Domestic Abuse Bill - Report (4th Day)

– in the House of Lords at 3:15 pm on 17 March 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Votes in this debate

Relevant documents: 21st and 28th Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee

Photo of Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Deputy Chairman of Committees

As it was not possible to proceed with a Division on this Bill on Monday, I will call for the deferred Division on Amendment 87, which was fully debated and pressed to a Division on Monday. No further speeches will be heard on this amendment. We begin with the deferred Division on Amendment 87, moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. The Question will be decided by a remote Division. I instruct the clerk to start a remote Division.

Ayes 310, Noes 232.

Division number 2 Domestic Abuse Bill - Report (4th Day)

Aye: 310 Members of the House of Lords

No: 232 Members of the House of Lords

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

Division conducted remotely on Amendment 87

Amendment 87 agreed.

Debate on Amendment 87A resumed.

Photo of Baroness Butler-Sloss Baroness Butler-Sloss Chair, Ecclesiastical Committee (Joint Committee), Chair, Ecclesiastical Committee (Joint Committee) 3:28, 17 March 2021

My Lords, I have had more emails asking me to support Amendment 87A than any other part of the Bill—I am sure that that is true for many other Members of this House. There is clearly not only great support for it across the country but a major concern about the impact on children of access to online pornography and its link with domestic abuse.

As noble Lords know, pornography is easy to access online, and we know that children are susceptible. I remember being told by the manager of a refuge about a little boy of five hitting his younger sister, who was four; when he was asked why he did it, he said, “That is what daddy does to mummy every day”. Noble Lords may remember that the 10 year-old killers of the little Bulger boy had watched the most appalling videos before they carried out this tragic murder, copying some of what they had watched.

Since age verification has been approved by both Houses, I share the view across the House that it should now be implemented in this Bill.

Photo of Lord Morrow Lord Morrow DUP 3:30, 17 March 2021

My Lords, I again commend the Government for bringing forward the Bill, as I have done throughout its passage through this House. I thank the Minister for the work that has been undertaken thus far. However, as the tragic events in Clapham so shockingly remind us, speed is of the essence when it comes to changing the attitude of men and boys towards women and girls in our society.

The Minister has been keen to point out that the Government’s own pornography research does not prove causation—how could it? It does demonstrate a clear association between pornography consumption and male aggression and sexual violence, as does other research in the field. In this context, addressing the impact of pornography consumption on male aggression towards women must form part of a credible legislative approach to violence against women and a credible response to the outpouring of stories that we have all been moved by this week.

In recent debates, much has been said about how Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act protects children from pornographic websites through age verification. That is certainly very important because, if Part 3 was in place now, children today would be less likely to be exposed to pornographic websites. It would therefore be less likely that they would move into adulthood with the expectation that violence is a natural part of sexual relationships, with all that this means for behaviour.

However, after the events of last week, it is also important to stress that another feature of Part 3—namely, the regulator’s power to take robust action against websites showing illegal extreme pornography, regardless of age verification—is important, because it will help foster an environment that challenges the normalisation of violence against women. It is a vital change that women and children could benefit from right now, that could have brought huge benefits from last year and, crucially, that could bring huge benefits very quickly, for reasons I will explain, if the Government implement Part 3.

The latest letter on this from the Minister comes with an estimated timetable of between 22 and 27 months for implementing Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017, with a new regulator. This is perhaps the finest example of a cannot-do, rather than a can-do, attitude to emerge from Whitehall since Sir Humphrey Appleby took his retirement. It is deeply problematic for at least two reasons. First, it clearly draws out the process to the greatest possible extent, making it as long as possible. Secondly, it rests upon a strategy that hopes that none of us will be cute enough to spot the elephant in the room.

The truth is that, if the Government were prepared to redesignate the BBFC as the regulator for Part 3 during the interim period, while the online harms Bill is being developed, then women and children would benefit within a matter of months from the very important protections that this House has already sanctioned in relation to pornographic websites. The taxpayer would also see a return on the £2.2 million investment in the steps taken in preparing for implementing Part 3.

The question the Government must answer is this: is bowing to their preference that Ofcom be the regulator, rather than the BBFC, so important that they are prepared to demand that the price for it is that women and children should be denied the protections that this House has sanctioned for them for a period of years? We can argue about how long it might take for the online harms framework to reach the point of implementation, but if we use the Digital Economy Act as a model, we can assume that the time from the arrival of the primary legislation in Parliament to the point at which it and the attendant secondary legislation and guidance are passed will be about three years. Is the Prime Minister prepared to tell the women and children of the United Kingdom that his preference for Ofcom over the BBFC is so great that women and children should be denied these important protections from pornographic websites for some years, even though he can still have Ofcom when the online harms regime comes into play? Is he prepared to ignore Women’s Aid? Are the Government saying that, because they cannot consent to this, we should cease support for this amendment and all those who want implementation now?

I trust that the Prime Minister still has his political wits about him. I trust that he will think better of taking a different position from all these bodies and the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, whom the people of this country hold in such high regard. Redesignation would take 40 days, as per Section 17 of the 2017 Act, where it was agreed that we should give the websites three months to get ready.

By my reckoning, if the Government show a fraction of the determination that we saw at the vigil in Clapham on Saturday night, Part 3, with all its protections for women and children, could be in force before this House rises for the Summer Recess. It is my great hope that the Government will do the right thing today and tell the Minister before she gets to her feet that she can announce that the Government will now implement Part 3, so that the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, whose leadership on this issue demands our great respect, can withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Baroness O'Loan Baroness O'Loan Crossbench

My Lords, I am pleased to speak today in support of the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin. I am grateful too for the powerful briefings and extensive correspondence on this amendment that I have received from several organisations and individuals.

Like other noble Lords who have spoken, I have seen the Government’s letter of 8 March. I found it unconvincing and I am concerned that there is a danger of completely missing the point of the amendment. As we saw over the weekend, the country is very concerned about attacks on women. I think, too, that we are all concerned about the level of violence against children, and indeed against men, in our society. It is clear that the consumption of pornography is associated with aggression and violence against women, men and children. This is an issue on which we can act today.

Had the Government implemented Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act as planned, we would have had a functioning regulator today. He or she would have been able to take a series of robust actions against any pornographic website showing illegal extreme pornography. We would have seen the introduction of age verification on pornographic websites.

Today, 14 women’s organisations, including Women’s Aid, have written to the Prime Minister asking him to instruct his Ministers to respond to the debate by making a commitment to implement Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act as an interim measure to protect women and children, treating them with dignity between now and when the online harms regime will be ready, probably in three years.

The suggestion in the Government’s letter that

“commencing Part 3 of the 2017 Act as an interim measure would … create a confusing and fragmented regulatory landscape” is unconvincing; it is also regrettable.

The online harms Bill is not yet before Parliament; it will take time to pass through Parliament and, even if it is passed as suggested and the Government commence implementation immediately, the interim arrangements proposed today would be in place and working for two or three years before it would be realistically possible for any benefit to be experienced through such an Act. That would be years of additional protection before any further legislation was operative.

If providing a greater measure of protection for women and children is a critical issue, as the Government have said, they cannot continue to argue that the legislation that we have passed should not be implemented now, even as work proceeds on developing even better legislation for the future. With child-on-child sexual abuse, we know that between 2012 and 2016 there was a 78% rise in England and Wales. Research from 2017 on preventing harmful sexual behaviour involved interviews with young sexual offenders, asking them what might have stopped them. Their answers included “help in management of pornography”. Implementing Part 3 would do this; it would help to save and protect until new legislation is enacted.

I urge the Government to respond positively to noble Lords who have spoken in favour of this amendment and the many women’s groups that have written to the Prime Minister today, and I shall support the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, if she divides the House on this amendment.

Photo of Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

We should all thank the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, for Amendment 87A. It has been thrown into stark relief by the terribly tragic death of Sarah Everard.

In 2017, Parliament agreed powers to take action against any website showing illegal extreme pornography, yet although we have agreed that non-fatal strangulation is a crime, we still face the cultural normalisation of aggressive sexual activity, of which strangulation activities are the most extreme example. Fuelling such activities is violent pornography and the underlying problem of sex addiction, as explained by the noble Lord, Lord McColl of Dulwich. As with any addiction, the person requires ever more potent dosages of the source of their addiction, whether drugs, alcohol, gambling or abnormal sex. When sexual potency appears to fail, the man seeks greater stimulation in an attempt to achieve satisfaction, developing psychological tolerance to abhorrent acts. The pornography sought gradually becomes ever more extreme, with films and images made exploiting those who are vulnerable, often underage, enslaved or both. This is not about choice or self-control; the addict has surrendered choice—they are controlled by their addiction, compulsively drawn by dependence to extreme pornography. That does not absolve them from responsibility at all but, by leaving the extreme pornography there, we do not just normalise these practices but fuel the addiction, similar to the drug trafficker providing cocaine to the addict.

The Government’s own research into the impact of pornography on male aggression reported in February 2020 that

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

We need robust action against websites based anywhere in the world, accessing the UK with illegal extreme pornography. Age-verification checks would ensure that children are significantly less likely to be exposed to pornographic websites, which have negative implications for their development and give an expectation that violence is a natural part of sexual relationships, with all this means for their behaviour. The terrible costs of not implementing Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act are evident. As has been said:

“It’s now easy to find content on the major porn sites of women being hung, strangled, suffocated, garrotted—and with ‘choking’ content often featuring on the front page.”

Moreover, on September 2019, the Journal of Criminal Law noted:

“Evidence suggests that the mainstream online pornography websites, while declaring such material as contravening their terms and conditions, continue to host such material”.

We cannot wait for the online harms Bill. Women up and down the country—[Inaudible.]

Photo of Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Deputy Chairman of Committees

I suggest that we move to the noble Lord, Lord Paddick. If we can reconnect with the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, we will return to her after the Minister.

Photo of Lord Paddick Lord Paddick Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 3:45, 17 March 2021

First, I want to acknowledge that noble Lords all around this House are concerned about the link between violent pornography and violence against women and girls. I accept that this is an important issue that needs to be debated and addressed, but I remind noble Lords of what the amendment actually says. It would require an investigation into the link between children accessing online pornography and domestic abuse. It would require the person appointed by the Secretary of State to conduct an investigation into whether such a link exists and for that person then to decide whether to implement Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act if that person thinks that implementing Part 3 would prevent domestic abuse.

Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act is about preventing children under 18 from accessing online pornography. It does nothing to control adults accessing violent pornographic content unless that content is extreme and, therefore, illegal. Extreme pornography is defined by Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 as

“grossly offensive, disgusting or otherwise of an obscene character”.

Examples are given in the Act, which I shall not quote directly, but they are such things as an act that threatens a person’s life; an act that causes serious injury to intimate areas of a person’s body; sex with dead bodies; and sex with animals. When it says extreme, it really does mean extreme.

Part 3 requires only the policing of content that would be banned from sale in a sex shop. When we debated these measures, many noble Lords said that Part 3 did not go far enough. This amendment, if passed, would do nothing to prevent adults viewing violent pornography, other than extreme pornography, which is already illegal. The amendment would attempt to prevent those aged under 18 accessing any kind of pornography from commercial pornographic websites. Of course, I accept the argument that children under 18 should not be able to access pornography, whether from commercial websites or when it is shared on social media, which Part 3 does not cover. Part 3 provides inadequate protection for children online and does nothing to address noble Lords’ wider concerns about adults accessing violent pornography and the link to violence against women and girls.

This amendment is about preventing children accessing online pornography, because there is believed to be a link between viewing pornography and domestic abuse. The amendment would force the Government to implement Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act if such a link was proved and it was believed that implementing Part 3 would reduce domestic abuse. The Government, as I am sure we will hear from the Minister in a moment, have decided not to implement Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act because they want to incorporate different ways in which to protect children into the online harms Bill instead.

We support what my noble friend Lady Benjamin is trying to achieve in protecting children from pornography, but there are also issues with the wording of her amendment. As I said, the amendment requires the person nominated by the Secretary of State to investigate whether there is a link between children accessing pornography and domestic abuse and report within three months—a very short timescale. If the link is proved and the nominated person believes that Part 3 would prevent domestic abuse, the Government would have to implement Part 3; the decision to implement it would be taken out of their hands.

We believe that any decision to implement Part 3 should be taken by a Secretary of State, who would be accountable to Parliament for that decision, not by a person nominated to undertake a review. We also believe that the issue of protecting children from accessing pornography is wider than domestic abuse. Even if the link between children accessing pornography and domestic abuse were not established, children should still be protected from online pornography.

For those reasons, those of us on our Front Bench for this Bill cannot support the amendment. However, I can assure noble Lords that Liberal Democrats will be holding the Government to account to ensure that effective and proportionate measures are introduced in the online harms Bill to protect children online.

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

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, for her commitment on this issue—a commitment that all speakers in the debate share. As the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, said, all Peers who have spoken have acknowledged the link between pornography and violence against women.

Of course, we strongly agree that there needs to be a mechanism to prevent children accessing pornographic material. We also believe that the Government have failed to show leadership on that matter and have dragged their feet. They should already have brought the online harms Bill forward.

As Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act was going through, we in the Labour Party criticised it as inadequate because it failed to focus on where some of the most serious harm was caused—for example, by not tackling social media sufficiently. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, also made that point.

My understanding is that we now have a timeline for the online harms Bill, with pre-legislative scrutiny expected immediately after the Queen’s Speech—before the Summer Recess—and that Second Reading would be expected after the Summer Recess. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that my understanding of the timetable is correct.

We think that there are real inadequacies in Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act, and that the best way to deal with this matter is in full, and as a priority, in the online harms Bill. That will give time for the Commons to consider the amendments to this Bill that we have already sent back to it, including the supervision of dangerous perpetrators, ensuring that all women have access to life-saving services, and ensuring that child contact centres are regulated to protect our children.

I freely acknowledge that the decision we have taken to abstain on this matter has been a difficult one—but I think it would be wrong to give a misleading sense of certainty by passing this amendment, when that certainty is not merited by the Digital Economy Act. For that reason, we shall abstain on this vote.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, outlined on Monday when we began this debate, her Amendment 87A would require the Government to undertake an investigation of the impact of children’s access to online pornography on domestic abuse, and to review the commencement of Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017.

Her Majesty’s Government are committed to ensuring that the objectives of Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act will be delivered by the online harms framework. Children will be at the heart of our new online safety Bill, which will bring in a new era of accountability for online services. I am afraid I cannot comment on the timings that the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, asked about, as announcements about the Queen’s Speech and other things have not yet been made. I am sorry to disappoint the noble Lord on that.

We are confident that the online safety Bill will provide much greater protection for children than would have been the case with Part 3 of the 2017 Act. Unlike that Act, the online harms regime will capture both the most visited pornography sites and pornography on social media, thereby covering the vast majority of sites where children are most likely to be exposed to pornography.

One of the criticisms of the 2017 Act was that its scope did not cover social media companies, where a considerable quantity of pornographic material is available to children. Research by the British Board of Film Classification published last year found that across a group of children aged between 11 and 17, 44% intentionally accessed pornography via a social media site, compared to 43% for dedicated pornography websites and 53% via an image or video search engine.

Crucially, however, just 7% of children accessed pornography only through dedicated pornography sites. Most children intentionally accessing pornography were doing so across a number of sources, including social media, as well as video-sharing platforms, fora, and via image or video search engines, the majority of which would not fall within scope of the Digital Economy Act, but will fall within the scope of online harms legislation.

Implementing Part 3 of the 2017 Act would therefore leave a significant gap in meeting the Government’s objective of preventing children from accessing pornography —an objective that has also been raised by noble Lords who have spoken in the debate. Our online harms proposals will achieve a more comprehensive approach and allow us to address children’s access to pornography in the round, and avoid children moving from one, more regulated, area of the internet to another, less regulated, area to access pornography.

In addition, 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. Internet service providers themselves have made it clear that they are no longer the sole gatekeepers to the internet. Current and future developments in the way the architecture of the internet functions mean that they may not always be able to offer effective blocking functions, which might make this power obsolete. These potential enforcement challenges could make age-verification very difficult to enforce via the 2017 Act, even as an interim measure.

The most recent prominent change is the introduction of DNS over HTTPS—that is a bit of a mouthful; it is also known as DoH—which, in specific implementation models, could provide an alternative route to access online content that bypasses the current filtering function of internet service providers. Other proposed internet encryption standards may in future limit even further the ability of providers to filter. The Government are actively engaging with the industry to ensure that the spread of DoH and future internet encryption standards do not cause unintended consequences. For example, specific implementation models of DoH could circumnavigate the current filtering mechanisms of internet service providers, which are used to block access to child abuse content.

The noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont, raised the definition of internet service providers in the Digital Economy Act. A reference in legislation 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. The Secretary of State would have to prepare revised guidance to the regulator to implement Part 3 of the 2017 Act. As the noble Lord has said, this guidance, coupled with the broader terminology of an “internet access service”, as used in European Union legislation, might offer sufficient flexibility to extend the duty for internet service providers to cover other means of accessing the internet, where technically feasible. However, the key point that my noble friend Lady Williams of Trafford set out in her letter to the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, was that, given the evolving nature of how internet services are provided, this approach lacks the necessary certainty.

The proposals in the online safety Bill will future-proof the legislation, and address anticipated, longer-term changes to the architecture of the internet, by enabling the regulator to require alternative third parties to carry out blocking measures. This includes any organisation in the internet infrastructure supply chain which facilitates access to a non-compliant service to restrict that access.

It would also not be a quick solution to commence Part 3 as an interim measure, and this would take much longer than the three months that the noble Baroness suggested on Monday. The Government announced in October 2019 that they would not be commencing Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act and, as part of this, took steps to de-designate the British Board of Film Classification as the age-verification regulator. The Government would therefore need to identify a new regulator and ensure that the necessary arrangements were in place before proceeding with formal designation of that regulator. That regulator would then need to produce statutory guidance, as required under the 2017 Act, and consult publicly on this, and the Government would then need to lay regulations and this statutory guidance before Parliament ahead of any new regime coming into force.

As an indication of the potential timescales that would involve, the implementation period for Part 3 of the 2017 Act took over two years, following Royal Assent in April 2017, to the then proposed commencement date of 15 July 2019. Our analysis indicates that it would take a minimum of just under two years to implement the provisions of Part 3 of the 2017 Act. Such a lead-in time, in addition to the nine-month period set out in the noble Baroness’s amendment, would run well into the online safety legislative process, so any benefits of an interim measure would be minimal at best.

Finally, commencing Part 3 of the 2017 Act as an interim measure would create a confusing and fragmented regulatory landscape. It would also require aligning two different enforcement regimes. The regulatory regime under Part 3 of the 2017 Act focuses on a specific requirement on industry to address a specific harm, rather than the wider, more holistic approach to systems and processes under our online harms proposals, which will deliver more comprehensive protections for children as well as for adults.

All pornography services in scope of the duty of care will need to tackle illegal content on their services. Where content is illegal under any criminal law, this will be captured by the online harms duty of care. As the possession of extreme pornography imagery is illegal under existing legislation, it will fall within the duty of care. Our new approach will be more robust than the Digital Economy Act, as it will capture extreme pornography as well as other illegal pornography, including non-photographic child sexual abuse content, which is not included in the definition of extreme pornography referred to in the Digital Economy Act. Companies will need to ensure that illegal content is removed expeditiously and that the risk of it appearing is minimised through effective systems.

In addition, any pornography sites which are designated as category 1 providers will be required to take action on content and activity that is legal for adults but which may be harmful. We expect that priority categories of legal but harmful content for adults set out in secondary legislation will include violent or abusive content. Category 1 services will need to be clear on their platforms about what is acceptable in their terms and conditions and enforce them consistently and transparently.

Given the timeframes for implementing the regulatory framework under the 2017 Act, it is also possible that we would be asking the industry to prepare to comply with the provisions of Part 3 at the same time as the forthcoming online safety legislation, which could distract attention and divert companies’ resources away from preparing for that new legislation, which will deliver better outcomes for children.

We are clear that companies should not wait for legislation to take action to protect children from accessing online pornography, and we are encouraging companies to take steps ahead of the legislation to do just that. To help achieve this, we are working closely with people 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. In addition, alongside the full government response, we published an interim code of practice on the steps that companies can take to tackle online child sexual exploitation and abuse.

I can reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, and other noble Lords, that we are working at pace to develop online harms legislation and that the online safety Bill will be ready this year. The Government will continue to work closely with your Lordships’ House and others over the coming months as we prepare this vital legislation. We are already working closely with Ofcom to ensure that the implementation period following passage of the legislation will be as short as possible.

The Government also recognise the vital role that education can play in supporting children to navigate the online world safely. A number of noble Lords mentioned that in their contributions. In England, the Department for Education introduced the statutory relationships, sex, and health education curriculum in September last year, alongside the computing curriculum. Both support children’s online safety. The secondary school component of the relationships, sex, and health curriculum includes teaching that specifically sexually explicit material, for example pornography, presents a distorted picture of sexual behaviours, and can damage the way people see themselves in relation to others and negatively affect how they behave towards sexual partners.

Finally, the noble Baroness has previously raised concerns about Ofcom’s ability to block non-compliant sites and take enforcement action on companies based overseas. I reassure noble Lords that Ofcom will have a robust range of enforcement powers available to use against companies which fail to fulfil the duty of care, or which fail to put in place appropriate measures after being alerted to an issue, no matter where companies are based. Ofcom will be able to issue fines and take business disruption measures against them. This may include removing access to key services to limit the commercial effectiveness of the organisation. For the most serious and egregious failures, Ofcom will be able significantly to restrict access to the services from the United Kingdom. We anticipate that, as other countries introduce similar laws, Ofcom will be able to work with its counterparts overseas to support compliance.

We will be able to deliver the strongest possible protections for children through the online harms framework, rather than Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act. I hope that I have provided some further reassurance that Amendment 87A is not necessary. The Government have demonstrated their strong commitment to protecting children online, a point which ran through all the contributions in this debate. I hope that, on that basis, the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, will be willing to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Deputy Chairman of Committees 4:00, 17 March 2021

My Lords, I have received requests to ask a short question from the noble Lord, Lord McColl of Dulwich, and the noble Lord, Lord Morrow. I call the noble Lord, Lord McColl of Dulwich, to ask a short question for elucidation.

Photo of Lord McColl of Dulwich Lord McColl of Dulwich Conservative

The Minister has continued to suggest that it will take a long time to implement Part 3. Why would that be the case if the Government used the BBFC as the regulator, as everything is in order in that regard, save the need to formally redesignate it, which Section 17 of the Digital Economy Act defines as needing only 40 days?

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I hope that my noble friend in her letter, and I in my contribution, explained the reasons why we think it would take so long, because it has been de-designated. As the noble Lord will know, work is already going on in relation to Ofcom in preparation for the online safety Bill which, for the reasons I have outlined, we think better addresses the concerns that he and other noble Lords have raised in this debate.

Photo of Lord Morrow Lord Morrow DUP

My question is quite similar. Why is it more important not to have the BBFC and leave women and children with no protection at all for three years? As has already been said, if you used the BBFC, it would just take over three months to have that.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I hope that in my contribution I covered the points about the role that Ofcom can and will play in the new online harms framework, including the point I made at the end of my speech about the enforcement action that it will be able to take, not just in the UK but overseas as well.

Photo of Baroness Benjamin Baroness Benjamin Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate, both on Monday night and today, and the Minister for his response. Today, we are confronted with another pandemic, one that ruins lives and for some is the cause of death. That pandemic is violence by men against women. I am very grateful to all those who have spoken in support of my amendment, which attempts to deal with this pandemic. I am also touched and encouraged by the huge amount of support I have received from NGOs and members of the public. I am grateful to them.

I am, of course, very disappointed by the Government’s response, especially as the Minister cannot confirm that the online harms Bill will be debated soon. I am disappointed that, even though those who spoke so passionately in support of my amendment made it clear that we are not opposing the online harms Bill—I want it to come to the House as soon as possible—so much of the Minister’s response was devoted to that issue. I am also disappointed the Minister’s response addressed Part 3 as though it was narrowly concerned with child protection. Of course it is about child protection, but it is also very relevant to stopping domestic violence, because it would make it less likely that children are exposed to pornographic websites as they move into adulthood with the expectation that violence is a normal part of sexual relationships.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, and speaker after speaker have highlighted the fact that, if Part 3 had been implemented, we would today have a regulator that would take robust action against any website showing illegal, violent, extreme pornography in the UK. As we contemplate what is happening in our country at the moment and the concerns about violence against women, the very least the Government could do would be implement Part 3 so that we can create an environment that is less hostile to women by tackling illegal, violent, extreme pornography on pornographic websites.

The Minister also said that it would take far longer than I have suggested to implement Part 3. Apart from the fact that it would take less time to implement primary legislation that has already been passed than primary legislation that has not even been published, the Minister failed to engage with the very serious point that I, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, and others made that Part 3 could be in place in months if the BBFC was used as a regulator. It is capable of doing that. It is all set up to do that.

At the present time, the argument that the Government do not want to use the BBFC because they prefer Ofcom is not convincing. Nor is the argument about changes in technology; this does not hold water. The Government can use Ofcom as a regulator for the online harms Bill legislation when it is implemented, but, as a powerful open letter to the Prime Minister published today by women’s organisations makes clear, if the Government try to suggest that the safety of women should be needlessly compromised over the next few years just because they do not want to designate the BBFC as an interim regulator, that will go down very badly with the public. The public have told me that, and Members across the House have seen what the public feel about that.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Grey-Thompson and Lady Finlay, reminded us of the evidence of how the compulsive use of pornography can affect the brain and the decision-making process of the user over time. This is something we have to take very seriously indeed.

The Prime Minister quite rightly says he wants to protect women and children from violent attacks. My amendment will allow him to do so immediately, by enforcing legislation that has already been passed. Waiting on the online harms Bill means we will continue to create a conveyor belt of sexual predators who commit violence against women because of the porn they watch as boys and men.

There are times in life when we have to do the right thing, especially in the context of the current outpouring of concern about women’s safety. I believe that, regardless of what great protections an online harms Act eventually provides, history will judge that, from the perspective of the best interest of the safety of women and children in the second half of 2021, and 2022 and 2023, the non-implementation of Part 3 was a grave mistake. This is why I simply cannot let this matter go. I would be failing in my duty as a parliamentarian whose life has been devoted to promoting the best interests of women and children. Therefore, it is with a heavy heart that I wish to test the opinion of this House.

Photo of Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Deputy Chairman of Committees

I will now put the Question on Amendment 87A. We heard a Member taking part remotely say they wished to divide the House in support of this amendment, and I will take that into account.

Ayes 125, Noes 242.

Division number 3 Domestic Abuse Bill - Report (4th Day)

Aye: 125 Members of the House of Lords

No: 242 Members of the House of Lords

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

Division conducted remotely on Amendment 87A

Amendment 87A disagreed.

Photo of Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Deputy Chairman of Committees 4:28, 17 March 2021

We now come to the group consisting of Amendment 87B. Anyone wishing to press this amendment to a Division must make that clear in debate.