Amendment 177A

Domestic Abuse Bill - Committee (6th Day) – in the House of Lords at 7:50 pm on 10th February 2021.

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Baroness Benjamin:

Moved by Baroness Benjamin

177A: After Clause 72, insert the following new Clause—“Impact of online pornography on domestic abuse(1) Within three months of the day on which this Act is passed, the Secretary of State must commission a person appointed by the Secretary of State to investigate the impact of access to online pornography by children on domestic abuse.(2) Within three months of their appointment, the appointed person must publish a report on the investigation which may include recommendations for the Secretary of State.(3) As part of the investigation, the appointed person must consider the extent to which the implementation of Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017 (online pornography) would prevent domestic abuse, and may make recommendations to the Secretary of State accordingly.(4) Within three months of receiving the report, the Secretary of State must publish a response to the recommendations of the appointed person.(5) If the appointed person recommends that Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017 should be commenced, the Secretary of State must appoint a day for the coming into force of that Part under section 118(6) of the Act within the timeframe recommended by the appointed person.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would require an investigation into any link between online pornography and domestic abuse with a view to implementing recommendations to bring into effect the age verification regime in the Digital Economy Act 2017 as a means of preventing domestic abuse.

Photo of Baroness Benjamin Baroness Benjamin Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 177A in my name and those of the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord McColl, and the noble Baroness, Lady Healy. This amendment would require the Secretary of State to commission a person to investigate the impact of access to online pornography by children on domestic abuse. It further requires that the appointed person must publish a report on the investigation and that, if they recommend that Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017 should be implemented, the Secretary of State must appoint a day for that part coming into force, under Section 118(6) of that Act.

Some may ask why this amendment is central to the Domestic Abuse Bill. During its passage through the other place, the Bill was amended to embrace what is now Clause 65, which very properly removes the defence of consent in cases of rough sex when someone suffers serious injury or death. Embracing this provision, the Bill before the Committee rightly makes it plain that sexual violence is part of domestic abuse. One of the striking things about the debate in the other place that gave rise to Clause 65 is that it was informed by material that made it plain that there is a connection between an interest in experimenting with rough sex practices and the prior consumption of pornography depicting such practices.

Louise Perry of We Can’t Consent to This, the key group that campaigned for Clause 65, said:

“We can’t really ignore the porn factor … It’s there at a click of a button and can be accessed at such a young age. And the algorithms push you into a rabbit hole of more and more extreme stuff.”

The argument for Clause 65 was also informed by Savanta ComRes, which polled 2,049 men in Great Britain between 7 and 10 February last year for Radio 5 Live and BBC Radio Scotland. The polling asked the following question:

“Thinking specifically of times you performed slapping, choking, gagging or spitting during consensual sexual activity, to what extent do you think pornography influenced your desire to do so?”

The answers were striking: 57% of those questioned said that it did, of whom 20% said that it influenced them “a great deal”.

I am very pleased that the other place amended the Bill to insert Clause 65, which addresses problems resulting from rough sex practices. However, to date, Parliament has only followed through on the logic of Clause 65 taking rough sex seriously at the level of dealing with the consequences of this form of domestic violence. We have not exhibited the same level of concern in relation to the steps that can be taken to prevent this form of sexual violence in the first place.

We need joined-up thinking here. We need action to prevent injury or death through rough sex, as well as criminal justice measures to ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice. One of the most basic strategies of prevention in that regard is to protect under-18s from material that normalises the expectation of violence in sexual relationships. Taking the step proposed in the amendment would constitute strategic investment in the next generation to ensure that as children enter adulthood, they do not do so believing that violence is a natural part of sexual relationships, with all that that means for their adult behaviour.

The irony, of course, is that Parliament has passed legislation that protects under-18s from such material on commercial pornographic websites, but the Government have refused to implement it. Had the Government implemented Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017 in 2019, under-18s would now be protected from exposure to pornographic content on pornographic websites, including significant rough-sex material. An interviewee said in a recent government report: “On ‘Pornhub’ you don’t have to look in the rough sex category to get rough sex. They’re just standard videos of men having sex with women by grabbing them by the throat”.

Of course, when the Government announced that they were not going to implement Part 3 in October 2019, they acknowledged only one downside to that approach—that of delay. They suggested that having to wait was worth while because the forthcoming online safety Bill would provide better protection from commercial pornographic sites than Part 3. However, in December 2020, when responding to the online harms consultation, the Government conceded not only that there would be a huge delay in providing protection to under-18s—probably until 2023, possibly even later—but that the alternative means of protecting children from commercial pornographic sites would also be much weaker. In the first instance, the Government confirmed that, unlike Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act, the protections afforded under the online harms Bill would engage only with user-generated, not non-user generated, content. In the second instance, the detail that the Government provided about enforcement did not provide the reassurance required.

Noble Lords will recall that when Parliament scrutinised the Digital Economy Act, the point was made that of the 50 most accessible pornographic websites in the UK, none were based in the UK. Consequently, the only way to gain leverage over the sites in other jurisdictions in relation to enforcing age-verification blocks would be through IP blocking. A site accessing the UK market from Russia without robust age-verification checks would be told by the regulator to put those checks in place within a certain timeframe or risk being blocked. The site would then have to decide either to put in place those robust checks or lose significant UK revenue as a result of blocking.

However, in responding to the online harms consultation in December last year, the Government proposed fines as the main means of enforcement and seemed to entertain IP blocking only as a last resort, which is very concerning. At Second Reading, I raised those concerns, along with the noble Lords, Lord Alton, Lord McColl and Lord Morrow, and the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton. Since that debate, the Government have taken two steps that only amplify the difficulty. First, on 26 January, the noble Baroness the Minister wrote to Peers to address the points we made in relation to pornography at Second Reading. However, rather than addressing the presenting problem, the letter simply repeats it and makes it plain that unlike the Digital Economy Act, the online harms Bill will only engage pornographic sites that

“host user generated content or facilitate online user interaction”.

I am fully aware that the online harms Bill will have a much wider focus than the Digital Economy Act, engaging pornography on social media as well as online harms that have nothing to do with pornography. I lobbied for this and welcome it. However, when people like myself called on the Government to take steps to protect under-18s from pornography on social media, as well as on commercial pornographic websites, that was on the basis that the protections in relation to commercial pornographic websites should be implemented immediately—and certainly not made weaker.

Furthermore, when viewed specifically from the perspective of our domestic abuse debate today, the proposal not to focus on non-user-generated pornography content makes no sense at all because depictions of rough sex are just as likely in non-user-generated pornography as they are in user-generated pornography. Secondly, there is the Government’s response to a specific request made by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, at Second Reading. In his speech, he specifically asked the Government to publish the long-awaited research that they commissioned on the impact of pornography construction on male attitudes and behaviour in response to reports produced by the Women and Equalities Committee.

On 15 January, that research was quietly published yet, despite the fact that the Minister was asked specifically about it, her letter on 26 January makes no reference to this important development. I discovered the research only by accident—I have it here. The findings are hugely important for this debate. The research demonstrates that there is now even more reason for the Government to acknowledge how accessing pornography generates the idea that violence in sexual relationships is normal, with all its behavioural consequences in adulthood.

First, literature reviewed on adult males aged 16 and over concludes that

“there is substantial evidence of an association between the use of pornography and harmful sexual attitudes and behaviours towards women … it is clear that a relationship does exist and this is especially true for the use of violent pornography.”

The report states that

“a great deal of this easy to access, mainstream pornography depicts (to varying levels) sexual violence and female degradation with the perpetrators of aggression usually male, and the targets of aggression overwhelmingly female.”

On discussions with professionals working with clients aged 16 and over who had either exhibited harmful sexual behaviours towards women or were at risk of doing so, the report states:

“The view that pornography played a role in their clients’ harmful attitudes and/or behaviours was undisputed”.

This is of huge relevance to my Amendment 177A, with its focus on under-18s, because the professionals said that, for young people, pornography is seen as providing

“a template for what sex and sexual relationships should look like.”

One stated:

“Porn comes up in probably eighty or ninety percent of my cases … what they’ve done is influenced by what they’ve seen … For them, the internet is fact.”

In order to appreciate the significance of these reports fully, it is important to revisit the consideration of the Bill in the other place. The honourable Member for Congleton tabled an amendment on the connection between pornography consumption and domestic violence and, in the course of moving it, asked the Government when their promised research on the impact of pornography consumption will be published. The Minister responded in a way that most listeners would assume suggested that the research was not ready and was therefore ongoing.

What the publication of the reports from January 2021 makes clear—as shown on the front of their covers—is that the research was actually prepared for publication by the Government Equalities Office for February 2020: a month before lockdown. This means that the Government have sat on research with significant implications for the discussion of domestic violence for nearly a year. The direct consequence of this is that MPs have been denied the opportunity to enlighten their debate on the Bill before us today with the relevant findings of the research. This was wholly unnecessary because the research was concluded before First Reading in the other place on 3 March 2020. When this failing is considered in the context of the failure of the Government’s letter to Peers to address the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, one is tempted to conclude that the Government were hoping that no one would spot the research. I am saddened and disappointed by this. I am sure that other noble Lords will feel the same way about this discovery.

This unhappy episode certainly does not build trust. It compounds the sense that, going forward, we need answers—and quickly. But there is a way forward. In order for me not to push my amendment, I ask the Minister, for whom I have great respect, to make two central commitments to doing what I strongly believe the Government need to do. First, I ask that the provision in the online harms Bill for addressing commercial pornographic websites be as robust as those in Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act. These provisions must fully engage pornographic websites showing both non-user-generated and user-generated pornography, and provide enforcement mechanisms through IP blocking that are as robust and accessible as those in Part 3. Secondly, given that the online harms Bill still has not been published and there is very little chance that it will protect children from exposure to online pornography —including pornography depicting rough sex acts—for at least another two years and probably more, I ask the Government now to implement Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act as an interim measure to protect our children in the long term. As I always say, childhood lasts a lifetime. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench 8:00 pm, 10th February 2021

My Lords, in returning to an issue that I raised at Second Reading, it is a particular pleasure to support Amendment 177A in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin. I support what she said about the protection of children and young people and the harmful effects on their formative influences to which they are exposed. She said it so eloquently and powerfully; I think the whole House will be deeply appreciative of that.

In 1994, while a Member of another place, I tabled an amendment to the then criminal justice Bill. It set out to make it an offence to show gratuitously violent videos to children. At the time, against the opposition of the Home Office, it was supported by 80 Conservative Members of Parliament—including Sir Ivan Lawrence, then chairman of the House of Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs—along with colleagues from all sides of the House and the Labour Front Bench; the shadow Home Secretary at the time was Tony Blair MP. After facing the prospect of defeat, the Government agreed to introduce an amendment in your Lordships’ House and the law was changed.

One of the things that united left, right and centre was the publication of a report by a group of 25 leading child psychologists who said that they had been, in their words, “naive” in denying a link between violent videos and violence by youngsters. The report was led by Professor Elizabeth Newson, an eminent psychologist and head of Nottingham University’s child development research unit, and was drawn up in the aftermath of James Bulger’s murder by two 10 year-old boys. At the boys’ trial, the judge said that their actions might have been encouraged by scenes in the horror film “Child’s Play 3”.

In two days’ time, on 12 February, it will be 28 years since the tragic death of James Bulger. Although I had raised the issue of the link between gratuitously violent material and behaviour prior to James’s death, what happened there in Liverpool, the city which included my parliamentary constituency when I served in another place, no doubt caused a proper, detailed examination of the factors which led to his appalling murder.

I last referred to those events in your Lordships’ House four years ago next month, on 20 March 2017, when I spoke in the debate on age verification of pornographic websites. It is with some sadness that, in intervening to support the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, I still feel it necessary to argue the case for mitigating the effects and impact of graphic imagery on children and young people. I said:

“The evidence of the damage being done to children and young people through easy access to pornography is deeply disturbing and should give us all pause.”—[Official Report, 20/3/17; col. 21.]

More importantly, I quoted the then Justice Minister, who said that the internet was,

“driving greater access to more worrying imagery online. In the extreme, the sexualisation of youth is manifesting itself in younger conviction ages for rape”.

Given that statement, and the comments of the Joint Select Committee which considered the draft Domestic Abuse Bill about the distortion of relationships engendered by violent imagery—to which I referred at Second Reading —the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, should be accepted by the Government and the House. It is long overdue.

The Government argue for an evidence-based approach to making policy. Four years ago, the Government and Parliament were of the view that children and young people needed to be protected from graphic and distorting images. The links between such imagery and domestic violence were raised in the debate on 20 March 2017 by my noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss, my noble friend Lord Listowel and the noble Lords, Lord Morrow and Lord Paddick. Yet the seminal legislation that we debated and passed then has not been implemented. As we have heard, during the past four years, notwithstanding the will of Parliament expressed in the Digital Economy Act 2017, a whole cohort of teenagers has been growing up without any requirement for the relevant websites to reduce access to those under 18.

In an article published online on 21 January 2021, the magazine Teen Vogue implied that:

“Porn that portrays nonconsensual sex, for instance, isn’t necessarily misogynist if it centers all characters’ pleasure and agency.”

I hope your Lordships will allow what is being said there to sink in. There was an outcry and the article now refers instead to:

“Porn that portrays fantasies about nonconsensual sex”.

We are having this debate just a few days after last week’s UK Sexual Abuse & Sexual Violence Awareness Week. I am not convinced that women who have suffered rape or other sexual violence will agree that changing the wording to refer to fantasies is sufficient to reduce the harm that those messages give.

Noble Lords will remember that at Second Reading, as the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, said, I asked the Government about research that they had commissioned on

“exploring legal pornography use and its influence on harmful behaviours and attitudes towards women and girls”.

It was due to have been published in autumn 2019, but was actually published on 15 January—last month. Of course I welcome this, but find myself extremely disappointed in three ways. First, when Mrs Fiona Bruce, the MP for Congleton, raised the publication of this research last summer, the Minister in the other place reassured her that the publication would be “soon”. In reality, it took another six months. Secondly, the published reports make it plain that the research was concluded in February 2020. It should have shed light on the Bill before us today, both when it was being debated in another place and during our own Second Reading. Thirdly, although I asked the Government Front Bench specifically about this research on Second Reading, the subsequent letter to Peers, dated 11 days after the publication of the research, did not mention it.

The truth is that the reports were published very quietly. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, I know of them only by chance; in my case, a friend accidentally stumbled on them and sent them to me. Perhaps I can be forgiven for thinking that the Government, while recognising that they had to publish these taxpayer-funded reports, rather hoped that no one would notice them. There has certainly been zero media pick-up, although I hope that will change thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin.

The findings of this research are hugely relevant to Amendment 177A. The literature review concludes that

“there is substantial evidence of an association between the use of pornography and harmful sexual attitudes and behaviours towards women.”

While the report recognises that pornography is one among potential factors, it says that

“it is clear that a relationship does exist and this is especially true for the use of violent pornography.”

The report sets out details of the experiences and views of professionals working with individuals who have either exhibited harmful sexual behaviour towards women or are at risk of doing so. I remind the Minister of what we were told by the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, a few minutes ago—how one person working with young people said that 80% or 90% of cases were influenced by what they had seen.

Anyone who is concerned about this component of domestic violence must be interested in asking not only what can be done to deal with the consequences of such violence, as with Clause 65, but what can be done to prevent it. The truth is that, had the Government implemented Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017—and I do not hold that against the noble Baroness; it is clearly the responsibility of others—those aged under 18 would now be protected from exposure to such websites. Part 3 provides a critical means of investing in preventing an important aspect of domestic abuse by ensuring that children are far less likely to be exposed to video content that normalises such violence. It is the very least we can do.

The Minister, for whom the whole House has very high regard and who is being worked off her feet, should review the letter to Peers of 26 January. In it she stated that the Government’s intention was only to protect children from commercial pornographic sites showing “user generated content” and not non-user generated content. Taken with the delay in providing protection for children when Part 3 was passed in 2017 and the failure to publish the online harms Bill, this narrowing of the protection of children from commercial sites is frustrating and disappointing.

In 1994, as the father of then young children, I said that we needed to fill our children’s minds with beauty and with innocence. Instead, we have created an ugly and rancid culture in which too many of our children are being brought up. They wanted bread and instead we fed them broken glass. Nearly 30 years later and now with young grandchildren, my view has not changed. The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, who is synonymous with children’s programmes such as “Play School”, “Play Away” and “Fast Forward”, has throughout her life been an antidote to the brutish culture which robs children of innocence. It is a violent culture which forms them in attitudes and behaviours which can ruin their lives and the lives of others.

I very much hope that the Government will announce today that they will implement Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act as an interim measure, at least between now and when the online harms Bill is ready. If the Government are not willing to do that, I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, will bring her amendment back on Report. I hope it will be possible for the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, to find some accommodation between now and then.

Photo of Lord McColl of Dulwich Lord McColl of Dulwich Conservative 8:15 pm, 10th February 2021

My Lords, I am pleased to speak in support of Amendment 177A, to which I have added my name. I very much echo what has been said about Clause 65 and the acknowledgment that sexual violence is an important part of domestic violence. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, I do not believe that it is sufficient to seek to deal with the consequences of rough sex after it has happened. It seems to me that any credible domestic abuse Bill must seek to prevent domestic violence, as well as dealing with its consequences. As the evidence marshalled for Amendment 65 made very plain, there is a connection between watching depictions of rough sex practices in pornography and the incidence of such practices.

In my judgment, one of the most important ways in which this matter was first drawn to the attention of Parliament was through the seminal 2018 Women and Equalities Committee report on sexual harassment. The report stated:

“We asked Dr Maddy Coy whether there is a link between men viewing pornography and the likelihood of them sexually harassing women and girls. Dr Coy told us: ‘There is a meta-analysis of research that shows that. It was pornography consumption associated with higher levels of attitudes that support violence, which includes things like acceptance of violence, rape myth acceptance and sexual harassment”.

Moreover, one of the report’s conclusions was that:

“There are examples of lawful behaviours which the Government recognises as harmful, such as smoking, which are addressed through public health campaigns and huge investment designed to reduce and prevent those harms. The Government should take a similar, evidence-based approach to addressing the harms of pornography.”

In their response, the Government stated:

“We have already begun work to identify whether links exist between consuming pornography and attitudes to women and girls, and harmful behaviours. Through qualitative research with frontline providers and a review of the existing evidence base, we aim to build our understanding of relationships between pornography use and harmful attitudes and behaviours.”

As noble Lords have noted, the fruit of that research has been a long time coming. Given its huge relevance to the debate on this Bill, I find the way that it has been released—for all the reasons expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton—deeply unfortunate.

The research consists of two papers in response to the Women and Equalities Committee’s sexual harassment report. One is the literature review and the other consists of interviews with front-line workers who are working with individuals who either have exhibited harmful sexual behaviours towards women or are at risk of doing so, aged 16 to over 60. The literature review makes some important statements regarding the content of the Bill. It states that

“pornography use has been associated with an increased likelihood of committing both verbal and physical acts of sexual aggression. With the correlation being significantly stronger for verbal rather than physical aggression, but both were evident. The use of violent pornography produced a stronger correlation.”

The report concludes that

“there is substantial evidence of an association between the use of pornography and harmful sexual attitudes and behaviours towards women.”

It is clear that a relationship exists, and that is especially true for the use of violent pornography.

The second report, based on interviews with front-line workers, states:

“The majority of Frontline workers spontaneously mentioned pornography as an influential factor for harmful sexual behaviours towards women and girls”, and that:

“This was especially the case for participants working with younger audiences … The view that pornography played a role in their clients’ harmful attitudes and/or behaviours was undisputed.”

Front-line workers recognise that there are a variety of factors contributing to violent behaviours, in relation to which pornography was felt to be a key contributing factor for many clients.

The second report also states:

“Participants believed that increased ease of access to pornography, lots of which includes violence towards women, was problematic for many of their clients … there was a widespread belief in the need to address the role that pornography plays, as part of the approach to minimising harmful sexual behaviours towards women.”

The front-line workers also reported on harmful sexual attitudes and behaviours that they had observed, including physical aggression during sex such as choking, slapping and hair pulling—that is, rough sex. This research is hugely important. It raises major questions about pornography consumption in the round, quite apart from by children and young people.

If we return to the proposed recommendation of the Women and Equalities Committee’s report—namely, that the Government should consider approaching pornography, as they do smoking, from a public health perspective—it is now plain that the new research completely validates that approach. In recognising that, we must acknowledge that the imperative for that is greatly compounded by the fact that the public health risks arising from pornography consumption are not limited to violent behaviours.

There is also the completely separate additional public health argument about taking action because of the problems raised by pornography addiction, which are similar in many ways to those caused by gambling addiction. The Government recognise that while for many gambling is not linked to harm, for some it has a very destructive effect through gambling addiction. This creates what is in a very real sense a form of social environmental pollution, where government pressure the polluter to pay. The gambling industry is asked to make a significant financial contribution to try to help people suffering from gambling addiction.

Given the social carnage left in the wake of pornography addiction, the polluter in this case should also be required to pay, yet the polluter in this instance is not so compelled. This is particularly odd when one has regard to the fact that whereas gambling facilitates gambling addiction, where the gambler damages his life and that of his family around him, pornography not only leads to these problems through addiction but is implicated, as we have seen, in actions taken by some consumers of pornography where they inflict violent acts on other people. In this context, it seems that there is a strong case for tough legislation on online pornography generally.

However, what is incontrovertible is that any further delay in protecting under-18s from accessing this material on pornographic websites, including depictions of rough-sex practices that normalise in their eyes violence as part of sexual relationships, is absolutely indefensible. It amounts to a perverse investment in the lives of the next generation that will make them think that an important aspect of domestic violence that the Bill is seeking to combat—sexual violence—is normal and appropriate.

Mindful of this, I find the Government’s response to the point that I and others made at Second Reading completely unacceptable. This House passed legislation four years ago requiring that under-18s are protected from accessing pornography on pornographic websites—much of which, as we have seen, is violent—through the introduction of statutory age verification. The only reason why the decision of your Lordships’ House has not been given effect is that the Government have refused to implement it. Moreover, they expect us to wait for what will probably be another three years, at least, for what they have now confirmed will be a weaker protection in relation to commercial pornography.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 8:30 pm, 10th February 2021

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt my noble friend, but I would point out that all the speakers in this group so far have spoken for considerably over 10 minutes. Noble Lords would appreciate brevity, so that they can all have an opportunity to take part.

Photo of Lord McColl of Dulwich Lord McColl of Dulwich Conservative

[Inaudible]—rough sex and domestic violence and implement Part 3 as quickly as possible.

Photo of Baroness Massey of Darwen Baroness Massey of Darwen Labour

My Lords, this amendment raises important issues in relation to domestic abuse. It is relevant to Amendment 184 in the next group, on teenage relationships, to which I shall speak. And I shall be brief.

The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, passionately described the situation in relation to helping prevent domestic violence in the next generation. We must maintain this passion. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Istanbul convention are powerful statements and calls to action, but of course calls to action must be taken at the national level, and we must do so.

The Council of Europe’s Lanzarote convention, which the UK ratified in 2018, continues to provide new insights into violence against children, including sexual violence and any form of exploitation. It was the first convention to address violence in the home. I declare an interest as the UK representative on the Council of Europe, and I attend the Lanzarote Committee. Its central tenet is:

“No violence against children is justifiable. All violence against children is preventable.”

Violence in teenage relationships, in whatever form, is violence against children: they are under 18. We need to consider how violence might be inspired. This amendment suggests that there is much concern about the influence of child viewing of violent and/or pornographic material, which may have a detrimental influence on the development of children’s brains and emotional behaviour. This is well documented.

A recent report from the Children’s Commissioner looked at the range of online platforms used by children, from social media to gaming and messaging. Digital technology is now a feature of children’s lives. One in three internet users around the world are children, and half of all 10 year-olds in the UK have their own smartphone. Of course, the digital world has much to offer, such as communicating with family and friends and accessing information. However, the digital world has not kept pace with keeping children from harm. In the digital age, people, including children, are influenced by what they see in the media, particularly if they are vulnerable in the first place. There is also evidence to show that some children watch this material at home, sometimes with parents. Children watching unsuitable material online has increased during Covid, not surprisingly.

Research has shown that perceptions of body image are susceptible to online images, especially among girls, leaving them feeling underconfident and inadequate. Violence in sexual relationships is sometimes presented online as normal, and there is evidence to show that teenagers, male and female, take it as such, as the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, said. What does this say about how they will develop healthy relationships? What does it say about them becoming a possible perpetrator of violence, or a victim of violence, accepting such behaviour as normal?

The online harms Bill may be some way off, and we cannot wait to act. This amendment asks the Secretary of State to commission an investigation of the impact of access to online pornography on children and how this may encourage abuse. An age verification virtual conference took place in June 2020, with evidence from over 20 countries. It included a discussion of the effects of substantial online exposure on the adolescent brain. There is much research to work with, but there is more to do, specifically in the UK. I hope the Government will act on this.

Photo of Baroness Eaton Baroness Eaton Conservative

My Lords, I am pleased to speak in support of Amendment 177A, so ably proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin.

Protecting children from pornographic websites is no less important now than it was in 2015, when the seminal Conservative manifesto commitment was made to

“stop children’s exposure to harmful sexualised content online, by requiring age verification for access to all sites containing pornographic material”.

Similarly, protecting children from pornographic websites is no less important now than when the Digital Economy Bill became an Act of Parliament in 2017.

The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, and others have eloquently covered many points I wished to make, and therefore I will not repeat them. However, I would like to make two points.

First, in understanding the full significance of Amendment 177A, it is important to see it as an investment to reduce the incidence of domestic violence in the future. A significant proportion of online pornography depicts sexual violence, and if Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act is not implemented, under-18s will be exposed to this content and will conclude that violence is a normal part of sexual relationships. This will, in turn, inevitably impact behaviour, not only among under-18s now but as they grow into adulthood. Protecting children from access to this pornography is not just about impacting them today; it is about impacting their development because of the consequences that it will reap tomorrow, when they are adults, in levels of domestic violence.

Secondly, I observe that the challenge we face is not unique to the UK. A US survey of 2,227 men and women aged 18 to 60 years old, published in 2020, found that

“the associations between pornography use and sexual behaviors was statistically significant. … Clinicians need to be aware of recent potential shifts in sexual behaviors, particularly those such as choking that may lead to harm.”

The authors also said:

“We were struck that one-fifth of women … reported having been choked as part of sex.”

In this context, it seems the 2015 Conservative manifesto was ahead of its time.

Photo of Lord Morrow Lord Morrow DUP

My Lords, I am pleased to speak in support of Amendment 177A. Along with other speakers, I was not at all reassured by the Minister’s letter in which she confirmed the central concern that many noble Lords set out on Second Reading; namely, that unlike Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act, which equally engaged user-generated and non-user-generated content on pornographic websites, the online safety Bill will narrow its concern to user-generated content. I also thought the Government’s response rather missed the point that I and other noble Lords sought to make on Second Reading. What the Minister wrote was couched in the terms of the original Digital Economy Bill debate. Those concerns are of course important, but are not the presiding context of this debate.

The point made at Second Reading and, indeed, today is very much about the fact that much online pornography depicts sexual violence, including the rough sex practice that is the subject of Clause 65. In this context, the key point is that if Part 3 is not implemented, under-18s will be exposed to pornographic material on pornographic websites, including depictions of rough sex, and this will foster the thought that sexual violence is just part of the norm of sexual relationships. Moreover, and crucially, this will not only impact on under-18s as under-18s, but shape their thoughts and attitudes as they move into adulthood, making sexual violence and domestic abuse more likely.

In this context, the key problem with the Government saying that we should abandon Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act in favour of an online safety Bill that will target only user-generated content is the fact that depictions of sexual violence occur in non-user-generated pornography as well as in user-generated pornography. We must target, as Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act does, both user-generated and non-user-generated content on pornographic websites.

In this regard, it is interesting to note that Savanta ComRes polling from last September showed that 81.5% of people in Northern Ireland thought that the Government should implement Part 3 immediately and simply add additional protections in relation to other online harms when the online safety Bill is passed. The UK figure was 74% if the “don’t knows” were removed. It is not hard to imagine what would happen if that polling was repeated today, presenting people with the fact that the Government are seeking not only needlessly to delay the provision of protection for children from pornographic websites, but to narrow that protection down to pornographic websites with user-generated content.

My concern at the Government’s failure to engage with Part 3 from the perspective of the presenting issue in this Bill is greatly compounded by the fact that the letter inexplicably makes no reference to the two reports that the Government published on 15 January that highlight the connection between pornography consumption and behaviour, including male sexual violence. I very much hope that when the Minister responds to this debate she engages with Amendment 177A and Part 3 from the perspective of the domestic violence concern that informs our discussions today.

There are two other things about the Minister’s letter that cause me real concern. First, it contains the statement:

“Under our proposals, we expect companies to use age assurance or age verification technologies to prevent children from accessing services which pose the highest risk of harm to children, such as online pornography.”

This is a very clear shift from the previous language “we will require”, which is the essence of legal compulsion. Why the change?

Secondly, the letter’s final paragraph states that the online harms Bill will be more robust than the DEA because it will cover not only extreme pornography. Part 3 of the DEA was never just about protecting under-18s from extreme pornography or pornographic websites. It was about protecting them from all pornography on pornographic websites, that which is legal as well as that which, like extreme pornography, is illegal. If I have misunderstood what the Minister means by the final paragraph of the letter dealing with pornography, will she please explain when she responds to the debate?

One of the other concerns that I have about the idea that the online safety Bill would be better than Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act at protecting children from material that normalises sexual violence relates to enforcement. When the Digital Economy Bill was introduced, the primary means of enforcement was through fines. However, Parliament pointed out that of the 50 most popular pornographic websites in the UK, none was based in the UK and that enforcing fines in other jurisdictions would be impractical.

An amendment was then proposed and agreed to accept IP blocking, which enables the regulator to contact a non-compliant site from any country, accessed in the UK, to inform it that it must either introduce robust age verification within a set timeframe or be blocked. However, the Government’s statement about the online safety Bill suggests a reversal of policy, returning to a focus primarily on fines. Again, please can the Minister explain why the Government seek to reverse the change and emphasis that Parliament introduced in relation to Part 3? This might work for some other online harms if the source of the difficulty is based in the UK, but it will not work for pornographic websites.

In closing, I observe that this matter raises important constitutional questions. In this House we are governed by the Salisbury convention, which rightly states that we cannot reject a Bill giving effect to a proposal in the manifesto of the winning party at a general election. The undergirding principle is that in a democracy Parliament should not stand in the way of what the public have voted for. I wonder whether the same should not apply to other actors in the constitution. It is not just the House of Lords that could stand in the way of a legislative initiative mandated in a general election coming into effect; the Government could do the same if they were determined not to implement such legislation.

I can see an argument that if a new Prime Minister has been elected expressly on the basis of a manifesto commitment not to implement a provision in the manifesto of the previous Administration that had been through Parliament but had not yet implemented, the new Prime Minister would have a basis for acting in this manner. However, I do not believe that our present Prime Minister has such a basis, or indeed that he has such a basis in this case.

I very much hope that today the Minister will announce the Government’s intention to move immediately to implement Part 3. If they do not, I very much hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, will bring Amendment 177A back on Report.

Photo of Lord Paddick Lord Paddick Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 8:45 pm, 10th February 2021

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Benjamin, who introduced Amendment 177A in such an inspiring way and for whom I have the greatest admiration and the highest respect, has been a passionate campaigner her whole life on protecting and nurturing children. In her own inimitable style, she says, “Childhood lasts a lifetime”. I am very glad that she got that in, even if it was in the penultimate sentence of her speech. She is absolutely right. What happens in childhood impacts people for the rest of their lives, potentially with devasting consequences, and accessing pornography is one of those influences that can have an adverse impact on children.

In this Bill we are addressing domestic abuse, and many children grow up in households where domestic violence is a regular occurrence. I was at the same time impressed and saddened when I visited the only young offender institution in Scotland. The young people there were engaged in sessions with someone from a domestic abuse charity who taught them that the abusive home environment in which many of them had grown up is not normal and that it is not what a healthy, loving relationship looks like, despite it having been the lived experience of many of them. Living in an environment where you are surrounded by violence normalises violence as a way of life, and accessing harmful violent pornography is part of the landscape viewed by many young people.

As a police constable I was called to a disturbance. We were presented with a couple, a room that looked as though it had been ransacked, and a broken glass-top table. The woman had red marks around her neck. We found a ligature and a plastic bag with the impression of her face on it, like a mask. We arrested the man for attempted murder and took the victim to hospital. At court the next day, the accused’s lawyer claimed that it was consensual rough sex and the victim—I thought reluctantly—agreed, and the case was dismissed. To this day, those images haunt me, as does the nagging doubt about the extent to which the woman had really consented to what was done to her.

I am glad that this Bill finally, over 40 years later, is going to address this issue, but we have to ask ourselves where people get these ideas from. Some 57% of people in the BBC survey that my noble friend referred to said it was from pornography. Any means of preventing young people from accessing such harmful pornographic content should be implemented, so it seems quite extraordinary that the Government should work for a number of years with the British Board of Film Classification to develop a system of age verification for pornographic websites and pass legislation in the Digital Economy Act to enable such a system to be put into place—only to abandon it.

Age verification systems are not a panacea. There are numerous and easily accessible ways for a determined teenager to bypass them. I am not sure how many read Hansard, but I do not intend to publicise them. The means of enforcing age verification systems on the operators of pornographic websites is not without difficulty. Many are free to view and hosted outside the UK. Asking UK internet service providers to block websites that fail to comply with age verification rules would also block adults in the UK, who should be able to access legal pornography, if they so wish, from accessing them.

The measures to prevent young people from accessing pornography on some social media sites have improved, with users being prevented from posting pornography. This is effectively policed and enforced by website operators such as Facebook and Instagram. There are exceptions. The measures to prevent young people from accessing pornography on Twitter, for example, are somewhere between weak and non-existent. However, that does not mean we should not do all we can, despite the limitations, to encourage, cajole and use every legislative means possible to put pressure on these websites to introduce age verification for UK users and, in the case of social media, to ban pornographic content unless they can prevent children from accessing it.

We also have to work on the basis that a determined teenager is going to find a way around the system and that even curious younger children may try and succeed in accessing pornography. Comprehensive and compulsory personal, social, health and economic education—PSHE—including healthy relationship and age-appropriate sex education, is vital to combat what children might see and hear if they access online pornography, and what they might see and hear in their own homes.

It is particularly important that children of all ages are taught as early as is they learn what a loving, caring relationship between two people looks like, so that they see this as the norm, rather than anything that they might see online or experience when they are growing up. It is particularly important in this male-dominated, patriarchal society that children are taught that treating women and girls with dignity and respect and as equals with men is essential.

We are all impacted by our experiences and I have said some things in debates on this Bill as a survivor of domestic abuse to remind the Committee not to forget male victims and survivors who are or were in same-sex relationships. That is not intended to diminish the real issues that society must address in relation to the inequality between men and women in general and male violence against women and girls in particular. Some online pornography reinforces that inequality and glamorises male violence. We must do all we can to prevent the harmful impact this can have, particularly on children and young people. We support this amendment to require an investigation into any link between online pornography and domestic abuse.

Photo of Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Shadow Spokesperson (Justice)

My Lords, we have heard powerful speeches in this debate. I shall start my contribution with the things I would question in the amendment. I should make it clear that I support the amendment in principle, but I question whether simply making the Government commence Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act is the right solution. I question also whether the British Board of Film Classification is the right body to lead on this, whether the technology would work, and whether privacy concerns have been adequately answered.

As we have heard from other speakers, the worst material is generated outside the UK and we would have no legislative ability to control or curb it. The Government have consistently refused to take powers to block internet service providers from carrying material that harms children or glorifies domestic abuse. They have also not taken powers to prevent credit card issuers making payments for illegal content. So I will be interested in the Minister’s answer to the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that an interim arrangement could be made to bring in Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act until more substantive legislation is put in place.

The speeches we have heard were extremely powerful, particularly from the noble Lord, Lord McColl, who spoke with real passion and knowledge on this issue. My noble friend Lady Massey is clearly playing a leading role in the Council of Europe in setting international standards because, of course, our problem in the UK is not unique and all our friends in Europe and indeed across the world are grappling with these issues. The noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, and the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, also spoke with real knowledge. I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, had it right when he said that education is the key to addressing this issue. That is a wider point and one that he has made in other groups, both today and on previous days in Committee, but it is a point that is worth repeating.

I was not here last Wednesday for the fourth Committee day because I was sitting as a magistrate. I was dealing with a sex case and I had reason to read two reports on a young offender which had been written by more than one specialist. The reports both commented on the use of porn by the offender. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the use of porn influences the way people behave, and that the influence is bigger if the users of porn are younger. We have really been led on this by the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond as favourably as she can to that leadership.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department 9:00 pm, 10th February 2021

My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, explained, Amendment 177A requires the Government to undertake an investigation into

“the impact of access to online pornography by children on domestic abuse” and to review the commencement of Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017, which all noble Lords spoke about.

We share the concerns raised in both Houses by parents and those advocating on behalf of children’s safety online that a large amount of pornography is available on the internet, often for free, with little or no protection to ensure that those accessing it are old enough to do so. In turn, this is changing the way that young people understand healthy relationships, sex and consent.

In October 2019, the Government announced that they will not commence Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017. We propose to repeal those provisions and instead deliver more comprehensive protections for children through our proposals for a wider online harms regulatory framework. Protecting children is at the heart of our plans to transform the online experience for people in the UK, and the strongest protections in our forthcoming online harms framework will be for children.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Home Office have now published the full government response to the online harms White Paper consultation, which sets out the new expectations on companies to keep users safe online. These new laws will mean that companies must tackle illegal content on their platforms and protect children from harmful content and activity online. Major platforms will need to be clear about what content is acceptable on their services and enforce the rules consistently.

I am pleased that Britain is setting the global standards for safety online, with the most comprehensive approach yet to online regulation. Ofcom will be named in legislation as the regulator, with the power to fine companies failing in their duty of care up to £18 million or 10% of annual global turnover. It will also have the power to block non-compliant services from being accessed in the UK.

The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, asked whether the provisions in the online harms framework will be as robust as those in the Digital Economy Act. Through the online harms framework, we will be able to go further than the Digital Economy Act’s focus on online pornography on commercial adult sites. We will be able to protect children from a broader range of harmful content and activity across a wider range of services. The online safety duty of care will not just be for sites with user-generated content; it will also be for sites that facilitate online user interaction, including video and image sharing, commenting and live-streaming.

The noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Ponsonby, the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, and my noble friend Lord McColl all asked why, given that the online harms regime is years away, the Government cannot commence the Digital Economy Act as an interim measure. It is important that we take the time to deliver the most comprehensive approach for protecting children online, which will ensure that robust protections are in place for generations of young people to come. Through the online harms framework, we will be able to go further than the Digital Economy Act’s focus on online pornography on commercial adult sites, as I said. We will be able to protect children from a broader range of harmful content.

One of the criticisms of the Digital Economy Act was that its scope did not cover social media companies, where a considerable quantity of pornographic material is accessible to children. The Government’s new approach will include social media companies and sites where user-generated content can be widely shared, including the most visited commercial pornography sites. Taken together, we expect this to bring into scope more online pornography that children can currently access than the narrower scope of the Digital Economy Act. We will set out, in secondary legislation, priority categories of legal but harmful content and activity posing the greatest risk to children, which will include online pornography.

The Government expect that the regulator will take a robust approach to sites that pose the highest risk of harm to children. That may include recommending the use of age assurance or verification technologies where the risk is highest, including for sites hosting online pornography. Companies would need to put in place these technologies or demonstrate that the approach they are taking delivers the same level of protection for children. We are working closely with stakeholders across the industry to establish the right conditions for the market to deliver age assurance and age verification technical solutions ahead of the legislative requirements coming into force. The online safety Bill will be ready this year; in the meantime, we are already working closely with Ofcom to ensure that the implementation period that will be necessary following passage of the legislation will be as short as possible.

On the point about the Government sitting on the research, we were not seeking to suppress its results. Given the number of comments from noble Lords about the letter, I had better write again on the points there were clearly not satisfactory to them. My ministerial colleagues in the DDCMS will continue to engage with parliamentarians as we prepare for the vital legislation. I hope I have provided reassurance that Amendment 177A is not necessary and that the noble Baroness will be happy to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of The Earl of Kinnoull The Earl of Kinnoull Chair, European Union Committee, Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Chair, European Union Committee

I have received no requests to speak after the Minister and, accordingly, I call the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin.

Photo of Baroness Benjamin Baroness Benjamin Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate for their powerful speeches. I listened very carefully to the Minister, but I have to say that I have a very heavy heart tonight. I am so disappointed by her response. I do not accept for one moment the argument that we should simply wait for the online harms Bill: that is too long. The Government must recognise, for all the reasons outlined by noble Lords in their powerful speeches during the debate, that this approach is not remotely credible.

On the non-implementation of Part 3 and the proposed delay of another three years or so, just think about the harm and damage that will be done to children and their future. This is simply not acceptable when the House has already passed legislation that could easily be implemented now and could, as a minimum, be used in the interim between now and the proposed online harms Bill, for which I cannot wait. When that Bill has been passed and is ready for implementation, so be it. I thank the noble Baroness for what she said will happen in that Bill; I will fully support it and I look forward to it.

There is one thing worse than not taking action to prevent the indoctrination of children and young people into thinking that violence is a normal and natural part of sexual relationships, and that is having the capacity to address the problem, as we do now through Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act, and not bothering to use it. This is deeply concerning and disturbing. It is tragic that, having led on the issue from 2015, the Government should now have performed such a radical turnaround and be dragging their feet. We have to wait three years or more for any action to be taken.

In spite of the Minister’s official response, it is my sincere hope—yes, I am an optimist—that the Government will study the speeches in this debate carefully over the next few days and review their position. I am very happy to meet the Minister, along with other interested Peers, to discuss this matter further. It is important that we do so, and if progress is not made over the next couple of weeks, I will certainly bring this amendment back on Report. With a heavy heart, for the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 177A withdrawn.

Amendment 177B not moved.

Photo of The Earl of Kinnoull The Earl of Kinnoull Chair, European Union Committee, Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Chair, European Union Committee

We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 178. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister’s reply should email the clerk during the debate. Anyone wishing to press this or any of the amendments in this group to a Division must make that clear in the debate.

Clause 73: Power of Secretary of State to issue guidance about domestic abuse, etc