlling and socially invasive aspect of the internet.

I believe this for several reasons. The main one is because we continue on an almost daily basis to witness revelations of sexual and domestic violence; rape, even gang rape, on girls, some as young as 11; and the sexualisation of young girls in society where violent pornography is only a mouse click away. Where is all this taking us? How are young minds going to cope psychologically, physically and mentally in the future?

This is a pan-global epidemic underpinned by the media and the internet, which supports imagery and attitudes that relentlessly promote the idea that social emancipation and free speech equal the freedom to flaunt the boundaries of decency, self-respect and the sanctity of our bodies and our souls. It is women, especially young women and girls, who are the main casualties of this. No wonder we witness highly sexualised behaviour by children and young people—some as young as six—when they are being influenced so strongly to believe that stardom, success, fame, riches and happiness can all be achieved by using sex as a commodity.

We are living in an era when children and young people lose their innocence far, far too early. They are exposed relentlessly to a sexual culture, where many boys and girls are allowing themselves to be exploited, degraded and manipulated. Young boys are learning to see their female counterparts as sexual objects, who are expected to perform the same way as they see on porn sites, which are so easily accessible today to anyone with a smartphone, a computer or a tablet. We now have degrading behaviour by boys who force girls to perform sexual acts, film the humiliating action and then shame the girls by putting it on the web. The boys often do not feel satisfied by the experiences, as they do not match up to the expectations of their pornographic fantasies. The girls, in turn, self-harm; some even take their own lives. Both parties become victims. It makes me weep.

This has to stop. The NSPCC has highlighted a dramatic increase in girls self-harming and committing suicide because of their sexual exploitation and degradation—and more recently by adults using the internet to slowly, slowly groom children through sexually explicit online communication. Sometimes the aim of these adults is no longer just to meet the child or young person. The sex abuse happens online—with the adult and the child using coded language when the parents are present. These paedophiles are manipulative, ruthless and dangerous.

The internet and technological developments have given children and young people access to economic, social and political opportunities across the world, which is wonderful. However, many parents feel disempowered by an environment that ignores their

20 Nov 2014 : Column 575

rights to protect their children online. Access to their children’s data and images is withheld by the companies that have created their children’s online world. There are international laws in place protecting children online. However, parents are beginning to realise that in the UK their online rights do not match their rights offline. Parents need to have the right to be able to intervene on behalf of their child if problems arise online, to know what data are stored about their child and to challenge inaccuracies. Parents should have their consent sought when a child signs up to use an online service and expect minimum safety standards for children’s websites.

On a positive note, the message is slowly getting through. According to a report by Ofcom, not only are many parents expressing concerns about the media online content that their child has access to but nine out of 10 parents mediate their child’s access to the internet in some way. Most parents use a combination approach, including using technical tools, as well as having rules about access and use, regularly talking to the child about specific risks and supervising the child’s online activity. They also feel that ISP content filters are important and use them to block what they believe should be blocked. They feel that it is their right to do so—together with open dialogue with their child.

I believe that this will not only empower the child but, in doing so, educate the child to become more vigilant and aware. Yes, children do have rights, but with these rights come responsibilities: to let their parents know about their online activities as they explore the limitless cyberworld.

Not all children have parents who care or take an interest in their well-being. So, as well as parents, school has an important role to play in teaching our children how to use online technology responsibly and safely, how to put safeguards in place to protect their privacy and how to be cautious about trusting anyone online—because the person they are interacting with might just have ulterior motives, which could end in disaster.

I tell children when I visit schools, “Never feel intimidated by bullies. Never feel a victim. Never exchange information you wouldn’t otherwise share with someone in person or a stranger”. I tell them to learn to love and respect themselves, to have high self-esteem, to feel worthy, even though they may be suffering abuse, and never to feel that it is their fault. I tell them that they must live their lives with integrity and honesty, and above all have the courage to stand up against those who want to harm them or take advantage of them.

Lord Popat (Con): I am afraid the time is up. I ask the noble Baroness to conclude as quickly as she can.

Baroness Benjamin: Yes, I know—I could go on for ever about this subject. I should never have been asked to speak. I finish by saying that we have opened a Pandora’s box. I know we are in uncharted waters. The global and domestic challenge for us is to join together and lead the fight for children’s rights. If the UK is to fulfil its UNCRC obligation to children by creating, as Article 4 says, an environment where they can grow and reach their potential, we must all do what we can to help them understand this digital

20 Nov 2014 : Column 576

world. We must give our children the opportunity, knowledge and tools to grow up happy and contented, just as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child intended us to do. I am so sorry I went over my time.

1.48 pm

Baroness Grey-Thompson (CB): My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Kidron for tabling this debate today. The House has just heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, who was passionate in her wish to protect children. This is a very important debate. It is not just about young people. It is something that affects us all. I take today as an opportunity to listen to experts. I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, to your Lordships’ Chamber. I very much look forward to her contribution.

I quote from iRights:

“Enabling children and young people to deal with the challenges and engage knowledgeably with the digital world is the best way to ensure the full potential of the internet”.

That is vital. I am a fan of the internet. I was trying to think about how much of my life is spent online. I thought it was significant—mostly because my daughter keeps telling me to put my phone down—but it is much bigger than I thought. It is booking trains, taxis, reading the House of Lords Library briefing pack on this debate, checking Marshalled Lists and Order Papers, let alone the e-mails and social media platforms I use, and keeping in touch with my family.

I love the fact that I can be sitting at my desk in London and watch my daughter do her maths homework 300 miles away until she asks me to help her. In the pre-internet days, if I wanted to book a hotel, I had to take the word of the manager or a travel agent that the hotel was accessible. Now, they can send me a picture and I can choose whether to stay there. The camera on my phone is better than any camera that I have ever owned and, thanks to remote cameras, I can put a little camera on my daughter’s crash helmet as she is canoeing down the river and watch it on my tablet while I am sitting in the warmth of the car.

For me, social media are a way to engage, to ask questions, to challenge; that is not always welcome. One night, when I was in your Lordships’ Chamber for some late-night votes, a few people commented on how I had voted, but when I posted that I had missed my evening meal and asked whether anyone knew of a takeaway that was open at one o’clock in the morning, I was inundated with offers to bring pizza to Peers’ Entrance. Someone even posted that they lived in the same block as me and would make me a sandwich and leave it outside my door. It is amazing how you can dip in and out. You can engage with the pictures I tweet of the food that I eat on trains or what I say in debates. I can use it as a straw poll. In various debates that I have been involved in, people have sent me messages and given me extremely helpful information.

When I thought about this debate, I also thought about safety. Not all of my online interactions have been positive. I was recently interviewed on “Newsnight” about the issue of equal pay for women in sport. I was being pragmatic, not radical; I was not asking for a sudden change, but I cannot repeat in your Lordships’ Chamber some of the unparliamentary language that

20 Nov 2014 : Column 577

was used towards me. I think of myself as being fairly resilient, but when people are swearing and—I can say this—I was called a moron several times, it can be really hard to deal with. The offside rule seems to be the only gateway to any knowledge about football; if you know that, you must be okay.

It is not the same as having a conversation, where you can see someone’s body language and where the conversation might become more intense because you can see the person who is displeased. Often, the person at the other end has had time to ponder, stew, react and become very angry. When I explained to someone who was extremely rude to me that it is the same as printing it on a piece of paper, running towards me and thrusting it in my face, they stepped down and apologised, because they had not realised how aggressive they were being. What if I were 12 or 13 years old? Some people think that they are being funny. It is about context. Some people genuinely do not realise that they are being rude. There are people at the extreme end who are simply being horrible, but it is about the context and how people say things.

One disadvantage with social media and e-mail is the immediacy with which people expect a response. I recently received an e-mail at nine o’clock in the morning and then a vitriolic complaint three hours later because I had not replied, but do we punish somebody every time they say something out of context? I have said clumsy things in real life and on the internet that I later regret. There must be a way to manage this. We must come back to this in more detail in your Lordships’ Chamber.

The UN convention was written before the digital era; to be fair, if it had been written two years ago it would probably be out of date now. I look back to when I was working with the London Organising Committee for the 2012 Olympic Games. We were discussing the athletes’ village in 2007, or perhaps 2008. Several people questioned whether we needed wi-fi in the village—whether that was a justifiable expense. If we had not had it, we would have looked rather foolish. I am by no means an expert in the digital world, but we are not talking about laptops any more; we are talking about mobile technology. We do not know where it is going to go in the next year, let alone in the next five years.

I am worried about the number of people who do not have access to the internet. About 2 million disabled people do not have access. For some, it will open doors; others will be left behind. I hope that my noble friend Lady Lane-Fox will explore that in more detail, because I worry as much about those people who are using it as those unable to use it.

I have a 12 year-old. She has a phone. Some children whom she knows are on platforms that they are not meant to be on it because of their age. We talk about internet usage and what we think is appropriate as a family. She is very willing to show me messages that she has been sent. Frankly, I have been shocked by some of the things that I have seen nine, 10 and 11 year-olds write. She has had the confidence to remove herself from that conversation, but that has not been easy for her because she felt that she had a

20 Nov 2014 : Column 578

responsibility to be part of a group. That is why section 4 of iRights is so important. Young people need to feel confident to step away from these things. It is a lesson that I should learn. If you read a social media comment at two o’clock in the morning, the best thing to do is to turn your phone off and walk away from it.

Many people do not realise how far it can go. They talk about having friends. My daughter is fed up with me saying, “They are not real friends. They are different friends”. One comment can go around the world immediately. We have only to look at the pictures of Kim Kardashian that went to hundreds of millions of people in a very short time.

Young people use the internet in a very positive way. I think that a lot of young people are more informed about the world now than I was when I was that age. My knowledge of the world depended on which newspaper my parents bought and watching the six and 10 o’clock news. Today, young girls can find information about a whole variety of things. I do a lot of work with women in sport about the desire of young girls to be size zero. With one click, you can find pages of pictures of famous young women who are size zero. Young women of my daughter’s age aspire to be like them. It is very hard for them to choose what is and what is not the right thing to watch. That is why we need education. We need young people to feel able to make choices.

I think iRights is doing an amazing job because it has made me question things that I do, and I think that I am relatively savvy about the internet. Do I read all the terms and conditions of the forms I sign? No, I do not. Should I? Yes. Have I started? Yes, I have. I am very careful about the content that I share. I do not tweet pictures of my family. I turn off the location. I like it that when I open certain internet sites, they suggest books for me to read. That is fantastic, but I am also conscious that I am being directed down a certain path. Sometimes, I am very radical: I click to the second page of the search engine results. Because it is around me, I am aware of those things.

We must consider digital literacy and how we educate our young people. I would love digital literacy, physical literacy, literacy and numeracy to be joined together in our education system in balance.

My noble friend Lady Kidron cited Sonia Livingstone. I read a very interesting article in the Library briefing pack where she said that Governments promote ICT but we do not think about children’s needs. We must think of our children’s needs and all our needs. I think about how my husband uses the internet, how I use the internet and how my daughter uses it. They are all different, but we need to know and understand each other. We also need to do a lot of work about how disabled people can access information, especially as most benefit applications are now online. Without access, we will be leaving lots of people behind.

UNICEF issued a very interesting briefing document—I declare an interest as a sporting ambassador for UNICEF. It made seven recommendations. I shall just highlight the first two. The first is about ensuring equal access to digital media by providing technology and infrastructure. That is really important. In particular,

20 Nov 2014 : Column 579

we need to target different groups, such as girls, disabled children and vulnerable groups. The second is about actively engaging children in ongoing dialogue. We need to talk to young people about this so that they are able to make free choices.

I hope that there will be a favourable response from the Minister on this issue. It is something that we will have to come back to because it will affect us all. Finally, I thank my noble friend for her tireless work in this area.

1.59 pm

Baroness Shields (Con) (Maiden Speech): My Lords, it is a great honour to make my maiden speech as a Member of the House. It is an even greater honour to do so on a topic that is this important and so close to my heart.

Before I begin, I want to thank your Lordships for the remarkably warm welcome that I received here after my Introduction. What is particularly touching is the kindness and graciousness that noble Lords have extended to me. Your Lordships have made me feel very much at home here in this great House. Although I am still finding my way around, I want to thank the clerks, the doorkeepers and the staff, who remain most kind to and patient with me. I also want to acknowledge my mentors and noble friends Lady Hanham and Lady Eaton for their wisdom and guidance, and my dear supporters, the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, and my noble friend Lord Marland, who encouraged me to make my maiden speech today. They know that this topic means a great deal to me, because I have spent my life in the pursuit of developing technology and innovation for good.

Today, I applaud the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for creating the iRights initiative, and her passion and determination to protect the rights of young people in this digital world. We are on this quest together. I am grateful to her for making this her personal mission, and I am confident that the work that she is doing will make a great impact on empowering young people and encouraging them to make better and more informed choices.

Over the past 25 years I have had the privilege of building some of the world’s largest technology companies, including Google, Facebook, Bebo and AOL. I feel fortunate to be asked to participate in the iRights initiative in my capacity as a technology industry veteran and as the Prime Minister’s adviser on the digital economy. My desire is to contribute further to this most important work.

Children today live in an always-on social, digital and connected world. With the click of a button, they build relationships with people across the globe. Everything that they want to do and learn is simply available to them on demand wherever they are. The velocity of change in the world brought about by technology and inspired thinking is unprecedented. We should welcome it with open arms. But as guardians of the next generation, we should also keep our eyes wide open. We should ensure that the companies building digital products and services for our children use the premise of safety first in every aspect of their design and development, so that what they create is safe by design.

20 Nov 2014 : Column 580

The reason that this is so important is that a minority of people will use technology to exploit and harm our children, to bully and harass them, and in some cases, with far direr consequences, abuse them for sexual purposes. The same technology that is allowing our children to turn their dreams into reality can turn their lives into a nightmare. During my tenure in government I have been working closely with the Home Office and the National Crime Agency, and I have seen at first hand the terrible harm that can be caused to children by people who abuse technology for criminal means.

In 2012-13, the UK’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, CEOP, received a staggering 18,887 reports relating to child sexual exploitation. In 2011, the US National Center for Missing & Exploited Children reviewed an overwhelming 17.3 million images and videos of suspected child pornography, which is nearly 4,000% more than in 2007. It saddens me beyond belief that 19% of the offenders identified had images of children younger than three years old on their devices; 39% of them had images of children under six years old; and 83% of them had images of children aged under 12. As I looked at these data in the summer of 2013 and at the trajectory of things, it was clear to me that we urgently needed a strong, effective strategy to protect our children online, and our Government took bold action.

The Prime Minister called together internet service providers and internet platform companies, and he set a challenge: to enlist their brightest minds in a mission to protect children all over the world from online abuse and exploitation. Last November, the Prime Minister and the President of the United States agreed to set up a joint UK-US task force to counter these horrendous crimes. The task force was established to focus on developing a better model for defending children in an increasingly digital world—a new level of co-operation to stop these horrific crimes.

As a result, working alongside Governments and law enforcement agencies, many of the leading technology companies have made much progress. I am happy to report that they are working side by side with government and NGOs in this pursuit. However, eradicating the crimes that threaten our children online remains a significant challenge. For every measure taken, the perpetrators of these crimes use new tools to change course and evade detection. To win this battle, we have no choice but to be faster, nimbler and more innovative than they are.

Luckily, the internet offers us a window into this offending behaviour—the tiny visible part of an otherwise hidden crime—and presents opportunities to identify the victims and perpetrators. As long as this window remains open, which may not be for ever, it is incumbent on government, law enforcement and industry to work together to do all that can be done to identify these perpetrators and protect their victims, who in all too many cases are unable to speak for or defend themselves.

In April this year, the technology industry came together in a first-ever industry alliance called We Protect. In that forum, technical experts representing 48 of the world’s leading technology companies collaborated to develop breakthrough approaches for protecting children from online abuse and exploitation.

20 Nov 2014 : Column 581

The people who work in our digital industries represent some of the brightest minds in the world. They are the kind of people who, when they set their minds to a challenge, are able to step up and develop solutions to the world’s most difficult problems. The impact of cross-industry collaboration in developing these solutions cannot be overestimated. If we want to make a fundamental difference to the lives of vulnerable children all over the world, this modus operandi must continue.

I am happy to report that our work is paying off. I am proud and delighted to be able to tell noble Lords that next month, at the Prime Minister’s global summit to combat online child sexual exploitation, we will be presenting solutions created as a result of this new model. We will also be showcasing a number of breakthrough innovations that will be implemented by the world’s largest search engines, communication platforms and social networks. Real progress has been made, which means that our children are already safer online and incidents of actual harm to our children have been prevented.

The 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child requires that states act in the best interests of the child. Yet technology, without enlightened leadership, respects no rights or boundaries. The most popular internet platforms reach more people every day than there are in any sovereign country. By establishing a new paradigm of co-operation and collaboration with industry, NGOs and experts, we are creating an atmosphere of willingness and we can make real change in the way that we protect our children in the digital world.

Every child has the potential to dream, invent and amaze the world, but they must be able to do so creatively, knowledgeably and fearlessly. By working across national borders and using the skills of our brightest in business, I am happy to say that we are starting to give our children the future that they deserve. Thank you.

2.08 pm

Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho (CB): What a delight to follow the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Shields. To have more women in this Chamber is essential, but to have one with such digital smarts is a dream come true.