Digital Economy

Part of Uk-EU Negotiations – in the House of Commons at 8:04 pm on 17th December 2018.

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Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Chair, Women and Equalities Committee 8:04 pm, 17th December 2018

I very much welcome this groundbreaking piece of legislation and thank the Minister for going through it so thoroughly today in her opening statement. I think Liam Byrne is wrong when he says that this is a set of half-measures, but it is only a start—he is right in that respect. When we look at the scale of the problem we are dealing with, with almost two-thirds of young people seeing pornography online for the first time when they were not expecting it, the Government are right to start the long journey in trying to stop the unexpected exposure to what can be very damaging material.

The Women and Equalities Committee published a number of reports highlighting the damaging impact that exposure to pornography at an early age can have on young children—not only in the report, mentioned by my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce, on sexual harassment in public places, but sexual harassment in school. The evidence is there and it is clear, but rather than going through those findings again I would like to focus particularly on the amendments made in the other place to the Digital Economy Act 2017 (Amendment) (Definition of Extreme Pornography) Bill. They have caused concern not only this evening but outside this place by setting extreme pornography as the threshold for non-compliance and for the images that appear to be allowed as a result of those changes made in the other place.

There are serious concerns about part three of the Digital Economy Act 2017, which has been weakened by Lords amendments. The noble Baroness Howe has been working hard in the other place to try to offer a solution. I hope the Minister can comment on that if time allows this evening. The Lords amendments mean that non-photographic child sexual abuse images, which would be illegal for anybody to possess, could be accommodated behind age-verification checks. Whereas previously the regulator could block that illegal content, the Lords amendments mean that that could happen only if the material was without age verification.

Secondly, the Lords amendments mean that a lot of violent pornography that is illegal to supply to anyone of any age under the Video Recordings Act 1984 will now be accommodated behind age verifications. That sends out all the wrong messages, so will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government will be not only keeping these issues under close review, but examining whether they could take forward the recommendations in Baroness Howe’s Bill, and that these issues can be addressed directly in the online harms White Paper, if not before?

We have the opportunity to return to these issues after 18 months, but I would not want to see what is a good start being hampered by changes in the other place that ComRes polling would suggest almost three-quarters of Members in this place simply would not agree to. Why can we not bring forward measures that would better reflect the will of this House, rather than that of unelected peers? The Front Bench spokespeople often tell me that something that is illegal offline is illegal online as well. They are really close to the edge of breaking their own rule, where things that are actually illegal offline appear to the normal man on the Clapham omnibus to have a different effect online. That is really regrettable.

The Minister was very generous in responding to my earlier comments on social media. I hope she keeps under review the need to put much pressure on social media companies to ensure that they also are within these sorts of parameters.