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Online Pornography: Age Verification

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:43 am on 17th October 2019.

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Photo of Tom Watson Tom Watson Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 10:43 am, 17th October 2019

Every time the Government get in a mess, they used to say, “Uncork the Gauke.” But now, with Morgan missing, the cry goes out, “Where’s Warman?” And here is the Minister again, to clean up yet another Government mess.

Just four months ago, the previous Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport came to the House to announce another delay in the introduction of age verification. He stood at the Dispatch Box and told us

“let me make it clear that my statement is an apology for delay, not a change of policy…
Age verification…needs to happen…
it is in the clear interests of our children that it must.”—[Official Report, 20 June 2019;
Vol. 662, c. 368.]

Well, it is not going to happen. It is obvious today that the Government’s much-vaunted age verification policy is dead.

The Government tried to bury the bad news once again, but I am glad that Margot James had the courage to force the Minister to the House, to clean up the Government’s mess and explain the policy to the nation. Ever since its inception, the policy has been beset by mistakes, mishaps and month after month of delays.

The Opposition raised serious concerns at the outset that the policy was not well thought through, posed serious privacy concerns and would prove nearly impossible to implement. The Government used every excuse in the book to explain the delays, but today we know the truth: the policy, as conceived by the Government, was unworkable, and the Minister has finally ditched it. Will he now confirm that the policy has been abandoned? If he will not, will he admit that it was at least severely downgraded in the Queen’s Speech?

My colleague, my hon. Friend Louise Haigh, in the process of scrutinising the legislation in Committee, warned that the British Board of Film Classification should never have been tasked with this job in the first place, even though it said yesterday that it had a system ready to implement. Can the Minister explain whether the Government had confidence that the BBFC was ready to implement age verification and whether it will have any future involvement in the project? Can he tell us how much public money has been spent on this failed policy? If he cannot do so today, will he commit to providing that information in writing in the near future?

The bigger danger in all this is that it is a sign of what is to come: that the online harms legislation that we so badly need will also be delayed, disrupted and finally abandoned in the “too difficult to implement” box. We must not let that happen. Every day our children are viewing hateful and harmful material online—material so sickening that it drives some young people to suicide and others to extremist violence and murder. These are the frontier challenges of internet regulation.

We need to keep our kids safe. Any Government taking on the tech giants will need determination and meticulous attention to detail. That has been utterly lacking thus far. The Government must not fail again.