The age-verification regulator: designation and funding

Digital Economy Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 20th October 2016.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) (Digital Economy)

In this and related clauses, we seek to strengthen the proposals that the Government have put forward. We have said that the regulation needs to be beefed up to require internet service providers to be notified about non-compliance. We would like to see an injunction power to take down any content which a court is satisfied is in breach of the age-verification legislation, as soon as possible, at the start of the four-tier regulation process the Government have identified in their amendments and letters published to the Committee last week.

That would require a regulator with sufficient enforcement expertise and the ability to apply that injunction and push enforcement at an early stage. As we are aware, however, the BBFC heads of agreement with the Government do not cover enforcement. Indeed, they made perfectly clear that they would not be prepared to enforce the legislation in clauses 20 and 21 as they stand, which is part 4 of that enforcement process, giving the power to issue fines. The BBFC is going to conduct phases 1, 2 and 3 of the notification requirements, presumably before handing over to a regulator with sufficient enforcement expertise, but that has not been made clear so far.

While we welcome the role of the BBFC and the expertise it clearly brings on classification, we question whether it is unnecessarily convoluted to require a separate regulator to take any enforcement action, which will effectively have been begun by the BBFC and which so far has not been mentioned in the legislation. This goes back to the point my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West made earlier about the two separate regimes for on-demand programme services.

As I understand it, although it is not clear, the BBFC will be taking on stage 3 of the regulation, meaning it will be involved in the first stage of enforcement—in notification. That is fine, but it will then have to hand over the second stage of enforcement to another regulator—presumably Ofcom. The enforcement process is already incredibly weak and this two-tiered approach involving two separate regulators risks further delays in enforcement against non-compliant providers who are to protect or take down material that is in breach of the law. In evidence to the Committee, the BBFC said:

“Our role is focused much more on notification. We think we can use the notification process and get some quite significant results.”—[Official Report, Digital Economy Public Bill Committee, 11 October 2016; c. 41, Q83.]

We do not doubt it, but confusion will arise when the BFFC identifies a clearly non-compliant site that is brazenly flouting the law, and it does not have power to enforce quickly but will have to hand it over.

We would also like to hear when the Government are planning to announce the regulator for the second stage and how they intend to work with the BBFC. As far as I can see, this will require further amendments to the Bill. If it is Ofcom, it would have been helpful to have heard its views on what further enforcement powers it would like to see in the Bill, rather than being asked to fill in after the Bill has passed through Parliament. There is a clear danger that the enforcement regulator could be asked to take over enforcement of age verification, which it thinks requires more teeth to be effective.

We therefore have very serious concerns about the process by which clause 17 will be have effect. Although we will not vote against the clause, we want to make it very clear that we would have preferred to have seen an official announcement about who will carry out the enforcement provisions in the Bill before being asked to vote on it.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Digital Policy)

The debate on clause stand part is about the set-up of the regulatory structure and making sure that we get designation and funding right. It is our intention that the new regulatory powers and the new regulator or co-regulators will deliver on this. As the hon. Lady says, the BBFC has signed up to be designated as the age verification regulator responding for identifying and notifying. This will enable the payment providers and other ancillary services to start to withdraw services to sites that do not comply as soon as possible.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) (Digital Economy)

In what kind of timeframe does the Minister envisage the payment service providers acting from notification from the BBFC?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Digital Policy)

We intend formally to designate the BBFC as regulator in autumn 2017 and expect to be in a position to commence the provisions requiring age verification within 12 months of Royal Assent.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) (Digital Economy)

That was not quite my question. How long does the Minister anticipate that ancillary service providers or payment service providers will take to act on receiving notification from the BBFC that a site is non-compliant?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Digital Policy)

I would expect that to happen immediately. The question of the designation of the backstop enforcement regulator does not stop or preclude the BBFC from getting going on this. As we have heard, it is already working to put in place its own internal systems. As I have just said to the Committee, we have a new commitment that we expect to commence the provisions in terms of getting the system up and running within 12 months of Royal Assent; after that, if the BBFC has designated that there is a problem, I would expect action to be immediate, because I expect the BBFC to ensure through good relations that systems are in place.

I see enforcement very much as a back-up to good behaviour. As we have seen with the taking down of child pornography and material related to terrorism, many providers and platforms respond rapidly when such material is identified. It will be far better if the system works without having to resort to enforcement. We will set out in due course who is best placed to be the regulator for enforcement, but the system is new, and the approach provides the level of flexibility that we need to get it right. I have every confidence in the BBFC’s ability and enthusiasm to deliver on these aims, so I commend the clause to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 17 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 18 and 19 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 20