At the beginning of this year, I met with a group of sixth form students from one of Chelmsford’s schools. Before answering the questions they had prepared for me, I asked them for their advice. Taking over the classroom white board, I wrote a list of issues that I had been asked to help resolve since re-joining the back benches. It was a long list and I explained that I could not do everything. I asked the students what they thought I should prioritise. High up the list of their priorities was tackling the issue of online pornography.
Research shows that half of all young people have first seen online pornography by the time they turn 14, one in ten children have been exposed to online porn before they are 11 years old and the content is increasingly more violent. It is distorting relationships and leading to more violence against young women as well as increased sexual abuse.
I have been working with the Children’s Commissioner, online experts, other former children’s ministers, Government Ministers and a small group of MPs and peers on how to tighten up our laws.
This week, the Online Safety Bill came back to the House of Commons for a final vote. The Bill now includes new measures to ensure that social media and other platforms will have to put in robust age assurance to prevent online pornography being shared with those under the age of 18.
Another frightening issue is the increase in online content that encourages people to self-harm, such as content which glorifies eating disorders and even suicide. As a former teenage anorexic, I have been very concerned by the rise in eating disorders in recent years, anorexia is the biggest killer of all mental health conditions. Following much campaigning, a new criminal offence will cover those intentionally promoting serious self-harm online. I am deeply grateful to the Mental Health Foundation and the charity BEAT for their support during this campaign.
The UK’s new Online Safety Bill is world leading. I am proud to have worked to tighten up our laws, and to make the online world a safer place for children and vulnerable people.
In Chelmsford, I joined a meeting organised by representatives of city centre businesses to discuss recent cases of crime and anti-social behaviour around Tindal Square, the Cathedral and nearby areas. The meeting was well attended, with very senior representatives of Essex Police present.
Essex Police will increase highly visible patrols in this area. There is an issue with a small number of persistent individuals and the police have already made a number of arrests and charges. The meeting agreed over 15 further action points by many different organisations.
There are hundreds more police in Essex compared to recent years. I know the Chief Constable takes crime and anti-social behaviour in Chelmsford very seriously. I have written to him to ensure that Chelmsford has the policing resources to tackle this. Please do make sure that all incidents are reported to the police via 999, 101 or online and follow the Chelmsford district police social media for updates.
Residents have asked me what investment has been going into Chelmsford schools. I visited Great Baddow High School where I was shown the work on a £650,000 Government funded project to replace roofs, this is on top of a £1.2 million project to upgrade the electrics.
I ended the week with an impromptu visit to Galleywood vineyard and was given a tour of the unique gravity feed wine making process. The grapes are ripening, and they are looking forward to harvest time, when hundreds of local volunteers come together to pick grapes, enjoy good food and friendship.