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Digital Economy

Part of Uk-EU Negotiations – in the House of Commons at 8:21 pm on 17th December 2018.

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Photo of Alex Burghart Alex Burghart Conservative, Brentwood and Ongar 8:21 pm, 17th December 2018

It is a pleasure to be called to speak in this important debate, and to be part of a debate in which several thoughtful points have been made from hon. Members of all parties.

We should be proud of the legislation that we are introducing. As the Minister said, it is the first time that something like this has been attempted anywhere in the world. Although we could undoubtedly go further, this is a noble first step. I spent the first part of my career as a teacher. I worked for Barnardo’s and for the Office of the Children’s Commissioner and I followed this issue closely through those jobs.

I have been struck by the sheer pace of change and Governments’ and regulators’ failure to keep up with it. The speed with which smartphone technology has changed the environment of childhood is frightening. I have always been wary of the aggressive online libertarian wing, which claims that this new world cannot be regulated and that to introduce any form of restriction is to inhibit the beauty of the online liberal space. That is unacceptable. We have a duty, as adults, to step in and protect children from things that they might not choose to see and that we know they are not ready to see.

As a starting point, we must accept that self-declaration is no form of age verification. Creating a mechanism, however basic, which introduces a decent, verifiable scheme to prevent young people from seeing certain things, is worth while. There are many opportunities to extend the principle elsewhere. I know from friends who are teachers and from the parents of teenage children their concerns about social media and overexposure to it. Many of the social media giants tell us that their sites are suitable for those aged 13 and above, but do nothing to police that. As I said, self-declaration is no form of age verification. The adults have to step in and take control.

I was interested in the shadow Minister’s comments about duty of care. As we look to the future, beyond the legislation, when social media giants, internet companies and providers of any content say that only people of a certain age should use their site, yet do nothing meaningful to enforce that, there must ultimately be some form of sanction against them. Switching the onus on to those companies would be no bad thing. My hon. Friend Eddie Hughes—who has morphed into a different hon. Member since I stood up; a no less hon. Member—mentioned mobile phones. Several colleagues and I have raised the important issue of whether schools should have further powers to police mobile phones in schools.