The age-verification regulator: designation and funding

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

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Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) (Digital Economy) 2:45 pm, 20th October 2016

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.