Age Verification - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:13 pm on 20th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (International Trade) 2:13 pm, 20th June 2019

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement made earlier. I have come, as is probably obvious from my dress, from a memorial service for the late Jeremy Heywood, former head of the British Civil Service and Cabinet Secretary. The theme of that wonderful event was the quality of the British Civil Service. Its skills and expertise are unparalleled in the modern world, and it is a true legacy of his work in that period. It is therefore rather sad to come from that to this, which appears to be an apologia for the work of civil servants. I assume that it is civil servants we are talking about here and not Ministers, although the Minister did not say that in the Statement. Honest mistakes happen, and I do not suggest that anything other than that is at stake here.

Having said that, it would be helpful to know more about what has been happening and how it will be progressed to make sure we learn from the mistakes. When was this error discovered? I note that the issue is about the Technical Standards and Regulations Directive; it does not say this in the Statement, but that was brought in in 2015, so we have had some four years of experience of it. I cannot believe that the Minister will say in response that the department has had no experience of that regulations directive, because it has passed a large number of regulations over the last few years, which we have enjoyed going through together. But it certainly means that the department is aware of the structure under which this regulations directive operates. It is therefore surprising that it was unable to meet the standard for the age verification for online pornography SI that we are talking about.

Secondly, as it does not say this in the Statement, I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm when the Secretary of State learned of this error. Could he give us some more details about how it came to pass?

The Statement says there is going to be a review. That is obviously right. There are two things I want to ask about that. First, it says, rather interestingly, that there will be “external elements”. I assume that does not mean they are going to meet outside in the park and do it in the sun, but could the Minister flesh that out a little? Are we talking here about a mixed group, including external independent persons, who will be able to bring objectivity to the arrangements? It would help if he could make that clear. Secondly, will the review be published when it is completed? With an error of this magnitude, which is going to cause so much difficultly, there is a case for that, so I would be grateful if the Minister could respond.

Behind all this, is there not a bigger question? The Statement hinted that there are those who feel that the way the Government are progressing in this matter is not right. It is based on an assumption that technology will operate in a way that it probably will not, and is based on an old-fashioned view about how technology will help us get to the point that we all want across this House and wider society, which is where children should not be exposed to pornography. The truth is that, although the Statement says that this set of regulations was due to come into force on 15 July, in fact that is a later date than was originally proposed, which was much earlier in the year. This is probably because the issue of the technology itself has not yet been clarified.

There is a wider question about that. The Statement falls into the mistake of equating age verification with action to prevent pornography coming before children. As the latter part of the Statement makes clear, a lot more needs to be done here. This particular regulation—although in no sense do I want to dilute our support for it—may prove not to be the most important element of what we are talking about. The draft code of practice on online child safety, engagement with companies and the new guidance that has been published are all very well, but the online harms White Paper, with its requirement for a duty of care to be placed on companies providing material for the internet, will be the one major step forward that surely will break the dam on this issue. We must focus on that.

Therefore, we should perhaps take time to reflect on whether we are pressing too hard for something that may not turn out to be the long-term solution, without giving the body—even though I think the BBFC is the wrong body—the powers to carry out the work of closing down sites and stopping money flowing to them. Nevertheless, we support the general aim and objective set out in the White Paper and wish to see it brought forward. Age verification is a surrogate for what we are trying to do. It will not solve the problem by itself. It has already been proved that it is easy to get round. Can the Minister confirm that he takes the broader point that there is more here than this particular issue?