Simon Fell: Urgent lessons from the pandemic about keeping children safe online

20 Apr

Simon Fell is MP for Barrow & Furness.

Over the last year we have seen the best of the internet and the very worst. It has been a lifeline to many of us, allowing us to remain connected to other people and to continue working from home. This is as true for children in this country as for adults.

Yet as the months of the pandemic have ticked by, we’ve all become very aware of the challenges which the internet presents.

I have some experience in those challenges: for three years I served on the funding council of the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), and latterly spent a decade in fraud and financial crime, well aware that it was the same ease and openness that makes the web so attractive which enables a frightening volume of fraud and scams.

Having spent more years than I would care to remember advising people to not share information about themselves online and aware of the risks to young people, I now find myself in a job where sharing online is a key part of the role, and with young children starting to make their own tentative steps online. To say that this makes me queasy is an understatement.

The IWF’s mission is the elimination of child sexual abuse online. They achieve this by partnering with the same technology sector I was proud to work in. When I met them recently, they told me that in just one month in the first lockdown, they and their industry partners blocked 8.8 million attempts to access child sexual abuse content in the UK.

Blocking access to child sexual abuse content is essential work but it’s only one part of the puzzle – we also need to bear down on the generation of new content. As the IWF’s CEO warned recently, “there is a fire burning in the bedrooms of our nation’s children.”

She was referring to the deeply concerning trend of “self-generated” abuse, where children are groomed into producing indecent images or videos which are then captured and re-shared. Tragically, this mostly affects very young girls (97 per cent of the images or videos include a girl), and in most cases (81 per cent) a child aged 11-13 years old. In a further 15 per cent of cases, the image or video showed a child aged just ten or under.

For any parent those statistics will give you pause. They represent a hidden ring of exploitation, where young people are groomed and abused online and at scale. And in response, IWF staff quite literally watch children grow up online at the hands of their abusers, removing content as soon they find it.

But we can’t keep playing whack-a-mole with this material – we need a system which is geared towards prevention from the outset. The upcoming Online Safety Bill should enable just that, but there are challenges that it must meet to be truly effective.

First, the legislation must be flexible enough to deal with the changing landscape in which it operates. Whatever new regulatory regime is formed must be able to adapt to new technologies and allow industry the space to innovate to meet new threats. Working with those already dealing with these issues is going to be key to ensuring an effective regime.

Second, there must be equivalency for encrypted platforms. Understandably, many social media companies are moving towards encrypted platforms or private messaging services. There are clear benefits in this for privacy and cyber security reasons, but we must ensure that these systems are not being exploited to view or share images and videos of abuse.

I was concerned by recent comments from the industry at the Home Affairs Select Committee on the potential damage to child safety. We must ensure that companies are continuing to scan their platforms for child sexual abuse material so that it can be removed. We have already seen the disastrous consequences when legislators get this wrong, as is currently playing out in the EU with the temporary derogation from the e-privacy directive.

It may seem counterintuitive to believe that you can both have privacy and protect against content being shared on the platforms which enable that same privacy, but it is entirely possible. Existing mechanisms allow tech companies to remove vast amounts of child sexual abuse imagery before it makes its way onto their platforms. This technology enables companies to “match” a photo at upload with an illegal image using a unique digital fingerprint of letters and numbers. These same mechanisms must be able to function on encrypted platforms or alternative solutions that are equally, or ideally more, effective need to be in place before a platform attempts to encrypt.

The bar should also certainly be higher with services specifically aimed at children. We should incentivise and legislate so tech companies are driven to innovate effective ways of doing this.

Finally, we must invest in education and in equipping children with the necessary skills to navigate life online. From a very young age there must be open conversations about the internet, in school and at home. We must ensure young people have confidence in reporting mechanisms, that they will be believed, and action will be taken. School staff need to be trained effectively and parents must have the digital knowledge to facilitate these conversations.

We cannot afford to waste time tweaking the online regulatory regime over the next few years. We must prioritise getting this right from day one.

As the Covid-19 restrictions begin to lift, many of us are feeling that we are approaching a new chapter and an opportunity to shape the future. I urge everyone who reads this to consider the shocking figures which I quoted earlier and consider how best to prioritise children’s safety online as the upcoming Online Safety Bill is developed.

Simon Fell: Why there should be a permanent cut to business rates for retail

19 Oct

Simon Fell is MP for Barrow & Furness.

As Benjamin Franklin famously said, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Our business rates regime assures both: as a tax it is one of the biggest contributors to the death of high streets up and down the UK.

I see the consequences of this first hand in my own constituency of Barrow & Furness. Where once the high street was the beating heart of Barrow, the life is seeping away. Dalton Road, the high street in Barrow, was where local residents met up to shop, gossip and laugh. My constituency surgeries are full of residents and business owners telling me that something must be done.

And we must do everything possible to turn the tide. Covid-19 has hit the high street hard. But even before the onset of the pandemic, retailers – large and small – were struggling to cope with the ever increasing rise in business rates.

It is a regressive tax which is not fit for purpose. Since 1990, business rates receipts have increased from £8.8 billion to £27.3 billion in 2017/18, an increase of 210 per cent compared with a 75 per cent increase in inflation. The UK now has the highest property taxes in Europe, nearly double the rate of the next nearest country, and business rates is a large reason why.

It is a tax which hits hard-working business owners, it is a tax which is a barrier to investment, and it is a tax which costs jobs.

It imposes a double whammy on the high street too: we haemorrhage ‘anchor’ stores like M&S and Topshop which makes it harder to attract shoppers to our independent stores. Those independents are the plucky heroes of Barrow’s street scene and they thrive against all odds. We can’t allow them to pulled into the same downwards spiral.

This tax also hits the north hardest. New research today by WPI Strategy categorically proves that the business rates burden is highest in northern towns such as Barrow and Leigh. Using store data from the thousands of Tesco stores across England and Wales, the paper shows 75 per cent of constituencies in the top 10 per cent of rates burden are in the North and Midlands, compared to just 26 per cent in London and the South. This is because the tax rate does not mirror economic performance, so for areas facing economic challenges the burden is much higher.

The research shows that shops in the top 50 constituencies most burdened by rates have four times the business rates burden of those in the bottom 50. If the top 50 constituencies faced the same burden as those in the bottom 50, they would save £50 million a year.

It is even more important for constituencies such as mine that the Government does all it can to ensure retailers can survive and thrive. Retail makes up 25 per cent more of the job market in the North, Midlands and Wales than it does in London

During Coronavirus, retailers such as the big grocers, took on tens of thousands more staff to help feed the nation. The sector is also a stepping stone into the world of work for many people, offering apprenticeships for youngsters up and down the UK.

But retail provides more than simply an economic boon to northern towns. Shops play an important psychological and social role within neighbourhoods. They are often the only touch points for some of the more vulnerable members of our community.

Encouragingly, the Chancellor recognises the value of retail to our social fabric and economic prospects. At the start of the pandemic he announced that retailers as well as businesses in the hospitality and leisure sectors in England will not have to pay business rates for a year.

This was an extremely welcome move. There is further work going on here too: Town Deals and Future High Street Funds offer the chance to renew the high street and town centres like mine. But that renewal must be backed.

When the rates holiday comes to an end next year, we must continue to relieve the pressure on retailers. That is why I’m calling on the Government to introduce a permanent cut to business rates for retail. A 20 per cent reduction in the overall level of rates would make a huge difference to shop owners in towns like Barrow, Bury or Bolton. It would enable them to retain jobs, keep the doors open, and reduce the number of boarded up stores on our high streets.

Of all the low-hanging fruit available to the Government’s levelling up agenda, reducing business rates would be an easy win with an immediate positive impact.