Schedule 3

Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:00 am on 13 July 2006.

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Regulated Activity

Question proposed, That this schedule, as amended, be the Third schedule to the Bill.

Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley

I want briefly to explore paragraph 2(1)(e), on regulated activities, with the Minister. It is aimed primarily at regulating those who moderate chat rooms or online discussions forums and is very welcome. However, it refers to

“moderating a public electronic interactive communication service which is likely to be used...by children.”

Before amendments have to be tabled on Report, will the Minister consider whether that provision could apply to electronic interactive communication services that are used to locate children and thus interact with them?

I raised this issue on Second Reading, because an increasing and frightening range of electronic services are being used to track children. Allegedly, such services are meant to promote safety, but there are huge dangers of potential abuse, despite the current voluntary code on who should have access to services and other items. The code is inadequate, and there are too many examples of it not having been followed. I have called for a licensing system for the industry in a Bill that happens to have been sponsored by three members of the Committee—my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford), the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh). I have also had support from within the industry.

Under the code, someone who is being tracked is meant to give their consent. In that sense, the system is interactive, as set out in paragraph 2(1)(e). Often, however, the electronic interaction is with the child and it might occur with or without their knowledge. That might be in a situation in which they can be put in danger, but it is extremely odd to think of a four-year-old, for example, giving informed consent. That raises the issue of how we can be sure who is doing the tracking and how it is done. We therefore need a regulatory system.

Under paragraph 2(1)(e), chat room moderators will rightly be regulated because of their access to sensitive information and communication channels with children, as well as the need to regulate who operates  such services and how. However, we need to control location services that provide electronic access to children. Some services include information about children’s phone numbers and homes, and the tasks performed by providers of such services are very similar to those performed by chat room moderators.

Will the Minister consider whether the issue can be covered by paragraph 2(1)(e)? If not, can we table an amendment to secure at least one element of the regulatory system and the protection that we need from a mushrooming, scary industry that is using the latest electronic communications technology and which falls right within the scope of our efforts in the Bill to protect vulnerable children? I am happy to talk further to the Minister about this issue before Report, but I ask him now to see whether it could be covered. If not, perhaps we could discuss whether an amendment might be appropriate.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I support the comments of the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber), but I wonder whether I could take a few points a bit further by writing to the Minister over the recess. I am a member of the Home Secretary’s task force on child protection on the internet, and various concerns were raised at our meeting about 10 days ago. However, it was far too difficult to table amendments on the issue, so I should just like to ask the Minister whether he will be receptive and provide me with some reassurance that the protection that we need is in the Bill.

Photo of Parmjit Dhanda Parmjit Dhanda Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Children, Young People and Families), Department for Education and Skills

It is good to have you back in the Chair, Mr. Conway. I appreciate the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley, who raised this issue on Second Reading, and I thank her for giving me advance notice of this debate and a copy of her ten-minute Bill, which made for interesting reading.

I should be happy to read the letter from the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole. I should also be happy to meet my hon. Friend, who rightly suggests that this area has seen a great deal of change over a short time. Before making any changes to the Bill, I would like to satisfy myself on the level of interaction. The Bill tackles situations in which there is activity, correspondence and a strong level of interaction between a child and another child or someone who could be posing as one. I would want to take a closer look at the issue, but I should be happy to meet her and have that discussion between now and the Report stage, and even to read correspondence over the recess.

We have had a thorough debate on schedule 3, so I hope that it can be accepted.

Question put and agreed to.

Schedule 3, as amended, agreed to.