Online Safety Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:27 pm on 1 February 2023.

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Photo of Lord Morrow Lord Morrow DUP 7:27, 1 February 2023

My Lords, I welcome the Bill but it is very long overdue. The Second Reading of my Private Member’s Bill was on 28 January 2022. It sought to commence Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017. This would have ensured that age verification of pornography was applied to pornographic websites. It is disappointing that the Bill has not progressed and Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act—a vital tool that could have prevented children accessing online pornography —is still not being implemented.

I remind your Lordships that in February 2016—now seven years ago—the Government said:

“Pornography has never been more easily accessible online, and material that would previously have been considered extreme has become part of mainstream online pornography. When young people access this material it risks normalising behaviour that might be harmful to their future emotional and psychological development.”

Nothing has changed in seven years; the threat is still as real today as it was then. All that has changed is that, during that seven-year delay, more children’s lives have been harmed. This cannot be allowed to continue.

I welcome that the Government have listened to the concerns about access to commercial pornographic websites and have, as a result, introduced Part 5 of the Bill. However, I believe more changes are needed to make it effective. Today, I raise only three of them. First, the Bill needs a more robust definition of pornography, based on the 2017 Act. Secondly, the Bill needs to cover all pornography services. Clause 71 says that only if “a service has links” with the UK will it be required to comply with the duties in Part 5, where “links with” means only pornographic websites which have a significant number of UK users or have the UK as a target market.

I ask the Minister: what will be considered significant? Is it significant in terms of the total UK adult users who could use the service, or significant in terms of potential global users? Either way, it seems to me that there could be pornographic websites accessed in the UK that are not required to have age verification to protect those aged under 18 from accessing this content. I doubt that this is what parents expect from this flagship Bill.

Finally, the Bill needs a commencement clause for age verification. Far too many young people have grown up without the protection that age verification could have brought in, if the 2017 Act had been implemented. We have heard others refer to this. There should be no further delay and the Government should demonstrate the urgency that they spoke of when they announced in October 2019 that they would not be implementing the 2017 Act. Age verification needs to be implemented as soon and as quickly as possible, and that is why a commencement date clause is needed in the Bill.

We cannot countenance these measures not being brought into force, or even a long delay of three or more years. The children’s charity Barnardo’s, which has already been referred to, has estimated that children have accessed pornographic content almost 55 million times since the Government announced in 2019 that they would be bringing forward the Online Safety Bill as an alternative to Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act. This cannot be allowed to continue. That is why we need to get the Bill right and ensure that robust age verification, that applies to all websites and social media accessed in the UK, is brought in as quickly as possible. I look forward to exploring these issues further in Committee.