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Online Purchasing of Goods and Services (Age Verification) Bill [HL]

Volume 710: debated on Friday 8 May 2009

Second Reading

Moved by

My Lords, this Bill would make it a requirement,

“for the providers of goods and services and the providers of specified facilities enabling the purchase of such goods and services to take reasonable steps, in certain circumstances, to establish the age of customers making such purchases”,

online. In simple terms, this short but significant Bill would require online retailers and those who facilitate the sale of goods and services to abide by existing laws in respect of age-restricted goods and services. It would require every retailer who sells age-restricted goods and services over the internet to establish a system that would allow them to determine whether or not a person buying such goods or services met the legal minimum age.

This Bill cuts across government departments. It is about child protection, the law, business, communications and the media. I hope that my noble friend will agree with this and share her concerns with appropriate colleagues across those departments.

The Bill was introduced in another place in 2008, but it ran out of time. It was led by Margaret Moran MP, who has tirelessly campaigned on child protection issues; I salute her efforts. She was supported by colleagues on all sides of the House and I believe that this Bill has support from all sides in both Houses. I also salute the efforts of John Carr and the Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety, which has worked with stakeholders to reach some agreement on a way forward. The Bill is a result of these combined efforts. I also wish to acknowledge the efforts of business services for clarifying and promoting the need for age restriction.

The law on the sale of age-restricted goods is clear. What are missing are mechanisms for ensuring that the law is being observed. The provisions of my Bill follow the relevant provisions of the Gambling Act 2005. Prior to this Act, most of the gambling companies simply asked everyone who came to their website to tick a box to confirm that they were over 18. Many young people under 18 of course ticked the box and used online payments for betting. In the Gambling Act, Parliament made it compulsory for all online gambling sites to devise methods of determining the age of everyone who came to the site. Such provisions came into force in 2007 and seem to be working well. Gambling companies have given contracts to specialist companies to carry out verifications for them. Neither the Gambling Act nor my Bill prescribes any particular method of verifying age; we simply call for it.

Trading standards officers have put effort into testing compliance with age-restriction laws, but they are very busy. My Bill would change the situation by putting an obligation on online retailers of age-restricted goods and services to have effective systems to prevent underage sales.

Some may ask whether there is a real problem. Let me go into some detail of why I think that there is a problem. In the second quarter of 1999, only 9 per cent of the UK population—2.2 million people—could access the internet from home. Between 2000 and 2004, internet usage in the UK increased by a massive 126.5 per cent. Today, over 35 million UK residents— 58 per cent—now access the internet. Close to 90 per cent of teenagers have a personal TV, as do 60 per cent of five and six year-olds. We are simply in a new electronic age, with more opportunities and more hazards for children.

Before the internet, the purchase of goods was relatively simple. If there was a question over the age of someone wishing to gamble or buy alcohol, tobacco, solvents, knives, guns and so on, this could be checked by means of identification, and the sale could, one hoped, be refused. Now, these goods and services are available online, as are pornography and drugs. Children can bypass regulations by using a computer.

Self-regulation is not working. Very few online retailers have procedures in place to prevent underage young people buying almost anything over the internet. Members of your Lordships’ House are not, perhaps, very familiar with this computer-driven scenario but, in the recent book Consumer Kids, Ed Mayo and Agnes Nairn explore this world. They point out that,

“a visit to the bedroom of a British child of 11, just starting secondary school, might yield a music system, TV, phone, text messaging, mobile phone, computer, instant messaging, voice over internet protocol, email, games console, DVD, VCR or MP3 player”.

How many of your Lordships have such access to electronic devices? They also point out that, while parents have a responsibility for monitoring their children, companies also have a responsibility for child protection. Currently, the law in respect of age verification says that there must be a testable and effective system to verify age. As long as a business makes a reasonable attempt to verify age, it is acting within the law. In the case of online child pornography, the self-regulation approach has been successful, even without legislation. But legislation is complex.

Public education is necessary, too. For instance, there is little to prevent a parent giving their child access to their credit card. There is also the issue of international sites and there are many payment systems other than by credit card. None of the proof-of-age card schemes has online components at the moment. There is no business case for retailers to lead the way in building a foolproof system. Retailers need a level playing field so that potential customers do not simply move from a compliant business to a non-compliant rival. A code of conduct is needed and DCSF and DCMS need to be involved in investigating possibilities.

Banks can and do provide children, some as young as 11, with Solo or Visa Electron cards, which can be used to make payments on the internet and are accepted on websites. There are also pre-paid or store value cards which can be bought as gifts and given to people of any age or bought over the counter. Such cards allow children to buy goods and services online, which they would not be able to do in normal circumstances.

A newspaper recently worked with a 14 year-old boy to test the system. I know of some parents who have also tested the system and found it wanting. The boy bought a pre-paid card with cash at a local store. Card retailers say that their cards can be sold only to people over the age of 18 but this boy was not questioned about his age. He was able to order porn videos from Amazon, and knives from Tesco that were delivered to him personally and signed for. Oddbins delivered some vodka to his home, and he was able to bet on a football match online.

Only today, Greenwich Council has highlighted in a report how easy it is for young people under 18 to obtain goods and services on the internet. In its example, a 16 year-old volunteer bought knives, age-restricted games and DVDs and alcohol from well known retailers. He used a pre-paid Splash Maestro card and a MasterCard gift card from local retailers. Both were registered with his real date of birth and address. Thirteen out of 16 online retailers sold to him with no further checks; only three asked for age confirmation. He got round the system simply by giving false information and his age was not confirmed. That example is from just one council report—that of Greenwich. How many other councils would find the same results, or worse?

Companies choose to sell online and, in this age of credit difficulties, they may intensify their efforts to target people, including children. Unless companies can be sure that they are selling goods or services legally, they should stop selling online. Many online retailers simply ask customers to tick a box to confirm their age, yet one online company survey found that, of 300 18 to 30 year-olds, 57 per cent lied about their age to gain access to age-restricted goods or services.

There are technological solutions to age verification, and companies must provide online and ID checks in order to screen minors. The law is being got round in the online provision of goods and services to underage people. The Bill would cut out this loophole, protect children and provide reassurance to concerned parents. I beg to move.

My Lords, I am in complete agreement with the objectives of the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, in introducing this Bill. There are very good reasons why age restrictions are applied by law to the sale of various products, and I strongly support all efforts by trading standards, parents, local authorities, the police and the relevant industries to make sure that the law is properly understood, observed and enforced. Growth of online sales in all sectors means that we urgently need to update the regime of good practice and regulation in this respect.

However, I should like to flag up one or two questions about whether the Bill as it stands is the best way of achieving those objectives. It is partly to do with timing and partly to do with the practicalities of good regulation. It may be that all this can be resolved in Committee, or perhaps a different mechanism altogether could be identified for achieving what we all want to see.

Before setting out my concerns in more detail, I should like to give some examples of how the drinks industry has dealt with this issue, because I believe that there are some examples of best practice here that may be helpful when setting standards across the board. Alcohol is one of the best-known products to which a legal minimum purchase age applies. I declare an interest as a former chief executive of the Portman Group, which introduced the very first national proof of age card in 1990. I also currently advise two drinks producers on social responsibility issues.

As I said, as far back as 1990, the leading drinks producers who supported the Portman Group decided that they needed to support the retailers who sold their products in avoiding illegal underage sales, and the proof of age card was launched. Over the years, it was developed to make it more secure and reliable—for example, by acquiring a virtually forge-proof hologram on the face of the card to help retailers to weed out the fake cards. Whenever we became aware of websites offering fake cards based on our design, we took legal action and, in all cases as far as I remember, the relevant internet service provider agreed to take down the offending website.

However good proof of age cards are, they can only ever be as effective as the retailers make them by consistently demanding to see them, but we all know that there have been too many occasions when underage customers have managed to buy alcohol for themselves. This problem is arguably magnified when it comes to online sales. It is not that I think that the alcohol sector is anything like the most problematic when it comes to online sales to underage customers; most children intent on buying alcohol will want it immediately and will not go to the trouble of ordering it over the internet. Nevertheless, the industry has taken this issue very seriously. That is why the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, for example, has initiated a comprehensive system to deter underage sales for all distance-selling operations, which includes sales by phone and mail order as well as over the internet. Most alcohol retailers already have systems in place to ensure that their delivery companies sign over alcoholic drinks products only to adults over 18 at the point of delivery. As we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, this is not 100 per cent foolproof, although I wonder whether any checking system would be, given young people’s ingenious agility with technology. Some alcohol retailers have a requirement to set up an account before ordering online, or they accept payment only by credit card. Many fine wine businesses conduct transactions only via bank transfers, a mechanism which I understand is not available to under-18s.

In June last year, the WSTA announced a new deal with Business Services, the leading age and identity verification specialists, which will help all its member companies to check online customer age even more efficiently. In case your Lordships should think that this is just a small drop in the ocean and confined to the niche markets of fine wines, which are unlikely to attract underage custom, I should say that the WSTA has more than 300 members, including all the major high-street supermarkets such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Morrisons, Waitrose and the Co-op, as well as the specialist chains such as Threshers and First Quench Retailing.

Therefore, if we were looking only at online underage sales of alcohol, I might be tempted to say that we do not need legislation at all, because enlightened self-interest is already producing the level of self-regulation required to do the job, but I can see that standards of compliance vary considerably from sector to sector and that the culture of social responsibility also varies.

However, I am worried that one of the Bill’s apparent strengths—its flexibility—may also be one of its weaknesses. It creates a duty on retailers to take all reasonable steps to establish the age of the customer, but what those reasonable steps are may well vary from sector to sector, and the Secretary of State will issue advice and guidance. I should like to know whether that is intended to acknowledge and accommodate differences between sectors and products, and therefore allow flexible interpretation of the duty so long as the desired outcome is achieved. For example, online age verification software might be suitable and effective for some businesses but not for others. One of the principles of better regulation, which have long been accepted by the Government, is that regulation should be properly targeted, and I hope that undue burdens will not end up being imposed on some sectors which are already looking after themselves in order to draw others into line.

I am also concerned about consistency and proportionality, two of the other better regulation principles. Again, I believe that this is all resolvable. It is about timing. The Policing and Crime Bill, which is currently awaiting its Report stage in another place before coming to your Lordships’ House, provides for a mandatory code for alcohol retailers which itself includes, in draft, a clause proposing that it be a mandatory condition of all licences that online retailers utilise age verification software. The formal consultation on the code is expected to be published shortly. I do not know whether the Minister can say something about that; but in relation to the Bill, we would obviously need to make sure that we are not creating impractical and unnecessary duplication, or worse still, conflicting duties for retailers.

The other timing issue that I want to mention, which might even contain the seeds for an alternative approach to this problem, is the current consultation on the review of the advertising codes, which ends on 19 June. I am very familiar with these codes and the Advertising Standards Authority which administers them, as I was a member of the ASA council until very recently. The rules currently do not cover e-commerce, but the advertising and media industries are actively looking at whether they could or should extend the remit of the ASA to cover advertising on a company website. If this were to happen, it might well be logical for the ASA to produce guidance on online purchase, which of course would cover all sectors and products, and not just the one on which I have focused in my examples.

I have no idea how likely this is to unfold, but it is a live discussion which should be taken into account when considering the progress of this Bill. If the remit of the advertising code did extend in the way that I have tentatively described, the ASA rather than the Secretary of State might well be the most sensible source of the advice and guidance referred to in Clause 1(3), and it would be a natural extension to the system of co-regulation that is working so well in the advertising field.

This idea is perhaps worth exploring further to see whether it will do the trick or whether it would still leave gaps that would be better filled by legislation. I hope that my comments and suggestions will be taken as constructively as they are intended, and I look forward to hearing the comments both of the Minister and of the noble Baroness, Lady Massey.

My Lords, I have one or two points to make, although many have already been made. As an aside, I think that the spelling of “organisation” should be consistent, as it makes electronic searching easier. Hansard standardises on an “s”, and I think the Bill should as well.

First, I sympathise with the intentions of the people behind the Bill and I am not in favour of allowing anyone to break the law, but the practicalities worry me. Will it work? The great cry is “something must be done”, and I very much associate myself with the comments of my noble friend Lady Coussins about the regulatory burden. We have to be careful about what we inadvertently introduce. I want to say something about the unintended consequences of something like this measure.

We must allow young people to buy things online. Many things are only obtainable that way nowadays—certainly the better bargains. We must not outlaw methods of payment that will completely stop them buying anything. There is the loss of privacy every time one has to give personal details to yet another database. We have to be careful how that information is retained and that we do not have a plethora of databases that could be attacked or used for other purposes at some other point in their lives.

Another unintended consequence is that children will learn how to even better spoof their identity. One suggestion may be the national identity card, but the current design of that scheme will not help small organisations reliably to verify online or over the telephone that the person holding the card is the one to whom it belongs. It does not have that capability.

The second major problem refers to unconstrained powers. Clause 1(2) provides that the Secretary of State can make regulations that could extend to things that are not covered by legal ages or goods and services covered under current laws. The legal duty to comply with these laws already exists, and I do not think that Parliament should micromanage people in how they do these things. We should not be passing laws just to send a message. That is not a good idea. One of the challenges is enforcement. The Home Office currently argues that e-crime is no different from other crime. It has taken a long time to fund a police central e-crime unit, for instance. It would be better to fund people who can do something about the problem rather than passing more laws and regulations and making great statements. We need to have a body to do something about these issues.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, for and congratulate her on introducing this Private Member’s Bill, and I offer her my support. She talked about the missing mechanisms and ticking boxes. Her Bill ticks a very important box that is currently unticked.

When considering an issue such as this, I ask myself four questions: is the law right; is it reasonable; is it working; and could it be improved? On the first question, the law says that young people should not be able to buy certain products by any route. Is that right? Yes, I believe that it is right, because we must protect young people from making bad decisions until they are old enough to make their own adult decisions. Knives, guns, certain games and DVDs, alcohol, solvents and gambling are all very harmful and can destroy young minds and young lives. While the illegal sale of all these products concerns me—including alcohol, covered by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins—I believe that the sale of weapons is the most dangerous.

Last December, the Evening Standard conducted a survey that showed that 25 teenagers had been murdered by guns and knives on the streets of London last year and that their average age was only 17. Children as young as 13 were being charged with offences in connection with those murders, and of course we must bear in mind that their lives are being destroyed, too. Among others, the spokesman for the police’s Operation Trident revealed that children are routinely carrying knives and guns for their own protection—they think. However, they do not realise that doing so puts them even more at risk, as fatal events inevitably happen in situations where years ago children would just have had a street fight and gone home with nothing worse than bruises or a cut lip.

Where are children obtaining these weapons? We must tighten up on their availability, as well as tackling the individual and community problems from which these feelings of insecurity and disengagement arise. This Bill would help to do that. It would be just one step. Retailers have quite enough of a large adult market and there is no need to allow a free-for-all with children.

Secondly, is the law reasonable? Yes—there should be a level playing field between high-street and online retailers, otherwise there would be an enormous gaping hole in the system of control that Parliament has put in place. If high-street retailers can be controlled, we must find a way of ensuring that online retailers stay in line without imposing an unwarranted burden. I take the point that the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, made about that.

Thirdly, is it working? Clearly not. As the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, told us, a 16 year-old volunteer at Greenwich Council went online and managed to buy knives, age-restricted games and DVDs, and alcohol from 12 reputable retailers using legitimate forms of payment. Only three of the retailers asked him to confirm his age and he just gave false information that was not checked.

Finally, can the law be improved? That is what this Bill is all about. Is there a model that can show us the way? Yes—the online gambling industry has developed simple systems whereby it takes the reasonable steps that the law requires it to take to ensure that the purchaser is old enough to buy. The framework imposed on it by the Gambling Act 2005 has resulted in a range of suppliers, including, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, offering the industry a service that does not restrict or unduly delay legitimate sales, but is effective in stopping young people taking part in online gambling. The Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety, which has briefed your Lordships on this issue, has not heard of any young person breaching the rules since 2007. So it sounds to me as though it is a model that is working and one that we could follow in relation to all the other age-restricted goods. These services can very easily be used by those selling other age-restricted goods, and they should be similarly compelled to use them. A small profit margin for a retailer is not worth the risk of destroying the life and potential of a young person.

It occurs to me also that the banks could play their part. Your Lordships will recall that, following money-laundering legislation, it has become very irksome to open a new bank account. One has to prove in great detail who one is and, in so doing, one has to prove one’s age. When young people open legitimate bank accounts and obtain legitimate cards, by which they are able to pay for online goods, they will have to prove their age. Could not the banks use some sort of code in the long number across the card to indicate that that person is underage, until such time as they become of age, when they would obviously get the same code as everyone else? Some simple mechanism, such as a special code, would reveal that that young person is under 18 when they had to put the long number into the computer to buy the product. That idea occurred to me only yesterday when I was buying something online just after having considered my remarks today on the Bill.

I hope that the Minister will look sympathetically on the Bill proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, and either allow it safe passage through the House or take up its measures herself and incorporate them into government legislation as soon as possible, before more teenagers die or have their minds warped or their lives destroyed. The internet is a valuable tool for good. It can be used for an enormous amount of learning. It is convenient, and all of us use it all the time, but we must protect children from its dangers. As I have said many times in your Lordships' House, child safeguarding is the responsibility of every one of us, every retailer and every organisation in this country.

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, for her efforts in bringing forward the Bill for debate today in your Lordships' House. She spoke with evident passion and conviction on this topic. We agree with her that the problem of children and young people buying items online that ought to be prohibited to them is real. In that the Bill is concerned with purchases online, I should perhaps declare an interest as a substantial shareholder in an IT support company of which the business in that sector, which I had jointly founded, was sold a few years ago. As it happens, my wife is also in the early stages of establishing a business to conduct online retailing—although, I am glad to say, not in the goods contemplated by the Bill. I take a close interest in this area.

It is long established that there are items that should not be available to young persons. No one can possibly find that controversial. I understand that there are about 20 categories of item that are restricted, among them alcohol, tobacco, knives, solvents, and certain DVDs and video games, all of which are restricted for very good reasons to protect children from their various harmful effects. The noble Baroness explained that her Bill is intended to extend the restrictions that are already applied in shops—they require the vendor to ascertain whether a purchaser is old enough legitimately to complete the transaction—to vendors who sell goods and services online. She set out why she feels that that is a necessary step. As she explained, it is in essence because the age verification process online is often little more than clicking on a box, which amounts to a self-declaration of age that no one can really check.

The Bill aims to close that loophole by placing a duty on the online vendor to verify the age of the purchaser of certain categories of goods and services. The vendor would be required to take all reasonable steps to verify the purchaser’s age or would under Clause 2 be subject to prosecution and, on conviction, to a fine of up to the statutory maximum.

We on these Benches absolutely agree that certain goods and services definitely should not be bought by children. We might differ on whether or not a particular film should have an 18 certificate, but that is not the issue here. What matters is that the film has an 18 certificate. It is against the law for children to be sold restricted items, and the law should be enforced; the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, spoke with some strength on this. We should expect the law to apply to online vendors as it does to supermarkets. It is worrying that it should be possible to circumnavigate the age verification requirement simply by dealing online.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, said, we must consider how proposed laws will work in practice and whether they are enforceable. As I have said, we already have laws in place to prevent minors buying prohibited items. That does not, unfortunately, appear to have resulted in the Government enforcing those laws. My honourable friend in another place James Brokenshire tabled a Question to the Government in June last year on how many times the maximum fine was levied against a licensee for persistently selling alcohol to underage people in each of the last two years. At that stage, unfortunately, the Government did not have the requisite data available, so perhaps the Minister might us help today with up-to-date information. We know that in 2005 and 2006 just eight retailers received the maximum fine of £1,000 for selling alcohol to underage people.

The Opposition also asked, just a few days ago in another place, how many people had received a custodial sentence, on conviction, for selling a knife to a person under the legal age in each of the past 10 years. The answer was one custodial sentence in 1997, and one community sentence in 2006. The total number of convictions in that decade ranged from 32 in 2007 and 51 in 2006 to a very firm zero in 2000. To say that these numbers are not large would be an understatement. They suggest one of two things: either that there is not much of a problem with young people purchasing prohibited goods, or that there is truly abysmal enforcement of the law. I suggest, unfortunately, that the answer is the latter. I raise this to highlight the fact that perhaps we should think deeply about how to sort out the enforcement of our existing laws before we enact too many more. While we on these Benches may have reservations about the detail—we would need to think further whether the Bill really would solve the problem which we all wish to see stopped—we agree with the principle behind the Bill.

The Bill does two things; it requires the Secretary of State to come up with a proscribed list, and it requires retailers to take steps to enforce it. I am puzzled by Clause 1(2), which seems to allow the Secretary of State to include on the proscribed list items that are not age-restricted by law. I am not quite sure that I understand why the rules should be more onerous for online trading than for offline trading. I share the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, about the “reasonable steps” requirements on vendors. There is, as yet, no suggestion about what those steps might be or how they will be judged to be reasonable, except by placing a duty on the Secretary of State to publish advice annually. That provision is certainly sensible, but unless we have a better idea of what such advice might be, I am cautious lest we put unbearable burdens on retailers. Various age verification programmes are, of course, already in use on the internet. One of the recommendations of the Byron review, which was published by the Department for Children, Schools and Families last year, was to ensure that the online industry continues to explore good practice in age verification mechanisms. I will be interested to hear from the Minister what progress the Government have made on this front. We must, however, balance the need to protect children with the common-sense position that if the expectations on retailers are so demanding that they are unachievable, there must be a risk that they will simply give up trying.

Clause 1(1) also requires retailers to take steps to prevent minors purchasing “or otherwise obtaining” goods. We need to understand how that might be achieved. It seems quite a broad requirement. The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, mentioned the Gambling Act 2005 as a template to be followed under which online users must provide certain pieces of information before engaging in gambling online. I am interested in the possibilities that this might offer in the area of goods and services, although it may be that gambling is relatively easily defined. Therefore, it may be more straightforward to apply the provisions there than in the much broader area of goods and services. Would it be practical or desirable for someone to have to provide various personal data—perhaps a credit record—simply to buy a set of kitchen knives for someone from an online wedding list? I do not know the answer, but there should be further consideration.

The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, referred to developments of guidance by the ASA, which is very encouraging and very relevant. We wait with interest to hear from the Minister what the Government are doing in this area. Of course, it should be possible to achieve considerably more even without further legislation. No system that we devise for online retailing will be foolproof, just as it is not foolproof on the high street. However, I emphasise that my reservations do not mean that we disagree with the principle behind the Bill. The noble Baroness has raised an important issue, which needs to be addressed.

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lady Massey for her commitment and her care, and for the opportunity to discuss this important subject. I assure her that this Government completely share her objectives and that her concerns will be brought to the attention of all relevant departments. She made the point well that this is a cross-departmental issue.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, who made one of the few statements today about the importance of the internet and e-commerce to the economy, the way we live and the way we operate our lives in terms of offering choice, convenience and greater participation for everyone in society. Since 2002, for example, internet sales have grown from 19 billion to nearly 163 billion a year. Of course, we want these innovative industries to flourish, but the primary importance given by this Government is to the protection of children. We agree—it has always been the Government’s position—with the statement made by the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, that activities deemed to be illegal offline are also illegal online, which includes the selling of restricted goods and services to underage customers.

Existing law requires all retailers and providers of goods to verify the age of customers buying restricted items, such as alcohol or other goods which have been mentioned today, or using restricted services, such as gambling. As noble Lords have pointed out, because the law does not stipulate how retailers and service providers must verify the age of their customers, they are free to adopt a variety of methods.

Many noble Lords referred to gambling, and it is interesting to note that this approach has been shown to work. The Gambling Act 2005 obliged all gambling companies to ensure that under-18s could not access their services. This brought them in line with other retailers offering age-restricted goods and services. The Act did not draw any distinction between online and offline gambling, nor did it stipulate any particular method for verifying ages. But it has succeeded due to the industry’s own efforts, which the Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety acknowledges. Its briefing paper states:

“We are unaware of any cases where a young person has breached the rules since September 2007”.

Just as the gambling industry has accepted its responsibilities, so should, and I believe do, the majority of retailers. The focus therefore has to be on the enforcement in practice of existing law. Some face-to-face retailers ask for proof of age such as a birth certificate or passport, while others will assess it through a simple visual check. But these methods are not failsafe and will not prevent underage consumers from accessing restricted goods and services in every case. That is just as true for online sales as it is for those made offline.

However, responsible online retailers are already making real efforts to ensure they are not selling goods and services to underage consumers and we are working closely with them to prevent underage knife sales of all kinds. As a result, a number of major retailers do not sell knives online and we are encouraging other retailers to adopt this approach. We are currently working with 21 retailers who have signed up to a six-point agreement. The majority of them have removed knives for sale from their websites, and we are looking at several options, including more robust systems for age verification, for those retailers who do sell knives. Of course, retailers who continue to sell knives to children can expect to receive the strongest penalties, including up to six months in prison.

The British Retail Consortium, meanwhile, recommends that deliveries of age-restricted goods are made directly into the hands of the customer so that their age can be checked at that point. Online service providers are also employing a number of methods to deny access to children who are underage or who have misrepresented their age to get into a restricted website. For example, some will send a cookie to the computer to prevent the user from attempting to re-register with false age details. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, mentioned a potential code for credit cards. Some providers currently charge a nominal fee to the credit card used when registering for their service. The fee is subsequently refunded, but it shows up on the credit card statement and thereby alerts the parent to their child’s activities. That might not be foolproof if the child can get an alternative code, but it may be a better method to pursue. In addition, an increasing number of providers are offering free downloadable software enabling parents to monitor and, where appropriate, restrict the services their children can access.

I fully understand the concerns that my noble friend Lady Massey seeks to address. We share her objectives and this Bill reinforces our determination to protect children using the internet. But I hope I have been able to illustrate that the majority of online retailers and service providers take their responsibilities seriously. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, intimated that she has relevant evidence in certain sectors, but as she also said, there is no perfect solution. However, I shall write to the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, in response to the specific questions they put to me.

Reference was made in the debate to Tanya Byron’s review of child internet safety which reported last year, and as a result we have set up the UK Council for Child Internet Safety. This forum, which reports directly to the Prime Minister, has brought together Government, industry and other stakeholders to draw up an online safety strategy for children and families. In June, my noble friend Lord Carter will bring forward proposals to improve consumer safety online when we publish the Digital Britain report.

For the reasons that I have outlined, I must express reservations about the new regulations being called for in the Bill. We do not think that they would address the difficult issues in practical terms and would not lead to a foolproof means of age verification. We believe that the answer lies not in introducing new legislation but in more strictly enforcing the existing provisions. Trading standards officers are well aware of the issue and are making concerted efforts to tackle it. Indeed, there is a risk that having separate rules for online transactions could create confusion for retailers, consumers and the authorities, thus making enforcement more difficult. Here I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, and the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, about the imposition of regulatory burdens and the risk of potential unintended consequences and a lot of practical difficulties. While we are sympathetic to the aims of my noble friend’s Bill, the law outlawing the sale of restricted goods and services to underage consumers is in place for good reason, and we believe that the focus should be placed on rigorous enforcement of the clear and comprehensive rules that are already in place.

My Lords, as usual for your Lordships’ House, this has been an excellent debate about children and many interesting suggestions have been made. For me, the bottom line is that we must protect children and society from consequences that they may not be able to respond to themselves.

I thank all noble Lords who have taken part. The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, raised many interesting issues. Alcohol is a huge problem. Children are buying it online and I do not think that we have enough safeguards established to deter youngsters, who must be protected. That is what parents and society want. She asked what are responsible steps and what are the ways forward. There is room for discussion on that. The law is clearly not working and we should think again.

The noble Earl, Lord Erroll, raised the issue of practicalities and the regulatory burden—the Minister also raised that—and the unintended consequences. Of course people should be allowed to buy online and of course laws exist, but the current laws are simply too easy to break. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and I have stood shoulder to shoulder many times talking about children’s protection and children’s rights. She showed her concern about knives. I agree with her. She also said that the Bill is just one step forward on protecting children. As she said, there is a gaping hole in the system of control. We need action. Local councils such as Greenwich, which I and several others cited, are very concerned about this. I think that more of them will express their concerns.

I am so glad that the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, spoke, because I did not know that he had all this expertise. Having now found that out, I think he could be very useful, as could his wife, in delivering some clarity on the online situation. As he pointed out, young people are buying goods and services. He agrees with the Bill in principle, but he would like more detail and discussion on certain aspects.

I thank the Minister for her detailed reply. I am glad that she will share the concerns across the relevant government departments. It is a cross-government issue, as I said earlier. I repeat that the law is not working here. It is being got round. The bottom line is the protection of children, who are not being protected by existing measures. I now ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House adjourned at 12.53 pm.