Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. -(Norman Lamb.)

7:29 pm
Photo of Claire Perry

Claire Perry (Devizes, Conservative)

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this matter tonight. I thank Members on both sides of the House who have either made time to attend the debate or expressed support for my proposal since it was announced yesterday. I am asking for a change in regulation that would require all UK-based internet service providers to restrict universal access to pornographic material by implementing a simple opt-in system based on age verification.

The internet is a phenomenon that has changed our lives. I well remember my new year's resolution in 1996, which was to get to grips with this thing called the internet. Since then, there has been a massive growth in the size and complexity of the online world. In Britain today, more than 19 million households-73% of the total-have access to the internet, and the speed of access and complexity of content are growing all the time.

Children, with their annoying ability to be early adopters of new technology, are particularly heavy users of the internet, with 99% of 12 to 15-year-olds, 93% of eight to 11-year-olds and 75% of five to seven-year-olds saying that they use it regularly. We know that many obtain access in an unsupervised way, which is not surprising, given that 31% of 12 to 15-year-olds have internet access in their bedrooms. We also know that many children use this either knowingly or unknowingly to access pornography.

Pornography is one of the most widely available forms of content on the internet, representing 12% of the estimated 250 million global websites. Studies suggest, shockingly, that one in three British children aged 10-a third of our British 10-year-olds-have viewed pornography on the internet, while four out of every five children aged 14 to 16 admit to regularly accessing explicit photographs and footage on their home computers. The world has really changed.

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Fiona Mactaggart (Shadow Minister (Equalities Office); Slough, Labour)

I am very glad that the hon. Lady is raising this important issue tonight. Does she see, as I do, a connection between the figures to which she refers and the research by the End Violence Against Women coalition that suggests that a third of young girls experience unwanted sexual contact at school?

Photo of Claire Perry

Claire Perry (Devizes, Conservative)

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point, as always. I will speak in a moment about the unpleasant impacts of access to pornography on our young girls and boys.

The numbers that I have just cited are drawn from a relatively small sample, but more extensive studies suggest that almost 60% of children aged nine to 19 had viewed online pornography and that the rate of unwitting or unwanted exposure was increasing sharply. I know that many parents will have had that sickening feeling as their child clicks through, quite innocently, to a website after searching for a particular term. For example, a search for American Girls-a series of wholesome, culturally appropriate dolls-can end up at the American Girls website, which is certainly not a wholesome place to be. It is truly shocking how easy it is to access that kind of information.

These statistics are simply red-lining a problem that every parent recognises-namely, that our children are viewing material that we would never want them to see, especially at such a young age. So what can we do about it? The current way of controlling access to pornographic material on the internet is via safety settings and filtering software, installed and maintained by users-parents, teachers and carers across the country. Unfortunately, however, through technological ignorance, time pressure or inertia or for myriad other reasons, this filtering solution is not working. Even among parents who are regular internet users, only 15% say that they know how to install a filter. It is unfortunately also the case that our children know better than we do how to circumvent the filters, while the constant changes in internet technology and content mean that they can quickly become outdated.

I would like to raise two key issues about the current, unsatisfactory situation. The first, as Fiona Mactaggart has just pointed out, is that access to pornography has a profound and negative effect on our children. Against the backdrop of a drip-feed of sexualisation that promotes pole dancing as healthy exercise for young girls and high-heeled shoes as appropriate footwear for six-month-old babies, the availability of soft-core and hard-core pornography in our homes is damaging our children.

Yesterday I attended a Safermedia conference sponsored by my hon. Friend Mr Burrowes, and heard compelling evidence of this damage, including the explosion in the number of children in this country being referred to addiction clinics with a "pornography problem", and that fact that many studies demonstrate that watching internet pornography contributes to people seeing women as sex objects, increases sexual risk-taking such as having unprotected or anal sex, and relaxes the boundaries of sexual violence in a completely unacceptable way.

It is of course the ease of access to unimaginable acts of sexual violence and depravity on the internet that causes the greatest problems for parents. We all know what happens when a bit of innocent investigative clicking leads us to images that are truly sickening. Phillip Hodson of the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy sums this up very appropriately when he says:

"The entire history of human perversion and sexual deviation is there at your fingertips and a great deal of it is free."

The second problem in the current system of internet provision is the presumption that it is entirely the consumer's responsibility to safeguard their family from harmful imagery. I am a fervent supporter of personal responsibility and have an innate dislike of Big Brother regulation, but there is a form of content delivery in this country that, in contrast to the internet, is either regulated by the Government or has a successful self-regulation model that does not appear draconian or heavy-handed. Our television viewing is restricted by sensible Ofcom guidelines, including section 1, which says that material equivalent to the British Board of Film Classification's R18 rating must not be broadcast at any time, and that adult sex material cannot be broadcast at any time other than between 22.00 and 05.30 hours on premium subscription services or on pay-per-view or night services, which have to have mandatory restricted access, including PIN verification systems. We all accept such regulation of our television viewing quite happily.

What we see on our cinema screens is subject to regulation by the British Board of Film Classification, and we have accepted that for years. Our high street hoardings and general advertising are regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority, which displayed its teeth recently by removing posters from the Westfield shopping centre. Government guidelines inform newsagents' displays of lad magazines and porn magazines. Even the mobile phone industry, which has arguably seen even more change than the internet in the past 10 years and whose products are increasingly used to access the internet, has introduced a reasonably successful self-regulation model that requires an adult verification check before users can access inappropriate material on the internet.

Photo of George Hollingbery

George Hollingbery (Meon Valley, Conservative)

Carphone Warehouse is conducting a campaign on this issue, working with Professor Tanya Byron who has been working with the Government in this area for three or four years. A survey conducted by Carphone Warehouse found that 85% of children did not have parental controls activated on their mobile phones, 81% of parents felt that they needed to know more about how to deal with this problem, and 48% of parents wrongly thought that it was impossible for their child to download adult content on their mobile phone. I welcome the efforts being made by the mobile phone companies-there is no doubt that they have tried hard-but does my hon. Friend agree that there is still a great deal more to be done?

Photo of Claire Perry

Claire Perry (Devizes, Conservative)

As always, my hon. Friend makes an excellent, fact-filled point. I agree that although the self-regulation model is better than the one that pertains for internet service providers, there is much more to be done.

Why should internet service providers be any different from other content providers? Why is the onus on parents, teachers and carers to act as web guides and policemen? Where is the industry responsibility?

Three objections are usually raised when such changes as I am proposing tonight are discussed. The first is that any restriction on access to pornography on the internet is an infringement of free speech. I hope I am no Mary Whitehouse figure, although she was right about many things, but the nature of the internet has led to a proliferation of imagery and a discussion of sexual practices which is quite mind-boggling in its awfulness. I will not read out some of the information that was provided at the Safer Media conference yesterday, but I, at the age of 46, was introduced to sexual practices-one or two clicks away-that I have never heard of and simply cannot conceive of having my daughters view. It was simply sickening.

It is simply beyond belief that people can find sexual pleasure in viewing images of children, men and women being subject to the worst sexual degradation and violence. If that is our definition of free speech, the definition is wrong. That is not the purpose of tonight's debate, however. I do not propose to reduce or restrict inappropriate content for adults who access to the internet; I would simply like to make it more difficult for our children to access that material.

The second objection to my proposal is that it is too costly and too difficult to implement-that it is a regulatory burden on a struggling industry. That is a red herring. Although the content of the internet is generated out there in the wild west on millions of international websites, access is concentrated in the hands of a small number of companies. The Digital Economy Act 2010 states that there are 450 fixed internet providers in the UK, but that the top six, which include household names such as BT, Virgin, TalkTalk, BSkyB, Orange and O2, have more than 90% of the market share. That is not a large group of companies to deal with and regulate. Notably, the combined revenues of that business model are more than £3 billion a year, so it is a deeply profitable industry in which to engage.

Another concern is the definition of pornography. If we are to have an age-verification system, how do we define pornography? We already have perfectly workable definitions of adult content provided by the Obscene Publications Act 1959, and provided and used by Ofcom in the television industry. The required blocking technology is available in distributed form, with the onus on parents and users to implement it, but one does not need to be Bill Gates to pull the whole thing into a more sensible system of internet regulation.

Interestingly, although the official view of the Internet Service Providers' Association-confusingly named ISPA-is that any official restrictions would be hugely expensive, technically difficult and open to circumvention, one provider, TalkTalk, proposes to provide a ratings system in the new year, with an opt-in system including U, 14, 18 or unclassified ratings similar to those of the British Board of Film Classification. Although that is a responsible and welcome step which I commend, it is a voluntary system, again with the onus on parents to sign up. Surely it would be better for TalkTalk to offer a default U setting and then allow an opt-in to more advanced levels.

Photo of Nicholas Boles

Nicholas Boles (Grantham and Stamford, Conservative)

Does my hon. Friend agree that this is simply a matter of consistency? We think it perfectly reasonable for Governments to pass laws that prevent young people from accessing damaging things such as cigarettes and alcohol, but pornography is just as damaging, if not worse, because damage to the mind can be permanent, whereas damage to the body can be temporary and recovered from. As a matter of consistency, therefore, Governments should act as she suggests.

Photo of Claire Perry

Claire Perry (Devizes, Conservative)

I thank my hon. Friend for making his usual deeply eloquent and relevant points. He is right. We have thrown up our hands, put the issue in the "too hard" basket-forgive the pun-and basically said that this is something Governments should not regulate. I believe it is.

The third objection to such proposals is that if we have age-verification software, children will just lie about their age and access the information anyway. The previous Government sensibly introduced workable age-verification restrictions on online gambling sites in 2005, however-an excellent model that works well and searches financial and electoral databases to verify that users are old enough to enter the site and engage in the gambling within. It is a workable model, the previous Government introduced it, and they are to be commended for doing so.

Britain has taken steps towards internet safety before. The industry acted independently and responsibly on child abuse imagery by setting up the Internet Watch Foundation, which finds sites displaying abuse that the industry then works to block. We have led the world in introducing that technology, and the people and organisations involved are to be strongly commended. It has been a huge success: the amount of child sex abuse content reported or found to be hosted in the UK has dropped from 18% to less than 1%; and 95% of our broadband services use that blocking technology. It can be done.

Mr Straw is also to be commended for introducing the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, which brought in a ban on the possession of extreme pornographic material. That is highly commendable, but of course the content is there on the internet and available for viewing by us and our children with one or two clicks of a mouse.

All that progress has been made, but regulating internet access to inappropriate content continues to stump successive Governments and, in my view, the industry. I believe the time has come to stop ducking an issue of enormous concern to parents, teachers and carers throughout the country. We are often ridiculed for raising it, barraged with information on why the internet should be treated differently, bamboozled with the problem of international co-operation and told that it is our responsibility and no one else's to keep our children safe,

I beg to differ. It is time for Britain to take a lead on the matter and for the Government, with their commitment to family friendly policies, to act. Without action, and with technological convergence, we will increasingly be able to access internet pornography and all internet content via television, raising the prospect of this damaging and degrading material, which is shocking enough when viewed as thumbnails or on an A4-sized computer screen, being piped into our homes and displayed in high-definition glory on 4-foot-wide television screens.

The arguments for passive acceptance and self-regulation are past their sell-by date, and it is time to regulate the provision of internet services in this country. We already successfully regulate British television channels, cinema screens, high street hoardings and newspaper shelves to stop our children seeing inappropriate images, and mobile phone companies have come together to restrict access to adult material, so why should the internet be any different?

British internet service providers should share the responsibility for keeping our children safe, and there should be an opt-in system that uses age verification for access to such material. I urge the Minister to engage with the internet service providers to set a timeline for those changes and, if they will not act, to move to regulate an industry that is doing so much damage to our children.

7:47 pm
Photo of Edward Vaizey

Edward Vaizey (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Culture, Communications and Creative Industries) (jointly with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport; Wantage, Conservative)

May I say how grateful I am to my hon. Friend Claire Perry for raising this important subject and giving the House the opportunity to debate it? She put her case incredibly forcefully. We are used to saying that we are middle-aged when policemen start to look younger. Perhaps we can add a new phrase to the lexicon: when we start saying Mary Whitehouse was right, we might be approaching middle age. My hon. Friend's points were very well made, and chime very much with my thinking.

The subject of this debate has been misleadingly referred to as the regulation of access to pornography on the internet; what we are really talking about is ensuring that we can protect not only children from accessing unsuitable adult material, but adults from the extreme versions of pornography-to which, I am glad to say, my hon. Friend only alluded. As she said in her opening remarks, the internet is fast becoming the dominant medium not just in this country but all over the world. Moreover, as she noted at the end of her speech, when it converges with television it will become all pervasive. The struggle to deal with what one might loosely call internet regulation is something that we are having to come to grips with very rapidly as the internet advances so speedily.

I found out to my cost only last week, after making a speech on net neutrality, that anyone who ventures into the vexed subject of internet regulation, in the broadest sense, can set a number of hares running. There are many people who believe that the internet should not be regulated at all. This Government's position is that the internet should be lightly regulated, so that we benefit from many of the advances that have come about from a lightly regulated internet. Although we are focusing in this debate on the internet's negative aspects, it is important to remember that a lightly regulated internet has brought transformative companies to the web. As we learned from a piece of research published a couple of weeks ago, in just 15 to 20 years, internet commerce has come to represent something in the order of 9% to 10% of our economy.

This remains a very serious subject, which deserves very serious consideration. As with any area of life, it is vital that children and the vulnerable be protected. Where there is harm and safeguards are not heeded, we need effective sanctions to prosecute illegal acts.

Before addressing my hon. Friend's specific points, it might be helpful to set out the issue in the broader context of the Government's approach to the regulation of adult material in general. It is important to remember that we regulate adult material, regardless of the medium through which it is transmitted or published. The Government's policy is that controls on published material, including material published online, should strike a balance between freedom of expression and protection of the public. It should also be proportionate to the potential harm caused.

Clearly, there is material that should not be published at all. This is covered by the criminal law. All material published or broadcast in the UK is subject to the Obscene Publications Act 1959, under which it is a criminal offence to publish any article or image considered to be obscene. The Act also applies to the distribution of material on the internet or by mobile phone. It is important to note the general principle that an action that is illegal if committed offline is also illegal if committed online. Just because it is on the web, that does not make it all right. This applies both to the distribution of illegal material and to harmful behaviour.

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Claire Perry (Devizes, Conservative)

I am grateful to the Minister for launching into what sounds as if it will be a full and reasoned argument, but is it not the case that there have been almost no successful prosecutions of British companies within our criminal jurisdiction domain-I am thinking particularly of the Perrin case, but also subsequent cases-and that it is almost impossible to apply international law to shut down what we know to be blatant breaches of the regulation governing "appropriate adult material"?

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Edward Vaizey (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Culture, Communications and Creative Industries) (jointly with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport; Wantage, Conservative)

I shall come to the point that the web is global, so there is an international aspect to these issues. On the specific question of whether there have been prosecutions, it is not necessarily the case that the number of prosecutions reveals the effectiveness of an Act. The existence of an Act might often be enough to keep people within the relevant boundaries. As my hon. Friend says, the internet is a global phenomenon and people can access content from other jurisdictions. I will address that point in a few moments. As she rightly points out, I am trying to build a reasoned argument.

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Jim Shannon (Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport); Strangford, DUP)

Does the Minister agree that this is a worldwide phenomenon, not just a United Kingdom matter? It is often other countries in the world that originate those websites, and then they are broadcast in the UK. What steps does the hon. Gentleman envisage us taking with other countries, whether those be Brazil, Spain or elsewhere, to ensure that we do not allow access to such material in the UK?

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Edward Vaizey (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Culture, Communications and Creative Industries) (jointly with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport; Wantage, Conservative)

I am coming to self-regulation, which is what I understand my hon. Friend to be calling for on the part of our internet service providers, to prevent access to inappropriate content. It is obviously not for this country to change the obscenity or pornographic laws in other jurisdictions, but it is important to recognise that we are dealing with content from beyond our own jurisdiction. Let me press on. I shall make my argument before accepting further interventions, so that hon. Members will be in a position to see the argument in the round.

On 26 January last year, Parliament further strengthened controls in the UK by making unlawful extreme pornographic material, including pornographic material containing explicit sexual violence that is life-threatening or likely to result in serious injury or bestiality. The Government also increased the maximum penalty for offences under the Obscene Publications Act from three to five years' imprisonment. Under the Protection of Children Act 1978, as amended, the UK has an absolute prohibition on the taking, making, circulation and possession with a view to distribution of any indecent photograph of a child under 18. Such offences carry a maximum sentence of 10 years' imprisonment.

There is also a law against the distribution of indecent images of children. Section 160 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 makes the simple possession of indecent photographs of children an offence, and it carries a maximum sentence of five years' imprisonment. In this context I am delighted to be able to welcome the appointment of Peter Davies, the new chief executive of CEOP-the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre. I want to pay tribute to the work of his predecessor, Jim Gamble, as well as to the outstanding work of CEOP in tackling the sexual exploitation of children.

My hon. Friend also referred to the work of the Internet Watch Foundation, which I am due to meet shortly to discuss self-regulation of the internet. As she pointed out, the IWF was set up in 1996 by UK ISPs to enable members of the public to report child abuse content in newsgroups or websites hosted anywhere in the world, as well as obscene content hosted in the UK. If that content is considered potentially illegal, the IWF passes the details to the UK police to start action against the originators, and will seek to get the material taken down at source or ask ISPs to deny access to the websites concerned.

I am very interested in the work of the Internet Watch Foundation, because I believe that it provides a model that is now well established and working effectively. The issue I particularly want to discuss with the IWF is whether its work, which has hitherto focused on child abuse content, can be widened to cover some of the other issues that my hon. Friend has raised this evening.

As Jim Shannon pointed out, access to online pornography is not a problem for the UK alone. We have to recognise that the internet is a global network. This brings with it real challenges to the effective regulation of access to pornography. The overwhelming bulk of obscene material published on the internet originates abroad, sometimes in countries that do not share our approach to such material. It is simply the case, and has been for many years, that much pornographic material that it would be illegal to publish in the UK remains legal to publish in many other European countries, and even in the United States.

The UK ISPs take a responsible approach to the content that they host, both of their own volition and in co-operation with law enforcement and Government agencies. Where they are advised that content that they host in the UK contravenes UK legislation, they will readily remove it.

My hon. Friend talked about an age-verified opt-in procedure for internet access to pornography hosted in the UK. This is already the case, although my hon. Friend made her own forceful argument that it might not be effective enough. The managers of websites featuring mature content have a legal responsibility to indicate clearly on their front page that those sites are unsuitable for anybody under the age of 18. Additionally, when websites charge for access, they must place their adult content behind a credit card barrier, to reduce further the risk of children and young people accessing it. We will continue to consider how that protection might be made more effective.

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Louise Mensch (Corby, Conservative)

Is the Minister aware of the private Member's Bill proposed by Geraint Davies, which is designed to remove the anonymity of prepaid credit cards for purchases under £100, whereby such material can be anonymously purchased by under-age people-or by anybody else? That is important, because it is what drives the child pornography industry.

Photo of Edward Vaizey

Edward Vaizey (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Culture, Communications and Creative Industries) (jointly with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport; Wantage, Conservative)

That is a very interesting point, and I suspect that the consumer credit Minister is aware of it. I will certainly sit down with him and discuss whether there is a read-across into the issue we are discussing this evening.

As I said earlier, a UK-based website was recently forced to take down its front page because it hosted adult content that was accessed by under-18s. That shows that there are some examples where this is working.

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Claire Perry (Devizes, Conservative)

I am sorry to be constantly interrupting the Minister, because I know that he has a great deal of material to get through, but I think that he is going down the dead end of focusing on content. As he said, much of the content is provided and hosted by websites that are outside the United Kingdom's jurisdiction. We all know that the age 18 verification is simply a figment, and that there is almost no way of enforcing it.

The Minister has cited one website, but there are more than a quarter of a billion websites in the world, of which more than 10% are pornographic. I firmly believe that the onus of responsibility lies with the six British companies that are piping 90% of the content into our homes to provide some sort of opt-in software, so that we need not chase the red herrings of random porn websites in jurisdictions over which we have no control.

Photo of Edward Vaizey

Edward Vaizey (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Culture, Communications and Creative Industries) (jointly with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport; Wantage, Conservative)

I hear what my hon. Friend says, and I will address it in a moment, but first I want to talk about the UK Council for Child Internet Safety. I do not think that this is a dead end, because UKCCIS does incredibly important work. It focuses on content, self-regulation and joined-up government. Although, as I have said, we have a legal framework, that framework alone will not keep our children safe online. Real, effective protection for children can be achieved through parents, charities, industry, law enforcement authorities and Government working together. That is why Professor Tanya Byron-to whom my hon. Friend referred-was asked to take charge of an independent review on child internet safety, which led directly to the launch of UKCCIS.

UKCCIS is chaired by Ministers from the Department for Education and the Home Office, and Ministers from other Departments, including mine, attend its meetings regularly. It brings together more than 170 organisations from across industry, including internet service providers, the third sector, law enforcement authorities and the devolved Administrations, so that they can take positive steps to help children to stay safe online.

I assure my hon. Friend that the Government are working with the internet industry, through UKCCIS, to create an online environment in which children are protected from potentially harmful or inappropriate content. We want our young people to develop the knowledge, skills and resilience that will enable them to avoid accessing such content, and, if they do come across it, to avoid it in future and report it to the appropriate authorities when it causes major concern. UKCCIS is also working to encourage parents to take responsibility for what their children see online. I hear what my hon. Friend says about the need for ISPs to block this content, but I think it important for parents to take responsibility, and to use the filters and parental controls that are available in current technology to prevent their children from accessing harmful material.

My hon. Friend pointed out that people access pornography not just through their computers, but through their mobile phones. That is another issue to which I am hugely sympathetic, and it has been raised with me in my capacity as a constituency Member of Parliament. As my hon. Friend said, all UK operators operate a parental control regime on mobile phones that should prevent access to over-18 sites. It is set as a default on all phones when they are purchased, and it is for the consumer to request its removal, subject to proof of age. Ofcom provides detailed information on parental controls and access to adult content on its website. However, that goes only some way to protecting young mobile users from harmful content. Unfortunately, it is not possible to tackle content that is shared via bluetooth, for example, on a phone-to-phone basis. That is why the work of organisations such as UKCCIS is so important

What causes me to have a huge amount of sympathy with what my hon. Friend has said is the fact that I do not subscribe to the view that internet service providers are simply dumb pipes. In opposition and now in government, I have waged something of a campaign to that effect. According to one school of thought, ISPs are there simply to channel the content to homes, and should not interfere with what goes down their pipes. It is often said that asking them to do so would be the equivalent of asking Royal Mail to open every envelope and parcel and have a look at the contents. In that context, the hon. Lady rightly identified a red herring in relation to both expense and the idea of regulation. I also believe that we should not over-regulate the internet, and that self-regulation should be the first stop before we consider Government regulation or legislation. However, I think it should be put on the record that ISPs can play a role, and, indeed, have played a very effective role in combating child abuse content online.

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Matthew Hancock (West Suffolk, Conservative)

I commend my hon. Friend Claire Perry on initiating such an important debate so early in the evening. I am glad that the Minister has enunciated the principle that ISPs are not merely a pipe through which information flows, but he has not taken the opportunity to point out that they could do more. Will he take that opportunity now?

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Edward Vaizey (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Culture, Communications and Creative Industries) (jointly with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport; Wantage, Conservative)

Now I understand why my hon. Friend is regarded as a rising star. I was about to say that ISPs could do more. My hon. Friend's anticipation of my next sentence was almost uncanny, especially as I am now speaking off the cuff rather than from a prepared text.

We have seen that ISPs can do very effective work in removing child abuse websites. We also know-and I mentioned this during my speech on net neutrality last week-that they can manage the traffic that crosses their network in order to give their consumers a good service. A couple of weeks ago, I had a round table with ISPs and rights holders from the music and film industries and from sport to discuss what measures we could take to provide more legal content as the Digital Economy Act 2010 comes down the line. It seems to me that, given that rights holders are fully aware of the websites that are distributing their content illegally, ISPs could do more in that regard. However, what I learnt from the meeting was that it is important to arrange for people to sit around a table, discuss the issues, and seek ways in which we can work together to make the system operate effectively.

After that meeting, which was productive-I felt that in two hours we had made substantial progress-I made it absolutely clear that I would follow it up. It would not be a one-off meeting that we would forget about, perhaps returning to it in a year's time. I should like to offer the same opportunity to my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes, and perhaps to my hon. Friend Mr Burrowes and other interested Members, as well as to charities and other organisations that are involved in the debate.

If we do have such a meeting, it must not interfere with, or cut across, the important work that UKCCIS is doing. However, I think it important for the side that is concerned about the issue-which consists of most of us, especially those of us who are parents-to sit around a table with ISPs, air their concerns, ask questions, and establish what further action they can take, and for the ISPs to respond. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes that if we have such a meeting, I will not leave it there. We will see what progress we make, and we will follow it up.

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Claire Perry (Devizes, Conservative)

It is uncanny how the Minister is anticipating my questions. I can see why he is a risen star.

I should welcome the opportunity to participate in such a round table, and I know that many other Members would as well, but does the Minister agree that it must not be simply more jaw, jaw? What we need is a time frame for improvement. I think that there is now almost universal acceptance that we have a huge problem. The fire is burning out of control, and we need to be specific. We need to say, "Clean up your house within a certain time, or we will come and clean it for you".

Photo of Edward Vaizey

Edward Vaizey (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Culture, Communications and Creative Industries) (jointly with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport; Wantage, Conservative)

The House will unite in describing me as a risen star. It would probably be accurate to say that I have risen as far as I am going to rise.

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that it should not be just jaw, jaw. I do not want to set any hares running, which is what I seem to do every time I talk about anything to do with the internet, but I think that the meeting with the rights holders and internet service providers was productive both because it was probably the first time they had sat around a table with an honest broker-me, representing the Government-sitting between them, and because we have the Digital Economy Act 2010 on the statute book, controversial though it is. If anyone ever wants to start a Twitter storm, they should write something about net neutrality or the Digital Economy Act. Especially if they write that they are in favour of that Act, they will then see what comes.

It is important that we impress upon ISPs that we take this issue very seriously. Trite though it may sound, it is also important for people to know that sitting around a table and exchanging views can be an effective means of getting across both the views of the ISPs and the huge concern expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes on behalf of her constituents and the country at large. She has made this an important issue and raised it in Parliament. It is perfectly legitimate for the ISPs to raise issues such as costs and regulation because although, as my hon. Friend pointed out, they make £3 billion in profit, it is important also to remember that we, as users of the internet, rely on them to make those profits so that they can invest in the broadband infrastructure and we can have the best superfast broadband in 2015.

Photo of Peter Bottomley

Peter Bottomley (Worthing West, Conservative)

The debate is concentrating on the issue that matters most, which is extreme pornography. We are not concerned about nudity or ordinary sex. Most of us have a naked body, and very few of us inherited celibacy from our parents. The Minister mentioned the Royal Mail. Sending pornography through the mail is illegal. Can the Minister say whether the six ISPs who are currently providing the channels in question are the organisations who came to his meeting, and if they were not, will he have them in as well please?

Photo of Edward Vaizey

Edward Vaizey (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Culture, Communications and Creative Industries) (jointly with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport; Wantage, Conservative)

We had four of the main internet service providers, I think. I do not want to get too carried away and go to the other extreme. The ISPs in the UK do act to take down illegal content where it is pointed out to them, and they do hugely important work in taking down child abuse images. With the greatest of respect to my hon. Friend, who has inadvertently signed an early-day motion put forward by a Labour MP calling for an open internet-a slight distortion of my speech on net neutrality-we are, to a certain extent, talking about ordinary sex. We are talking about preventing children from having access to inappropriate content, and how we can work with ISPs to make it that little bit more difficult for them to do so.

My free-wheeling conclusion to this speech has probably not been helpful, so it might be helpful if I pull together a coherent final few remarks. We believe in an open lightly regulated internet. The internet is, by and large, a force for good. It is central to our lives and our economy, and a Government have to be wary about regulating or passing legislation. Nevertheless, the advent of the internet has brought a number of problems. One of them is the proliferation of images of child abuse, which I believe is being dealt with extremely effectively through the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre and UKCCIS, with the co-operation of ISPs. ISPs remain under an obligation to take down illegal pornographic content, which can extend beyond child abuse images, but there remain, from my position as a Minister, two issues. One of them is access to illegal content in terms of music, film and the creative industries, on which I am working with ISPs and rights holders. I take the second issue very seriously as a constituency MP alone: how we can work harder to ensure that it is more difficult for our children to come across inappropriate adult content. I firmly believe we can make progress, in co-operation with the ISPs, and that we can proceed on the basis of self-regulation. As I have said, I think it is important that we meet and sit around a table to exchange views, and I look forward to brokering such a meeting with my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes and a number of organisations she deems to be appropriate.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.