I welcome the Bill and the Government’s commitment to the universal service obligation and a quality high-speed broadband connection to every home and business. I do so in the hope that it will facilitate an end to the difficulties endured by very many of my constituents, of whom Ministers are aware, as a result of poor internet speeds that are in some cases wholly inadequate, such as the business owners who have a broadband connection so slow that it can take hours to send one email. I hope, too, that it will end the deep frustration of buyers of new build homes, such as those in Somerford in my constituency who found themselves totally unwittingly moving into their new homes with no broadband service in place, and which then took months and repeated endeavours to get connected.
I welcome the Government’s aims in part 3 to protect children from access to online pornography, although I have some reservations that I would like to go into regarding enforcement capacity. I await, too, the details of the age verification procedures. As many as one in 10 visitors to adult sites are children. Some 80% of children now live in households with internet access, so they increasingly have the opportunity to access pornography. I welcome the ambitions of the Bill to make online access to pornography harder for young people, but, as several hon. Members have said, there are reservations.
A number of colleagues have been concerned about this matter for some years. Since entering the House in 2010, I have been part of a group of MPs who produced a report on protecting children from online pornography. I welcome the fact that the report’s considerations were fed into the Bill.
On my specific concerns, I would first like to draw the attention of Ministers to a possible anomaly in the Bill as currently drafted relating to the supply of videos on demand. UK-based video-on-demand services are already regulated by Ofcom under the Communications Act 2003, as amended by the Audiovisual Media Services Regulations 2009 and 2014, the latter of which expressly requires that UK-based video-on-demand R18 material, which as I understand it is particularly strong pornographic material, must only be made available in a way that cannot be accessed by children. This brought online child protection standards regarding the R18 rating for videos on demand in line with offline child protection provisions, which have long prohibited the sale of R18 videos to children, for example in licensed sex shops.
The Bill further closes the gap between offline and online protections in the sense that it requires provision of age verification checks on pornographic websites showing both 18 and R18-rated material online. My concern relates to videos on demand, because as I read it—I would be grateful for the Minister’s confirmation or clarification—clause 15(5)(a) states that the Bill does not cover online UK-based video-on-demand pornography, as it states that
“making material available on the internet does not include making the content of an on-demand programme service available”.
On that basis, it would seem that the law covering pornographic content online, presented in the form of a video on demand, is still dealt with by the Audiovisual Media Services Regulations 2014, which only mandate age verification protections in relation to R18 material, but not 18-rated material. If this interpretation is correct, it is an omission. The failure of part 3 to cover video on demand means that children will remain unprotected from 18-rated videos on demand. I am sure that that is not what the Conservative party manifesto meant when it committed to stop children’s exposure to harmful sexualised content online.
I hope that that can be corrected by an amendment. In that regard, I commend to the Government Lady Howe’s Online Safety Bill, which had its First Reading in another place in early June. The Howe Bill specifically includes video-on-demand pornography and applies consistent standards on age verification across all 18 and R18 online video-on-demand pornography. I pay tribute to Lady Howe, and to the organisation Care for the work it has undertaken on this issue over many years. Will the Minister explain either how, despite clause 15(5)(a), part 3 somehow fully engages UK-rated video-on-demand material, or alternatively how this anomaly could be considered and corrected in Committee?
Let me turn to other concerns about enforcement, echoing many of those raised by other Members. First, the Bill contains powers for the regulator to impose large fines on providers for persistent non-compliance. The figures are substantial: either 5% of turnover or £250,000. Although I welcome what looks like a helpful provision, a study by the Authority for Television On Demand found that 23 of the top 25 adult entertainment sites were based outside the UK. Admittedly, that was in 2014, but the question arises of how the regulator proposes to fine a pornographic website targeting the UK if it is owned by a company located in Russia, for example.
Secondly, I support mandatory financial transaction blocking for non-compliance. However, although clause 22 allows the regulator to inform credit card companies and other payment providers of non-compliance, I share concerns that there is no requirement for them then to block payments or withdraw services. I understand that the Government’s answer to this issue is that they do not think it would appropriate or necessary to place a specific legal requirement on those payment providers to remove services, based on the belief that payment companies can be relied on to do so because their terms and conditions require merchants to operate legally in the country they serve. I remain concerned that such a view is optimistic. One reason is that some of these payment providers generate significant percentages of their revenue from adult websites. They are not incentivised to adhere to mere requests to block transactions—a point well known by pornography providers, which further decreases their fear of non-compliance.
Thirdly, no provision is made to allow the regulator to block sites that are non-compliant. I understand that the reason for this omission is that it is disproportionate and considered not to be in line with other policy areas. It seems curious that we are willing to grant powers to courts to take down content that infringes intellectual property, but not to extend the same power to an organisation tasked with preventing children from accessing all manner of sometimes violent and explicit material, which can have a devastatingly negative effect on their lives.
When granting powers to the state, a high threshold has to be met. The stakes on this issue are high. There has been a disturbing rise in sexual violence committed by young people against young people. Over 800 cases of sexual assaults committed by children under 10 were reported to have occurred between 2009 and 2015. Although growing access to online pornography is not the only explanation for these figures, it is believed to be contributory, with individual cases pointing to it as a primary inspirer of such activity.
While engaging in consensual activity, young people are under increasing pressure to live up to a standard of behaviour portrayed in online sources. They are encouraged to engage in riskier behaviour and to meet an unrealistic standard of physique. This, in turn, can cause problems of low esteem or remove expectations of any emotional connection with sex.
The Government’s impact assessment states that the purpose of the Bill is
“nudging the online pornography providers to comply and introduce age verification”.
The Government’s manifesto promised to
“stop children’s exposure to harmful sexualized content online”,
not merely to nudge it along. I restate my welcome for the ambition in part 3, but I hope that real teeth will be provided as the Bill progresses.
Finally, having said all that, whatever protections the Government devise, they cannot be comprehensive. Parents need to be given as much information and support as possible to enable them to engage with and protect their children from harmful behaviour online in what is a very challenging environment for many parents. That responsibility might not be the responsibility of the Ministers in their places today, but it should be grasped by someone in government.