Safeguarding podcast – Don’t go into the dark woods; a discussion with Baroness Sal Brinton

In this safeguarding podcast Baroness Sal Brinton, President of the Liberal Democrats, discusses her work with the APPG Bullying, the Red Ballon Learner Trust, the Government’s Online Harms white paper and its lack of a definition of cyberbullying, how schools should be dealing with the mental health issues cyberbullying causes and the impact of Brexit on the safeguarding of children in the online digital context.

A lightly edited for clarity transcript of the podcast is below for those that prefer to read or that can’t use podcasts.

Neil Fairbrother

Welcome to the SafeToNet Foundation’s safeguarding podcast where we talk about all things to do with safeguarding children in the online digital context. Today we’re talking politics, and the reason we’re talking politics is because politics sets the framework and boundaries for safeguarding. Last year’s Statutory Guidance on safeguarding children, for example, and this year’s consultative Online Harms whitepaper, give a clear steer for safeguarding professionals and other interested parties as to what to do, how to act, how to react.

Today’s guest has an outstanding political pedigree and a strong social justice streak, and among other things is President of the Liberal Democrats and Chairs the APPG on Bullying, Baroness Sal Brinton.

Baroness Sal Brinton

Hello, I’m just to be clear, I’m the Co-Chair. There’s two of us because you always have to have an MP chairing one of the All Party Parliamentary Groups, but as I helped found it, I’m one of the Co-Chairs.

Neil Fairbrother

Okay, thank you. So what is an APPG?

Baroness Sal Brinton

All Parliamentary Party Groups are exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a combination of MPs and Members of the House of Lords or Peers. And you must have people from both the Government and Opposition parties to qualify. This can’t be done by one party on its own, you’ve got to have cross-party support and I think most of us in parliament, whether in the Commons or the Lords recognize that when you really want to change something you’ve got to get support from across all the parties in the house.

These all party groups are really helpful to do that.

Neil Fairbrother

The APPG on bullying, what is the purpose of that?

Baroness Sal Brinton

It was founded about eight years ago. Myself and an MP got together and recognized there was a gap amongst the other groups for somewhere where we could bring together all the charities and groups working in the bullying arena to hear their evidence, to hear from the Anti-Bullying Alliance and to work with them to make sure as legislation came up that related to children, to bullying and safeguarding, that we were well informed and we could inform other MPs and Peers as legislation came through.

Neil Fairbrother

So it’s an ongoing thing. It doesn’t really have a remit and at the end of that it finishes?

Baroness Sal Brinton

No, it is ongoing because the issue of children and safeguarding and children and bullying will be with us. The issue is how we handle it, whether it’s schools or whether it’s in wider society.

Neil Fairbrother

Okay. Now last year the Government published its Statutory Guidance on safeguarding children and it had nine references in the entire document to the online digital context. Does the APPG on Bullying considered cyberbullying as well as the regular bullying in the school playground?

Baroness Sal Brinton

It absolutely does and one of the things that we’ve done is to receive reports from academics who’ve looked at physical and cyberbullying and to see what differences there are, and the answer is [there are] very few. Often cyberbullying starts when it’s peer-to-peer, it starts physically and then may move online. Sometimes it starts the other way around but the nature of it, where it’s a power play of one young person over another young person is exactly the same in principle.

The difficulty is it’s much harder to spot because often it’s done by children in private and where adults can’t see.

Neil Fairbrother

Indeed. Bullying or cyberbullying is often described as a “legal harm” and as such, there is no way to stop it from happening despite sometimes extreme and tragic events it can have.

Baroness Sal Brinton

I think that the key message that we would, I think probably all of us say on the All Party Group is, I mean it will be wonderful if we could stop bullying forever, but the reality is that bullying happens between adults. It happens between children. The issue is how those with responsibility for children see it, pick it up, deal with it, handle it, and also the culture amongst the young people themselves because some of the really brilliant work of anti-bullying ambassadors, children talking to children, children working with other children, has been really, really outstanding.

And that’s what makes the difference in a culture.

Neil Fairbrother

When it comes to bullying, we often talk about a perpetrator and the victim, but there is a view that we really shouldn’t call people victims. We should call them targets. Do you think that would be helpful? Is that a good idea?

Baroness Sal Brinton

I think probably for some bullying that would be fine, but I am the Patron of the Red Balloon Learner Trust, which is a series of learning environments for school children who’ve been so badly bullied, they can’t go to school. It’s a sort of special out of school place where they can go and learn safely.

Those young people are victims. It’s affected their mental health. Often it’s affected their physical health as well when it’s been physical bullying and I think the word victim has been accepted by the academics. I think when you’re talking as a teacher or a concerned adult, you can talk about targets, but let’s not underestimate how serious this can become for a young person who’s on the receiving end.

Neil Fairbrother

So you become a victim of the targeted bullying?

Baroness Sal Brinton

Yes.

Neil Fairbrother

Okay. In the bigger picture of online harms of which cyberbullying is a part, the Government earlier this year issued a consultative “Whitepaper” on Online Harms, and they do identify cyberbullying and indeed trolling, but it classifies them as “Harms with a less clear definition”. In other words, it may not be illegal, but if it’s not defined, how can it be mitigated against?

Baroness Sal Brinton

So I’m going to get back a step and say one of the helpful things that happened during the passage of the Children and Families Act in about 2012 was that there was a definition of bullying, and I don’t see any reason why that definition doesn’t also apply to cyberbullying as well. The method by which the target, if we’re going to call it a target, is bullied may be different, but the effect about the power play between those two individuals remains exactly the same. It’s designed to undermine the recipient, the person who’s receiving the unwarranted attention.

And it’s frankly, I mean, I’m concerned that they think it’s unnecessary. We know that young people have killed themselves because of cyberbullying, which has to be the worst outcome that anybody could face. That they just think that their lives are no longer worth living and it’s very serious, and there are definitions.

The other thing we achieved during the passage of that Bill, this was the APPG’s work which was fed into amendments, was to actually recognize that severely bullied children do, most of them, very large percentage, have depression and other mental health problems as a result of the bullying. Which means that they come under the guidance for schools about helping children with medical conditions because it that doesn’t distinguish between mental and physical health.

And that’s important for us, because until now it’s been very hard often to get schools to recognize the consequences of bullying on those young people. And if they are seeking help from a GP, or from their local children’s mental health services, and actually that is a serious medical condition and that pupil student will require extra support in school during that period.

Neil Fairbrother

And do schools have the necessary skills and resources to deal with that?

Baroness Sal Brinton

They should be working with their local GPs. They should be working with families as well, who often are the first people to come in and say, look there’s a particular problem going on, our child is not wanting to come to school, there is something really seriously amiss. Obviously as a child starts to miss out on days, then often what’s happening in parallel is that the family and the parents are taking the child to the GP to try and get support, because it’s obvious to everyone that the child has become clinically depressed and it’s making sure that schools pick up on that and don’t just disregard it when a parent says, look, my child’s now seeing the GP. If the GP, or even if specialist CAM services are involved, then the school needs to be involved as well. This is absolutely multi-disciplinary.

Neil Fairbrother

And CAM services are?

Baroness Sal Brinton

That’s the Children and Mental Health services, sorry, ghastly acronyms everywhere.

Neil Fairbrother

Hate speech is a close cousin of cyberbullying I think. And hate speech is illegal at least in the UK, and in Europe, although not I understand in America, and one of the definitions of hate speech is that it is “any communication which is threatening or abusive and is intended to harass, alarm or distress someone” which sounds very close to a definition of bullying. So is there much of a difference between cyberbullying and hate speech?

Baroness Sal Brinton

I think if you ask the professionals, they’d say it’s probably quite difficult to identify that at first glance. But hate speech is often associated with a particular protected characteristic, not always, but with a particular protected characteristic, which gives it more force in the law because that’s very clear in the Equalities Act around hate speech which moves us into discrimination as well.

Neil Fairbrother

And a protected characteristic is?

Baroness Sal Brinton

It could be if a child is LGBT, it could be targeting because they are female, it could be pick that they are targeting them because they’re of another race or another faith.

Neil Fairbrother

Okay. Now the Online Harms whitepaper is talking about a number of things, it’s quite a document. One is, it’s introducing the concept of regulation, a regulator, and it’s also introducing the concept of a Duty of Care. For example, a social media company might have a Duty of Care, or be expected to demonstrate it has sufficient processes in place to support a Duty of Care for its users, particularly the younger users. How might this work?

Baroness Sal Brinton

In theory, this sounds straightforward. I mean the reality is that most young people are very clever at finding way round the age barrier to get onto that preferred social media platform. And again, the family often don’t know about it. And whilst it’s important that we hold social media companies’ feet to the fire to make them put in as much as they can to make sure that they check when people sign up, the reality is that that isn’t always going to work.

And then you’ve got to look at the response time when something goes up or they’re following, they may have had a complaint about a dialogue that’s going on in a private bulletin board between someone who might not be a child, putting other children under some sort of threat. The speed of their response and investigation is what’s really, really important and we need whatever protections we can get.

The reality is, it is all about the culture. And so often it’s back to whether your children will talk to you about what they’re doing on social media.

In fact, I was having a conversation with somebody about this just two days ago who was saying that their son had reported, this was a lad of about 15, had reported some online inappropriate photographs being circulated amongst his year group that involved one of the other students. And the Dad said, he was really, really shocked about this and had immediately said to his son that we need to go into to talk to the school about this. I said to him, you are at an advantage because not many 15 year olds will tell Dad about this.

And that’s the position we need to get to, where young people feel free to talk to their parents. But often it’s a very, very difficult subject and social media companies can only respond. So much is going on. They cannot monitor everything. We are deluding ourselves if we think they can. They can’t. But we still need firm barriers. So things like registration, age proof, yes, they’re important.

Neil Fairbrother

Yes. The age verification process on Facebook is pretty feeble really. It basically says, are you over 13? Yes or no? Click yes, and you’re in.

Baroness Sal Brinton

That needs to be strengthened. That’s the sort of point where it absolutely needs to be strengthened.

Neil Fairbrother

But how could that be done? Because it’s quite difficult to prove you’re 13 because 13 year-olds don’t have much in the way of ID.

Baroness Sal Brinton

No. You have to go and talk to your parents about ID that will prove that you’re that age and therein lies the problem. But there is a reason that Facebook has 13 as its age limit, which is inappropriate for younger children often to be on there because of access to unsupervised contact with people who they may not know. So this is where I would come back to schools and how Primary schools tackle the issue about social media and online friends right from the earliest days.

I was extremely impressed, I went to, as I sometimes do, talk to year five children in a Primary school about the House of Lords. And for some reason at some point a child asked me a question about social media and I made a remark about how important it was to know who you were talking to and the teacher stopped and then did a five minute little insert into the class about online safety and who do you know? How do you know who you’re talking to? And asked the children to talk to each other about how they knew that. It was absolutely brilliant.

It wasn’t heavy duty and that school has absolutely understood that it’s got to be part of the everyday environment, because children talk about it amongst themselves. So if the teachers are also doing it and reminding them about how they need to be kept safe and then say don’t go into the dark woods, don’t sign on to places like Facebook if you are under 13, there’s a reason there’s an age limit.

Neil Fairbrother

We can’t talk politics these days without our favorite “B” word. You may well have been involved in some of this, I’m sure you have. I remember in fact, in one of the APPG meetings you were saying your diary was out of control because of Brexit. It’s been all-consuming for the last couple of years.

I think that Brexit is relevant is for three reasons. There are three [safeguarding] areas as far as I can see that might be impacted by Brexit. One is legislation, the other is finance, and the other is information.

So outside of the EU we will be treated by the remaining EU members as a Third Country.

Baroness Sal Brinton

In the event of the no deal Brexit.

Neil Fairbrother

Yes, in the event of a no-deal Brexit. So worst case scenario, I think most people I know think a no deal Brexit is a worst case scenario although that’s up for debate I’m sure. But outside of the EU, what will our influence be on legislation, for example, that affects safeguarding?

How will financing of safeguarding organizations such as the IWF be affected and what impact will it have on information flows, for example, with the Radicalization Awareness Network?

Baroness Sal Brinton

So I think the first thing to say is that at first look, you would think there wasn’t any impact at all of Brexit. I think my perspective is the chaos that we have in Parliament in trying to translate everything that’s currently in EU legislation, into laws in this country to make sure that we don’t inadvertently end up with a hole somewhere in the system.

So the current bullying legislation is UK legislation, but most of the social media legislation and the way social media companies have bases in the EU means they have to follow EU law. We need to make sure that regulations that relate to those are translated back into UK law as well.

In terms of our relationships elsewhere, I think the big thing that my colleagues talk about is the European Arrest Warrant, where at the moment being part of the EU, it becomes very easy if you have somebody who, whether they’ve committed a crime in the UK or if they’ve done some cyberbullying or cyber-crime on young people in this country, but they live abroad, we have the power to be able to get them straight back through the European Arrest Warrant without having to go through very slow and long extradition processes that we have to use with other countries.

And I think we’re very concerned that whatever the relationship is, if Brexit happens, we need to replicate that somewhere. The problem is that once you’re out of the club of the EU, we’re knocking at the door asking for some special treatment. So we need to make sure that that remains a priority.

Organizations like the Internet Watch Foundation, and I actually went to see it about six months after it was first founded just outside Cambridge. And it has just grown from the original idea by the founder Peter Daw into a fantastic international-focused organization that has influence everywhere. I don’t think Brexit in itself would change the role of organizations like the IWF, but if we are tying ourselves up in knots in Parliament with regulations and legislation, it becomes quite difficult to pick up if there is a problem because of a trade treaty with another country, that might mean that we couldn’t access social media companies.

Now I’ve picked that up completely out of the air. I’m not saying it’s likely to happen at all, but those are the sort of practical things that we politicians are trying to think about in every area of our lives.

Neil Fairbrother

Yes. When I spoke with Susie Hargraves the CEO of the IWF, she expressed some concern about funding in particular because the IWF is a fantastic organization and it has grown, and it does have the influence you say on an international scale, its revenue is still only around 2 million quid.

Baroness Sal Brinton

It’s tiny, for what it does it’s tiny. It’s extraordinary.

Neil Fairbrother

Yes, it is very cost effective. However, they get £400,000 or £500,000 from the EU. Now I’m sure if you were Nigel Farage he would say, well, it our money anyway. All it’s doing is going over to the EU and coming back again, and what I’m saying is we will cut that out. We can give that money directly to the IWF. Is that likely to happen? Is that true?

Baroness Sal Brinton

I think that’s a very simplistic approach and I’m going to get very “Brexity”, so I apologize. The problem with the idea that all the money we currently pay into the EU suddenly being free for us to spend in another way, doesn’t recognize that most of it comes back. So for example that famous red bus with a £350 million a week for the NHS, actually that money is currently coming back to support farmers, it supports fisherman, it supports social projects, it supports organizations like the IWF and we can only spend that money once.

So there is an issue about whether that funding would be there. And I’ll be honest with you, in the current fiscal climate, I would be extremely concerned about whether it could be replicated.

So I think the only argument I would make in an attempt to be helpful to the IWF is if we felt that was happening and they were doing work for the EU, I would hope that the EU would then make them a separate grant that was outside the UK, not to do with delivery of the IWF in the UK, but if the EU really thought that was important, they might want to come back to these experts. The difficulty, as we know with many other European organizations is that as we’re stepping back, other countries in the EU are picking up those grants, setting up those organizations themselves. So we might end up having a problem. I hope not. I really hope not.

Neil Fairbrother

The issue of scale is also important here because as a member of the EU, we are in a zone of half a billion people. And when it comes to some protections for children online, scale is important because if you take some technology, for example, artificial intelligence which could be used in some cases to help safeguard children, that needs scale to be effective. If we are withdrawing from this pool of half a billion people and we become an island of 70 million, then those kinds of things won’t be as effective.

Baroness Sal Brinton

You’re absolutely spot on. And I always say one of my first answers when someone says why should we be in the EU is that there are certain things that don’t stop at our shores and climate change is one of them and the environment. But of course the other is our online life. So this is absolutely smack in that area and we do know that people from abroad are as likely to try and groom our children online. All of those things. So thinking that we are going to handle this just as the UK on our own means that we are ignoring the risks and threats elsewhere.

Neil Fairbrother

When it comes to legislation, GDPR for example, is a European-wide piece of legislation that is all about protecting our privacy, but it’s having an international effect. We can see that even West coast American social media companies are having to react. In fact, I was doing some research this morning and tried to follow a news item to an American site which was about cyberbullying. There was an article about cyberbullying because some legislation or proposed legislation to make cyberbullying illegal in one of the States was shut down. The legislation didn’t make it through and I couldn’t read the article. I got a message on the site saying “Our content isn’t available for people in the EU whilst we trying to figure out privacy issues”. If we extract ourselves from the EU, we are nonetheless going to have to follow any similar EU legislation. But we won’t be at the table to negotiate

Baroness Sal Brinton

Absolutely right. Absolutely right.

Neil Fairbrother

So how does this help improve safeguarding our children?

Baroness Sal Brinton

Well, I am a Remainer, an unashamed Remainer. And my argument is it doesn’t, and it might leave us at risk. But I’m also a realist. And if we do leave, I hope we don’t, but if we do leave the EU, I will be fighting to make sure that those regulations are replicated in UK legislation. And GDPR is an absolute case in point.

But one of the other things, I mean I again comment on this quite often, is we talk about things like GDPR. We also complain about the fact that Facebook and Google don’t taxes in the UK or Amazon, I’ll tell you what. The EU has made them pay taxes. They’re the ones who’ve held them to account because its 28 member States come together to say there shall be some tax at that level. And that’s been extremely powerful running alongside GDPR and I would regret us not being directly part of that family to be able to negotiate.

Now there’s a whole range of Brexit, from staying in, to being a preferred third country where we have a customs union and a single market, right the way through to a no deal Brexit and our relationship with the EU will change on that sliding scale completely within that. After the referendum, the Government said we will replicate all regulations from the EU into UK law and then at our leisure we can change them if we want. Some of that is happening. I think we said there were about 8,000 pieces of legislation that we need to do, and I think we might’ve got to a thousand so far, three years on. We are way, way, way behind, which is why very many of us are very concerned wherever you stand on the Brexit-EU scale about crashing out.

Neil Fairbrother

Well that’s an interesting point. We’re drifting slightly away from safeguarding children online. But it is an interesting point. We’ve got this supposedly hard-stop in October, the end of October, and we are one eighth of the way through all of this legislation, then… what happens?

Baroness Sal Brinton

Everybody thinks we’re just going leave at the end of October and that’s it. Everybody in Parliament knows there is at least a two year, probably three year, probably five year realistic transition to make all this work. And that’s the debate that hasn’t yet started.

So at the moment they are only debating and talking about the withdrawal agreement, but it’s the arrangements afterwards that still have to go through. So I’m very sorry to say if you thought Brexit was going to stop in whatever direction you want it to go, think it won’t.

Neil Fairbrother

And somewhere in all of this, children are being lost.

Baroness Sal Brinton

Yes. And that’s the real worry because cyberbullying in particular has no country boundaries, and therefore we have to make sure that whatever happens after the 31st of October, our children are properly protected.

Neil Fairbrother

Baroness Sal Brinton, thank you so much for your time. It’s been absolutely fascinating.

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