Online Safety Bill [HL] — Committee

– in the House of Lords at 10:07 am on 11th December 2015.

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Clause 1: Duty to provide an internet service that protects children from adult content

Amendment 1

Moved by Baroness Howe of Idlicote

1: Clause 1, page 2, line 17, after “operator” insert “or provider or operator designated by the Secretary of State under subsection (1)(d)”

Photo of Baroness Howe of Idlicote Baroness Howe of Idlicote Crossbench 10:08 am, 11th December 2015

My Lords, it is a great privilege to have my fifth online safety Bill in Committee, and I thank all noble Lords who have supported me along the considerably long way. Most of the amendments I have tabled to be debated today are in response to the very helpful comments made on the Bill by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee in its fifth report of the Session, published on 20 July.

Your Lordships will know that the purpose of Clause 1 is to provide protection for children and young people from adult content and to provide parents with the tools to do that. I included Clause 1(1)(d) in the Bill to future-proof it for the inevitable growth in the services and devices that will come on to the market and which we do not yet have any concept of. Just to illustrate my point, in November, Ofcom published its annual report on children’s media use, which stated that over half of three to four year-olds and three-quarters of 12 to 15 year-olds use a tablet in 2015 and that tablets are now the device most often used for going online among all age groups except 12 to 15. In its equivalent report from 2010, there was no mention at all of the word tablet. Ofcom also highlighted the challenge facing parents in its latest report, saying:

“The move towards smaller screens makes supervision more difficult for parents, and the proliferation of devices increases the need for parents to keep up to date with technology”.

The world of online access and devices is moving rapidly, and legislation needs to be able to accommodate those changes.

The Delegated Powers Committee raised two concerns about the way in which the future-proofing provisions were framed. The first was that the defence open to internet service providers and mobile phone operators in Clause 1(5) would not be open to any future, additional category of provider. My Amendment 1 ensures that the defence would be made available. Secondly, the committee was concerned about who would be considered a “provider” or “operator” in the context of the Bill’s future-proofing provision. Amendment 2 defines a provider or operator for the purpose of Clause 1(1)(d) of the Bill as a provider of adult content through a medium other than an ISP or MPO.

As with future provision, it is possible in principle that no new technology will develop for relaying adult content beyond ISPs and MPOs, in which case this part of the Bill will remain latent. But in truth, this would seem unlikely, judging by what has happened so far. I should explain that although the Delegated Powers Committee provides a critique of all Bills with delegated powers, I was informed by the chair that it does not provide advice about how to respond. In developing all my amendments in response to the committee, therefore, I have sought the advice of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, who sadly cannot be here today. His advice was, first, to keep the future-proofing provision and, secondly, that both these amendments address the concerns of the committee as set out in its report. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Healy of Primrose Hill Baroness Healy of Primrose Hill Labour

My Lords, I will be brief. I speak in support of Amendments 1 and 2, to which I have put my name. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, on getting to Committee with her important and timely Bill. She was very wise to include a future-proofing provision in the Bill, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, has been very wise to advise her to keep it in.

These two amendments address the two points raised by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee report with great clarity. Amendment 1 extends to future forms of providers the same defence currently afforded to internet service providers and mobile phone operators, thereby upholding even-handedness. Amendment 2 tightens the definition of provider to make it absolutely clear that in this context, we are talking about the provision of adult content in an online context by some actor other than an internet service provider or mobile phone operator.

In acknowledging the rapidly moving world of technology, the noble Baroness should be applauded for her farsightedness, as the amendments further strengthen the Bill, and I very much hope that the Committee will support them.

Photo of Lord Ramsbotham Lord Ramsbotham Crossbench

My Lords, at Second Reading, I picked up on “duty”, which is the first word in the clause, and suggested that there is nothing more important than the future well-being of our children and the nurturing and developing of their talents. The clause should be very much on the script of the National Security Strategy Committee, because it is up to government to ensure that the points made by my noble friend in moving the amendment, such as evolving technology, are taken into account continually.

I am sure that, in that connection, the whole House, not just this Committee, admires the determination of my noble friend in pursuing this issue over many years, not least following her recent sadness.

Photo of Lord Harris of Haringey Lord Harris of Haringey Labour 10:15 am, 11th December 2015

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, on getting to this stage. The fact that it has taken her five years demonstrates why the amendments and the clause are so important. If it takes five years—of course, the Bill still has some way to go before it becomes legislation—that gives us some indication of how long it will take to change subsequently. Therefore, it is important that whatever legislation is passed on technology matters, not just on this important issue of online safety of children but in any area, is future proofed. As a Parliament, we are very good at reacting to a crisis which is occurring now or occurred a year or 18 months ago. Our parliamentary processes necessarily take time. On something like this, where it has been necessary for a Private Member to act, it clearly takes even longer.

Unless we future-proof to recognise the rapidly changing nature of technology, all the provisions that I hope we will agree to here today will be of no value. Technology changes much too rapidly, and that is why we need to future-proof legislation. When the Minister gives what I trust will be a positive response to the Bill, she must encourage her colleagues in government departments, when they draft legislation that relates to technology, to include future-proofing provisions.

Photo of Lord Framlingham Lord Framlingham Conservative

My Lords, I shall be brief. First, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, on her efforts: she has been amazingly courageous and tenacious to get the Bill as far as this. The noble Lord said that it has taken five years. How many young children have had their lives really altered for the worse in those five years simply because we in both Houses of Parliament have not managed to give them the protection they deserve?

Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, in the film “Groundhog Day”, progress cannot be made unless the principal character comes across a moment of self-revelation. I do not think that is necessary in the case of the Bill. As we have heard, five years is a long time, but every year the noble Baroness has brought forward a better and better Bill. This time, we have the additional support of several noble Lords who have not only added their names to amendments but fervently support the Bill, as we have heard, and the Delegated Powers Committee has kindly assisted and provided some amendments. Perhaps that is the point at which Groundhog Day becomes reality and we can make progress. We wish the Bill all the best.

Photo of Baroness Shields Baroness Shields The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Internet Safety and Security, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Internet Safety and Security

My Lords, I recognise the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for her unwavering commitment to this agenda, and all those who have spoken and contributed to the Bill thus far. As you know, the Government are absolutely committed to the protection of children online, and we must acknowledge the significant and hugely encouraging progress that has been made in the UK on a self-regulatory and voluntary basis. Without legislation, the UK Council for Child Internet Safety has played a vital role in this process. This multi-stakeholder approach to internet safety draws together government, charities, and the internet and mobile industries, and provides a highly effective approach to internet safety that is the envy of our international equivalents.

This, in and of itself, is a future-proofing strategy. The Family Online Safety Institute, an international organisation based in Washington DC that works globally to drive up internet safety, says that the UK is,

“at the forefront of online safety and best practice”, and that UKCIS is at the core of that.

The first part of this Bill, to which it is proposed to add Amendments 1 and 2, would set out additional duties on internet service providers, mobile phone operators, Ofcom and Ministers in respect of providing a safe internet service for children and information about online safety. This is beyond the self-regulatory regime of family-friendly filters already voluntarily applied by all major ISPs and mobile phone operators in the UK. However well-intentioned the drafting of such future-proofing clauses may be, this is, as has been said, a constantly moving target. We have no reason to believe that the successful, voluntary approach led by industry will change in future. Nor do we expect that such an approach would be incapable of addressing these issues as they come up or the arrival of new operators, services and platforms.

Ofcom regularly publishes reports on internet safety measures and a forthcoming report will address the noble Baroness’s concerns. We feel that there is no need to set out arrangements in statute to require this at further intervals because they already do it voluntarily. Furthermore, all mobile phone operators provide filters as default-on, with age-verification controls in place before any changes can be made or filters removed. These filters are underpinned by an independent framework provided by the BBFC to define unsuitable content for under-18s, based on its classification guidelines.

However, as my noble friends and colleagues have mentioned, there is always more that can be done, and no filters or technological tools will be 100% successful all the time. It is crucial that parents continue to engage with their children’s internet experiences and ensure that they build awareness of and resilience to things they see on the internet which may upset them or cause them harm. It is also vital that we, as the Government, continue our effective and productive relationships with industry and Ofcom to consider how our world-class internet safety protections can be made even better. Great progress has been achieved in the UK through voluntary activity, with industry working together with Government and the charity sector in an effective and collaborative way. We have no reason to expect this effective partnership to change.

Photo of Baroness Howe of Idlicote Baroness Howe of Idlicote Crossbench

My Lords, I am very grateful to everyone who spoke in support of the amendment. I am somewhat disappointed by the reply of the Minister, though clearly she approves of the effect of some of what we have achieved along the way. As we tried to make clear, we think the time has come for rather more fat to be added to make rather less of this material available. As has been mentioned, more children could be damaged by it in the run-up to the next meeting, when we have yet another Bill to look at. However, this is Committee and we will no doubt look at coming back to all this on Report. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 1 withdrawn.

Amendment 2 not moved.

Clause 1 agreed.

Clause 2: Role of OFCOM

Amendment 3

Moved by Baroness Benjamin

3: Clause 2, page 2, line 33, leave out “user is able to access adult content” and insert “subscriber is able to—

(i) access adult content, or

(ii) change the filtering options set under section 1(3) of this Act”

Photo of Baroness Benjamin Baroness Benjamin Liberal Democrat

My Lords, this is a probing amendment and I very much look forward to hearing what the Minister says in response. Following the net neutrality vote in Brussels, it would seem that if the filtering arrangements negotiated by the Prime Minister—I congratulate him on them—are to continue, the Government must bring forward legislation to make them a reality by April. I very much hope that the Government will use this Bill to rise to this challenge since it not only makes statutory provision for filtering but addresses two serious shortcomings with the current voluntary arrangements.

One of these shortcomings is addressed by Clause 1, which not only mandates adult content filters but states that these cannot be lifted without prior age verification demonstrating that the person wanting to access adult content is indeed an adult. Clause 1(3)(a) requires that the age verification scheme used by the internet service providers, or ISPs, and mobile phone operators, or MPOs, conforms to the standards set by Ofcom in Clause 2. My amendment proposes that the guidance from Ofcom required under Clause 2(1)(b) must cover the age verification procedures not only for the initial set-up of a service but when people seek to change their filter settings, and to make provision for this to be done in a proper way.

Most people would find it very odd that the Government should have encouraged the industry to provide adult content filters but in a way that makes it perfectly possible for children as well as adults to lift them. There are two counterarguments here, as there are concerns about this dangerous situation. First, I fully understand that if a few tech-savvy young people can hack into TalkTalk, they would certainly be able to work out a way around age-verification checks. However, that is not an argument against doing what we can to make sure filters are not lifted by children but an argument against filters per se. Crucially, it is an argument that has failed. No one, least of all the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, or I, has ever argued that filters are the answer or the one and only silver bullet. The point about filters—the reason that the Prime Minister was absolutely right to promote them and that the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, has been so right to pursue them—is not that they make the internet safe but that they make it safer, by acting as a speed bump to slow down access.

Secondly, I am completely aware of the fact that the big four ISPs agreed that if the filter settings are changed the account holder should be emailed, so that if the settings were not changed by them they are made aware. However, this arrangement is completely unsustainable. In the first instance, the whole point about age verification is that it is something you do before, not after, allowing an age-restricted activity. In the second instance, the means of providing retrospective protection through this system is in any event very weak. Even if someone reads their emails very quickly, it will probably take several hours before they can do anything about it. During that time, their children could be freely accessing adult material.

In a poll for the charity CARE, a total of 34% of British adults—some 16.3 million people—said that they would not read an email from their ISP immediately. Some 11% said that they would probably leave the email unread for up to a week, while 9% would be likely to leave it for more than a week and a staggering 14% were unlikely to read any email from their ISP at all. This would leave a significant number of children exposed to adult content for a week or more, and others exposed permanently. We cannot allow that to happen.

In responding to this point at Second Reading, the Minister rather indicated that she was content with this. She said that,

“three-quarters of parents in the UK are confident that children are unable to bypass these tools. But to mitigate any further risk, as has been said today, ISPs email the main account holder when filter settings are set or changed”.—[ Official Report , 17/7/15; col. 860.]

Even if only the children of the remaining 25% of parents attempt to switch off the adult content filters, this can be no justification for exchanging credible age verification procedures before allowing the user to opt in to access adult content, for an arrangement that comes into effect only after adult content has been accessed and which we know will not be picked up by parents in significant numbers.

I simply cannot believe that the Minister—and I know her well—or the Government are really, truly satisfied with this unsafe arrangement. The Bill before us makes good this significant failing with the current arrangement. It is the purpose of my amendment to highlight that by using language that makes the fact that people change their filter settings more explicit in the Bill. I very much look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about this very important amendment, and I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Morrow Lord Morrow DUP 10:30 am, 11th December 2015

My Lords, I am very pleased to speak in support of the amendment proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, which makes explicit the fact that decisions about filtering are not just made at the set-up stage. I recall that during Second Reading the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, sought to highlight the fact that, in the context of the current voluntary filtering agreement between the big four ISPs, there is nothing to stop a child lifting adult content filters after they have been put in place. This seems to be a serious design flaw with the voluntary agreement, and one that I am glad this Bill seeks to rectify.

I note that when the Minister was pressed on this point during Second Reading she said that,

“three-quarters of parents in the UK are confident that children are unable to bypass these tools. But to mitigate any further risk, as has been said today, ISPs email the main account holder when filter settings are set or changed”.—[ Official Report , 17/7/2015; col. 860.]

I think that possibly the Minister misread the point. The lack of age verification in the event that after parents select filters at the set-up, their children subsequently—and unknown to them—turn the filters off, is not about bypassing filters.

The point is not that some very technologically able young people who can work out how to bypass filters should be subject to age verification. I am not sure how one would apply age verification to such clandestine activity. The concern relates instead to a larger group of children, with no great technological expertise, being able to switch off the filters in the same way as an adult who has no special technical expertise can do so, because the ISP has provided the user with the facility to maintain or lift filters. This is the process that should be age-verified. The idea that this concern has been sufficiently addressed by the provision of an email sent to the account holder after the filter settings have been changed, informing them of that fact, is deeply concerning.

Age verification should happen before an age-restricted activity is permitted. The idea that it is acceptable to do this after the fact, and by the most flimsy of arrangements, is quite extraordinary, to say the least. As the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, has said, even if you live in your inbox and open all your emails as they come in, it will still take you some time to address the problem if you are at work, which leaves the children exposed to harmful content, possibly for some hours. Most of us, however, take a while to get round to opening our emails—half a day, three days or a week. As the ComRes polling eloquently testifies, some people may never open it, leaving children exposed to adult content, unknown to their parents, who will assume the filters are still on indefinitely. I very much hope that when the Minister responds to this amendment, she will at least commit to review the provisions in place to help prevent children lifting adult content filters, after they have been introduced at the set-up, without prior age verification.

Photo of The Earl of Erroll The Earl of Erroll Crossbench

This amendment is quite logical, if the provisions are going to work. It is obvious that, if people can switch off filters, the whole thing is bypassed. I want to speak on the next amendment, about age checking, but this is a logical amendment to have if you want to get this Bill to work. As I said at Second Reading, filters are not quite good enough, because you can block only at the point when you access the page. Filters are quite crude—that is the problem; they tend to block entire websites, or they overblock and then people lift them. So there are a lot of problems around the amendment but it is hugely well intentioned, and I do not have a problem with people using filters. It is a good starter lock and will block a lot of simple things, but we need to go slightly further to block those who are technically savvy from getting round them—or those who persuade their parents that, because they could not get to a particular page on a website, they should override the filter for that website and unblock the whole thing. The convenience of the parent will probably win. How you get this to work is always the problem but that is not to say that we should not try.

Photo of Lord James of Blackheath Lord James of Blackheath Conservative

As a non-lawyer, may I intervene with a query? The phrase “adult” services is a colloquial euphemism. In my understanding, or non-understanding of the law, it is interpreted as to the literal use of the language. Would not it be unambiguous and better if it was just to say “pornographic”?

Photo of Baroness Howe of Idlicote Baroness Howe of Idlicote Crossbench

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, on her amendment, which put the whole theme very effectively. We can all only do our best to re-emphasise all these points, because they are so vital.

We have heard a good deal about age verification in relation to pornographic websites since the publication of the Conservative manifesto, and rightly so. The commitment is of seminal importance, and I very much welcome it. However, we should not lose sight of an entirely different application of age verification in the online world, which the noble Baroness has raised in this debate. Filtering as a child protection mechanism is only really credible if filters are lifted in response to requests from adults. To avoid confusion, let me be clear about what I mean when I talk in terms of lifting filters, and what I do not mean. Having a robust filtering system does not mean guaranteeing that no one with special expertise will be able to bypass the filters. That is beginning to be made clear—I hope so—because many people have mentioned it to the Minister.

I fully recognise, as do most of us, that quite a number of young people will work out how to do bypass filters. My point has never been that a robust filtering system makes the internet safe—only that it makes the internet safer. What I am talking about here is the facility that an adult, regardless of whether or not they are a computer expert, should be able to access to lift adult content filters if they decide they do not want them anymore. While a robust filtering system cannot be expected to guard against those young people with real computer expertise who can work out how to bypass filters, it must ensure that the mechanism that ISPs make available to their customers to switch off the filters is subject to age verification.

To have filters in place that anyone can lift without age verification is a bit like saying that we are doing our best to promote security by providing doors, even though all the doors are unlocked. In this context, a so-called closed loop system whereby an ISP will send an email to an account holder informing him that the filter settings have been changed is completely unacceptable. As other noble Lords have pointed out, age verification takes place before an age-restricted activity occurs, not after it. As the polling demonstrates, a significant number of people would never open an email from their ISP. The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, made that point, and I could not agree with him more. I very much hope that the Government will start taking note of this aspect of the age verification challenge as well as in relation to web crime.

The Bill, which requires users to decide whether they want to access adult content, subject to age verification checks, would help them rise to this challenge. Clause 1(4)(b) requires that a provider of a service has to have age verification that meets the standards set out in Clause 2. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, for moving her amendment, which makes explicit this very sensible requirement. I hope that on this occasion the Minister will have taken in what has been said and will do something about it.

Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, like the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, I think this is a logical amendment which follows the way in which the promoters of this Bill are taking it forward. It fits well into the logic of what we have heard so far, and it should be supported. As many noble Lords have said, age verification lies at the heart of this issue. It is not just in relation to adult content—however it is to be described—but also in relation to things such as gambling access and more generally. As we move into the digital age and as consumers increasingly exercise online purchasing power there will be other issues where it is important to make sure that age is verifiable. I am not sure that we have got to that point. That makes the Government’s response so far rather confusing, and I will be interested to hear what the Minister says on this amendment. They seem quite happy to go with the crowd on populist measures talking up what should happen here, but they seem reluctant to take the necessary steps to enforce them in a way that will give confidence to those who have to use these systems that they will work. Like the noble Baroness, I am looking forward to what the Minister will say.

Photo of Baroness Shields Baroness Shields The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Internet Safety and Security, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Internet Safety and Security

I thank noble Lords for their comments. This discussion has gone way beyond the scope of the amendment, but I state at the outset that there is no reluctance on the part of the Government to take action here. We are talking not about what is going to be done but about how it is going to be done. We have talked about future-proofing, but the real issue is that by the time legislation is in the public domain, the world will have moved on. We are starting a consultation very shortly on age verification. It is part of our manifesto commitment. We have been seeking the advice of experts for the past couple of months and are going to open that up to the public. There is no wavering in the Government’s commitment to online safety. We are talking about how we are trying to do it versus what we are trying do. We all agree that this is an urgent issue that has to be addressed. We have talked about filters. The noble Earl, Lord Erroll, has been very involved in the development of age verification systems and, as he said, filters are a very crude mechanism. We cannot rely on them completely. That said, we believe they are part of the parental toolkit, and we will make sure that by December 2016 we will be in compliance with the EU regulations on net neutrality. We will not let that slip through our fingers.

We are trying to legislate about many bits and bobs, if you will. We have to continue the process of co-operating with industry to evolve the regimes that protect children online. That is the only way. If there is something wrong with the way that ISPs are doing this, if there are things that noble Lords want to raise, they should raise them. The ISPs will change their procedures and modify accordingly. They are committed to this agenda. We do not need to legislate here. We just have to continue to work with them through the UK Council for Child Internet Safety and the voluntary mechanisms that we have established and we will accomplish more.

Photo of Lord Hughes of Woodside Lord Hughes of Woodside Labour 10:45 am, 11th December 2015

I may have misheard the Minister. Will she repeat the date? I thought she said December 2015, but this is December 2015.

Photo of Baroness Shields Baroness Shields The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Internet Safety and Security, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Internet Safety and Security

I said December 2016. As the Prime Minister said in response to this issue, we will make sure that we protect children in whatever way we think is necessary—whether that is law or not, I will not say at this stage—but we will make sure that that remains in place.

Photo of Lord Framlingham Lord Framlingham Conservative

Governments always want everything to be perfect, and this is a rapidly moving target in a very modern world. The point has now been made twice, and I make it again, that these amendments are designed not to make the system safe but to make it safer. At this stage, anything we can do to make it safer should be done.

Photo of Baroness Benjamin Baroness Benjamin Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have participated in this debate. I am happy to hear the Minister’s passion for and commitment to this issue. I look forward to seeing what the Government put forward for the future because, as we have all said, we have to protect our children. I recently visited Rye Hill prison in Rugby where there are more than 680 sex offenders. I spoke to some of them and they all said, “Baroness Benjamin, if only I had been protected from seeing adult content material when I was a child I would not have been so traumatised and damaged in the way I am today”. Many other children are being traumatised by being able to see adult content material. I am so pleased to hear noble Lords’ commitment and what the Government are going to do. Will the Minister meet Peers who have spoken this morning to see how we can all work together to put an end to this incredibly dangerous situation for our children? I am very grateful to the Minister. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 3 withdrawn.

Amendment 3A

Moved by Lord Morrow

3A: Clause 2, page 3, line 3, after “Assent” insert “, including assessment of—

“(i) filtering of adult content under Part 1 of this Act by providers and operators;

(ii) age verification policies used under Parts 1, 2 and 3 of this Act”

Photo of Lord Morrow Lord Morrow DUP

My Lords, this is a probing amendment which makes explicit two of the matters that the Ofcom report required by Clause 2(6) should cover: an assessment of the filtering of adult content required by Part 1 and the age verification policies referred to throughout the Bill.

One of the great strengths of Clause 1 is that it covers filtering of adult content by all internet service providers and mobile phone operators. Ofcom’s reporting duty should therefore relate to the conduct of all providers. It was very noticeable that in its recent review of filtering by ISPs, Ofcom considered only the big four ISPs that are subject to the voluntary filtering agreement negotiated with the Government. I do not believe that this filtering arrangement is sustainable in the long term, unless we are prepared to countenance affording better rights to children fortunate enough to live in households provided for by the big four ISPs than to those living in households serviced by other providers. According to Ofcom’s published facts and figures, the market share of the big four ISPs in 2015 was 88%. That is the same percentage as in 2014 with a slightly different distribution between the ISPs: BT had 32%, Virgin Media had 20%, TalkTalk had 14% and Sky had 22%. That leaves 12% of the market, and therein hundreds of thousands of children, beyond the reach of the agreement.

I am of course aware that, although not party to the agreement between the big four providers, a number of the smaller operators provide good filtering options. A survey late last year discovered that of the 14 smaller ISPs that service homes, four were found to be offering something nearly comparable to the big four but 10 were not. Of those 10, two made it clear that they did provide filtering but it had to be applied by the customer separately; it was not an unavoidable choice during the setup stage. Seven ISPs could not provide any information about filtering. One expressly said that it did not provide filtering. While the conduct of the four smaller ISPs is encouraging, the provision of filtering options by the smaller providers as a whole is concerning, and serves to underline the need for a common statutory approach.

I note that during the Second Reading debate on the Bill, the Minister, when challenged on this matter, responded in the following terms:

“It is important to note that these providers state at installation and on their marketing materials that they do not have child safety credentials”.—[Hansard, 17/7/15; col. 860.]

The implication of this approach would seem to be that so long as the company makes these statements, it will be okay. This seems rather extraordinary, raising the question: if this approach is sufficient, why can the other providers not do the same? It also jars with the survey that I mentioned earlier where only one of the 10 smaller ISPs clearly stated that it did not provide filtering. I am struggling to believe that this really represents the Minister’s position.

So long as some ISPs offer less protection than that provided through the agreement between the big four providers, and so long as we agree that all children are of equal value regardless of which provider services the homes in which they live, the only solution certainly seems the even-handed one proposed by the Bill, which requires the same minimum filtering from all providers, the conduct of which, subject to my amendment, should be reflected in the Ofcom report.

The case for making the changes proposed in Part 1 of the Bill and my amendment has of course been greatly strengthened since Second Reading as a result of the Prime Minister’s decision to introduce filtering legislation, which he announced in another place on 28 October. In responding to a question about whether the EU net neutrality vote would jeopardise our approach to filtering, the Prime Minister said:

“Like my hon. Friend, I think that it is vital that we enable parents to have that protection for their children from this material on the internet. Probably like her, I spluttered over my cornflakes when I read the Daily Mail this morning, because we have worked so hard to put in place those filters. I can reassure her on this matter, because we secured an opt-out yesterday so that we can keep our family-friendly filters to protect children. I can tell the House that we will legislate to put our agreement with internet companies on this issue into the law of the land so that our children will be protected”.

The words that struck me particularly in that passage were,

“I can tell the House that we will legislate”.—[Hansard, Commons, 28/10/15; col. 344.]

While I do not agree with the EU vote, the fact that it means that Britain will now legislate in this area is very welcome, both because it endorses the statutory approach advanced by this Bill and because it provides an opportunity for addressing the failure of the current approach to cover 12% of the market.

I understand that the Government must have legislation on the statute book by the time the new European provisions come into effect—on, I think,

30 April 2016—so they are very fortunate to have this excellent Private Member’s Bill already in Committee. I hope that the Minister can assure me that the Government will give serious consideration to adopting this Bill to protect ISPs from litigation. If the Government insist on bringing forward their own Bill, I impress upon them the need to require filtering, on the basis mandated by the Bill, for all ISPs that service households with children, not just some. This should also be reflected in Ofcom’s reporting obligation.

I should say in passing that if the Government are going to bring forward their own legislation that will have to be implemented by April next year, they should do so very quickly. There can be no excuse for rushing this through at the last minute when we have known this since the end of June this year. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Healy of Primrose Hill Baroness Healy of Primrose Hill Labour

My Lords, I support the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Morrow. Ofcom should have to report on the compliance of all ISPs, not just the big four, and all ISPs should be subject to the same filtering obligations where they service households with children, as the noble Lord has said. The Government need to ensure that all providers that service households with children have adequate filters. If the Government now need to make legal provision for filtering, in order to protect the big four from litigation on the basis of EU net neutrality legislation, surely the best way forward is to use this excellent Bill.

Photo of The Bishop of Bristol The Bishop of Bristol Bishop

My Lords, I do not want to add too much to the way that the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, has framed his amendment today, but his point is worthy of serious scrutiny, simply because children living in households that are not serviced by the big four ISPs surely require the same level of protection as those in homes whose services are provided by the big four ISPs. Everyone in your Lordships’ House agrees that every child matters; I think that it is not at all controversial to say that.

It is a little confusing that the Prime Minister should seem so robust in his statement in the other place on 28 October, suggesting that the Government wanted to introduce legislation, yet the Minister—unless I misunderstand her—seems very happy to continue with a kind of voluntary regulation. I am not quite sure how that squares up. The point—and the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, makes it well—is that whatever we come up with cannot apply only to some children; surely it must apply to them all.

I would have thought we might regard it as good news that there is a need to introduce some legislation to prevent our approach to filtering being caught up by the new EU legislation, which provides us with an opportunity to correct a serious failing in our current arrangements. I hope that the Government—although I am starting to feel doubtful about this—might seize this opportunity with both hands.

I therefore put two questions to the Minister. First, I assume that the big four ISPs are saying to the Government, “We’re happy to continue providing filtering on the basis that we agreed, but only if you provide us with the requisite legal cover because we’re not prepared to be left vulnerable to litigation once the new EU net neutrality legislation comes into effect”. Will the Minister confirm that this is the point of concern, or at least a part of it? Secondly and more importantly, although she may have already dealt with this, I had thought that the deadline at the moment was 30 April but I think she has said that it has now been extended to December. I would be grateful if she could clarify that.

I hope that the Government are not going to produce an entirely new piece of legislation next year that they then rush through at high speed without the proper scrutiny of your Lordships’ House. That would be wholly unacceptable, and I would dearly love the Government to adopt the Bill.

Photo of The Earl of Erroll The Earl of Erroll Crossbench

My Lords, I want to say a few things at this point because this amendment refers to age-verification policies, which Ofcom is supposed to be producing. I do not want to say very much about it, but there are things other than direct adult content online. For example, we need to block the sale of pornographic DVDs, which can be supplied through several of the major sites where you can buy all sorts of other stuff that it is perfectly legal to buy. The problem is that you need to block at individual page level for a lot of stuff, otherwise people will get around this fairly easily.

The real problem is that filters do not do anything about the material they are blocking. They work on look-up tables, which are compiled by various people who look at websites, or individual pages on websites, and the filter goes through the list. But a filter is not a magic device that knows when somebody is looking at pornography. If the material is not in the table, the filter does not know about it. Someone has to keep the table up to date and there are organisations that do that, and they do it very well, or at least they do their best. However, we should not think that the filter is a silver bullet that will provide the cure. That is why we need somehow to incentivise the vendors and content providers on the internet—the people who deliver the material over the web—rather than the people giving access to the web. That is probably why there will have to be legislation to incentivise them to behave in the right way. We should have both positive and negative incentives, so that people who behave well get some advantage and people who behave badly have a disadvantage.

Interestingly, I have talked to some of the adult content or pornographic providers and they are quite keen to have good, simple age-checking system, if it is cheap enough. They waste a lot of bandwidth on people who buy nothing and who can get into these sites for free. Credit card checks do not work because they arrive too late in the process. There are all sorts of things out there which one would not expect.

One reason I am speaking on this is that I am chairing the steering group on the British Standards Institution’s Publicly Available Specification 1296, which is about online age-checking. The idea is that this can be used by organisations and companies to try to do the right thing. It is difficult and complicated but we will probably produce the first draft for the steering group early in the new year. With luck, and if it is good enough, it will give the Government something they can refer to when they come to make legislation and it will help people to comply with the law. I am talking about this at this point because the requirement for Ofcom to produce age-verification policies is referred to in the Bill, and I hope that the work of the steering group will be of help in that.

I am not against the principle of trying to make sure that things are filtered, as the Bill seeks to do. Filters provide a very good initial lock but they are not the perfect solution—they are not going to cover everything and we need to do better than that. The Bill may cause a lot of chaos in the internet service provider world and it may distract from the much more important issue of making sure that those who run the websites—the only people who really know what they are delivering—have an incentive to behave in the right way.

Photo of Lord Framlingham Lord Framlingham Conservative 11:00 am, 11th December 2015

The noble Earl obviously knows a huge amount about the subject and he is speaking in a way that I do not completely understand. At what stage does he think we should legislate? How long do we wait to get it as right as he would like it to be?

Photo of The Earl of Erroll The Earl of Erroll Crossbench

Being realistic, I suspect that the Minister’s timetable in the real world is probably very sensible. You can legislate hastily but then there will be huge arguments about it. It is a bit like the Digital Economy Act, which was rushed through. The measures in that to try to prevent people unlawfully downloading copyrighted material were not going to work in the real world. They caused a lot of chaos and, as a result, nothing happened because it was not possible to produce sensible regulations that would work and satisfy the courts and everyone else. Eventually, something got going but it is not brilliant, and it took the pressure off everyone to produce something that might have been a little better. Therefore, the Minister is probably being very sensible on this.

Photo of Lord Framlingham Lord Framlingham Conservative

Does the noble Earl accept that there is a huge difference between the problems that might arise from copyright and those that arise from damaged children?

Photo of The Earl of Erroll The Earl of Erroll Crossbench

I totally accept that. I was just using it as an example of where legislation has gone through in haste with very good intentions but it has not worked because it has not been thought through technically. Checking age is quite complex—for various reasons I prefer the word “checking” to “verification”. There are lots of ways of doing it but it is difficult to produce something that is workable in the real world. Credit cards are not the answer, and the net neutrality principle coming out of Europe will also cause problems. All sorts of things like that have to be taken into account. Getting it right in the long term for children’s safety is much more important than trying to rush through something that looks good. We should remember the saying “Legislate in haste and repent at leisure”.

Photo of Baroness Howe of Idlicote Baroness Howe of Idlicote Crossbench

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, on his amendment, which he moved so ably, not least because it highlights one of the key points that has been made repeatedly in debates not only on this Bill but on the many previous online safety Bills.

I have never been persuaded that the voluntary filtering agreement between the big four ISPs is anything other than a very temporary measure. In the first instance, I believe that filtering is sufficiently important to warrant a statutory foundation. In the second instance, I believe it is important for the Prime Minister to press the big four ISPs to introduce a robust filtering regime for the sake of the children in the house that they serve. If it is important for him to agree to do that then, as others have mentioned, it is equally important that he does the same for the children in houses served by other ISPs. Unless we believe that some children are more important than others, surely we must operate on the basis that all children are worth fighting for just as much as those serviced by the big four. If it falls to all of us in this current attempt to bring in an online safety Act to support and speak up for the children in this group, of course we will continue to do so.

In my view, the only sensible way forward here is an even-handed statutory approach, as set out in Clause 1. It should relate, as the noble Lord’s amendment proposes, to Ofcom’s reporting of filtering as well as to the filtering itself. If the Government now have to make statutory provision for filtering because of new EU legislation, it certainly would be indefensible not to apply the new provision to all providers. With this in mind, and as I and others have said, we would be more than happy for the Government to take aboard and use this part of the Online Safety Bill.

Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, I opened my comments this morning by referring to the film “Groundhog Day”. I did so in jest and it was not taken seriously but, as we go through the Bill, I am beginning to think that it has more to say to us than I had thought.

Like the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol, I am quite confused about the Government’s position on this. I am sorry to keep going on to the Minister, who I know is in a good place on many of these issues, but what is happening? She said, in a very strong statement, that there was no reluctance to act; on the other hand, she was quite careful to cover herself and said that that did not mean legislation. Yet, as we have heard, the Prime Minister himself—her boss—has jumped in and has said that legislation will be in place by 31 December, even though we think the date will be 30 April next year. I am not an expert on these matters and I certainly do not want to cause the Committee more confusion, because we want to get through this business today and make sure that the Bill goes on its way. However, it would be helpful if, either now or before the end of this Committee, we had a very clear statement.

Like others, I think this whole area needs people who are keen to see movement on it to get round a table and work out what can be done. If the Government are to go ahead with their own agenda, I am sure the promoters of the Bill, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, in particular, will want to get behind that and support it. However, as we know, legislation and legislative time is very difficult to arrange, so, if the Government decided that they had to legislate, it would be completely ridiculous to lose the opportunity available to us here today. We on this side of the House are very willing to support what is necessary to do this—we are not oppositional on this matter—but we are confused.

Photo of Baroness Shields Baroness Shields The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Internet Safety and Security, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Internet Safety and Security

I thank all noble Lords for their comments. I start by addressing the conflation of some issues and the confusion that has been raised. On the confusion regarding the filters regime and its legality in terms of Europe, we must legislate to make our filters regime legal according to the new net neutrality regulations. The date for that is by December 2016. To be clear: we need to do something to keep our existing regime viable and functional under the law. That is the first thing. As the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, so aptly presented in his comments, the Prime Minister said that we would legislate to make sure that our filters regime is legal under European law.

It is not fair to insinuate that by challenging the vehicle we are somehow not supporting or speaking up for children. That is so far from the truth. The noble Earl, Lord Erroll, said that filters are not a silver bullet and explained to us how technically they work. The work being done by the British Standards Institution and the Digital Policy Alliance to define a standard for things such as age verification is vital to staying ahead of this problem. If the result of this work is something that the ISPs can then adopt, we will have an evidence-based technological solution that will support us going forward. That is much better than trying to tell the ISPs how to do it. We are looking to experts and developing an evidence base so that we can do this properly and voluntarily. The ISPs have said that they are willing to take that on board.

When the Digital Policy Alliance reports back to tell us how this can be done effectively, it will take time for these companies to go back to their engineering teams and develop solutions that enable them to implement those recommendations. That all takes time. You cannot legislate for that today. We are not talking about whether we are committed to it or the industry is committed to it.

Photo of Lord Harris of Haringey Lord Harris of Haringey Labour

I do not think anyone is denying that it will take time to implement things. Clearly, the time taken will be the same whether it is a voluntary scheme or written in legislation. But if you have legislation, those timetables become much firmer and the opportunities for prevarication and delay start to disappear. No Member of this House is ignoring the fact that it will take time. It is a question of what degree of urgency is being put on this and the extent to which you are guaranteeing that these things happen.

Photo of Baroness Shields Baroness Shields The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Internet Safety and Security, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Internet Safety and Security

I thank the noble Lord for his intervention. The commitment to this is voluntary and clear. Of course it will take time, but it is evolving. The action of the industry is voluntary and the process has to be consultative. The UK Council for Child Internet Safety meets and provides an evidence base to the ISPs and the industry about what we know and how they should act—it is doing that. We are just talking about the vehicle to get us there, and we think we have a better approach. We will consult on age verification and bring something forward, enshrined in law or in whatever way we think is best, to ensure that the filters regime stays in place.

We have re-opened the conversation about many issues today. This particular amendment was on whether we should specify that Ofcom’s reports on filtering content and age-verification policies are set out as a duty. We are way beyond that at this stage. Ofcom is about to produce a report later this month that does just that. Therefore, the Government’s perspective is that this is already being done by Ofcom and there is no need to enshrine it in law.

Photo of Lord Morrow Lord Morrow DUP

My Lords, I am very grateful to all those who have spoken in this debate today. I have listened intently to what has been said by all noble Lords and, in particular, by the Minister. I detect real concern around the Committee on this very important matter. It has been very useful to reflect on the need to engage with all ISPs, both on the filtering regime to help keep children safe online and on Ofcom’s reporting role. The Minister has seen that there is a real concern about the issue, and I wonder whether she might be willing to meet concerned Peers to discuss the way forward on this important matter.

Photo of Baroness Shields Baroness Shields The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Internet Safety and Security, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Internet Safety and Security 11:15 am, 11th December 2015

I would be absolutely delighted to meet noble Lords on this matter. In fact, maybe some noble Lords might want to join us at the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, where many of these issues are raised and discussed, and where evidence-based teams go off and research then report back with excellent suggestions that are taken on board by industry. That is a collaborative approach and ensures that, as issues arise, we can react—as an industry, as government and as NGOs, working in partnership.

Photo of Lord Morrow Lord Morrow DUP

I thank the Minister for her very positive response and look forward to that meeting in the not too distant future. At the outset, I made it clear that this was a probing amendment. Therefore, for the moment, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 3A withdrawn.

Clauses 2 agreed.

Clauses 3 to 7 agreed.

Clause 8: Authority to license foreign pornographic services

Amendment 4

Tabled by Baroness Howe of Idlicote

4: Clause 8, page 5, line 5, after “be” insert “—

(a) ”

Photo of Lord McColl of Dulwich Lord McColl of Dulwich Conservative

My Lords, I am very pleased to speak in support of Amendments 4 to 7 from the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, to which my name is attached. No one can read the very important 2014 ATVOD report and not be convinced about the child safety imperative to provide some kind of regulatory framework for dealing with online pornography, which is projected into this country mainly from websites located abroad.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, will tell us, that report demonstrated that 23 out of the 25 pornographic websites most frequently visited by people in this country are located outside of the UK. To this end, I am of course pleased that this year’s Conservative manifesto committed to introducing age-verification checks on all pornographic sites, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister when further details about this proposal will be published. We had been promised a consultation before the end of the year.

The Government are exceptionally well placed to rise to this challenge, having recently introduced the Gambling (Licensing and Advertising) Act 2014 to regulate online gambling websites based beyond the United Kingdom. In the context of gambling, if someone does not have a licence and they seek to conduct transactions with people in the UK, they operate illegally, so financial transaction providers are happy to refuse to facilitate transactions.

ATVOD, however, reports that the same is not true of pornographic websites that service UK customers from other countries. At the moment, such sites break no law. Indeed, the financial transaction providers have pointed out that, if they refuse to conduct illegal transactions between such sites and people in the UK, they would be the ones likely to be taken to court. This difficulty, however, would not obtain if we introduced a licensing system similar to that pertaining to online gambling and the provider in question did not have a licence. The simple proposal in this Bill is that the providers of online pornography from outside the UK must get a licence, a condition of which would be the provision of robust age verification. I hope that the Government will adopt this Bill as it presents a timely means of fulfilling their manifesto pledge.

The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee report took the view that it would be better if the body that heard appeals against decisions not to grant a licence or to revoke an existing licence, were not the same body that awarded the licences. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, through these amendments, has made provision for the designation of a separate body to hear appeals. The amendments, which the noble Baroness wisely asked the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, to assess, clearly have that effect. I hope the Committee will support them.

Photo of Baroness Howe of Idlicote Baroness Howe of Idlicote Crossbench

My Lords, I apologise for the delay in finding my papers, particularly to the noble Lord, Lord McColl, who very kindly stepped in.

Amendments 4 to 7 form the second group of amendments that I tabled in response to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee report published on 20 July. They relate to my proposal under Clause 8 to introduce a licensing scheme for foreign pornographic websites in the absence of any robust regulation of these websites.

The Committee may remember that ATVOD, the Authority for Television on Demand, which I am sad to say will cease to exist at the end of the month, published a report in 2014 that found that 23 of the top 25 adult websites visited by UK internet users provide instant, free and unrestricted access to hardcore pornographic videos, some of which would not be available on a British high street.

ATVOD’s report explains that it has encouraged the UK payments industry—credit card companies, Paypal and so forth—not to process transactions involving websites showing hardcore pornography that is presented without robust age verification safety checks. However, it also explains that the transaction providers are unwilling to do so because,

“the absence of clear case law on the issue precludes such an initiative”.

In short, unless the provider of the material is breaking a law, a financial transaction provider could be taken to court for failing to process the transaction. Setting up a licensing scheme, however, as proposed by Clause 8, would set up clear case law. An organisation would have a licence, or it would not. If the organisation did not have a licence, there would be no legal obstacles if a financial transaction provider was minded not to process the transaction—something that Clause 10 crucially mandates.

Clause 8 would provide a regulatory framework to ensure that these websites are not available to children. Clause 9 makes it an offence not to have a licence and Clause 10 provides a means of ensuring that payments to unlicensed websites would cease—a matter I shall come back to when I speak on Amendments 8 to 13.

The committee was concerned that appeals against decisions on not granting a licence or having a licence revoked would be heard by the licensing body. That is a genuine concern, so I tabled Amendments 4 to 7 to ensure that an independent body be able to review any appeals.

Amendments 4 and 5 ensure that the powers under Clause 8(1) allow the Secretary of State to designate both a licensing body and a separate independent appeals body. Amendments 6 and 7 ensure that the Secretary of State is not able to designate a licensing body without knowing that the independent body has adequate arrangements for appeals. As I have already said, I sought the counsel of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, about whether these amendments deal with the problems highlighted by the committee and he assured me that they do. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Labour

My Lords, it seems to me that the Government, after so much time has elapsed and so many of our young people have been able to access hardcore pornography, need to take action. I congratulate the noble Baroness for yet again trying to persuade the Government to do that. A voluntary approach has not worked. It is time that the Government offered the same protection to children and young people as they do on gambling—that is, robust age verification. In addition, the Government need to have a licensing system. I cannot think why there is none, particularly given that the Prime Minister has said how much he wants to protect our children from accessing hardcore pornography, and recognises the damage it is doing. Will the Minister accept these amendments and give the Government’s support to this Bill? It is time to do so.

Photo of The Earl of Erroll The Earl of Erroll Crossbench

My Lords, we have been talking about payments. I agree entirely that the big challenge is everybody moving offshore, and so the problem becomes foreign websites supplying pornography. The Committee is quite right about that. But I thought I ought to comment on the business of processing payments. One thing became apparent to us when we began discussing online age checking—and we are calling it that rather than age verification, because verification is tied up with identity. We need to separate the two because one is an attribute and the other is identity. I do not want to confuse the two, but I will not give the Committee a long lecture about that.

The point is that we soon discovered that there is an awful lot of stuff out there for free and therefore payment does not come into it. If we want to protect our children, we have to do so when no payment is involved. The very fact that someone can pay proves that they are at a legal age to watch this sort of stuff, but actually the big problem is the stuff that is out there for free. That is what we are really trying to block. The steering group of the BSI has representatives from the identity world, the ISPs, child protection charities, tobacco, e-cigarettes, alcohol, gaming, gambling, and academia, and government observers. The trouble with this issue is its complexity. I want to say briefly that payments are a bit of a red herring. On the other hand, blocking foreign pornographic providers is absolutely right and needs to be done.

Photo of Lord Framlingham Lord Framlingham Conservative 11:30 am, 11th December 2015

I am sorry to keep picking the noble Earl’s brain, but for the purposes of today’s debate, is there any intrinsic difference between the gambling industry and the pornography industry?

Photo of The Earl of Erroll The Earl of Erroll Crossbench

Yes, there is, interestingly enough. It is to do with the law. Because of anti-money laundering, the gambling industry has to do client checks; it has to behave almost as if it were a bank. As a result, companies have to be able to prove the identity of the person. For various social reasons, it is felt that it is unfair for people to have to declare their identity publicly if they are looking at adult content which it is perfectly legal to watch, or buying alcohol and so on. For instance, if a Muslim buys alcohol and the mosque gets to know about it because their identity had to be declared and retained publicly, they might suffer greatly. Equally, if a Cabinet Minister happens to view some pornography or adult material, that is perfectly legal but, if certain newspapers were to find out, the Minister’s career would be destroyed overnight. This is the challenge and the difference. We have to remember that this stuff is legal for the over-18s, but there are social pressures and public opinion, which we may or may not agree with, so I think that we have to protect people’s privacy.

Photo of Lord Framlingham Lord Framlingham Conservative

I am sorry to ask again. The example that has been given mentions embarrassment, but it is not technically illegal.

Photo of The Earl of Erroll The Earl of Erroll Crossbench

The example I have given is one that is career-destroying. The knock-on effect of that could involve all sorts of family repercussions to do with children in school because Daddy or Mummy has just had their career destroyed. We sometimes forget the effect on a family as the result of something that, while it may be regarded by some as socially unacceptable, is perfectly legal. We need to think about that at the parliamentary level.

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Labour

My Lords, that is exactly the point. The noble Earl, Lord Erroll, as ever is championing an industry which takes the view that, if you cannot do everything, you do not do anything. This is about doing something.

Photo of The Earl of Erroll The Earl of Erroll Crossbench

No, I am not trying to champion the industry, I am trying to protect children properly. The point is that this Bill is a great idea and a great effort, as long as it does not mess up the field for doing something about it properly. The Bill will not actually cure some of the root problems, but there are elements of it which should go into some proper legislation. I entirely agree with the principles and thoughts behind it, and I have no problem with them, but I want something that works in the real world and which is not going to be bypassed because some of the solutions are too simplistic. That is the challenge, and hence the complexity. I hope we will see legislation on this subject next year that will allow for some real action to be taken which will protect children. I am not trying to champion an industry, but I am trying to draw lines.

Photo of The Bishop of Bristol The Bishop of Bristol Bishop

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for his explanation. I do not think that anyone in this House actually believes that what we will end up with will be—I think he has used the phrase—the silver bullet. What we want is to try to be as watertight and robust as we can. It is quite right of the noble Earl to point out to the Committee that it is inconceivable that we will be able to cover everything. I think that the issue is this: is what we have in front of us the right way to go ahead in trying to protect our children in the best way we possibly can? I believe that it is.

Photo of The Earl of Erroll The Earl of Erroll Crossbench

Perhaps I may respond briefly. Because I know that the Government fully intend to bring forward legislation next year, I did not want to get too involved in trying to sort out this Bill. I am afraid that I would separate the ISP and the filtering completely. I would put in proper provisions about age checking and vendors at the point of sale, look at the point of access on the internet, and start to construct something that would be future-proofed—that means as far as we can see at the moment. We need to block the loopholes, so I would separate filtering from the responsibility of vendors not to break the law. Vendors are in effect breaking the law at the moment, but the problem is how to stop them. There are websites selling stuff which should not be sold to minors, but the problem is in enforcement because those websites are getting around the rules. We have to write a slightly more complex Bill so that some things are separated out.

The concept behind filters in this Bill is absolutely fine and is there to underpin stuff. I have no problem with that, but I do not want people to think that it is the real solution to the challenge of protecting our children. We have to stop the websites and prevent access to them. It has to be done at the point of sale much more than just general access to the internet.

Photo of Baroness Benjamin Baroness Benjamin Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I agree with much of what has been said so far, especially by the noble Baroness, but while we are trying to find solutions let us remember that childhood lasts a lifetime. What children see will stay with them for ever. As I said earlier, I visited Rye Hill prison in Rugby, and many of the prisoners told me about what they saw when they were children. We need to move forward as swiftly as possible. We might not get it all right, but we have to do something quickly—just as the gambling industry and others have done. When it comes to children, what is the difference? We need to protect them now.

Photo of Baroness Shields Baroness Shields The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Internet Safety and Security, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Internet Safety and Security

I thank all noble Lords for their contributions, and I state one more time that there is no ambiguity about the Government’s commitment to launch the consultation shortly after the new year, and to provide for a robust age verification system to ensure that no one under the age of 18 can access pornographic material in the UK. It is a process that has been going on. We have been seeking advice from experts since the manifesto commitment was announced and we are consulting early in the new year. We are 100% committed to that.

I thank the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, for his contributions and for his extraordinary work in leading the development of solutions that will in fact achieve our goal. Many elements of the Bill are incredibly well thought-out and well intentioned, and they will be taken on board in the resulting legislative approach that we take in the new year. This is about timing. This clause requires that the Secretary of State must identify a licensing authority for non UK-based pornographic services, and the noble Baroness’s amendment to the clause specifies that the Secretary of State needs a second independent body to conduct appeals. It is a very good suggestion, but it is a bit premature until we finish the consultation.

Regarding the Ofcom/ATVOD role, there is some confusion about the function of ATVOD continuing, but following an Ofcom review, it was publicly announced in October that from January next year Ofcom will take sole responsibility for regulating video on-demand programme services. As a result, it will not continue its co-regulatory arrangement with ATVOD. Let us be clear on this: it is continuing with the function and the obligation of ATVOD, but that is being brought into the Ofcom portfolio.

Photo of Lord McColl of Dulwich Lord McColl of Dulwich Conservative

My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 4 withdrawn.

Amendments 5 to 7 not moved.

Clause 8 agreed.

Clause 9 agreed.

Clause 10: Prevention of payments

Amendment 8

Moved by Baroness Howe of Idlicote

8: Clause 10, page 6, line 22, leave out “designated person” and insert “person or persons associated with the foreign pornographic service”

Photo of Baroness Howe of Idlicote Baroness Howe of Idlicote Crossbench

My Lords, Amendments 8 to 13 constitute the third group of amendments that I have tabled in response to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee’s report published on 20 July. This set of amendments, like Amendments 4 to 7, relates to my proposal to introduce a licensing scheme for foreign pornographic websites. Clause 10 allows instructions to be given to the financial industry to block payments to any foreign pornographic website that does not have a licence for content accessed in the UK.

In the ATVOD report which I referred to, ATVOD set out that it has been trying to cut all funds from foreign pornographic websites, but the UK payment industry—credit card companies, PayPal et cetera—has reported that,

“the absence of clear case law on the issue precludes such an initiative”.

As I noted during the previous debate, setting up a licensing scheme under Clause 8 would give rise to clear case law: an organisation would have a licence or it would not.

Clause 10 provides another tool to target foreign pornographic websites without a licence. I hope that, under my proposal, this clause would be used rarely because payments would be blocked routinely by financial transaction providers, but it is useful to have another tool to ensure that these websites can be targeted. I based this provision on the precedent of the Treasury’s power to instruct that financial payment should not be made to terrorist groups, as set out in Schedule 7 to the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008. I am sure that noble Lords would not read into that comment that I am suggesting terrorism and provision of hardcore pornography are the same, though both are very damaging; rather, this precedent in law provides a reasonable model for my Bill to follow.

Once again, the committee has given helpful suggestions on improving the drafting and operation of the clause. It rightly pointed out that the definition of “designated person” in Clause 10(3) and 10(5) was problematic and left uncertainty about who the clause is really aimed at. My intention was that the blocking should be of payments to an unlicensed foreign pornographic website. I am again very grateful for the advice of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, who suggested that I replace the use of “designated person” completely with a reference to the foreign pornographic website, which I have done through Amendments 8 to 10 to Clause 10(3). Amendment 12, which removes the definition in Clause 10(5), is consequential on Amendments 8 to 10.

The committee was also concerned that there is no sanction on a “relevant person” who does not comply with a direction under this clause. I have tabled Amendment 13 to make it clear that a relevant person is one of the group of persons or people listed under Clause 10(2) so that there is no lack of clarity about who should be carrying out the direction. I have also tabled Amendment 11 to set out that anyone who does not comply with a required direction would be liable to pay a fine. This is based on paragraph 20 of Schedule 7 to the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008. Once again, I sought the counsel of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, on these arrangements to ensure that they properly meet the committee’s concerns relating to these three points, as set out in its report. He assures me that they do.

I should also mention that the committee expressed concerns about the idea that a licensing authority should be able to instruct the financial industry. There is, however, legal precedence in Schedule 7 to the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 and I hope that, given the clarifications of purpose resulting from these amendments, its concerns will be allayed. I will, however, consult the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, further—I have not done that so far—and may well return to this question with a further amendment on Report if necessary. I am grateful for the comments of the committee to ensure that this clause is as robust as possible, and to the noble and learned Lord for his expert advice. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Benjamin Baroness Benjamin Liberal Democrat 11:45 am, 11th December 2015

My Lords, I warmly welcome these amendments, which will help to strengthen further this very important Bill. I agree with the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee’s suggestion that there is a need to provide a better definition of the designated body in Clause 10. The solution from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, addresses the problem admirably, through Amendments 8 to 10 and Amendment 12. I also agree with the committee’s point about the need to apply a sanction to a relevant person who does not comply with the direction provided under the clause. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, has responded very effectively to these points. I support her and congratulate her on her undying quest, commitment and mission to make these amendments and the whole Bill become a reality.

Photo of Baroness Shields Baroness Shields The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Internet Safety and Security, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Internet Safety and Security

I thank the noble Baroness for these amendments and the innovative approach that she has outlined to solving this challenge. I reserve the right to consider these and all proposals that come across as part of our consultation.

Photo of Lord Skelmersdale Lord Skelmersdale Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, having listened off and on to the debate, it strikes me that my noble friend the Minister has made it clear to all of us that there will be, first, a consultation and then legislation before Easter. I hope that I have that right. In which case, there are roughly 10 sitting weeks between 1 January and Easter. Consultation would normally take between five and six weeks, by the time that you have had responses, understood them and printed a response to them. You are then left with very few weeks in which to legislate. I ask my noble friend: will this legislation be by order, perhaps under the European Communities Act or by another route, or does she really think it possible to get primary legislation through both Houses by Easter?

Photo of Baroness Shields Baroness Shields The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Internet Safety and Security, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Internet Safety and Security

I thank my noble friend for giving me the opportunity to clarify this point. The consultation that will begin just after new year is about age verification for pornographic sites and how we will accomplish the manifesto commitment to stop young people accessing this harmful material. The other matter relates to the legality of our filters regime after the EU directive on net neutrality. The two are separate and distinct in the sense that the second, on filters, has to be acted on as a matter of urgency to keep the filters regime legal. The other is acted on as a matter of urgency to prevent children accessing this material. They are separate matters.

Photo of Lord Harris of Haringey Lord Harris of Haringey Labour

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that clarification. However, will she confirm that the legislation she is talking about is essentially minimalist and will simply deal with the issue that has arisen around the current voluntary age verification scheme, in the light of what has happened in the EU? The hopes which some noble Lords have expressed, that that piece of legislation might be a vehicle for something much broader, are therefore not valid. A minimalist change is being envisaged, rather than something which will address all the issues that noble Lords have raised.

Photo of Baroness Shields Baroness Shields The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Internet Safety and Security, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Internet Safety and Security

I confirm that we have to react to what has happened in Europe. The European net neutrality directive has set us back, so we are getting ourselves back on a stable footing and enshrining in law the fact that we can protect our filters regime. That is not an intentionally minimalist approach; we have to react to the legal situation that the directive has created.

Photo of Baroness Howe of Idlicote Baroness Howe of Idlicote Crossbench

I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 8 withdrawn.

Amendments 9 to 13 not moved.

Clause 10 agreed.

Clause 11 agreed.

In the Title

Amendment 14

Moved by Baroness Howe of Idlicote

14: In the Title, line 3, leave out from “require” to the first “to” in line 4 and insert “information to be provided about online safety by internet service providers and mobile phone operators;”

Photo of Baroness Howe of Idlicote Baroness Howe of Idlicote Crossbench

My Lords, I think by now your Lordships will be aware that this is the fifth Online Safety Bill that I have brought to your Lordships’ House. When it was originally submitted to the Public Bill Office, it had the correct Long Title, but, sadly, in the course of preparing the Bill, somehow that new Long Title was exchanged for the previous Long Title—this was lovely back-to-front stuff. The Public Bill Office staff spotted their mistake. They were very apologetic but explained that by that stage it was too late and the only way to correct it was through amendment. Put simply, the Bill currently has the wrong Long Title and Amendments 14 to 16 change it, so that it accurately defines the Bill as it stands.

Amendment 14 would remove the obligation on electronic device manufacturers in the previous version of the Bill, which is not in the current Bill. It puts in its place a description of the obligation placed on internet service providers and mobile phone operators in the Bill to provide information about online safety, as set out in Clause 3. Amendment 16, meanwhile, describes the new proposal to license foreign pornographic websites, as set out in Part 3. I suppose it is fairly amazing that mix-ups like this do not happen more often. I am most grateful to the Public Bill Office for pointing out its error and helping me to correct it.

Given that rather than changing the Bill, these amendments simply restore the correct Long Title to what it should have been all along, I very much hope that these amendments need not detain us. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Shields Baroness Shields The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Internet Safety and Security, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Internet Safety and Security

My Lords, the Government have noted the noble Baroness’s proposed changes to the Long Title of this Bill, which serve to clarify its content. As I said, there can be no higher priority than keeping children safe online, and to the extent that this measure clarifies the Bill’s intentions, we support it.

Amendment 14 agreed.

Amendments 15 and 16

Moved by Baroness Howe of Idlicote

15: In the Title, line 5, leave out “and” and insert “;”

16: In the Title, line 6, at end insert “; introduce licensing of foreign pornographic websites; and for connected purposes”

Amendments 15 and 16 agreed.

Title, as amended, agreed.

House resumed.

Bill reported with amendments.