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Online Pornography: Age Verification

Volume 666: debated on Thursday 17 October 2019

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport if she will make a statement on the future of age verification for online pornography.

I thank my hon. Friend for her question and for the work that she did as my predecessor at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

It will always be the priority of this Government, and probably of any Government, to protect citizens in general and children in particular. We will do that online just as much as we would seek to do offline. It is because of that approach that we are changing the approach to age verification on the internet. As my hon. Friend knows, the Secretary of State tabled a written ministerial statement on this issue yesterday. I hope to provide some more detail on that.

Adult content is too easily accessed online and more needs to be done to protect children from harm. We want to deliver the most coherent approach possible. I believe we can protect children better and more comprehensively through the online harms agenda that my hon. Friend championed so effectively than we can through the measures in the Digital Economy Act 2017. I shall be straightforward: it will take slightly longer to do it through this mechanism, but we will go as fast as we can and deliver on the agenda in a more comprehensive way.

As my predecessor in the Department, my hon. Friend was of course responsible for the publication of the “Online Harms” White Paper, which proposed the establishment of a duty of care on companies to improve online safety, overseen by an independent regulator with strong enforcement powers to deal with non-compliance. That vehicle goes further than the age verification proposals originally tabled, and since the White Paper’s publication, the Government’s proposals have continued to develop at pace. This week, the Government announced as part of the Queen’s Speech that they would publish draft legislation for pre-legislative scrutiny next year. It is important that our policy aims and our overall policy on protecting children from online harms be developed coherently. In view of these developments, we will bring forward the most comprehensive approach possible to protecting children.

The Government have concluded that this objective of coherence and comprehensiveness will be best achieved through the wider online harms proposals that my hon. Friend championed and that have support across much of the House. That is why we do not propose to commence part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017. As currently drafted, the Act does not cover social media platforms, for instance, which is something that she and I both know was of concern to this House. It will give us a further opportunity to revisit the definition of pornographic material, which was also a concern of some Members.

As I say, we want to deliver the most comprehensive approach to keeping children safe online. I fervently believe that we can do that better through the online harms agenda. We are committed to the UK becoming a world leader in the development of online safety technology as a whole. This is a part of that, and it includes age verification tools, which will continue to be a key part of it. Everyone across the House agrees on the need to protect children online and offline. Pre-legislative scrutiny for the online harms Bill will be a vital part of that process. I hope that Members across the House, particularly my hon. Friend, will continue to engage with the Government so that we can bring forward something for which there is a cross-party consensus and that delivers an agenda that we can all share.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. The statement yesterday came as a shock to children’s charities, the age verification industry, the regulator and the online pornography industry itself, all of which were ready for, and expecting, the age verification regulations to be brought into law by the end of this year.

The Government postponed the introduction of the controls in July after an administration error in which the EU was not informed about the proposals as it should have been in line with single market rules. At that time, firm assurances were given to the public, children’s charities and the industry that the EU issue would be resolved swiftly and that legislation would be brought in by the end of the year or early next year at the latest. There was a debate in the Statutory Instrument Committee earlier this year about the exemption of Twitter and other social media platforms from the AV regulations, and it was agreed that we would review the effectiveness of the regulations 12 months on from their introduction. Such a timetable would still be much sooner than the indefinite postponement effectively announced by the Secretary of State yesterday.

No one is arguing that AV provides a panacea for the prevention of children accessing adult content—we know that there are ways to circumvent AV—but children’s charities have provided evidence that too many children stumble across adult material accidentally and that this can have a damaging effect on them at a vulnerable age. It is likely that the regulations would raise the age at which young people are first exposed to pornography. The Secretary of State should not make the perfect the enemy of the good when it comes to child protection, especially after the Government have given so many assurances that once the privacy issues have been dealt with—they now have been—the regulations will be brought into law. For the Government to renege on their commitments in this important area is a very retrograde step, and I urge my hon. Friend and the Secretary of State to think again.

I share a huge number of the hon. Lady’s concerns. This is not an indefinite postponement of the measures that we are seeking to introduce; it is an extension of what they will achieve. I honestly believe that we can do even better than some of the original proposals. For instance, she is right that raising the age at which children are exposed to deeply inappropriate content is important. Nobody is pretending that the proposals, either in the online harms agenda or in the original legislation, are perfect, but we should do all we can to make them as good as possible. I honestly believe that we will achieve more for child protection through this slower but more comprehensive approach than we would be taking the faster approach, which, as she has said, would end up being reviewed relatively quickly and, I suspect, wrapped into the online harms agenda. We are not delaying this unnecessarily; we are seeking to bring forward this aspect of the online harms agenda as quickly as possible.

Every time the Government get in a mess, they used to say, “Uncork the Gauke.” But now, with Morgan missing, the cry goes out, “Where’s Warman?” And here is the Minister again, to clean up yet another Government mess.

Just four months ago, the previous Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport came to the House to announce another delay in the introduction of age verification. He stood at the Dispatch Box and told us

“let me make it clear that my statement is an apology for delay, not a change of policy… Age verification…needs to happen… it is in the clear interests of our children that it must.”—[Official Report, 20 June 2019; Vol. 662, c. 368.]

Well, it is not going to happen. It is obvious today that the Government’s much-vaunted age verification policy is dead.

The Government tried to bury the bad news once again, but I am glad that the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) had the courage to force the Minister to the House, to clean up the Government’s mess and explain the policy to the nation. Ever since its inception, the policy has been beset by mistakes, mishaps and month after month of delays.

The Opposition raised serious concerns at the outset that the policy was not well thought through, posed serious privacy concerns and would prove nearly impossible to implement. The Government used every excuse in the book to explain the delays, but today we know the truth: the policy, as conceived by the Government, was unworkable, and the Minister has finally ditched it. Will he now confirm that the policy has been abandoned? If he will not, will he admit that it was at least severely downgraded in the Queen’s Speech?

My colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), in the process of scrutinising the legislation in Committee, warned that the British Board of Film Classification should never have been tasked with this job in the first place, even though it said yesterday that it had a system ready to implement. Can the Minister explain whether the Government had confidence that the BBFC was ready to implement age verification and whether it will have any future involvement in the project? Can he tell us how much public money has been spent on this failed policy? If he cannot do so today, will he commit to providing that information in writing in the near future?

The bigger danger in all this is that it is a sign of what is to come: that the online harms legislation that we so badly need will also be delayed, disrupted and finally abandoned in the “too difficult to implement” box. We must not let that happen. Every day our children are viewing hateful and harmful material online—material so sickening that it drives some young people to suicide and others to extremist violence and murder. These are the frontier challenges of internet regulation.

We need to keep our kids safe. Any Government taking on the tech giants will need determination and meticulous attention to detail. That has been utterly lacking thus far. The Government must not fail again.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words at the beginning of his question, if not much else. He is absolutely right in his closing point that online harms is a difficult agenda and we must not get it wrong. I look forward to working across the House to ensure that we do this right because there should be no party political division on this agenda.

Age verification will be a key part of the online harms agenda. It will be a key tool in the box, but the toolbox will, through the online harms agenda, be bigger. I say honestly that the inclusion of the online harms Bill in the Queen’s Speech is testament to the Government’s commitment to delivering it, and we will be bringing it forward for pre-legislative scrutiny so that we can get it right. I hope that the BBFC will be a key part of the future of this process, because its expertise is in the classification of content. I am going to see its chief executive shortly; my officials have already been in touch. We look forward to working together with the BBFC.

The hon. Gentleman asked how much money has been spent. I think that approximately £2.2 million has been spent on this part of the agenda, but it is of course also a key part of the online harms agenda, so it would be silly to suggest that that is money wasted. It is money invested in protecting our children, and we will continue to do that.

There is nothing that I have heard from the Minister today or that I saw in the written ministerial statement yesterday that gives any good reason why this decision has been made. There is no reason why these provisions could not have been commenced and then the online harms process added. This decision has delayed the provisions for at least a year, if not longer, as the Minister well knows. Will he explain why the previous Secretary of State came to the House in June and said that this measure would be commenced as soon as possible and that there was no change in policy, but now there has been? What has happened between the summer and now for this decision to have been made?

Of course the Secretary of State appeared before my hon. Friend’s Select Committee yesterday, after the publication of the written ministerial statement. The Secretary of State and I sincerely believe that we can deliver this agenda better and with an overall more comprehensive net impact by doing it through this mechanism rather than through the Digital Economy Act. Some people will say that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, but I think we can go further overall and do better with this approach. This agenda is so important that it is worth us taking our time to get it right.

This disastrous handling seems to be a metaphor for this shambolic Tory Government—not least as they forgot to inform the EU of their plans. The first duty of any Government is to protect their citizens. The widespread availability of pornographic material to children and young people, and the increase in violent content and revenge porn, is having a profound impact on society, relationships and body image. This delay will create more harm to young people and citizens across the UK.

The Government have suggested that this issue will be addressed through the proposed online harms Bill. How do they plan to do that? Will the proposed online regulator be tasked with the responsibility for pornographic verification, or will that be conducted by a separate regulatory body? The charities I met have concerns about the BBFC, despite the assurances that it has given. What is the cost to the taxpayer and to businesses, which are ready for this change and will now be severely out of pocket?

The approach of introducing a duty of care on all relevant companies through the online harms Bill is what will allow us to go further. The hon. Lady—as I did at the beginning of my response to the urgent question—talks about the duty of care that a Government have to their citizens, and that is what is driving us to take this new and broader approach. She asked about the money—as did the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson)—and I refer her to my answer to him. My officials met the affected companies yesterday, and I will continue to engage with them. In what was a constructive meeting, they said that they would seek to continue to be part of the online harms agenda because, as the hon. Lady says, it is an issue that is far broader than simply age verification.

This is more than disappointing; it is critically urgent. Over half a million pornographic images are posted daily on social media platforms, and there cannot be a parent in the land who is not worried sick about this. The Government need to treat this with much more urgency and respect than they have done. How are the Government—how is the Minister—going to demonstrate urgency in protecting our children from accessing pornographic websites? There are over 50 streaming this material daily, many not from the UK.

My hon. Friend is of course completely right. It is a critically urgent issue, but it is also critically urgent that we get it right, and I do think that we can make that progress by doing it in a way that is comprehensive, in line with the online harms agenda. However, I am not seeking to make age verification line up with that timescale. We will do this aspect of the policy as quickly as we possibly can, and I honestly look forward to working with her on that.

I am very shocked at this U-turn by the Government. The framework that had been created to support section 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017 was robust: it was a platform to start protecting children from online harm. Why can it not continue in parallel with the online harms legislation being developed? The two are not incompatible. The Government have a choice—they start protecting children now from online pornography or they leave them exposed.

The hon. Lady is right that the framework was potentially a start, but I think that we can do better. We have a duty to present a coherent set of regulations rather than introduce something that would have been, as she puts it, a start, but would not have gone as far as we can and that would overall, I think, be seen as something that we would have had to fundamentally reform and review once we had put it in the context of the online harms agenda. I understand where she is coming from—I really do—but I honestly believe that by doing this more slowly we will make a better impact overall.

The Government’s approach seems to be, “Give us more time and we can produce a better system”, so, as parents, when can we be satisfied that there will be a system in place that will protect our children from the corrosive effects of online pornography?

My hon. Friend characterises our response absolutely correctly. It is time that will allow us to produce the best possible solution for protecting children. We will be responding to the online harms consultation by the end of the year and bringing forward legislation for pre-legislative scrutiny in the new year.

In the statement yesterday, the Minister said that the regulator will have the discretion to require companies to meet their duty of care, so what sort of enforcement does he envisage that regulator having, and how soon will they get it?

I hesitate to pre-empt what will ultimately be in the draft Bill, but it is obvious that we would want any regulator to have extremely strong sanctions in extreme circumstances. However, we would also want there to be a tariff, as it were, of what they could do in less severe circumstances to make sure that users were protected from a whole host of both illegal and legal but harmful experiences online.

Age verification is important, but please, as a result of this debate today, let us not see it as a silver bullet. The real solution is to educate all young people on the harm caused by pornography. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that those who protest against mandatory relationship education for primary school age children—measures this Government have already put in place—are failing to see the importance of teaching all children what a good relationship looks like, which is not pornography?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. While pornography is one extreme example of some of the corrosive effects of the internet, we have to look far more broadly than online behaviour in order to try to fix some of the effects that have come into the real world as well.

Further to that point, when the Children’s Commissioner worked with DCMS and had workshops with children asking them what they wanted from this, they reported that their e-safety lessons at school were generally boring and not very useful. Does this not highlight how important it is to have relationship and sex education across the whole of our education system, but also, critically, to give teachers high-quality training to deliver fun, useful lessons that children find will actually help them?

The hon. Lady highlights the importance of a comprehensive approach that goes far beyond online. The nature of the lessons that she talks about is not within my Department’s scope, but I think we would all agree that we want children to be engaged in lessons that are particularly important.

This legislation is well overdue, and many are concerned that the delay may come at a significant cost. If we genuinely get better legislation that can better protect children, it may be worth while, but this delay has come as a surprise. What is the Minister doing to restore or build trust with key stakeholders that this delay will lead to better legislation to protect children?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She is right that it is important for us to retain the confidence of stakeholders. For instance, the response of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children is one that I share. It has said:

“This delay is disappointing, but it is also imperative that the vehicle used to achieve protection for children from pornography is robust and effective.”

That is what we seek to deliver, and we will work with the NSPCC and a whole host of other stakeholders to deliver it.

We have been debating this in the House for nine years. The Minister simply cannot say that this is an urgent problem that has popped up. His decision today means that children will be exposed to this vile pornography for another two or three years. Can he take back his suggestion that it is the children’s responsibility to learn how to avoid it? It is his responsibility, surely, to protect them.

If what I said was open to misinterpretation, I apologise. I am not suggesting for a second that it is a child’s responsibility to protect themselves online. That is why the Government are bringing forward the online harms agenda. I am not suggesting either that we are addressing a problem that has suddenly popped up. It is something that Governments of various colours have sought to address over a number of years, and we will continue to do that. We are seeking in the “Online Harms” White Paper to go further, in a thoughtful and sensible way, than any other country in the world has managed to do, and I hope we can do that with cross-party consensus.

The internet has been a fantastic resource for children in their education, but all too often, pornographic images are available to children when they are not specifically looking for them, particularly on social media sites. What will the Government do during this brief delay to ensure that social media is encompassed within their reforms?

My hon. Friend highlights one of the crucial differences between our new policy approach and the old one, which is that we are now able, via the “Online Harms” White Paper, to consider what the duty of care might mean for social media companies in a way that would not have been in the scope of the original proposal. That is just one example that demonstrates how much further we are able to go with this new approach, and it is a reason why this is the right thing to do, even though it is a tough decision.

I am really struggling to understand the logic here. Some 95% of 14-year-olds have seen porn, and the harm that it causes to future relationships is well documented. Why, when the age verification regulator was ready to install this measure by Christmas, can it not go ahead? When, under the Minister’s new proposals, will we see protections in place for children?

I sympathise with what the hon. Lady seeks to achieve, but we can do more by going slightly slower. As I have said, we will respond to the consultation by Christmas and bring forward legislation for prelegislative scrutiny in the new year. I hope that she will work with us on that. We will, of course, seek to bring forward this part of that agenda much more rapidly than the whole package, because, as she says, this is hugely important. Getting it right is important, but getting it enacted quickly is also important.

Does the Minister recall the nerve required to reach for Health and Efficiency and the looks at the counter as it was put in a paper bag? What is out there now makes H&E look like a nursery rhyme. His approach really is going to be comprehensive, is it not?

I am afraid I am too young to recall precisely the experience to which my right hon. Friend refers—and I am sure he was speaking on behalf of others, rather than himself. However, he is absolutely right that what is out there on the internet now pales into insignificance compared with everything that was printed for newsagents. That is precisely why we have to go so much further.

For the Minister to say that he will wrap up childhood protection in the online harms legislation is not even a fig leaf to hide the fact that his Government are absolutely naked when it comes to a robust legal framework that deals with privacy, data, age verification and identity. We need measures that put in place protection for children online, not that kick in after they have already been exposed. What is he doing to ensure that children have the same rights online as they do in the real world?

I think what the hon. Lady is saying is that in many ways prevention is better than cure, and that is why the online harms approach will place a duty of care on website operators to make sure they have to take a preventive approach.

The hon. Lady shakes her head as though I have misunderstood her question. I am very happy to talk to her outside the Chamber to try to give her a better answer if she wants one.

Keeping our children safe must always be a priority, and I too am deeply concerned by this delay. Age verification is achievable. The company Yoti in my constituency is already providing highly accurate digital ID in 170 different countries. Will the Minister work with companies such as Yoti to make sure that the very best technology is used to keep our children safe?

I am glad my hon. Friend raises this point. In many ways, this is a technology problem that requires a technology solution. She mentions Yoti, and I have already met SuperAwesome, which is another company working in a similar space. People have talked about whether facial recognition could be used to verify age, so long as there is an appropriate concern for privacy. All of these are things I hope we will be able to wrap up in the new approach, because they will deliver better results for consumers—child or adult alike.

The age checks for porn have been backed by children’s charities. The NSPCC said this morning that

“viewing this explicit material can harm their perceptions of sex, body image and health relationships”,

and it has said that the climbdown was “disappointing”. May I therefore ask the Minister how the Government will allay my fears and those of charities such as the NSPCC, and how they will deliver the objectives of the Digital Economy Act to ensure the protection of children and vulnerable young people from online pornography?

The hon. Gentleman is completely right that the concerns of the NSPCC are those that I know he and I, and, I am sure, Members across the House, would share. We will work with such charities to make sure that we deliver, as I quoted earlier, the “robust and effective”—and comprehensive—regime that they and I think we would all want to protect children online.

The tech companies and social media companies have incredibly powerful and sophisticated tools at their own disposal. Does the Minister not agree that they have a moral responsibility to do more themselves, and what will his Department be doing to urge them to do that to keep our children safe?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the technology companies can do more. For too long, a voluntary approach has not delivered the results that we would all like to see. As I have said, the “Online Harms” White Paper is the legislative method that will put a far greater duty on them not just to invest in safety, but to make it a genuine and meaningful top priority.

During the Science and Technology Committee inquiry into the impact of social media on young people’s health, we heard some horrendous statistics about the number of young people who have stumbled across pornographic images. I asked my own daughter, who was 11 at the time, if she had seen such images, and she had. These are our own children—the children of many Members—who are stumbling across this. Yes, we have to get it right, but we have to get something in place now, as quickly as possible. If it needs correcting later on, we correct it. Why are we not acting now?

I share the hon. Lady’s concerns. I worry about what my three-year-old might stumble across online, even though she would be too young to understand it. Too often, stumbling across explicit material happens through sites such as Twitter, which would not have been in the scope of the original proposals but now will be. That is an example of why we should take an approach that, while not being unnecessarily slow, is more comprehensive. I hope that we can work across the House to deliver on those objectives.

The internet can provide children with a wealth of information, but it also exposes them to real harm. What progress has been made by the Information Commissioner’s Office in designing a new statutory code of practice for developers regarding standards of privacy for children?

My hon. Friend references the age-appropriate design code, and the ICO has published proposals and is working vigorously to improve on what they might mean. As I said earlier, we do not fix problems after they have occurred for individual children in this country; we must present an internet that is appropriate for their needs.

The Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Dominic Cummings know a lot about online harms—they have been committing them since at least 2016. The Minister calls for a cross-party approach, but how can that possibly happen when that triumvirate have been ducking and diving, avoiding questions from the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and from me, regarding online harms through which criminal offences have been established, and in which they will not divulge their role?

I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that the online harms being discussed in this urgent question are fundamentally about the protection of children on the internet, and I hope we can genuinely forge a cross-party consensus on what that means. This is an important and difficult agenda, and I hope that we can work together to protect children on the internet, wherever they may end up finding themselves.

The protection of our children is paramount, and a recent report on online harms by the NSPCC did not make good reading, and suggested to me that time is of the essence. Will my hon. Friend assure the House that any independent regulator that is introduced will have sufficient enforcement powers to take effective action against sites that ignore their moral responsibility and make it easy for children to access inappropriate material?

The precise purpose of changing our approach is to have a regulator that, in due course, will have comprehensive authority to take the actions that we need to protect children. That will always be this Government’s top priority on the internet. I hope that Opposition parties across the House will join us in that endeavour, and that we can come quickly to a conclusion that allows us to achieve what should be shared objectives.