A debate on 11 May 2022 on the Queen’s Speech following the State Opening of Parliament considering the upcoming Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill.

Words can be an immense blessing but, when amplified through social media, also weapons of mass destruction to people and societies.

The Age Assurance (Minimum Standards) Bill

The Age Assurance (Minimum Standards) Bill had its second reading in the House of Lords on Friday 19 November. The Bishop of Oxford spoke in support of the bill. Read the text of his speech, or watch on Bishop Steven’s Facebook page.

My Lords, it is a real pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Russell, and indeed every other noble Lord who has spoken in this debate. It has been extraordinary and very moving. I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, on securing this Second Reading and on her passionate and brilliant opening speech. With others, I thank and commend her for her tireless commitment to protecting children online. That she does so with such consistent grace and good humour, against the backdrop of glacially slow progress and revelations about both the variety and scale of harms to children, is no small achievement in itself.

One of my interests in this debate is the more than 280 church schools and the more than 50,000 children who are a precious part of my diocese of Oxford. A substantial proportion are at significant risk for want of this Bill. The primary responsibility of the Government is the protection of all their citizens and especially and particularly those unable to protect themselves. Future generations will, I think, look back on the first two decades of this century and our unregulated use of technology with deep pain and regret, as they reflect on the ways in which children are exposed to harmful material online, the damage which has followed, and will follow, and our tardiness in setting effective regulation in place. We will be judged in a similar way to those who exploited child labour in past generations.

Children are precious to God and to society, not as potential adults nor in the future tense but simply and completely in themselves. Each is of immense value. The evidence is clear that many are emerging from a digital childhood wounded and scarred in ways which are tragic but entirely preventable.

The Government make much of being pro-business in support of the emerging technologies of this fourth industrial revolution but, if they are equally serious about making the UK a safe country to be online, they really must do more to be pro-business in ways that protect children. Other noble Lords have movingly pointed out the many risks our children face whenever they venture online.

We now know with increasing certainty how it is not only other users, so-called bad actors, but many online service providers themselves—not least Facebook, or now Meta—that target children, their data extracted, their identities manipulated, their impulses exploited. It should be noted that many of these same service providers say they would welcome clear guidance and regulation from the Government, even while other businesses say they already possess the tools and opportunities to do this both safely and profitably.

The age-appropriate design code is a welcome and genuinely world-leading innovation, and the Government would do well to note—against the siren voices denying technical feasibility or fearing the balkanisation of the internet—that businesses, the service providers, have now found it easier to standardise their processes to the highest regulatory watermark globally in the interests of reducing costs and complexity. This bodes well for the principle-based and proportional approach to age verification that the Bill artfully encapsulates.

As others have asked, what possible reason can there be for further delay? If protecting children is good in and of itself; if business publicly expresses the need for clearer guidance on how to frame that protection; when business itself sees commercial opportunity in the tools for protection; when a regulator is now waiting in the wings; after government delay already threatens a lost generation—why is the Bill from the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, not being eagerly and urgently adopted by the Government themselves, if that is indeed the case? I hope we will hear good news today. I eagerly await the Minister’s answer.

Further reading

Watch Bishop Steven’s speech on his Facebook page

https://www.facebook.com/bishopofoxford/videos/337817904816379/

With 63% of payroll jobs lost during the pandemic being held by under-25s, young people must have access to adequate training going forward.

As the Environment Bill is read in the House of Lords, Bishop Steven urges the government to set an example on climate change policy.

The Online Safety bill is a major step forward in preventing harm to children and vulnerable adults. But legislation is needed urgently.

The ethical complexity of new technologies can seem overwhelming. The Bishop of Oxford offers five key questions for keeping ethics at the centre of AI strategy.

Bishop Steven urges the government to consider implementing a Code of Practice for both Hate Crime and wider legal harms.

The Rt Revd Steven Croft’s speech in the House of Lords on Tackling Intergenerational Unfairness, from 25 January.

The Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd Steven Croft, spoke in the House of Lords during today’s Lords debate on the technological and lifestyle efforts to address climate change, and to meet the 2050 net-zero carbon emissions target

My Lords, I welcome this report and this vital debate. Never before in the scale of human history has there been such a wide and deep threat to our ecosystem or to human flourishing. Technology alone is not enough.

In his letter to the whole world in 2016, Pope Francis notes how “the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor”.

Our response must be nothing less than an ecological conversion of every person and every part of society. Responding to the current emergency is the responsibility of every family, every workplace, every village, town and city, every company, and every public institution.

The earth is God’s gift as well as God’s creation. Human beings are far more than consumers: we are called to be just stewards of creation, to care for the poorest and the weakest. Human fulfilment lies not in escalating consumption but in meaningful rest and labour and learning to be content.

The Churches and faith communities must play our part and are beginning to do so. The Church of England’s General Synod is to debate the climate emergency next week. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book this year, Saying Yes to Life, focusses on the environmental crisis. It is supported by an extensive digital campaign – Live Lent – asking every Christian to review their lifestyle choices.

Many dioceses, including Oxford, are placing care for the earth at the top of our agenda for the coming years, recognising the distance we still have to travel. This means measuring and restricting our own carbon emissions, commending lifestyle changes, undertaking energy audits and campaigning for wider change. It means identifying challenging but achievable targets and the practical path to reach them. We need to hear the voice of government in policy detail and not just principle.

The Church Commissioners have led the Transition Pathway Initiative backed by investors representing over $16 trillion in assets under management and advice, increasingly drawing companies into line with net-zero targets. Our sister churches and faith communities are each taking similar initiatives. This summer, hundreds of bishops from across the world will gather for the Lambeth Conference, many from regions already deeply affected by ecological disasters: low rainfall, rising sea levels, fire, flood and hunger. A major theme of our gathering will be the global climate emergency and the response needed by every section of society.

I invite the government to provide clear and ambitious policy signals, as it has just done with petrol and diesel vehicles, and to invite every institution and organisation to engage in this great question of our day so that the leadership we offer to the COP summit is demonstrably grounded in the trinity of policy intervention, technology solutions and the changing lives of our entire population.

 

Steven Croft

Bishop Steven references the UK FIRES report ‘Absolute Zero’. UK Fires is a collaboration between the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Nottingham, Bath and Imperial College London that is funded by EPSRC: The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council is the main funding body for engineering and physical sciences research in the UK. By investing and postgraduate training, we are building the knowledge and skills needed to address the scientific and technological challenges facing the nation.

Watch Bishop Steven speaking in the debate and follow Bishop Steven on Facebook