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Queen’s Speech - Debate (6th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:01 pm on 22nd October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Benjamin Baroness Benjamin Liberal Democrat 6:01 pm, 22nd October 2019

My Lords, children should not be able to see pornography. Sadly, there was no mention of this in the Queen’s Speech, but the Government need to act now to ensure this. It should be added to the same category as the introduction of seat belts and banning smoking, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham.

I have been campaigning for over eight years to try to prevent childhoods being damaged by pornographic content. Eventually, in 2017, the Digital Economy Act was successfully passed to impose age verification controls to prevent children stumbling across and accessing pornography online. Last month, on 5 September, I wrote to the Secretary of State, Nicky Morgan, asking her to confirm the Government’s commitment to bringing in this legislation as early as possible. I never received a reply. But, shockingly, last week in her Written Statement she said that there would be no commencement order for this regime because of the “objective of coherence”, and that it would all be dealt with under online harms at some unknown date. That day was used to bury bad news, and I wept thinking of the consequences.

I have had concerns about the many delays in bringing in this legislation, such as the Government not notifying the European Commission of the BBFC’s guidance on age verification arrangements, which was an avoidable and unforgivable blunder. Interestingly, I was also told in confidence back in January that there were those in influential positions who did not want this legislation to happen. But I had faith in the Government that they would not let our children down.

By the Government’s own statistics, every month that passes, 1.4 million children access pornography. Therefore, every month this regime is delayed, millions more children will stumble across pornography. We are talking about violent sexual content, gang rape, real and close-up images of sexual acts, all just one click away because there are no age restrictions. The results of this cause children as young as four to be excluded from nursery school because of their sexual actions towards other children. Recently, a father contacted me to tell me how traumatised his eight year-old daughter, who loves horse-riding, was, after she typed in the word “stallion”.

Pornographic content is traumatic for children to watch and can directly impact on their adult relationships, including their understanding of consent and their long-term mental health. How can this Government justify any delay in preventing children facing this trauma on the grounds of “coherence”? Any new legislation is years away. But even if it was months, why wait? I visit Rye Hill prison in Rugby, which houses over 680 sex offenders. Many tell me that they wish they had never seen pornography as children. It has destroyed their lives.

All the child protection charities believed that this legislation is vitally important. Yet the Minister Matt Warman in the other place suggested that the NSPCC supported this decision. I cannot understand this claim, and I believe it should be withdrawn. I have here a letter sent on 2 October by John Carr, secretary to the Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety, which includes Barnardo’s, the Children’s Society and the NSPCC, asking the Secretary of State to implement Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act “without further delay”. Let us not forget that the Digital Economy Act has provision for a review 12 to 18 months after entry into force. That is the time to consider “coherence”: to look at whether social media could and should be included once the regime has had the chance to be operational and to protect our children from this appalling content.

The world is watching us, and this decision potentially has ramifications far wider than the UK. We had the chance to change things for the next generation of children so that their first concept of sex is not at the age of seven, stumbling across images of violent sex acts on their computers. The argument that children are clever enough to get round the age gate is ludicrous. We are not talking about 15 year-old computer wizards but about six and seven year-olds inadvertently accessing porn. In addition, the idea that, as an alternative to age verification, we should teach children about porn at such a tender age is completely outrageous. The notion that the privacy of adult visitors to porn sites will be compromised is misleading and untrue. Personal data will not be shared with porn sites.

I therefore plead with the Minister to speak to the Secretary of State and ask her, as a moral duty, to reconsider her decision so we can see this ground-breaking child protection standard in place in the UK by the end of the year. Childhood lasts a lifetime, so let us ensure that all children’s innocence is protected for as long as possible.