Today is the last day of National Anti-Bullying Week, and UK charity BeatBullying has been talking up the need for new laws. But the organisation can't seem to pinpoint what precisely is needed, given that existing laws cover pretty much every aspect of the issue.
The not-uncontroversial BeatBullying mounted an online petition and "march", which took place on Monday, to press the government to make cyber bullying a specific criminal offence. The petition gathered close to a million names, a spokesman told us.
Supporters included Archbishop Desmond Tutu, key figures from the private, charity and public sectors, celebrities and teachers as well as more than 100 parliamentarians. Children and families of bullying victims presented their petition to Deputy Prime Minster Nick Clegg.
Just how desperate the need is for a new law is a subject of some debate. Surveys by government and by BeatBullying itself suggest nearly half of 14-year-olds in England have experienced some sort of bullying – 47 per cent according to one survey reported by the BBC. Problems in primary schools have also been reported - although with 10 being the age of criminal responsibility in the UK, a specific offence might not prove very relevant.
For those most affected, there is no doubt that the issue can be seriously debilitating, with serious consequences for mental health and personal stability. However, BeatBullying has a history of controversial statistics: the headline figures tend to reflect the answer to questions as to whether individuals have "ever" experienced bullying – which is very different from the numbers who experience it on a chronic or life-threatening basis.
In addition, as recent cases suggest, the UK already has a wealth of laws around the issues of bullying and harassment. Apart from the Harassment Act 1997, there is the Computer Misuse Act 1990, the Malicious Communications Act 1988 and the Electronic Communications Act 2003, which most recently was used to put a particularly vicious online troll behind bars. So it seems to be a matter of enforcement of existing laws rather than the addition of new legislation.
We asked BeatBullying if it seriously thought that the UK needed another law in this area – and if so, what such a law would achieve that was not achieved by present laws. A spokesman told us that "while there are existing laws in place that outlaw sending comments electronically that would cause stress or alarm, cyber bullying is still extremely prevalent".
It therefore wants a review of measures already in place. "We believe that there could be more legislation introduced to support the current system in government, and if a Cyber Bullying Act is essential legislation then the inter-departmental Anti-Bullying Review will flag this up and put the Government in a unique position to influence change."
The Reg failed, despite lengthy questioning, to ascertain any detail of existing legislation that BeatBullying felt needed changing.
A spokesman for the Department of Education told us that the Government was committed to tackling the issue, but wished to work within the existing legal framework. Schools Minister Nick Gibb said: "This week we want to send a clear message to every child and young person that if they are bullied in or out of school in any way, to report it to a teacher or adult they trust, and we expect schools to act swiftly.
"Working with the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS), a coalition of government, the internet industry, and charities, we will look to improve internet safety education in schools, including what children and young people should do if they experience cyber bullying.
"We also want social networking and other sites to make sure they take down offensive material quickly. While we don’t want to criminalise children and young people unnecessarily, when technology is abused, or used to harass or threaten others, there are already legal consequences in the most serious cases.
"We will continue to monitor how this legislation is used in relation to cyber bullying and see what else we can do." ®
Young visitors wishing to join the online march may have been slightly bemused by the registration form. Click on the conditions and the wholly sensible advice is given never to hand out any personal information online. The site explains: "That means things like your mobile number, where you live, passwords, your MSN, school name, email address or social networking addresses like Facebook."
Having read that, they can then go on to register by filling in ...their name, email address and password. There is no hint – even for the youngest petitioners, who may be aged between 5 and 11 – that they should use a password that is different from the one they use online, or shield their password from helpful adults, such as teachers.