Digital Economy Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:52 pm on 13th September 2016.

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Photo of Claire Perry Claire Perry Conservative, Devizes 3:52 pm, 13th September 2016

I rise with great satisfaction to welcome both new Ministers to their places and to welcome the Bill. There is much in it to be applauded. Let me focus on two quick points before moving on to the provisions for reducing the amount of adult material that children can see online, which other Members have spoken about.

Digital access is vital for those who represent rural constituencies. I know how much the previous Minister, my right hon. Friend Mr Vaizey, had worked on this issue, and I agree with him that enormous progress has been made in providing high-speed access across many parts of the country that were ignored in commercial contracts. It is now a question of how we provide services for the last 5%. I welcome the definition in the Bill of what “fast” actually looks like, which I know the current Minister has been keen to establish.

I also welcome the universal service obligation. It seems bizarre, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage mentioned, that we do not have broadband provision built into the building code along with the provision of electricity and water services as a fundamental utility that every householder should have.

I welcome, too, the direct marketing code that is covered in clause 77. I suspect that many Members have been shown the difficulties, the traumas, the feeling of invasion that people suffer when there is a direct marketing call or letter going to their homes again and again. I really welcome the provision that will put the direct marketing code on a statutory footing, which should make it easier for prosecutions to be brought and for penalties to be applied. Ministers are to be commended for this.

I shall spend the majority of my speech talking about part 3, which is designed to improve internet safety for young people by introducing an age verification mechanism. It seems odd how life goes full circle. It was the Minister of State who sat on the Benches with me all those years ago when I brought this topic up in an Adjournment debate. It was, I think, the first thing I did in the House, and it was the then Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage, who responded. We set out a series of requests that seemed to be very sensible, but to which the response was in some ways hysterical. I remember people telling us that we wanted censorship. Fiona Mactaggart, who did so much with me on this topic, will remember that we were somehow supposed to be about burning books because we wanted ISPs to do some simple things, such as provide filtering that was already on, so that it would not be incumbent on parents alone to protect their children; the internet service providers would help them to do that. My goodness, how far we have come since then. We now have ISPs that behave incredibly responsibly in this country, and we have filters whose default setting is “on”.

In this context, I must pay tribute to the former Prime Minister. I believe that without his leadership, we might still be arguing with the industry about these matters. It was his seeing the rationale behind this, and seizing on it, that really got officials and industry to move. I remember that when I was his special adviser on online safety, I was asked to meet the parents of April Jones, who was murdered so cruelly by someone in her area. They could not understand how the man who had killed their daughter had been able to put into the internet search terms such as “naked little girls in glasses” and receive returns from Google, served up for his pleasure and, potentially, for his stimulation. That was a very hard question to answer. It was absolutely right that we persuaded search engines, including Google, not to return results against a whole series of search terms, but it took intervention from the highest level of Government to make that happen.

It was absolutely brilliant that the Government moved even further, and produced a series of definitions of illegal material. Posting revenge porn is now a criminal offence, as is stalking in the online world, and the Government have also outlawed the depiction of violent rape in either absolute or cartoon form. I am delighted that they have made so much progress, and I know that there is strong cross-party support for what they have done.