I wish to speak specifically about part 3 of the Bill, which deals with age verification for online pornography. I also wish to draw the Minister’s attention to the Women and Equalities Committee report on sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools, which was published this morning. I am a member of the Committee, which took evidence on the impact that pornography has on young people’s attitudes and expectations. I hope that he will take the time to look it over and take on board our recommendations.
As I have said before in this Chamber, for people of my generation the internet may be a technical marvel, but for children and young people growing up today it is simply a fact of life. Although that brings many advantages, there are downsides, one of which is the easy access to pornography. Some of the statistics on the underage viewing of pornography online are frightening, and we should not underestimate the enormity of the challenge we are facing. In 2014, the BBC’s “Porn: what’s the harm?” survey found that 60% of young people first encountered online pornography when they were aged 14 or younger, with almost a quarter encountering it at the age of 12 or younger. Government research last year showed that 1.4 million people below the age of 18 accessed pornographic material from a desktop computer—that is the equivalent of one in five of all children with internet access. That research was limited to desktop access. When we consider that nearly two thirds of all visits to pornographic websites are made through smartphones or tablets, the scale of underage access to this material starts to come into sharp focus.
The Children’s Commissioner for England has produced research showing a link between children viewing pornography and their engaging in harmful behaviours. The Select Committee heard a wide range of oral evidence, not only on the distorting effect that pornography has on young people’s perceptions of sex, relationships and consent, but that the type of pornography that young people are accessing is often more extreme than many adults realise. Dealing with this issue requires action both to limit children’s access to pornography, and to provide better sex and relationship education to counteract its influence. I congratulate the Government on seeking to put the first of those two steps in place in this Bill.
We should be in no doubt that, for all sorts of reasons, preventing children from viewing pornography online is an exceptionally difficult task. There are no silver bullets or magic wands that the Government can wave. Whatever age-verification gateways are put in place, there will always be ways around them for those determined enough. The international dimension of the problem raises questions about enforcement difficulties, and we should bear it in mind that the vast majority of pornographic websites are not UK-based. Nevertheless, we should not be put off a task simply because it is very difficult; after all, if children were able to get their hands on alcohol and tobacco in the real world as easily as they can access pornography online, there would be an entirely justified outcry. The standards we set for ourselves as a society must hold true in the digital sphere, just as they do outside it.
As grateful as I am to the Minister for taking this issue seriously, I am afraid that I am going to hold feet to the fire when it comes to the detail of the Bill. The creation of an age-verification regulator with the power to impose financial penalties and enforcement notices on websites sends a strong message about how seriously we are taking this issue. The problems come with the enforcement of these powers. The key weakness of the Bill is that these powers are not enforceable outside the UK’s jurisdiction, where the majority of pornography websites are based. The regulator may well be able to impose a hefty fine on a website for a refusal to put age-verification measures in place, but if the site is based abroad there is nothing the regulator can do to compel payment. The most the regulator can do is inform providers of payment and other ancillary services to the website that it is not complying with the legislation. There is no requirement on those providers to withdraw their services. The Government’s justification for that flimsy approach is that service providers can be relied on to block payments to non-compliant websites, because their terms and conditions specify that their clients must be operating legally. However, that sends a pretty weak signal, and we need to be clear to pornography websites that non-compliance will affect their bottom line. In the final analysis the regulator must be able to block websites that persist in non-compliance, but again the Bill as it stands is lacking. The Government claim that such powers would be inconsistent with existing processes for online enforcement of terrorist or child sexual abuse material, which are not on a statutory footing. Although that may be true, the difference here is that that sort of material is illegal in almost every legal jurisdiction around the world, whereas the material covered by the Bill can be accessed legally in the UK by anyone over 18. Comparing this to illegal material, and basing an enforcement regime on that comparison, is simply not credible. Without the ultimate ability to block access to websites, their owners based abroad will not be under any compulsion to comply with these regulations.
In their impact assessment for this Bill the Government stated that their aim is
“nudging the online pornography providers to comply and introduce age-verification.”
I urge the Minister to take another look at part 3, and turn that nudge into something far more robust. We must send a signal to parents and young people out there that this Government and this House find the protection of our children paramount.