Amendment 87A

Domestic Abuse Bill - Report (3rd Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 11:00 pm on 15th March 2021.

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Baroness Benjamin:

Moved by Baroness Benjamin

87A: 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 beg to move Amendment 87A in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord McColl. I thank the Minister for the meeting that she kindly arranged for the noble Lord, the noble Baroness, Lady Healy, and I to discuss my amendment.

This amendment is an interim measure directed at the provision for the protection of women and children in relation to online pornography before the introduction of the online harms Bill. I am overwhelmed by the support I have received for the amendment from many charities and organisations, especially over the weekend. It is certainly engaging with a very real point of public concern that has been thrown into sharper focus by recent events. Sarah Everard’s legacy must be that she died in order for change to happen. Women’s actions across the country have shown that they want change.

Before we remind ourselves what Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act would be doing today had it been implemented, it is important to be clear in the first instance about the relationship between the consumption of pornography and violence against women. Noble Lords will remember that the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord McColl, and I drew attention in Committee to the Government Equalities Office’s research, which was published on 15 January and demonstrated the clear association between pornography consumption and male aggression.

The Government’s handling of this research causes me huge concern because, although it is clear from the front cover that it was ready for publication in February 2020, it was not published until a year later. In July, when asked about that during the consideration of this Bill in another place, the Minister implied that the research was ongoing when, in reality, it had been completed for months. Further, even though noble Lords asked about the research at Second Reading, they were not informed of its publication in the Government’s letter to Peers, dated 26 January.

My concern increased greatly when I received a letter from the Government last week. It stated:

“The reports make it clear that there is not one single factor that leads someone to engage in harmful sexual behaviour, rather it is a combination of factors which interact with one another to differing effects on each individual. The literature review highlights that a direct causal link cannot be established between pornography and harmful sexual behaviour as this would require impractical and unethical study conditions (forced exposure to pornography).”

I find this response quite extraordinary. First, no one has ever sought to argue that pornography is the only issue. It is obviously one factor among others, but the fact that it is not the only factor does not justify questioning attempts to address it. Secondly, as the letter itself concedes, proving causation is obviously impossible. Rather than deflecting the significance of the research’s findings by talking about its failure to do something it could never do, surely the Government’s responsibility is to look squarely at what the research does show—namely, that there is a clear association between pornography consumption and sexual aggression and violence. Surely this merits immediate action.

I am delighted that We Can’t Consent To This, the campaign group that has become such an inspirational and important voice for women on this issue, wrote to noble Lords calling on this House to vote for my Amendment 87A. In its briefing, it states:

“Our findings suggest a strong association between extreme pornography consumption and the incidence of sexual violence. Of the 3.6 million UK women who have been sexually assaulted, most of the men who do it say they were influenced to do so by porn.”

To this end, they call on noble Lords to support my amendment.

Another significant organisation campaigning for this amendment is CEASE, the Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation. It highlights the urgent need for greater awareness of widespread violent content on porn sites and its real-world consequences. It too calls on Peers to vote for Amendment 87A, stating that in the light of the horrendous and tragic case of Sarah Everard and the outpouring of experiences of harassment, abuse and violence shared by women since Sarah’s case because public, we have a duty to address factors associated with violence against women. Porn consumption is undoubtedly one of these.

I am also delighted that Women’s Aid is supporting my amendment as it upholds its desire to protect women against violence. Over the weekend, I read with huge concern an article in the Evening Standard written by a woman who was subject to a sexual attack in London on the same night of Sarah Everard’s disappearance. The author is just one of many women who have stepped forward to share their stories in the last few days.

Leading expert Mary Sharpe from The Reward Foundation wrote over the weekend that it is becoming clear that, since the arrival of broadband in 2008 and the easy access to pornography via smartphones, we have witnessed radical changes in behaviour in our society. If we are to put a halt to the increase in violence, we must understand what impact technology is having on brains and behaviour. In 2018, based on the weight of evidence, the World Health Organization introduced a new category—compulsive sexual behaviour disorder—to its international classification of disease.

Research shows that around 80% of people seeking treatment for this disorder have reported an inability to control their use of pornography, despite negative consequences. Some sufferers are as young as 16. Researchers at Cambridge University found changes to brain structure and functions in compulsive porn users. They found that porn users’ brains responded to images of pornography in the same way as cocaine addicts respond to cocaine, and that addiction-related brain changes impair the ability of a user to put the brakes on an impulsive behaviour. For some compulsive porn users, that means the inability to control violent outbursts.

Having looked at the association between pornography consumption and male aggression, we should now remember where we would be today had the Government implemented Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act as planned in 2019. There would have been two crucial consequences. First, we would have an operational regulator charged with taking robust action against any website, regardless of where in the world it is located, that is accessible in the UK and shows what is under UK law the most violent category of online pornography—extreme pornography which is realistic, involves severe injury and an act that threatens a person’s life. This has nothing to do with age verification and would help to protect women.

Secondly, under-18s would be protected from accessing porn websites through age verification. This constitutes a critical investment in the future to limit incidences of domestic violence going forward. It means that as children move into adulthood, they will be less likely than they are today to have been exposed to violent pornography which fosters the expectation that violence is a natural form of sexual relationships.

If the Government had followed through on the will of this House and implemented Part 3, today we would enjoy two major protections from the impact of the association between pornography consumption and male aggression and sexual violence. It is utterly tragic that, having demonstrated such wisdom and vision on these issues between 2015 and 2018, the Government misjudged things so spectacularly in 2019. It makes them look so out of touch, especially at this moment when we see such an outpouring of concern about women’s safety and the implication of pornography use in those safety concerns.

I have always accepted that the Government eventually intend to address pornographic websites, alongside other online harms, through the online harms Bill. I have said it before, and I will say it again: I welcome the online harms Bill and the ambition to address other online harms, including pornography on social media. However, there is a huge problem with the idea that we can now forget about Part 3 and wait for the online harms Bill because, without doubt, there will be consequences for women and children. Today we have the opportunity to protect women and children in relation to pornographic websites in the interim period between now and when the online harms Bill is ready. This is why I am moving my Amendment 87A.

I have to say that I have found the Government’s response to me on this extraordinary. Their letter stated:

“As an indication of the potential timescales involved, the implementation period for Part 3 of the 2017 Act took over two years, following Royal Assent in April 2017 to the proposed commencement date of 15 July 2019. Such a two-year lead in time would run into the Online Safety legislative process”.

This suggests that one would have to go back to the drawing board with completely new legislation and guidance. Of course, we could—but if we are concerned about keeping women safe and this interim measure previously satisfied the officials at DCMS, I think we can be sure that, whatever its faults, it is better than nothing, which is what we have at the moment.

This is surely a Sir Humphrey moment if ever there was one, which noble Lords can see through. On one hand, we are asked to believe that implementing existing legislation would take far longer than we need it to; on the other hand we are told that the development of the online harms Bill will happen at a record-breaking speed, as we rush through pre-legislative scrutiny and as the Bill then gallops through both Houses and on to Royal Assent.

The difficulty we all have in believing this is that when the Government said they would not implement Part 3 in October 2019, they promised that the Bill would be delivered last year. It is already March 2021, and we still have no sight of this elusive legislation. Even if it was published and had its First Reading tomorrow, we would still be presented with a longer wait for protection in relation to pornographic websites than if the Government were to announce instead that they would begin to implement Part 3 tomorrow.

Furthermore, the Government have also made it clear that they will address pornography through secondary legislation, which would have to be developed after the primary legislation and then be implemented as well. We were not born yesterday. The notion that it would take a similar amount of time to introduce, pass and implement one piece of legislation as it takes just to implement another which has already been passed is self-evidently nonsensical.

If the Government want to point back to the Digital Economy Act precedent, then so will I. Between the publication of the Digital Economy Bill and the passing of attendant secondary legislation, three and half years elapsed. Let us be clear: the fact that we might get to debate the online safety Bill this autumn—if it is published, rushed through pre-legislative scrutiny and comes to the Lords first—will not change the fact that any protection that it and its secondary legislation afford will not be felt for years. If the Government recognise the urgent need for action, they could redesignate the BBFC as regulator and use the guidance and secondary legislation that Parliament has already approved, and we could feel the benefits of Part 3 in three months—by this summer.

I know that the BBFC is not the Government’s preferred long-term regulator. This is a role for Ofcom, but it would be a huge political misjudgment to deny women and children the protection of Part 3 in the interim just because they do not think the BBFC would be quite as good as Ofcom. I believe that it is much more important that women and children should receive protection than condemning them to having none. The BBFC could carry out this role over the next three years and then hand it over to Ofcom when the online harms legislation is ready.

I know that Part 3 does not address pornography on social media. I argued many times in our debates on the Digital Economy Bill that it should be included, but it would be absurd to attempt to justify on that basis not introducing the protections that can now be implemented in relation to pornographic websites. We must introduce protections in relation to pornographic websites now and add in social media as soon as the new legislation is ready. If we wait for the online harms Bill, we will condemn women and children to a less safe second half of 2021, all of 2022, 2023 and perhaps even 2024. I hope that the Government care as much about the damage that pornographic websites will do over the next three years as I do. The same can be said for many members of the public and campaign organisations. There is only one thing worse than not protecting children and women in 2021, 2022 and 2023, and that is having the capacity to implement Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act and simply not bothering to do so.

Without resorting too deeply to technical jargon, the assertion in the Minister’s letter regarding the advent of DNS over HTTPS is not credible, and the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont, will address this point in more detail in his speech. The notion that age verification is a threat to personal privacy, which has been put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, and others is outdated, incorrect and ill-informed because technically no personal information will be shared on porn sites at all, as the Age Verification Providers Association has demonstrated.

I have connections with PSHE associations and I believe in the best possible PSHE provision for children. Those associations also support this amendment and age verification. While we owe children great PSHE, we also owe it to them to make it less likely that they will be exposed to violent online pornography between now and when the online harms regime is ready.

I will conclude with the briefing on my amendment from the organisation, We Can’t Consent To This. It argues for the implementation of Part 3 so that we have a regulator to take action against websites that show extreme pornography. That would help foster an environment that is less hostile to women and would make domestic abuse less likely. This is not the time to mess about. We have to stop creating a conveyor belt of sexual predators who commit violence against women and girls. The eyes of the country are on us to see whether we understand what is going on. It has been great to hear that the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, wants to see action to protect women from sexual harassment and violence. My amendment would give him and the Government an opportunity to do just that.

If the Government are able to make a commitment today to implement Part 3 as an interim measure to protect women and children in 2022 and 2023, I will withdraw this amendment. If they cannot do that, I will divide the House. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 11:15 pm, 15th March 2021

I remind noble Lords that we would like to finish this group of amendments by midnight tonight. If noble Lords can be as brief as possible, that would be helpful.

Photo of Lord Mackay of Clashfern Lord Mackay of Clashfern Conservative

My Lords, I shall take that advice seriously, and fortunately I can be brief because this whole area has been clearly and cogently explained by the noble Baroness who has proposed this amendment. I am pleased to speak in support of it and I shall do so in a summary way to cover the main points. I remind noble Lords that it is the first responsibility of the Government to do all they can to keep our people safe. In that connection, there is no group more important than our children and young people.

The Government have recognised that harm can be done to our people online and are preparing legislation to deal with that—not an easy task. I have seen some of the efforts put forward so far, but on the statute book since 2017 there is legislation to protect children. It also creates a regulator with power to take robust action against any website showing illegal extreme pornography, which will help create a less hostile environment for women.

It is notable that our present Prime Minister has responsibility for that legislation, because he was a member of the Cabinet when the 2017 legislation went on to the statute book. Accordingly, he has the honour of promoting this along with his colleagues in government at that time. As we have just heard, he has asked that something be done to protect women who walk in the street in the evening—often a risky and adversarial business.

The legislation also creates, as has been said, a regulator with power to take robust action; this is important, because it can be brought into force very quickly if we use the BBFC as the regulator for the time being. Why refuse to do that? Why expose women and children to the danger that legislation prevents and the danger the population as a whole faces as a result of the absence of the regulator? We are preparing comprehensive legislation to deal with this subject and want Ofcom to be the regulator. That is all well and good, but however comprehensive, it cannot make good the damage presently occurring that the existing legislation would have prevented if in force.

The very sad events of the last days have shown the aggressive behaviour faced by huge numbers of women who have explained in detail the kind of conduct with which they have been confronted while walking along our streets. I have not heard, so far, any suggestion of how that can be dealt with. The committee dealing with this matter said that the Government must find a solution, and I think that so far the Government are still waiting for a solution. I suggest that the solution is right here if we put into force the legislation passed by both Houses of Parliament with the full consent of the Government in 2017.

While the government research may not prove a causation, it shows a clear relationship between pornography consumption and a higher incidence of male aggression and violence against women. That seems absolutely clear, stated by the Government. Nobody is suggesting that that is the only possible explanation of some forms of sexually aggressive and violent conduct. However, it shows that there is a relationship, and that is sufficient to show that removing it could have a beneficial effect as a contribution to the remedy of this widespread difficulty that has been manifested in the last day or two across the whole of our country. As far as I have seen, nobody has suggested a way of dealing with that as yet, whereas this is a remedy to hand. It is not, of course, a complete remedy, but it may have some considerable effect in the meantime, while we await the Bill that is in preparation, which is more comprehensive in effect.

It is difficult to solve all the problems that that Bill raises. I cannot be sure when it will come forward and we have not had a guaranteed date yet, from anybody. In the meantime, we have a weapon that has some effect as a remedy, which protects children to a considerable extent. It is right to hand, so why not implement it now? I have sent a note of what I am saying to the Minister, to give good warning of what I had in mind. This is the situation as I see it: it is an extraordinary challenge to our Government that they have to hand a remedy that would be of some effect, at least, in this serious problem that has so clearly manifested as a result of the sad death in the last few days.

Photo of Baroness Grey-Thompson Baroness Grey-Thompson Crossbench 11:30 pm, 15th March 2021

My Lords, I admire the continued work of the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, in putting forward this amendment. I have been inundated with requests from members of the public that I speak on this amendment, and express their strong support for it. One grandparent got in touch to tell me about the experience of their young grandchild and how they had been exposed to listening to another child talk about incredibly graphic violent pornography. Out of all the letters, this struck a chord with me.

I also thank We Can’t Consent to This, the Click Off campaign and the Reward Foundation for spending time with me in the last year to talk me through some of the many issues related to pornography. Much of it was harrowing, especially around redefining the boundaries of consensual relationships.

Now is the time for the Government to take a positive step forward after not implementing Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2019. It is clear from the extensive research that there is a link between domestic abuse, general violence against women and pornography. The British Board of Film Classification has said that half of children aged 11 to 13, and 66% of 14 to 15 year-olds, have come across pornography. The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, raised social media. It is shocking how easy it is to find pornography after just one or two clicks away from someone an individual may innocently follow.

The evidence of how compulsive use of internet pornography can affect the brain and decision-making faculties of a compulsive user over time is something that we have to take seriously, but relatively little has appeared in the media about it and there are three reasons. The first is that substantial pornography use is relatively new and coincided with increased internet speeds around 2008. The second is that it can be hard to isolate one factor as a root cause. The third, and of most concern, is that the multibillion-pound pornography industry has financial reasons for keeping the public and politicians in the dark about the links between its product and health risks. The playbook that we now know was used by, among others, the tobacco industry to counter the message of a negative link between smoking and ill health was highly effective for a long time, and this is similar to the pushback that we are seeing now from a multibillion-pound industry that does not want to change.

Pornography is such a politically sensitive subject and a largely private activity that it stops many people discussing it publicly. The Government need to address this issue and I strongly support the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin.

Photo of Lord Browne of Belmont Lord Browne of Belmont DUP

My Lords, I am pleased to speak in support of Amendment 87A. I very much agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, said and do not propose to repeat it. I devote my speech to responding to the assertions made by the Minister in her letter of 8 March, in response to the debate in Committee. This seeks to justify not implementing Part 3 on the basis that

“recent technological changes could render Part 3 of the 2017 Act ineffective in protecting children if it were introduced as an interim measure. One of the Act’s enforcement powers was the power to require Internet Service Providers to block access to material on non-compliant services. Changes to the architecture of the internet may make this power obsolete.”

This has the feel of officials looking round for excuses not to implement Part 3 on at least three levels. First, one could be forgiven for concluding, on the basis of the letter, that IP blocking was the only enforcement mechanism for Part 3. It is actually one of three enforcement mechanisms so, even if it did not work, this would not make Part 3 ineffective. Secondly, the letter says only that IP blocking may not work at some point in the future—not that it does not work now or that there definitely will be a problem in future.

The reason the Government are concerned that blocking access to non-compliant websites may become problematic in future is because of a new way of navigating the internet, known as DNS over HTTPS, or DoH for short. It is not widely used at present but is likely to become more common in time. DNS stands for domain naming system; it is simply the phone book for the internet, allowing for translating the name of a website such as into its numerical address—in our case, Presently, internet service providers are able to block access to particular websites simply by intercepting the query from a user wishing to access this telephone book. DoH encrypts those queries, making the current interception technology deployed by ISPs somewhat less capable of blocking access to non-compliant websites this way.

However, at some point in the process something has to connect the name of the site to its number, making blocking possible. In the case of DoH, this is an entity known as a DNS resolver, which is just another phone book but accessed securely. So the simplest solution, and the one the Government intend to use to block sites under the online safety Bill, is to instead turn to these resolver services and ask them to apply blocks, rather than the ISPs. The fact that this is how they intend to deal with the DoH enforcement challenge under the online harms Bill means that they should be able to deal with it that way under Part 3. But to fully appreciate why it is not remotely credible to argue that DoH constitutes a reason for not proceeding with Part 3, one must understand two further points.

First, even under DoH, ISPs still have the ability to determine which websites the user is visiting because not all aspects of the traffic are encrypted. As the well-respected online tech publication ZDNet states in an article on site blocking:

“ISPs know everything about everyone’s traffic anyway. By design, they can see to what IP address the user is connecting when accessing a website. This IP address can’t be hidden. Knowing the final IP destination reveals to what website a user is connecting, even if everything about his traffic is encrypted.”

Research has shown that a third-party can identify with 95% accuracy to which websites users were connecting, just by looking at the IP addresses. Secondly, if DoH constituted a major long-term challenge, which I do not believe it does, for the reasons I have set out, it is not relevant to our discussion today because we are talking about using Part 3 only as an interim measure between now and when the online harms Bill is ready.

Another government concern with the Digital Economy Act is that it is specific in naming internet service providers in the section relating to site blocking, so Ministers were told they will lack the power to ask a resolver service to block pornography websites which fail to implement age verification. The Minister argued this in her letter to the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, when writing that a reference to internet service providers or similar is usually applied in the traditional sense, requiring the major internet service providers to block access to certain websites. But looking in detail at this legislation, the definition of an ISP is not left to tradition but based explicitly on the European Union definition of an internet access service, which means

“a publicly available electronic communications service that provides access to the internet, and thereby connectivity to virtually all end points of the internet, irrespective of the network technology and terminal equipment used.”

Indeed, the Minister went on to accept as much, conceding that the department’s guidance to the regulator, coupled with the broader terminology of an internet access service used in EU legislation, may offer sufficient flexibility to extend the duty on internet service providers to cover other means of accessing the internet.

There is no credible technological reason why the Government could not implement Part 3 now as an interim measure. We would then have a regulator in place more quickly to take robust action against pornographic websites showing illegal extreme pornography that normalises rough sex practices and sexual aggression generally than if we just wait for the online harms Bill. In the context of current levels of concern about attacks on women, the failure to deliver this protection as quickly as possible would be to fundamentally misread the moment and would let women down. I hope that when the Minister responds she will announce that the Government now recognise that they must implement Part 3 as quickly as possible as an interim measure.

Photo of Lord McColl of Dulwich Lord McColl of Dulwich Conservative 11:45 pm, 15th March 2021

My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for meeting the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, and me to discuss our amendment. However, while we were pleased to learn more about the long-awaited online harms Bill, we remained just as baffled after the meeting as we had been before as to why Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act should not be implemented now, as has been mentioned by other speakers. I will cut short what I was going to say because it has been said before.

In Committee I spoke about the evidence from the Government’s own belatedly released reviews that clearly demonstrates a link between pornography use and the beliefs and attitudes of perpetrators of sexual abuse. In truth, there is extensive additional research that should be taken account of. That includes advances in neuroscience that have allowed us to understand that the brain is plastic and changes in response to the environment. Indeed, it is worth noting that the Government’s research looked only at legal pornography use. One would expect the findings of research on illegal pornography use to be even more concerning.

Our environment has changed dramatically since the advent of broadband, which has allowed easy access to limitless amounts of free internet pornography, which is easily accessible to children and young people during a time when their brain is fast developing. When we consider this in the light of the evidence regarding the impact of pornography on adult brains, it is sobering. For instance, researchers at the University of Cambridge have found changes to brain structure and function in compulsive pornography users. Their brains respond to images of pornography in the same way that brains of cocaine addicts respond to cocaine. Moreover, there is evidence—of huge significance to the subject of domestic abuse—that the part of the brain that inhibits violent and impulsive outbursts is impaired when a person has an addiction. However, there is some good news, because that part of the brain can function again after a period of time after they quit the addiction.

It is extremely concerning that a study of adolescents shows that

“intentional exposure to violent x-rated material over time predicted an almost 6-fold increase in the odds of self-reported sexually aggressive behaviour”.

Other research suggests that, for adolescent perpetrators of sexual violence,

“Links between perpetration and violent sexual media are apparent”.

Moreover, we should not forget that the British Board of Film Classification’s 2019 report on young people’s use of pornography found:

“Beyond creating unrealistic expectations of sex, some young people felt pornography had actually affected their expectations of, and behaviour during, sex, particularly in the copying of “rough” or “forceful” sex seen in pornography.”

In this context, the No. 1 priority must be to implement Part 3, as has been mentioned by several speakers. I know Part 3 does not deal with all online harms or address pornography on social media, but when the online harms Bill is eventually law, it will rise to those challenges. Part 3 addresses pornography websites; that is progress that the women and children of our country could benefit from more rapidly than they could from an unpublished online harms Bill. The Government have sought to argue that, notwithstanding the fact that Part 3 is already on the statute book, waiting for the online harms Bill makes sense. However—I say this very gently—that argument is beginning to look rather ridiculous and risks in the current environment making them look rather out of touch.

In the context of the current outpouring of concern about women’s safety, it would be one thing to say, “We will address the challenge through unpublished legislation”, if there was no other legislation to help do the job. Apart from a few new regulations, as has been mentioned, we have already passed primary legislation, which is “oven ready”, to use a term favoured by the Prime Minister, to tackle websites showing extreme pornography. In the interim, the Government should use the oven-ready primary legislation rather than base their entire strategy on legislation that has not even been published, let alone gone through Parliament, and which is consequently far from oven ready. Given the urgency of this, they should redesignate the BBFC as the interim regulator, which would mean these protections could begin within months.

Consideration on Report adjourned.

House adjourned at 11.53 pm.