It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow.
This is an excellent opportunity to debate a subject that is of considerable concern to many people, and it was for that reason that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee decided to hold a major inquiry into the whole question of harmful content on the internet and in video games. During the inquiry, we had seven oral evidence sessions. The Committee visited the Child Exploitation Online Protection Centre, which is run by the Metropolitan police. It also visited Los Angeles and San Francisco in California.
Scepticism is often expressed about Select Committees going off on overseas visits. However, such visits are of value to a Select Committee conducting an inquiry of this kind. It needs to visit and talk to the companies at the heart of many of the issues. During our visits, we had meetings with Google, YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, Yahoo, Second Life, Piczo, and the two major games manufacturers—EA Games and Activision.
During the innumerable meetings that the hon. Gentleman had, did he have the opportunity to find out more about how parents can better control their children's use of the internet? During our last debate on similar matters, I recall that he revealed that his own son had illegally accessed various sites on the internet.
That is an interesting point. Access to sites is not illegal. That is one of the matters that causes great controversy. I will come on to parental controls later, because the issue is central to the debate. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter.
The visits that we paid to all those companies were hugely valuable in increasing our understanding. We would not have been able to prepare a report of the same detail if we had not made them.
I pay tribute to the Committee's specialist adviser, Mr. Ray Gallagher, who was hugely valuable in bringing his expertise to our assistance. I also pay tribute to the Clerk of the Committee. Select Committee Clerks do a hugely important job and seldom get recognised. It is a matter of huge sadness to me that Kenneth Fox, the Clerk who has served the Culture, Media and Sport Committee ever since I became Chairman, has now moved on. He will now assist the Children, Schools and Families Committee. I am sure that he will bring to it the same dedication and commitment that he did to us. He was an extremely good Clerk—and will continue to be. I was sad to see him go. His work contributed a great deal to the report, and it is only right that I should pay tribute to him. I also welcome his successor, Tracey Garratty.
The Committee decided to focus on this matter because of the degree of public concern expressed in the media and elsewhere. The obvious concern is the question of harmful content in the form of extremely violent material or highly explicit sexual material and the use of the internet by people who may wish to harm others, particularly children. However, they were not the only concerns. We rapidly discovered other areas of growing concern, such as the encouragement of suicide. I am glad to see that Mrs. Moon is with us this afternoon. I am sure that she will want to say more about that matter in her contribution.
Also of concern is the glorification of guns and whether it played a role in the murder of Rhys Jones in Liverpool and in the whole question of gang culture. The other area was anorexia and whether or not websites are encouraging young girls to harm themselves by ceasing to eat. Moreover, there is the question of the use of websites by extremist groups to incite people to join fundamentalist or terrorist organisations. There is also the issue of cyberbullying and the effect that that may have on vulnerable young people. I will come to the separate but related question of games later on.
Almost as soon as we had decided to conduct this inquiry, the Government acted as well by appointing Dr. Tanya Byron to conduct her own review. We were very impressed by the work that she did. Her report came out roughly halfway through our inquiry, and we were then able to take evidence from Dr. Byron and explore some of the recommendations that she made. We were conscious that we did not wish just to duplicate her work. We have attempted to build on her recommendations and to identify what, in our view, were some of the most important issues that the new UK Council for Child Internet Safety should address.
During our inquiry, there were two dramatic "Panorama" programmes, both of which focused on the activities of paedophiles in using social networking sites to establish contact with young people—ostensibly posing as young people themselves. It was the ease with which somebody could pretend to be a 12 or 14-year-old girl and strike up a friendship on the internet with another, but with very different motives. They would seek to groom that person to engineer actual, physical contact. Following those programmes, at least one person was identified, prosecuted and convicted. There is no doubt that such activity is a growing problem, and that, too, was something that we wished to address.
I want to preface everything that I say by making it clear that in my view, and in the view of the Committee, the internet is an extraordinary development that is overwhelmingly a force for good. The internet has featured in almost every inquiry that the Committee has undertaken in recent years—whether into gambling, tourism, ticket touting, or the future of the creative industries. It has revolutionised life, and there is no going back. We cannot disinvent it; nor would anyone want to. It has rapidly become a research tool, a source of information and knowledge, a means of communication and a convenient method of purchase. We do not wish to give the impression that we think that the internet is a bad thing that has to be controlled, even if it were possible to do so. None the less, the truth is that it can be abused. The purpose of our inquiry was to focus on those areas in which abuse can take place and to consider ways in which it can be tackled.
At the very extreme end, there is universal agreement over questions such as child sexual abuse, extreme obscene content and material designed to incite racial hatred. Everyone will agree that such things are unacceptable and that sites promoting them should be identified and taken down. The Internet Watch Foundation, which has focused on those specific areas, has been very successful. If any website that makes available images of child sexual abuse is identified, it is immediately reported and access to it is blocked by the internet service providers, which all sign up to the IWF and its requirements. Equally, sites hosted in the UK that are identified as having material of that kind are taken down. That is something that works reasonably well already. We were impressed by the IWF's work.
We were also extremely impressed by the work of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, which stressed to us that, in simple terms, what is illegal offline is likely to be illegal online. CEOP actively pursues criminals via the internet. We were shown work that CEOP had done that involved looking at pictures of children who were being sexually abused and using old-fashioned detective work to identify the locations. In one case, by seeing the packaging of a sofa in the far corner of a picture and identifying which brand it came from and where the brand was supplied, CEOP eventually managed to find the individual concerned and rescue the child.
At the same time, we were given a demonstration of the volume of material circulating through peer-to-peer file sharing. Before we arrived, one of the officers working at CEOP had entered a search term—I will not say it, but it is a commonly used search term for locating extreme child pornography—that returned some 80,000 different computers on which such material could be found and transferred through peer-to-peer file sharing. It is a huge problem. CEOP concentrates, obviously, on identifying the hubs in the file sharing system, obtaining their addresses and visiting the people concerned.
A great deal is being done already. However, it is much more difficult to deal with material that might be deemed perfectly suitable for adults but is inappropriate for children. We are familiar with that problem. For instance, in the film industry, films have long been classified as 18 or 15. In other words, there is no problem with adults viewing them, but the rules prevent children from seeing them.
Equally, there is the problem that what is unacceptable in some countries may not be unacceptable elsewhere. I refer, for example, to images of people brandishing guns. In this country, we are worried about that, because it may contribute to gang culture; in America, it is almost a rite of passage to be shown brandishing a gun. It is something that people are proud of as a constitutional right, and putting up a video of oneself doing so is regarded as completely unremarkable. A lot of companies are global, so they must wrestle with the fact that there are different concerns in different countries.
Much of our conclusion was based on the fact that evidence of harm does not necessarily exist. If one looks for empirical, hard, factual evidence that viewing a particular video or playing a video game has led someone to go out and commit a crime such as a rape or an act of violence, there is very little. Our view was therefore not that we should necessarily say "In that case, we cannot act," but that we should act on the probability of risk. Where there is a probable risk that someone would be influenced by exposure to such material, that is sufficient cause for intervention to protect that person from being exposed to it.
Tanya Byron did a great deal of work on that. Her other conclusion, which was shared strongly by the Committee, was that we cannot completely insulate children from material that might pose a risk. Part of educating children involves teaching them how to deal with risks. If we insulate them to the extent that they never encounter risks, they will not know how to deal with them.
Dr. Byron gave a good analogy. She compared helping children learn how to use the internet and computers to teaching them how to cross a road. The first time, we hold their hands, stop with them and make them wait until the lights change and it is safe to cross. Later, perhaps, we let them do it but watch them. It is a gradual process until we are confident that they understand the risks and know how to deal with them. A similar system for educating children to deal with risks on the internet is certainly the most desirable outcome. Unfortunately, it is not always possible, because parents themselves are often not aware of the risks. They may actually be less knowledgeable than their children about how to deal with them and what technological solutions exist. I shall return to that point.
In looking at the existing structures, we were told by a number of witnesses that another body that has done extremely good work is the Home Office taskforce, which represents many different parts of the internet industry. The taskforce has produced reports on social networking sites, for instance, which recommend codes of conduct and guidelines. It was put to us that we should not try to reinvent the wheel. Although it is a good thing that the Government are setting up the new UK council, they should not just start afresh but should build on the work done by the Home Office taskforce.
One concern about the Home Office taskforce was that its work was generally not very well known. There was also the question of resourcing. The UK council has already achieved a higher profile, which is obviously a good thing, and we strongly welcome its establishment. It needs to move rapidly to establish an agenda to agree with the industry what areas must be addressed as a priority.
There is a question of Government responsibility. It was striking to discover that different Departments have lead responsibility for different aspects of the problem. Indeed, when we came to take evidence from the Government, it was originally suggested that four Ministers should give evidence. That seemed a little over the top, so only three came: from the Home Office, the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. However, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform was obviously involved, and a case could be made for the involvement of the Ministry of Justice. Indeed, the Ministry of Justice just responded to a part of our report dealing with assisted suicide. I hope that one of the tasks of the UK council will be to bring together all the different bits of the Government in a clear cross-Government agreement.
We were slightly puzzled by the question of the chairmanship of the UK council. I understand that it is proposed to share it between the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Home Office; but we are, of course, pleased to see the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport here this afternoon. We felt strongly that the DCMS should have at least as great an input into the work of the UK council as the other Departments. I look forward to hearing her tell us more about how she will work with the council.
We also felt that CEOP, which must continue to do its law enforcement work, needed more support in terms of resources. Its work load is increasing dramatically; the number of reports of abuse is growing, and its resourcing therefore needs to grow equally if it is to keep on top of things. It is extremely important, for instance, that CEOP should be able to respond swiftly to a report of possible abuse. If a child reports contact from somebody who may mean them harm, that must be dealt with as quickly as possible. It is not acceptable that it should sit for three days. I do not believe that that is happening at present, although some reports are tagged as less of a priority and not addressed for some while due to lack of resources. That was a matter of some concern.
There were specific areas that we felt needed to be addressed. The first was making information available to internet users—young people and, indeed, all users—about the material that they may encounter. One of the problems in dealing with material on the internet is that it is impossible to employ a watershed, unlike, for instance, material on television, which, if it is adult material, will usually be shown after 9 pm.
Equally, it is very hard to have age classifications for material on the internet. The only way, in terms of age verification, is if it is material that has to be paid for and therefore the user must have a credit card to do so. Generally, that will mean that the person concerned is over 18. However, an awful lot of such material is available for free and although there are different computer programmes that will now employ age verification, they are not by any means used universally and there is a huge amount of material out there for which no attempt is made to verify the age of the person trying to access it. We thought that there needed to be clearer rules or guidelines on the labelling of content, and that is an issue that the UK council should address.
In a way, it is a paradox that we spend a great deal of time worrying about the potentially harmful effect of material that is broadcast on television. The example was given to us by the chief executive of Ofcom of the debate that took place within Ofcom about whether it was appropriate to have a scene in "EastEnders" that depicted violence, which would go out at 7.30 pm, and whether that scene was too extreme for young people to see, and, if it was, whether it should be cut in some way. At the same time, of course, there is the internet where such content is available without Ofcom having any ability to step in and say, "That is unacceptable." Anybody who wishes to find violent or sexual content on the internet does not have to look very far before they do so.
I wonder if my hon. Friend has had discussions with the BBC about the programmes that it puts online. For example, there is a vigorous debate at the moment about the amount of swearing in post-watershed programmes, which, of course, people can then watch at 9 am on the BBC iPlayer, even though, as far as I am aware, the iPlayer does not contain any bleeping of swearing or any guidance for parents about whether a programme is suitable for their children to watch, because it is not guided by the watershed.
My hon. Friend raises an interesting question. It is fair to say that I have had discussions on a number of subjects with the BBC in the past few weeks and that is one of them. He makes an important point, because it demonstrates why the watershed itself is becoming less and less meaningful. Now that we have video on demand, the iPlayer and personal video recorders in many homes, the idea that children cannot access material because it was originally transmitted at 10 pm is becoming ridiculous. That is not to say that we should abandon the watershed; I do not think that we should. However, we should be realistic and accept that it is not going to prove a particularly effective means of protecting children. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend.
We talked to various content providers that are responsible for online video content. Obviously, the most well known of all is YouTube, and I think that it is fair to say that we had a vigorous discussion with YouTube. YouTube is responsible; it has a clear view that its site should not be used for material that shows sexual content or very violent content. However, we had a slight discussion with YouTube—indeed, an argument—about how it dealt with that type of material and whether it could do more to identify it before it was made available.
The issue of pre-screening is very difficult and two concerns were raised with us about it. The first was the sheer volume of material. YouTube argued that 10 hours of video content are uploaded to its site every minute; in fact, I think that that figure has now gone up to 12 hours a minute. YouTube argued that that made it impossible for its employees to sit and look at all that material before it went online. The second concern that YouTube had was a legal concern about the effect of the e-commerce directive. It was concerned that if it attempted to identify potentially illegal material before it was shown, then it would become liable if it failed to spot something that was subsequently put online.
The Committee was not wholly convinced on either of those counts. It seemed extraordinary to us that the law could possibly suggest that an attempt to remove inappropriate content could lead to a liability for prosecution whereas standing aside and doing absolutely nothing about such content left YouTube protected and not liable to prosecution. That seemed utterly perverse and I find it hard to believe that that really is the case. If it is the case, it needs to be tested rather quickly and addressed, so that it is not the consequence of the e-commerce directive.
Equally, there is the question of whether a company can screen all the material that is uploaded. I accept that it is plainly impossible to sit and look at the 12 hours of material that are uploaded every minute. However, we felt that that did not mean that YouTube should not make an attempt at least to identify material that was likely to contain unacceptable content, or material that would possibly contain unacceptable content.
In particular, we were alarmed by the report of a video of a gang rape that was uploaded on to YouTube and viewed 600 times before it was taken down. We were even more concerned when we discovered, in the course of taking evidence, that the video had been flagged by a user as inappropriate and that YouTube had failed on the first occasion to take it down. Therefore, although the YouTube method of relying on its users to tell it when they come across inappropriate material is undoubtedly effective and results in the vast majority of such material being taken down, we felt that more could be done. We were impressed by one or two other companies, particularly MySpace, which told us that it pre-screened material before it was made available.
Obviously, there are other concerns. I had a meeting with some Finnish MPs two days ago who raised the serious issue of the man who murdered a number of children, having been shown brandishing a gun on YouTube just a few days before. I understand that YouTube is now changing its rules about showing videos of people brandishing guns. However, this is a difficult issue because, of course, nobody was to know that that man was going to do what he did. In retrospect, it is very shocking to look at his video, but the video itself is relatively harmless. What is shocking is what he went on to do after uploading the video. I do not in any way dismiss the problems attached to the issue of pre-screening.
There are possible technical solutions. For instance, computer software can now identify large quantities of flesh tones in a video. That is not to say that such videos are necessarily pornographic, but if they are identified they can perhaps be quarantined until somebody looks at them and decides whether or not it is permissible to show them.
I know that a lot of these companies are devoting resources to this area. However, we were slightly concerned to learn that the industry standard for the take-down time of inappropriate material is 24 hours, which seemed to us to be too long. Again, that is an issue that the UK council should look at.
One area of the internet that is growing in usage, particularly among young people, is social networking sites. Virtually every teenager in Britain is now a member of Bebo or Facebook and that is a part of their way of life. In the main, social networking is of great benefit: it is a means of communication; it saves parents a huge amount of money on telephone bills, as children can have instant messaging conversations that are entirely free; and children can make friends. All of those things are very valuable, educational and part of the process of growing up, and they are to be welcomed.
However, one of the concerns—perhaps the major concern—about social networking sites is that a lot of the users are unaware that when they post information on them it may not be visible just to the people whom they want to see it. In many cases, it is visible to anybody. It is very alarming to discover the extent to which young people are putting up details about themselves—where they go to school, their mobile telephone number, their interests, the name of their dog and all of these things—on a social networking site and not restricting that information to the people whom they want to see it. The person who was identified on "Panorama", for instance, had been able to strike up a conversation and talk about favourite pop groups or dogs and make friends because that person had used a social networking site to access that information about the person with whom they were communicating.
One thing that we felt very strongly was that, rather than waiting for the user to decide to restrict such information, the default setting for social networking sites should be set so that, at the very least, information is available only to the user's nominated friends. If users want to make that information made available more widely, it would be a matter for them. The assumption should be that people use social networking sites to tell their friends, not the entire world, about what they are doing. It would be easy to change default settings in that way.
There is an issue with the direct reporting of abuse. We were particularly impressed by Microsoft's Messenger service, through which the user can click a single button to be taken directly to CEOP to report a potentially abusive contact. There was argument among other providers as to whether it is necessary to go directly to CEOP via one click, or whether it is better to offer a range of bodies that might assist. We received evidence from CEOP that that service is valuable, and we think that it should be commended.
Providers such as Microsoft told us about the parental controls that they have installed in products such as the Xbox. There is not just the facility to apply filters. In the latest version of Windows, parents can obtain a record of every site that their child has visited. They can block not only individual sites, but sites that are classified under headings to do with sex or violence, for example. A range of parental controls are available, but it is part of the problem that most parents are blissfully unaware of them. Even if they did know about those controls, they probably are not capable of setting them. As Mr. Foster suggested, a large part of the problem is helping parents to understand how to use the technological solutions that are available.
We were impressed by the commitment that almost every major industry body, including internet service providers, social networking sites and hardware manufacturers, has shown regarding the protection of young people, but there is no commonality. Each has its own standards, some of which are tougher than others, and there is no agreement on the minimum take-down times that should be required. We feel that a self-regulatory industry body is still needed in that case. We were told time and again that the answer to the problem is self-regulation, not Government regulation, and I agree. If at all possible, I prefer self-regulation, and I think that a lot of good work is being done.
There is a single, self-regulatory body for advertising and the press to which all of the industry's players sign up as members and accept a code of conduct that applies across the board. Such bodies provide a highly visible place for people to go if they wish to register a complaint or raise an issue. Those bodies can adjudicate when there are complaints, publish their findings and publish statistics on performance, so that people know how different companies compare. That is the common approach in most self-regulatory systems, but not in this area, in which every company does its own thing. In order to increase consumer confidence, there is a strong case for having an industry body to implement the recommendations of the UK council, with agreement, across the industry. That part of the structure is missing, and we feel strongly that that should be addressed.
We also feel that more needs to be done on media literacy and the education of children and parents. There is a case for having a single site, possibly on the Directgov network, to which people can go to learn about the various available options. There is also a case for drawing up a single leaflet to be supplied with every piece of equipment, be it a new PC, a new computer programme or any other component part, so that the same message is put across to parents and young people. Those recommendations could all be addressed by the UK council, and would increase child protection in that area.
I am conscious that others wish to speak, so I shall not speak about the final part of the report for too long.
Before the hon. Gentleman moves on to his final comments, when he will no doubt discuss the British Board of Film Classification and related matters, may I ask a question? The Committee praised a number of existing bodies such as CEOP, but its report expressed specific concerns about the funding of CEOP and the chairmanship of the intergovernmental body. The Government response did not address the funding or the role of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in the joint chairing of the body. Does he not want to comment on the deficiencies of the Government's response?
I did touch on those issues, although I did not point out the Government's failure to respond fully to them. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the Committee expressed concerns about those things, and I hope that the Minister will rectify the Government's failure to respond.
The hon. Gentleman anticipated entirely correctly that I want to talk about video games in the final part of my remarks. I know that Keith Vaz, who chairs the Select Committee on Home Affairs, has several concerns about this issue, so he has arrived at just the right moment.
Part of the problem with video games, as with video content, is that there is no hard evidence to prove that playing a game will lead someone to go out and commit a crime or physical attack. Nevertheless, we agree that there is a probability that it could occur, and there is anecdotal evidence to support that view. The Video Recordings Act 1984 provided that games should be classified, that it is necessary to restrict certain games to people over a certain age, perhaps 15 or 18, and that there would be games that should be banned entirely. That system has been generally successful since then, although there is often controversy about individual games. I know that the right hon. Gentleman has expressed concern about particular games in the past, and might do so again this afternoon.
I invite my hon. Friend, in the tone of his remarks, to make the point that when we talk about harmful video games and films, we are talking about a small minority. Does he agree that it is incumbent on hon. Members to remind the House as often as possible, when they talk about video games, that we have a most successful video games industry in this country, which employs thousands of people?
My hon. Friend is entirely right. The video games industry is increasingly important and generates more money than the film industry. It is something that we are very good at. We are a creative nation, and many of the most successful games were developed here. We strongly support the games industry's efforts to ensure that it remains strong in this country and is not poached by other countries such as Canada, which is attempting to attract it there.
Let me apologise to you, Mr. Bercow, and to the hon. Gentleman for missing his earlier remarks.
The fact remains that some of those games, even though they are a minority, are very violent. The hon. Gentleman and I have both commented on the video internet game "Kaboom" in which people replicate the activities of a suicide bomber. It cannot be right that the makers of those games should choose such storylines to provide entertainment, especially on the internet, where our children and under-18s can access them more easily than if they were going into a shop to buy them, as with non-internet games?
This is a very difficult area and "Kaboom", which has been around for a little while, is an interesting example. It is a remarkably crude, cartoon-type game and is not in the least realistic, as many games now are. It is undoubtedly tasteless and might be offensive to a large number of people. I suspect that it is probably distressing to anyone who has suffered a bereavement as the result of a suicide bombing. Does that mean that it should be banned? I am not convinced that it should, because it is so crude, and other games pose greater concerns.
May I make a point to my hon. Friend? In his response to Keith Vaz, he has implied that "Kaboom" is somehow a legitimate video game that breaches the boundaries of taste, but it is not. It was created by an individual in his bedroom. To say that we should ban "Kaboom" is, with the greatest respect to my hon. Friend, slightly missing the point."Kaboom" is not subject to any legal constraints. It cannot be submitted to a regulator to be classified, because it is made by an individual, effectively illegally, outside the mainstream, just as violent pornographic films or child abuse photographs are. It is not at all part of the mainstream video games industry.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that he noted that I did not say it should be banned, even if that were possible.
The games that clearly can be classified are those that are produced as a result of the efforts of thousands of people, with a huge level of investment. It is interesting that the most successful game in recent times, which caused queues around the blocks and had a massive launch around the world, was "Grand Theft Auto IV". That game is rightly classified 18. It has content that is not appropriate for children—indeed, the level of violence, the abuse of women and many other aspects of it make it an adult game. It is quite realistic: computer graphics can now look much more like real action, and games look much more realistic than those that we grew up with, such as the original "Space Invaders", which was primitive compared with what is now possible.
There is general agreement that it is desirable to have a classification system for games to identify those with adult content, and in one or two cases to ban them if they are too extreme—"Manhunt 2" is a classic example of that. One then reaches the argument, which was one of the most difficult that the Committee had to deal with, between the British Board of Film Classification, which currently has responsibility for classifying games, and the industry-led system, PEGI—the pan-European games industry system, which is used across Europe and is a self-imposed regulatory system. PEGI offers more information, using little graphic symbols that tell consumers about the content.
Two arguments impressed the Committee when it considered that issue. First, the BBFC has long experience in the area—it has been classifying games ever since the Video Recordings Act 1984. The BBFC has developed great expertise and become better at what it does, and it has adopted symbols that are universally understood. Many parents are not familiar with video games and do not really understand them, because they were not around in their youth. However, they understand an 18 film certificate, which has been around a long time, so everyone knows the meaning of the 18 symbol in a red circle on the front of the game. That is a valuable resource because it means that parents can, using their existing knowledge, say, "No, that is not a suitable game for you; you are not allowed to buy it."
That phrase, "not allowed to buy it", brings me to the second strength of the existing system, because of course the BBFC symbols are enforceable in law. We have been told that retailers will abide by the PEGI system where that is used, but in this country it is illegal for a trader to sell a game rated 18 to someone who is clearly under 18, which does happen.
I read the Committee's report with great interest and am listening with interest to the hon. Gentleman's speech. Does he feel that the focus on British sales of and standards for games conflicts with other parts of the report, given that the entire thrust of the industry is international? I play video games—I declare an interest—and am just as likely to buy or download them from abroad as from Britain. I suspect that in a few years it will be quite difficult for even the purchaser to know whether he is buying from Britain; he will just go to a website and place an order. A British-only system is surely a little archaic in that respect.
That is the alternative argument. It is true that more and more games are likely to be made available online, but that is not to say that the BBFC system cannot be applied to them. Indeed, the BBFC is now successfully classifying online games, although not in all cases, I agree. Some games were always going to be made available from remote sites far outside the scope of any regulator. However, it is easy to develop a system in which there is an agreement by distributors to classify online games, which are then kitemarked for consumers so that parents in particular have the relevant knowledge when their children say they want to play them. It is true that PEGI is a European system, but the film classification system in this country is British, of course, and it has dealt with the fact that the vast majority of films viewed here sadly do not originate here. They come from Hollywood. Nevertheless, the BBFC system works.
The other strong argument is that the law is necessary. In my county, trading standards officers recently went out to make test purchases of 18-rated games using a 14-year-old. I am afraid a large number of stores failed the test and were told that they would be prosecuted if the failure were to recur. Not everyone will comply with a voluntary system—the force of law is needed to back it up, and the BBFC system offers that, through the provisions of the Video Recordings Act 1984.
I notice that in, paragraph 199 of the report, the Committee responds to Microsoft's point by making the analogy with films. Surely the big distinction between games and films is that a film made in, say, Poland is unlikely to be available in any easily accessible form to someone living in Stratford, whereas the opposite applies to computer games. I can see that, up to now at least—I am not sure whether it will be the case permanently—sensible national regulation has been possible, but the video games industry cries out for international regulation. The main trouble with PEGI, it seems to me, is that it is only European.
I am aware that I have perhaps occupied the Committee's time to the point of pushing my luck, so I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion. I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's point. I am sure that, in the future, games will be made available online—indeed, films are now increasingly available online. That poses huge challenges to the enforcement of age verification standards and controls on inappropriate content. However, attempts are being made to adapt both the BBFC and PEGI systems to that fact, and the BBFC argued strongly to the Committee that it was better equipped to deal with the matter because it had the experience, expertise and resources needed. It was confident that it could take on the online challenge.
The Committee felt that the system that has been in place, administered by the BBFC, has been proved to work, and that that system, which commands the confidence of consumers, should be the one to remain. However, the argument is continuing. I know that the Government are consulting on the matter and the consultation is about to end. I am sure that the Minister will be interested to hear the views not only of the Committee, but of one or two hon. Members present this afternoon who may take a different view.
I have given a summary of several different issues highlighted in the report. We look forward to hearing a little more from the Minister about the Government's response, beyond what was set out in the formal published response, which, as the hon. Member for Bath suggested, fell short in one or two areas.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate, and I shall try to be brief, because I know that many other hon. Members want to participate. As the Committee's report said, the internet is becoming more and more a part of our lives: for communications, research and commerce, it is now an indispensable tool. However, anyone who regularly watches television or reads the press is likely to have become aware of growing public concern about the internet's dark side. That was something that the Committee particularly wanted to address.
As the Chairman of the Select Committee, Mr. Whittingdale, has said, there is particular anxiety about the use of social networking sites and chat rooms for grooming and sexual predation. Although those environments may appear to a child to be relatively private, with defined boundaries, a user's profile or an online forum may be open to thousands or even millions of other users who are all able to view, even if they do not actively participate.
We had an example of that type of problem in my constituency this very week. To quote from the Lancashire Telegraph, under the headline "Tory candidate's mock website shows social networking dangers":
"A spoof profile posted on the Friends Reunited website has prompted the Tory Parliamentary Candidate for Rossendale and Darwen to highlight the risks of social networking sites."
That shows how careful and vigilant we must all be when using such sites. I am not surprised that he has claimed that he has been the victim of a spoof profile on the "Friends Reunited" website, for it was indeed damaging. I contend that a sane and rational person aspiring to parliamentary office could not possibly have posted it. It said, for example, that his interests were:
"Making money. Drinking. Driving. Dining out on other people's expenses. Boogying. Bonking. Droit du Seigneur. Grinding the faces of the poor."
I will not go on to the section about me, but it was even worse. Perhaps most distressing was the box at the bottom, where people are invited to say who their "WeeMee" is. I think that a WeeMee is someone whom you admire, and it looked for all the world like a cartoon character depicting Adolf Hitler. I am pleased to say that that has now been taken off the website, but clearly many people would have found it distressing.
That rather raises the question why anyone would have wanted to pretend to be that person in that way. If those are his friends with whom he is reuniting, I would not like to see his enemies. The case also highlights the need for such websites themselves to be more careful about verifying that people who register with them are who they say they are, as the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford said. They must also monitor what is posted. As he pointed out, when we visited YouTube, we were concerned to find that it did not readily monitor everything that was posted, but relied on users to report inappropriate material to it. We state in our report our concern that:
"It is not standard practice for staff employed by social networking sites or video-sharing sites to preview content before it can be viewed by consumers."
As in the case of YouTube, some of them
"do not even undertake routine review of material uploaded, claiming that the volumes involved make it impractical."
The hon. Gentleman said that YouTube may be reviewing its policy. I very much hope that it does so.
Nowhere is this more important than in the area of child pornography and the grooming of children and young people on the net. As part of our inquiry we visited the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, CEOP, which is run by the extremely formidable Mr. Jim Gamble. To give some indication of the success that CEOP delivers, I point out that it delivers a totally holistic approach, combining policing with the "Safer By Design" initiative and educational initiatives.
CEOP's latest performance results show that 131 children have been safeguarded from sexual abuse either directly or indirectly as a result of its activity. Of those, 18 have been identified through the examination of child abuse images. As the hon. Gentleman indicated, old-fashioned detective practices have been used successfully to locate the individuals involved. Some 297 arrests have been made as a result of CEOP activity and six organised paedophile rings have been dismantled or disrupted. In addition, since its launch, the "thinkuknow" education programme has reached 1.7 million children and young people between the ages of eight and 16 years, across all parts of the UK.
During our visit to CEOP, we saw a moving and rather distressing video that it had produced about a young boy who had communicated in a chat room with someone whom he thought was his age and had the same interests, and he arranged a meeting. It turned out to be a much older man. The most distressing things occurred when he got there. I will not go into details, because they are really not very pleasant, but we should be under no illusion about what is involved. CEOP does an excellent job, and I hope that the Minister will recognise in her response that the centre's resources should be increased. I hope that we will get a commitment that the Government will at least consider that.
On a lighter note, social networking sites do have their uses. When we visited Facebook, its staff told us in no uncertain terms about how Mr. Barack Obama, the President-elect of the United States, had used the site relentlessly and very successfully both to raise money and to get out the vote. For my constituency, I have set up a group on Facebook called "Say No to the Bus Lane on the A666 in Darwen". It already has 577 members, and I urge hon. Members to get on to Facebook, join my group and stop the bus lane.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Bercow, as a fellow parent of three young children. I hope that my remarks will be brief, and that you will put me right if I imply that you are as gadget-unaware and gadget-unfriendly as I am.
I welcome the Minister to her new role. She has been an excellent constituency MP and loyal servant of the Government, and a promotion was overdue. I know that her experience of public service extends to fighting apartheid in South Africa, as indeed does that of her Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend—indeed, my great friend—Derek Wyatt, who has just limped out of the room. He used to be a—very active—member of the Select Committee before 2005, and he holds probably the most accolades of anyone in this place for his website and internet savvy.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to comment on our report. As ever, the Chairman of the Committee, Mr. Whittingdale, expertly and fairly steered our deliberations. He is always fair and gives a great deal of time to all points of view. Rather than repeat his remarks, I hope to reinforce a few of them at the end of my comments.
We should welcome the priority that the Government have already accorded this important subject, given the growth in the importance of the internet. I wish to put on record my appreciation to Dr. Tanya Byron for the review that she conducted, which led to the establishment of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety at the end of September. Its membership shows it to be a large body to say the least, so it was good to see an executive board established recently. It will be chaired jointly by two Cabinet Ministers—the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. That board contains an impressive list of people with expertise in the field, with no fewer than 22 members including the co-chairs. I hope that it is not so big as to be unwieldy or deadlocked by competing interests. At the end of the day, I hope that we all have the safety of children and vulnerable people on the internet as our common goal. I shall return to the issue of membership towards the end of my remarks.
Notably missing from that board, of course, is Dr. Byron. I am sure that that was her choice, having already given impressive public service. I must say that when she gave evidence to the Committee, she was not only clearly knowledgeable but managed at the same time to be both forthright and diplomatic—a skill that evades many politicians, myself included.
I shall point this out before the Minister does, because I am sure that she would. Although it is true that Dr. Byron has stepped aside, having done her work in that area, she has recently joined the digital review panel that has been set up by another new Minister, Lord Carter. Dr. Byron is still active in the area, which I think all of us are pleased about.
Life is too short.
We interviewed many people, and Dr. Tanya Byron was certainly one of the most impressive witnesses to have given evidence in my three years on the Committee. She certainly disarmed me when she said, following a particularly hard and robust session of questioning representatives of YouTube and Google, that she found me scary. I have rarely been silenced so effectively and comprehensively. I did not know what to say.
Like you, Mr. Bercow, I have three young children. They are aged nine and a half, seven and two and a half. When we started our inquiry, like many parents I was rather wary of displaying my ignorance about the internet, social networking and gaming. When it comes to video games and consoles, my wife is tantamount to being the Taliban—they are banned, because of the time that she fears they will take away from reading, learning music and other activities. I am very much one of those parents who, as Dr. Byron put it, do not necessarily
"feel equipped to help their children" in that respect.
Over the summer, I became aware of certain things following our report. The growth of video-sharing sites such as YouTube spans video and what we traditionally call the internet. I was watching the funny series of excerpts along the lines of the German film "Downfall" on that site. They picture a number of characters, from Alex Ferguson complaining about the impending loss of Ronaldo, to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister trying to find voters in Glasgow, East. Frankly, it is the really bad language that makes them funny to adults, but I do not necessarily want my children to be exposed to that. That is a real issue in terms of classification for the safety council to take on as it proceeds.
My ignorance was reinforced last night after a discussion about the very innocent children's Christmas party that my right hon. Friend Keith Vaz is organising again this year. In the course of my children's strict rations of "Club Penguins", "Super Mario", "RuneScape" or "Yu-Gi-Oh!" online, and their sourcing of endless cheat engines for video games such as "Age of Empires", my laptop screen at home had become clogged with all sorts of icons and programmes that had appeared from the internet. Most pernicious was a purported anti-virus programme called "Virus Recovery 2008"—I hope that the authorities take note of that name—which was paralysing the computer. It is a particularly stubborn piece of what is technically termed "adware", which tries to sell a programme. It is probably a complete con. It implied that my laptop was stuffed full of trojans, worms, viruses—all fictitious, no doubt.
Until last night I had never deleted a programme in my life, so after lecturing my son I was run through the process by a castigated nine-year-old: toolbar, settings, control panel, Add/Remove—and we could not find it. I then got a lecture that it was probably a ghost programme hiding somewhere else, and so it was. It was duly deleted and my son was out of the dog house, and I certainly learned much more than he did. My awareness of my ignorance was deepened. That experience and this inquiry have made me only too aware of the importance of knowing what our children are doing on the internet, particularly when we are much less computer savvy than they are.
I want to focus on a few main issues that are outstanding with regard to the inquiry report and the Government's response. As the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford has stated, we were all shocked at the complacency of Google and YouTube in particular. They pleaded that pre-screening was simply uneconomic and impractical, and that it did not work to pre-screen content that was uploaded, or to screen it in any way for harmful content before responding to complaints by users who flagged up that content. We did not find that persuasive because other firms, including MySpace, which has been mentioned, certainly do that.
It was discouraging to find companies such as Google and YouTube hiding behind the e-commerce directive as an excuse for not undertaking that activity. I am sure that it is more a question of profitability than it is of being unviable. We were impressed by many of the companies that gave evidence, but certainly not by the company that recently showed a video, which the hon. Gentleman outlined, that purported to be a gang rape. We also had the experience of the company that showed the young child on Merseyside who was shot dead, and the sites that glorify gang violence.
There is also the issue of that small tail of internet service providers that are failing to co-operate in blocking illegal content from the internet, which the Government and the new council will make it a priority to address. We were certainly impressed by the facility that Microsoft had afforded UK users, of having one clear button to report harmful content and problems. We hope that the council and the Government will urge the industry to come to an agreement to follow that model in the UK, which has been adopted by the local management of Microsoft in this country.
I welcome the Government's response that the issues relating to the e-commerce directive need to be clarified so that it does not have the unintended consequence of making it more difficult for internet-based companies to remove content or to edit their sites, for fear of being complicit and of being held to account. That would be nonsense.
Like other colleagues, during the investigation I was impressed by the work and dedication of the CEOP Centre, headed by Jim Gamble. The Government have accepted its importance as a body with expertise from the voluntary sector, as well as from the industry and regulators, and that it is making great strides towards getting to those people who would harm our children and vulnerable people. It appeared that some questions about funding and the way in which CEOP can push its agenda compared with other countries were outstanding. Australia was a notable example where television advertising is funded and regularly seen. I hope that questions about CEOP's funding are addressed urgently.
With respect to video games, which are banned in my household, except when they are streamed over the internet in the hour that my children are allowed, I would like the Government and the council to resolve the issue of dual classification, as it is confusing. We went for classification by the British Board of Film Classification because we felt it was more familiar, although that is perhaps a reflection of our age and of having gone to the Wrexham Rio when we were growing up. It is important that any confusion is resolved as soon as possible.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his honesty in saying that the reason for choosing the BBFC was familiarity, but will he acknowledge that, for example, the campaign to make people familiar with guideline daily amounts on food labelling took two years to get the message widely accepted by the public? Were there to be a campaign in respect of the PEGI classification system, within a short space of time that would be equally familiar.
I take that point and the points made by my hon. Friend Dr. Palmer about the prevalence of downloading games from the internet and not buying them in hard copy, which may move us more towards a PEGI system than the one with which we are more familiar. The point is that we need to have the matter clarified, so that the single classification can be taken up and become more familiar, and so that parents can be more confident in how it works.
I conclude with two questions for the Minister. As the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford said, we recommended that alongside the new council, as part of the jigsaw, there should be a body to enforce standards, in a self-regulatory way, in the model of the Advertising Standards Authority. The Government did not accept that, and I hope that she will say more about why. I urge the council in particular, as it develops its child internet safety strategy next year, to consider that suggestion, which does not reflect any criticism of the council's role or its work.
We also recommended that for clarity a single Minister should be responsible for this matter. The Government have not accepted that and the reason they have given—that it is up to the Prime Minister to decide on appointments—is the traditional politician's way of side-stepping an issue when asked if they would like a particular job. Perhaps the Minister could say a few words about why the Government have not accepted that recommendation, or why a Minister from her Department, either herself or Lord Carter, the impressively titled Minister for Communications, Technology and Broadcasting, does not sit on the executive board of the council.
I reiterate that all on the inquiry felt that the Government deserved plaudits for the serious way in which they have taken this issue, and for setting up the Byron review and pursuing its conclusions with the new UK council. I hope that some of the further issues will be addressed in due course, and I hope that the Minister will make it part of her new role to ensure that there is effective joined-up government that includes the involvement of her Department.
I intend to speak very briefly for three reasons: first, because I was not able to be here at the beginning, for which I apologise; secondly, because I know much less about the subject than almost every other Member in the Chamber, judging from what has been said already; and, thirdly, because I have only a few things of import to offer.
However, I speak with the benefit of being the father of two small children, rather like you, Mr. Bercow, and I have just as much concern for their welfare as I know you have for yours. As such, I am intimately and personally involved in and, frankly, worried about, these matters as all parents are concerned about the future of their children.
I want to make three points. First, the technology is highly interactive. The difference between it and other media—I speak as someone who spent his time before coming here in the world of information technology—is that it is interactive. Film, video and the whole games network are merging with other technologies and media, and that makes the task of trying to put in place adequate control extremely difficult. Indeed, it is much more difficult than when we were looking largely at printed material or even film and TV alone.
Secondly, the situation is highly dynamic. Video games and their like are, by their nature, rapidly changing. Providers are always anxious to take the next step, to go to the next level and to push the boundaries still further, and that dynamism requires a public policy response which itself is highly flexible and responsive. It is not enough simply to make judgments and then assume their worth. They must be regularly formally reviewed. The self-regulation that came out of the Byron review needs to be examined in some detail to test its effectiveness.
The third thing about these media is that they are pervasive and intrusive, and, for that reason, hard to self-regulate. It is hard to make parental choices that stick, or to know at all times to what children are exposed. When my son goes to visit his friends, I do not know in detail what their parents' views are on such things. They may be somewhat different from mine. Those are difficult things to make judgments about, because I cannot stop my young son visiting perfectly respectable and decent family friends.
There are some arguments that I hope we will not hear in the winding-up speeches. I do not think that we will hear them from my hon. Friend Mr. Vaizey, who has a distinguished history on this subject. He looks at such matters in considerable detail and takes his responsibility seriously. He is a prince among shadow Ministers, if I might put it that way. Nevertheless, I hope that we will not hear the tired old argument about freedom. Civilised life is characterised not by our capacity to do as we will, which, by the way, we share with the apes, but by our ability to choose to do what we should. That is what civilises us, and trailing the old argument about liberty will not be helpful to the debate.
The second argument that we might hear from the Minister is about information, as though exposure to more and more data is of itself a good thing. Children are now exposed to all kinds of stimuli, influences and information to which previous generations of young people were not. But as T. S. Eliot asked:
"Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"
We are drowning in a sea of data, but I suspect that the comprehension, understanding and simple wisdom which transcends the ages are no greater but are, as that great poet observed, being lost.
Thirdly, I hope that we will not hear anything about how desirable it is that people are made aware of what is explicit, that somehow that will protect them, and that their knowledge and exposure to such things will allow them to make choices to avoid them. Generally speaking, that which is implicit is preferable.
With those few thoughts, and mindful of the greater wisdom of the shadow Minister and the Minister, I draw my remarks to a conclusion and look forward to hearing from them.
I apologise to you, Mr. Bercow, and to the House for being late for the opening speech by the Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Mr. Whittingdale, but in the few moments that I heard him I listened carefully to what he had to say. I commend him and the other members of the Select Committee who have spoken today for an excellent report. It deals with an important subject that needed and merited an investigation, and I am delighted that the Committee was able to investigate it.
Mr. Hayes does not have to apologise for not being an expert. He is an expert, because he is a parent. He is rightly concerned about the effects, harmful or otherwise, of video games on his children. The issue began as an elitist one—not many Members of the House were concerned about it—but, with the spread of video games, more and more people are voicing worries.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. I am sure that if you were not in the Chair you would be participating in the debate. Perhaps that is why you were asked to chair the proceedings.
The Minister has moved to her new responsibilities, and I congratulate her. I met her 26 years ago, when I was the prospective candidate for Surrey West in the European elections. She was then a young girl, of course, but she was my press officer. Every week, she put out press releases on my behalf. I lost the election by 50,000 votes, but she was very enthusiastic, and it was no surprise to me when my first ever press officer ended up as a Minister. She does a terrific job, and I am sure that we will hear further from her.
I am not sure whether Mr. Vaizey is a prince among shadow Ministers, as the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings said. I will be interested to hear what he has to say, because I spotted him in Portcullis House having a cup of coffee with representatives of the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association. Let us hear what he has to say when he responds to the debate.
I first became involved in this issue when the son of one of my constituents, Stefan Pakeerah, was murdered in Leicester. The murder mirrored scenes in a video game called "Manhunt". Warren LeBlanc was sent to prison, and Stefan Pakeerah is dead. Stefan's mother started a campaign about the harmful effects of video games and got me involved in it. I pay tribute to her for all the work that she has done.
As soon as I took up the issue, I became the subject of much internet abuse from those who felt that there should be absolute freedom in dealing with video games. I am not sure whether I got a website dedicated to opposing me, as my hon. Friend Janet Anderson did. I am fascinated to know who her WeeMee is.
No, it was not my hon. Friend's WeeMee.
I was once voted the third most unpopular person in the world, after Hillary Clinton and Arnold Schwarzenegger, by the readers of one of the video game magazines. I suppose that I should take that as a compliment, but it points to the almost hysterical approach that the video games industry and the newspapers that support it sometimes take to anyone who manages to raise such matters in the House.
What we need first of all from the industry is responsibility and partnership. We are all on the same side. We are saying clearly that for someone who is over 18, there should be no censorship or attempt to stop them seeing or doing whatever they want as far as video games are concerned. My interest has always been to protect those who are under 18. Some are our children, of course, but it goes beyond protecting our own children. That is my only concern—not to stop adults buying games but to ensure that harmful games do not fall into the hands of young people and children.
There are three ways in which that could be done. The first is to ensure that there is a clear statement of the age limit on the video game itself. Unfortunately, it is still far too small. When we first started this campaign some years ago, it was the size of a 1p piece, and now it is the size of a 50p piece; but I saw and still see no reason why an indication that something has an 18 certificate and is unsuitable for children and young people under 18 should not be splashed across an 18-plus video game, as it is on other material with adult content.
One problem in dealing with the Government on this issue is that so many Departments have a vested interest in protecting their own territory. The DCMS wants to protect the industry, because, as the hon. Member for Wantage reminds us, it is a multi-million pound—perhaps multi-billion pound—industry based in London. The fear is that if we get any tougher on the industry, it will go off and start operating from Frankfurt, so we have an interest in making sure that the industry stays here, and we should be careful what we do about controlling the content of video games.
I say to the Minister—I know it is not her responsibility but the Attorney-General's—let us ensure that retailers that sell these games to under-18s are prosecuted. I would be interested to know from the Minister how many prosecutions there have been of retailers who have sold—[Interruption.] She is looking around, but I do not think the answer will come. This is one of the problems with how the Attorney-General's office operates: it simply does not give us these figures, and we would like to know. I am not sure whether the Committee considered that point, but prosecuting those who sell adult video games to under-18s is important.
The retailers have a responsibility. Sir Trevor McDonald, on his television programme a few years ago, sent some people aged under 18 to try to buy video games from some of the big supermarkets. They returned with the video games in their hands, which was proof that the retailers were not taking responsibility.
The distinguished Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee said that he did not think that there was sufficient evidence to show a link between the content of video games and subsequent actions by people as a result of watching them. We now have research on that from the university of Iowa, and previously there was research from the university of Missouri. One thing that the Minister can do is ensure that she commissions more research, although not necessarily from those who have a view one way or the other—it should be independent research. I hope that that will be done, because that is a good way to take the Select Committee report further. If it could be done, it would be of great importance.
As the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings says, games are interactive. The industry says to us, "But sometimes young people go in to see an 18-plus film by mistake, or an 11-year-old or a 10-year-old is taken into a 12A." The new Batman film, "The Dark Knight", although it had a 12A certificate, was really a 15, so that happens. My point, however, is that games are interactive—one is expected to do something as a result of seeing the violence on the screen. It is not the same as going to watch something at the cinema.
I remind hon. Members that, when I mentioned the Pakeerah case, the industry representatives said to me that the judge and the police made it clear that they did not think that "Manhunt" and the actions in that game had an impact on Warren Leblanc. They said that, yes, the video was in his house, but they did not think it had any effect. However, just last week, on
"A teenage sex beast who attacked women in an imitation of Grand Theft Auto was locked up yesterday. Ryan Chinnery, 19, struck after obsessively playing the violent computer game, a court heard. He drove around at night targeting women he wrongly thought were prostitutes. Judge Philip Statman said Grand Theft Auto showed 'scant respect for women' and Chinnery's vile acts 'mirrored' the game."
Even the prosecutor in that case, Eleanor Laws, said:
"Chinnery's love of the 18-rated game 'may go some way to explaining his attitude towards women'."
In "Grand Theft Auto IV", the player assumes the identity of a criminal carrying out operations for his mobster bosses. To move up the food chain, characters drive around carrying out increasingly brutal missions, typically robbing banks, drug dealing or gunning down members of rival gangs. Violence is central to all the tasks and, when not busy on a mission, players are free to roam the streets to strike at people in a sadistic way. That is fine if players are over 18—well, it is not fine, but I can understand why those over 18 may want to buy and play such a game—but I am concerned about the effect of such games on young people if they fall into their hands. That is why I urge the Minister to accept what is in the report, but take it further, because it is not the end of the matter.
I was impressed by Tanya Byron. She met Mrs. Pakeerah in my office as part of her review and was all the things that my hon. Friend Paul Farrelly said of her. Her report was excellent and was clearly conducted by someone who knows what she is talking about. She made some specific points about children, which need to be addressed.
I welcome the report and I congratulate the Chairman of the Committee and its members. Their report will be a useful tool in our future discussions. Whether we support or do not support what is going on, it will be useful for us to be able to read the report. I thank the Committee for its hard work.
Although I am not a member of the Committee and I played no part in its compilation of the report, I am grateful for the opportunity to raise some of the issues that have been directly affecting my constituents and that, perhaps, reflect some of its recommendations.
I first became aware of many of the issues when the deaths were taking place in Bridgend and media coverage suggested that an internet-based death cult was operating and influencing some of the young people in my constituency. I examined that claim and found no basis in fact for an internet death cult in operation, but that took me along a line of exploration that has had myriad repercussions for me. It took me to the so-called suicide recipe sites, which do more than give people advice on how to take their life. Some of those sites are so truly pernicious and evil that they actively seek to persuade those who enter them to take their own life.
I have been working with the Ministry of Justice on how we can use the review of the Suicide Act 1961 to look at drawing the activities of such sites into the classification of assisting a suicide. I have also been seeking meetings with the internet service providers to persuade them to actively bury such sites, so that they are made more difficult to access, and that, as an alternative, where people are looking for information in relation to suicide, the ISPs promote information, advice and guidance to help people who are potentially suicidal to access supportive information and supportive sites. I commend those ISPs that are taking those steps, although not all are.
The internet can be used successfully. An Australian website called Reachout.com.au, which is now looking to expand into Ireland and the United States—I hope that it would be looked at positively here in the United Kingdom—cut the number of young people's deaths, because young people had a website they could go to for confidential information, where they could test whether they needed help and support in respect of their feelings and confusion—relating to self-harm, for example—and which could help them find out where to go for such support. Positive information can be accessed on websites and it is imperative that we direct vulnerable people to them. I have found the Samaritans and YoungMinds sites to be particularly helpful.
That led me to look at social networking sites. Many of the youngsters in Bridgend who died had been using such sites. I have been impressed at how often the front pages of such sites immediately provide hyperlinks to supportive information, and we must work with those sites to promote that more proactively. Areas that we have not looked at but need to look at include advice to young people on the risks of providing not just information that may allow them to be targeted by people who may want to gain access to them and to hurt them, but photographs and comments that may be utilised elsewhere. I hope to reveal some details later.
A great deal of distress was caused to many of the families in my constituency by the print media and their websites, which took some of the comments and photographs from social networking sites and used them in multiple press reports. In fairness to our print media and thanks to the work of the Press Complaints Commission and its willingness to collaborate and to work with me and families, it was possible to issue desist notices, and such photographs are no longer constantly used whenever there is a story. However, it is not possible to issue similar desist notices for online use of such photographs.
That led me to issue two internet safety leaflets: one for parents and one for youngsters. I had a lot of help from Dr. Tanya Byron when putting them together. She agreed to look at them and to check the content to ensure that they complied with her recommendations. They are on my website if hon. Members want to use them in their constituencies. I took them into all my primary schools.
The hon. Lady raises an interesting point. I have debated the matter with the PCC, and I understand that if a photograph is put on a social networking site and access is then restricted to a small number of friends, it is regarded as a private photograph which should not be published. The problems arises when there is no privacy restriction, so the photograph is available to anyone. Then, the press say, understandably, that they should be entitled to print it.
The Chairman of the Select Committee is absolutely right. That is a problem, but the big problem is that most young people do not understand the different tiers of access, and they are generally making their pages open. It was interesting that when I went into my schools and talked to the youngsters, I found they had no understanding of that at all. For example, they did not understand that some of the photographs that were taken from social networking sites of some of the youngsters in my constituency had never been seen by their parents—the first time they saw those images of their children was in a newspaper. The parents had no idea of the comments written on social networking sites. They saw them for the first time in the national press, sometimes when they or a family member had gone into a newsagent to buy something and saw a photograph of the youngster in the public realm—an image they had not seen before. That caused huge distress.
I asked the youngsters and their parents to give me feedback on whether they found the leaflet helpful. Again, many of the comments I received are on my website. It was fascinating that when I went into every class in every primary school and asked the children how many of them had access to the internet, 100 per cent. of hands went up. When I asked how many of them had social networking pages, 100 per cent. of hands went up. When I asked how many of them helped their parents to understand the internet and to do things such as programme the recording of television programmes, 100 per cent. of hands went up.
The hon. Lady raises another interesting point, which I discovered to my cost. She describes her experience in a primary school, but all social networking sites state in their terms and conditions that users should be 13. That is simply ignored by the vast majority of young people.
Indeed they are, because youngsters lie about their ages. The problem is how to prove their age. They are so savvy—far more so than we are.
I am not the mother of a young child; I have a 24-year-old son who is extremely savvy about the internet. However, I remember when, many years ago, he was in a chat room and was talking to what he thought was a young girl. When I saw him drawing a map of the inside of our home, showing where the doors and windows were, and what equipment was in the house, I asked him what he was doing, and he said, "Well she sent me a description of her house." I then asked him how he knew that she was not a burglar seeking access to our house and finding out where the easy pickings were. He had not thought of that. Sometimes, as parents, we must put nasty thoughts into our children's minds about how to keep safe on the streets. We all talk about stranger danger and about people approaching our youngsters in the street, but we must now teach them about internet stranger danger as well.
My hon. Friend Mrs. James came to me about accessing someone on Facebook whom she could talk to. One of her constituents had come to her following the death of her baby. She had gone on to Facebook looking for a support group, which the social networking sites are excellent at providing. She was extremely distressed when she came across a group on dead babies, which had posted comments such as, "Dead babies make me laugh" and, "I like licking chocolate off dead babies." Despite a complaint being made, that group still exists.
In our discussions, the PCC agreed to look at the management of online newspaper sites, where there is little regulation. I had a meeting with some of the editors of The Sun to express the families' distress at its online site, which enabled people to click for a video show of the faces of all the young people who had died in my constituency. When I pointed out the bad taste of that, it was quickly taken down, and I commend The Sun on that action. Often different people work in the newsrooms and on the online site. That is a matter we need to consider.
More recently, I was introduced to YouTube. I was absolutely horrified by what I found there. It was brought to my attention by an e-mail from a relative of one of the youngsters who died in my constituency that a number of videos had been posted on YouTube that highlighted the deaths of young people in Bridgend. I looked at some of those videos, and I have to say that I wonder what goes through the minds of some people. Despite the fact that my constituent had tried to contact YouTube several times, she could not get the material removed. I have had one of the sites taken down—in fairness to YouTube it did take it down—but others are still there. The one that is particularly distressing to the relative I have been contacted by is still there.
Briefly, I would like to read some of the comments posted by people on the site. One of the comments suggested that the deaths in Bridgend were okay because the people were all Welsh. It was all right for Welsh people to die—in fact, the world was a better place for the death of these Welsh people. That comment has now been taken down. I will censor the comments from the site because no decent person writes such things and uses some of the language used. The person who posted the video referred to the sister of one of the young men who died as a retard and went on to state:
"who cares if your brother committed suicide? why do you have family that kill themselves to start all this...and to get found dead".
Further comments state that it is
"not my fault your family is retarded and shooting themselves, who do you blame usually? god? people from outside Bridgend?" and
"its retarded failures like you who are thankfully killing themselves off because they realised they are useless".
As hon. Members can imagine, I have had to keep to just some of the repeatable comments posted alongside these videos.
The important thing about what the hon. Lady has just said is not that the people who read those comments would themselves feel those sentiments and share those ideas, but that they would be affected by them. When some are brutal, we are all brutalised. It is important that we understand the ripple effect of such malevolence on the whole of our society. I restrict myself to "Strictly Come Dancing" on a Saturday and avoid all exposure to such things. I feel better for that and want all my children to be like that too.
I completely share the hon. Gentleman's views. Sometimes, one gets too old for the changing values of society, and I am afraid to say that I think I am at that point.
Many of these videos have been made by reusing the photographs lifted from the social networking sites, interspersed with pictures of people hanging themselves and executions in Iran. Oddly enough, they have also been interspersed with pleasant pictures. The most alarming aspect is what that tells us about the use of people's images and the lack of a family's capacity to control the use of photographs of their dead family members. The Chairman of the Select Committee, Mr. Whittingdale, referred to cyberbullying. I consider this to be cyberbullying. I consider those comments to constitute cyberbullying and I also consider the refusal to take down images that cause huge distress to families and their friends to be cyberbullying.
This week, I was sent an online game to look at. The online game is called Billy Suicide. Players of the game are encouraged to stop Billy shooting himself in the head. They are encouraged to keep Billy active—to move him around the room or get him to play his guitar—and to monitor his depression, get him a cup of coffee and do things to stop him taking his life. When people playing the game do not do that, he shoots himself in the head. Someone has said to me, "Well, it's just the same as the tamagotchi games." In those games, if someone does not look after their pet, it gets fleas and dies.
What sort of society do we want? What sort of society are we promulgating? I would welcome the censorship of that online game. We must set limits and boundaries when we bring up our children. As a society, we set limits and boundaries on individual behaviour. We must start setting limits and boundaries in the online world and in cyberspace. If we do not, we will give our youngsters access to information and standards that, in fact, destroy the limits and values we set in the real world. As we know, sometimes our young people spend more time interacting in the online, unreal world than they do in the real world.
I am worried about the role that these sites play in relation to social contagion, which is where access to information about suicide—the normalisation of suicide and its social acceptability—makes it more likely that others will seek to take their own lives. We must take responsibility for the distress to the families and friends I have mentioned. We must also take responsibility for prolonging the grief of those families and friends, because that adds to the risk that a member of that family will take their own life.
The Press Complaints Commission is making progress on the matter, but I agree that an industry body is needed. It is imperative that we have an 0800 number that someone can ring to get a site taken down quickly. That is something I hope will come out of Lord Carter's review. My constituent had been trying to get a site taken down for two months before she came to me—two months with no action. We cannot allow such behaviour to continue. It is too complex to track down the person in these agencies who will allow change to happen. The public need to be able to send through their comments quickly.
I have highlighted the impact of the industry on just one small community in one small area. That impact has been devastating and has blighted the lives of many people. I am so grateful that the Committee has taken the opportunity to make these recommendations, and I hope that steps will be taken across Government to improve a totally unacceptable unregulated state of affairs.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Bercow. I congratulate the Culture, Media and Sport Committee on an excellent report. I particularly commend the work of Mr. Whittingdale—the distinguished Chairman of the Committee, as he was described by Keith Vaz, who is the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. I also praise the Government, because they have given a thoughtful response to the CMS Committee's report and recommendations.
My only quibble was with the Committee's brief. I would have liked the Committee to include in its deliberations internet gambling. As we have heard, there are concerns about age verification in respect of the use of social networking sites. There are also concerns about the way in which young people can access gambling sites on the internet. I understand from the Chairman of the Committee that that issue might be considered in the future.
Everyone present will be well aware that there are 1.4 billion internet users worldwide. That number is growing rapidly, and the uses to which the internet can be put are increasing rapidly, particularly as broadband speeds increase. In this country, research as far back as 2007 showed that, at that time, 99 per cent. of children were accessing the internet and that 96 per cent. of children had access to a mobile phone by the age of 11. One third of those were using mobile internet access. This is a real issue for young people, so I welcome the fact that we have not only the excellent report by Dr. Tanya Byron and the action plan that followed it, but this very helpful report from the Committee.
Dr. Byron asked that we
"move from a discussion about the media 'causing' harm to one which focuses on children and young people, what they bring to technology and how we can use our understanding of how they develop to empower them to manage risks and make the digital world safer."
I agree with her. I accept what the Chairman of the Committee said about the importance of helping children to manage risks. To suggest that they will not access the internet would be ludicrous—they are doing so. We have to help them to manage the risks.
I feel slightly disadvantaged in this debate. Your children have been referred to, Mr. Bercow. The hon. Members for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) and for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) referred to their children. Mine are much older than that—I have to be concerned with my grandchildren. I shall share with hon. Members one small thing that concerns me. My four-year-old grandson, Ben, came to our house recently and saw my wife's Apple laptop. He cannot read or write, and he certainly cannot type. He had never before seen an Apple laptop computer. He started playing with it, and within two minutes, the "Crazy Frog" tune was playing and a "Crazy Frog" video was showing on the screen. When we asked him how he had accessed that, he thought that we were mad. He said, "You must know YouTube and you must know how to access it through your favourites, Grandma."
People of a very young age are accessing the internet, and it is crucial that we find ways of helping them to manage the risks. However, as has been pointed out, we as adults and as parents or grandparents have significant problems. The Government response to the Select Committee report refers to the UK Council for Child Internet Safety. I welcome its establishment earlier than originally planned. The response states that the Government, through the council,
"will consider how best to empower adults and children to make informed decisions. This may include: developing adults' skills so that they feel confident about having conversations with children about online safety".
It will have to go far further than that. I applaud very much what Mrs. Moon has done, for example, in taking material into her local schools. I hate putting pressure on schools to do yet more, but this issue cannot be left to parents, because many parents do not and will never have the skills necessary to provide young people with the knowledge of how to manage the risks.
Many issues are covered in the Select Committee report. I shall talk first about the video games industry. It is not mentioned in great depth in the report other than in respect of classification. Recently, I was quoted in The Guardian as saying:
"I hardly play any games—I'm not from that generation—but because of my job, I had to research the industry. The vast majority of my parliamentary colleagues are always wanting to ban the latest game, but they don't know the details of the industry. Few people in this country realise how important it is to the UK economy."
It certainly is important. Mr. Vaizey has already referred to that. It is critically important: 26 million people in this country play video games. About half of them are female. A large number of them, far more than was expected, are older people.
There are many benefits to playing video games. Mr Carrick-Davies of Childnet International said that playing video games
"improves children's confidence, their sense of social standing" and
"their ability to multi-task".
Even Dr. Byron, in her report, recognises the educational benefits of computer games.
The video games industry is a crucial part of the UK economy. It contributes some £1 billion a year, and nearly half of that money goes into the coffers of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The industry employs 28,000 people, and we should be proud of what they have been achieving, but it does face significant challenges. Other countries—Canada, Singapore, Korea and France—offer financial help to their games industries with salary subsidies or tax credits. As a result, the UK has lost to Canada its position as the third largest producer of video games.
The hon. Gentleman will have heard the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend Mr. Hayes about the interactive nature of video games. He remarked that he restricted his activities to watching "Strictly Come Dancing". Is the hon. Gentleman aware that there is a "Strictly Come Dancing" video game, and would he suggest that my hon. Friend start to play that game to introduce him to this very successful industry?
Given that I have already acknowledged that I am by no means an expert on video games, I had better join the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings and together we will learn how to play that game.
The video games industry is a very important part of the UK economy. All the research evidence suggests that, if we do not do something to help the industry, its contribution to the economy will decline quite markedly. We need to help it, and we need to do far more to provide people with the right skills. In the past few years, the number of people graduating from our universities with computer science degrees has dropped by 20 per cent. Although there are 81 so-called video or computer games university courses, sadly, only about four of them have been recognised as adequate by Skillset. We must do more to give people the right skills and training. We must also consider ways in which we might be able to provide financial assistance, as other countries are doing.
The key issue that the Select Committee report faced was the verification system. I think that most people have now accepted that a hybrid system is totally inappropriate. It is unnecessarily complicated and confusing for customers. In coming to resolve that dilemma, the Committee came down on the side of the British Board of Film Classification taking over the classification of video games. I disagree with that, and I hope that the Minister will accept my comments as a formal response from me to her consultation, which ends on
First, PEGI was set up in 2003 specifically to deal with the computer games industry—it was backed in this country by the Video Standards Council—and it has significant experience of doing that. As the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee said, video games, because they require interactivity, are not the same as films. As online gaming—as distinct from shop-bought games—becomes increasingly popular and people buy add-on units bit by bit and build up a game incrementally, we need a body that has specific expertise in this area. That is why I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme, who supported the original recommendations, said that, in the light of that, we may have to think again. PEGI is therefore best placed to deal with it. As we heard, PEGI is pan-European and operates in 28 countries. I am not aware of any other country in Europe that offers a hybrid film system. PEGI is self-regulatory. As the report says at page 51, in respect of other matters, PEGI prefers whenever possible self-regulation to statutory regulation. It is also a tougher regulator than the BBFC. The BBFC has repeatedly downgraded games that PEGI deemed to be appropriate only for adult players.
We can debate statistics, but for the record the latest figures that I have show that of the 50 games that PEGI rated at 18-plus over the past 12 months, the film rating board downgraded 22—almost half. Twenty were rated at 15, and two were given a 12 rating—including "Mass Effect", the game that boasts impalement and burning bodies among other things.
I genuinely believe that PEGI ratings are more informative, as they rate games by age and by content. Overall, my view is that that is the better bet. However, I accept the argument made in the Committee's report that
"the widespread recognition of the BBFC's classification categories in the UK and their statutory backing offer significant advantages which the PEGI system lacks."
As I said earlier, widespread recognition, but not with statutory backing, could be achieved with an appropriate campaign. Given that the industry has come up with a traffic light system, I believe the issue can be resolved quickly.
The rest of the report deals with internet regulation, and I am largely content with its recommendations and with the Government's positive response. Self-regulation seems to be working well; at this stage, I would not want to see us going down the route of introducing strict legislation. Self-regulation is helped through a range of bodies. For instance, the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford praised the Internet Watch Foundation for its work, and I join him in that. It has been successful in getting the ISPs to work together in taking down sites of the sort that he described. I agree that we need a body that brings them together in a self-regulatory way, so that there is some uniformity in how things are done—for instance, in the time necessary for takedown and so on.
Other bodies have been mentioned. I mentioned the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre—CEOP. Like the Committee, I am concerned about funding for that body. On that subject, the Government's response was somewhat disappointing.
One of the Committee's main concerns was that, if complaints are refused, no further action can be taken. I think of the suicide site mentioned by my hon. Friend Mrs. Moon and the refusal of companies like YouTube to take down advertisements glorifying school massacres. Unlikely as it may seem, we heard of companies refusing to take down adverts that were plainly offensive; but there is no other body to turn to, and there is no sanction for such refusals. That is why we proposed that extra part of the jigsaw—a body along the lines of the Advertising Standards Authority.
I was moving towards saying that, and I welcome that recommendation. We need something to pull everything together. We need a clear code of practice for all ISPs and some commonality in their operation.
The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme was right about having a contact point for concerned members of the public, but another issue has been touched upon: proactive screening, which was referred to by the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford. It is odd that Google, which is responsible for YouTube, should say that that will not be possible, because of the mass of material involved; yet a similar body, MySpace, finds itself perfectly able to do so. That is another of the issues for which commonality is important.
I am delighted that the Committee should have recommended an additional piece in the jigsaw—one that will bring the various bodies together in a way that provides common standards among all providers and gives a point of call for concerned users, including parents and even young people. I am delighted that it is still to be a self-regulated body. I believe that imposing regulation on the internet would be totally wrong. Broadly speaking, we welcome the Committee's report, and we are delighted that the Government appear to be fairly supportive of it.
I am extremely pleased to be speaking under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. Given that we have discussed children extensively, I hope that you will not rule me out of order if I take the opportunity to record the admiration felt by the entire House for the excellent work that you do in promoting special needs education for children and reform in that area.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Whittingdale, the Chairman of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, on producing such a timely and useful report. However, I have one or two minor criticisms, which I shall make in the most respectful manner. I also thank Mr. Foster—hon. Members should know by now that he is my mentor—for being commendably brief; he knows that I may be under a time restraint. I apologise to the Minister in advance, but I have an Adjournment debate in the main Chamber. It should not cut into our debate, but if it does I shall have to slink off. I also congratulate all hon. Members on their contributions.
All children now effectively have access to the internet, so it is incumbent on policy makers to debate how to protect children from harmful content. A number of specific examples of what the internet is capable of producing have been cited. We are in a very new age. Protecting children from harmful content even five or 10 years ago was pretty straightforward. We had to ensure that they did not watch the wrong television programmes and did not get hold of the wrong magazines, but now they can get hold of any material they like via the computer, and also on the mobile phone.
The Select Committee's report sets out in clear detail the sort of developments created by the internet. We heard not only about access to extreme content—pornography, violence and radicalisation—but about potential changes in behaviour. The ability of unsavoury people and sexual predators to make contact with young children is a unique feature of the internet. However, it has also changed the conduct of young children.
Phrases have entered the mainstream vocabulary that were not part of it five years ago, such as cyberbullying and happy slapping. Those phrases are directly attributable to changes in technology; it gives people an incentive to behave in a certain way, which would not have happened previously. Of course, bullying existed before the internet, as did mugging, but the internet provides a bizarre focus for such behaviour.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend is saying that the internet not only acts as a vehicle for what has always been prevalent in society—the malign, the mischievous, the malevolent—but that it may catalyse various kinds of behaviour in a particular way. As I said in an earlier intervention, that can affect everyone. We will all be brutalised, because those who are malign or malevolent have access to a different kind of media.
Effectively, that is what I am saying. My hon. Friend will be delighted to know that, when I move on to the regulation of the internet, freedom will not necessarily be my watchword, although it is an important element of the debate.
The Government have done some extensive work in this area and have rightly received plaudits from hon. Members, and certainly I do not seek to create any artificial party-political divide between ourselves and the Government. In March 2007, the then Chancellor, now the Prime Minister, asked Ofcom to consider certain matters, including an information campaign, software blocking, assistance to parents in restricting access and getting internet service providers to provide parents with access to blocking software. Then came the well-received and well-publicised Byron review, which was commissioned in September 2007 and reported in March.
After that came the report by the Select Committee of my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford, which rightly praised the Home Office task force on child protection on the internet. It brought together in the same room the relevant parties to get them to talk about the issues—that sounds like a trite way of describing the taskforce, but as I have discovered in my political career, bringing parties together in the same room is probably the most valuable thing that can be done when trying to get any initiative off the ground. As a result of the Byron review, the Government brought forward—this is another cause for congratulations—the introduction of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, which effectively is a beefed-up version of the Home Office taskforce.
I agree completely with my hon. Friend—I think that the Minister does, too, judging by her reaction to his remarks—that we should have one Minister with clear responsibility for the issues before us. I understand, of course, why different Departments want to have a say in this debate. There are four relevant Departments: the Home Office and the Departments for Children, Schools and Families, for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, and for Culture, Media and Sport—but just saying that exhausts me! As hon. Members have mentioned, people want a hotline that they can ring to get through to an internet service provider. Similarly, however, policy makers need to know that they can go to one Minister and that their concerns and interests will be followed up.
Absolutely. I do not wish to make up policy on the hoof, but we would not necessarily vigorously oppose it if it transpired that the single Minister in charge of that committee were to come from the DCMS.
The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre has been enormously successful. Essentially, it is a branch of the Serious Organised Crime Agency—the police arm of child internet safety—and has gained a very good reputation. Again, I note my hon. Friend's remarks, particularly in the report, about the concerns about continued proper resourcing of that organisation, which has proved itself to be extremely effective. It deserves proper funding.
I would like to touch on a matter that frustrates me about this Government. The issues before us have been well canvassed today and in the report; we know what the problems are and imaginative solutions have been created. However, yet another review is being conducted into the matter. My hon. Friend pointed out that Dr. Tanya Byron's work is not yet done, because she has been appointed to another committee headed by Lord Carter, a newly appointed Minister. Clearly Ministers must get briefed: they must arrive at their offices, get sat down and be asked by their officials, "What review would you like to start, Minister?" We have had reviews on convergence, the internet, broadband, copyright and so on, and now Lord Carter has his digital Britain review, which comprises all the people who conducted those other reviews. So, having conducted her review of online protection, Tanya Byron suddenly finds that she is a member of a review of the reviews. It is becoming an absurd "Yes Minister" situation. All the public want are some decisions and action.
On internet regulation, my hon. Friend Mr. Hayes departs just as I concede to his superior wisdom and his constraints on freedom. It is absurd to say that we must not regulate the internet. It is utterly ridiculous to me. These large, multinational companies provide internet services that go directly into people's homes. Their work is not that different from that of broadcasters. The internet is a unique and new technology in its ability to allow the consumer to put up content and create a bespoke service for themselves. However, it is absurd to say that the Government should have no role, when this is being piped into our homes.
I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Bath about self-regulation being the best way forward where effective. I also counsel caution, because the internet is in part one big conversation. The trouble is that we now hear conversations that we could easily have avoided a few years ago. Mrs. Moon recounted some of the revolting comments that she has chanced upon on the internet, particularly about dead babies and the prevalence of suicide in Wales. Those are put there by vile people who would have such conversations in the pub regardless. The trouble with the internet is that those pub conversations are now on our computer screens.
The hon. Gentleman said that it is absurd to say that we cannot regulate the internet, but it is a myth that the internet cannot be regulated. Too often, people say, "Oh, it's the internet; we don't know where it is. It's around the world, so it cannot be regulated." That is a recipe for inaction. In fact, as we found out, everybody who connects to the internet has to do so through an internet service provider in their home country. We are not sufficiently advanced that people can connect without those intermediaries via satellites, and connections can be regulated.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.
To a certain extent, it is in big brands' self-interest to self-regulate. For example, in some instances, blogging has become the equivalent of the green-ink letter. On newspaper sites, the comment pages are moderated. When I post one of my superb articles on "Comment is Free" on The Guardian website, very kindly its staff protect me from the most aggressive and lewd comments that might be posted, because it is in the interests of the website and The Guardian brand not to have a complete free-for-all in terms of swearing or libellous comments. However, internet service providers, and some of the enormous companies that we have been talking about, such as Google and YouTube, must show a sense of social responsibility.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right. Those organisations say, "We are the pipes, and we cannot regulate the content that passes through those pipes." They say that it would be like asking Royal Mail to check the contents of every envelope. Well, it is not. If, for example, I decide to send by direct mail a letter to every household with "Open this envelope for really hardcore pornography" written on it, hon. Members and the Government would be perfectly within their rights to say to Royal Mail, "Do you mind intercepting this material and ensuring that it is not posted to every household?" It is perfectly possible to use search engines to track down unacceptable internet sites. As has been said, we are not talking about checking every 12 hours of video content uploaded on to YouTube. We are talking about using common sense to ensure that the worst material is targeted and taken down.
In that sense, some of the recommendations in the Select Committee's report are right. The Government must take a lead clarifying the e-commerce directive so that internet service providers know that they will not be caught inadvertently by it. Moreover, we need to work harder to get a common set of terms and conditions and to ensure that there are quicker take-down times for some of the more unacceptable sites.
I want to make a number of general remarks about how we promote internet safety, particularly for children. All of us have talked about our children and grandchildren. I do not want to be left out of that debate, so I can now inform the Chamber that I, too, have children. One is two years old and the other is eight months old. My two-year-old introduced me to YouTube, although not personally; we had watched the DVD "Ted the Tractor" 15 times, and I was running out of inspiration. I remembered the website YouTube, went on it and typed in "tractor". I can assure hon. Members that, as far as I am aware, there is nothing obscene to do with tractors on YouTube, and Joseph and I had a very nice time watching tractor videos.
If I wanted to regulate Google or the computer in our sitting room when Joseph is slightly older, I would not have the first clue how to go about it or where to start, nor would I know how to access information on the number of concerns that have been raised. I typed "child internet safety" into Google. The eighth site that came up was CEOP. I happened to know what CEOP is because it falls within my brief and I have read up about it. I hesitate to say this because it might appear rude or patronising, but I suspect that the average man or woman on the street—
Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman. I can provide him with a booklet published by Google, which gives a step-by-step guide on how to put in place all the secure systems that one needs for their young child. I know that Google publishes such a booklet because I have distributed it around the schools in my constituency.
I cannot start a conversation with the hon. Lady about that now, but I would be interested to know how she found out about that booklet. She makes the point for me. It should not be in the middle of a debate in Westminster Hall that I discover that Google has a booklet. The fact should be very prominent on Google's website. It has links to "Maps" and to "Earth". Why can it not have a link to a site called "protect your kids on the web"? Clicking on that link should give us the Google guide. That is what I call social responsibility.
As I said, CEOP is a meaningless phrase. I only understand it because it falls into my brief. This may sound trite, but why can we not start giving organisations names that people understand, such as the internet police or other similar phrases? We need normal language. Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre is a name that has clearly been written by a lawyer. It is full of long words, and is utterly meaningless. It does not tell us what CEOP actually does.
Yesterday afternoon, I typed in "child abuse police". The first site that I got was for the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux. This is an interesting point that I would like the Minister to address. When I typed in—in the vernacular, as it were—"How do I protect my kid on the internet?", I got a range of different sites, such as "protecteverychild". It is at this point that one enters a potentially surreal world. How do I know that "protecteverychild" is a legitimate site? I have no idea who put up that site or whether it is an official site. There are numerous sites that are probably put up by concerned parents in a random way, which may give leading or misleading information. Therefore, rather than having endless reviews, I would like the Government to take the issue by the scruff of the neck and show a bit of imagination and proactivity—I know that that is a dreadful word—in finding out what kinds of sites there are. They should check the Google rankings of the official sites that are meant to give advice, and they should start to think like a mum and dad about how on earth they can get the information that they need. That leads me on to the astute comparison of safety on the internet being like safety crossing the road.
I remember the green cross code man from my childhood. He was a hero in many children's lives. Somewhere in my attic, I still have a signed photograph of the green cross code man, who later became Darth Vader. It strikes me that the Government should consider a proper public information campaign. We have one about digital Britain. The Government are not averse to using cheesy cartoon characters to get their message across. We have Digit Al telling the country how to convert to digital television. Why can we not have a public information campaign that runs year in, year out, and points mums and dads to the right places?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I did not want to interrupt the Darth Vader story. With regard to industry rankings and league tables, I have a strong memory of when the Labour Government came into power in 1997. They quickly cut through the nonsense said by the financial services industry that naming and shaming people over how many pensions or policies they mis-sold would not work. In fact, it was instrumental in getting the industry to clean up its act. Similarly, the Committee considered whether the industry—whether through the council or the Government—should be forced to publish league tables of take-down times and how long it took it to respond to complaints.
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I am now into the territory of making up policy on the hoof. Internet providers will come back and say that such a system will cost too much and that it is bureaucratic and so on. None the less, the Government are in a position to put out the information, and it is up to the internet service providers to react to it. If they are happy to be 55th in a league table of take-down times, so be it, but it should be something that they consider. It is part of their brand and part of the way in which they can sell their services to parents to show that they are socially responsible providers that help to protect children from harmful content.
As I have been progressing in my speech, I have noticed a lot of raised eyebrows, so it is clearly time to bring my remarks to an end. I want to turn briefly to video game classification. This is where I bring in my mild criticism of the Chairman of the Select Committee. As has been pointed out by the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, Keith Vaz, I am a strong supporter of the UK video games industry. The title of the Select Committee report, "Harmful content on the Internet and in video games" continues to promote the myth that all video games are harmful. Clearly, that is nonsense. Most video games are not harmful; nor do they contain inappropriate content. Most kids play football video games, which are extraordinarily realistic. As I pointed out earlier, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings can introduce himself to video games by playing "Strictly Come Dancing".
I suggest that there should have been a separate report, pointing out what a pea soup the current system for classifying video games is. The system is a perfectly legitimate issue to consider and one that needs to be sorted out. I echo and support a lot of the comments made by the hon. Member for Bath. He pointed out how important the video games industry is to the UK economy. The Government continue to sit completely on their hands, as Canada mounts an extremely aggressive campaign to attract video games companies to Canada. I have no doubt that the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee will be paying their air fares. The fact is that they contribute to the UK economy. The Government's excuse for inaction is that they are taking up the matter with the World Trade Organisation. However, by the time it gets a hearing there, our video games industry could well be on the floor.
There are some strong merits to the argument that the British Board of Film Classification should take over the classification of video games. It already classifies 18-plus films. The BBFC says that, if the role were extended to 12 and over, as it wants, it would have to deal with 300 to 500 extra games over and above the 270 that it already monitors. Similarly, PEGI has some strong advantages. By its very nature, it is a pan-European system. One of the advantages of playing legitimate online video games—I do not include "Kaboom" in that group, as I said earlier—is that one can play with people from across Europe.
There is nothing wrong in principle with increasing the size of the 18-plus warning label on the front of a video game to make it clear that it is for adult consumption only. The hon. Gentleman has no objection to that, has he?
None whatever. I have no objection to the right hon. Gentleman criticising "Grand Theft Auto", either. I have never played "Grand Theft Auto", and from the way that he described it, it does not sound like a particularly edifying game. The only point that I wish to make is that I feel that the whole video games industry has been unfairly tarred with the same brush on the back of one or two inappropriate video games. As I said earlier in an intervention on the Chairman of the Select Committee, hon. Members should remember how important, successful and legitimate the vast majority of the industry is.
PEGI has the advantage of being a pan-European system. It also enables people to play online together. The point that PEGI made to me at the secret tea exposed by the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee was that, if Europe had split rating systems, an 18-year-old who went online to play a game rated 18 by PEGI but classified differently by the BBFC might find themselves playing what they regarded as an 18 game not with adults, as they expected, but with a 15-year-old in the UK or another jurisdiction.
To be clear about this, I did not expose the hon. Gentleman at the secret tea; he came up to me and told me that he was having tea with some of my best friends.
That is absolutely right.
There are advantages in both systems. The consultation closes on
I am grateful to my mentee for giving way. As his mentor, I advise him that, in his position as the lead spokesman on the issue for a major political party of this country, he might have been expected to come down on one side of the fence or the other, rather than saying that he is looking forward to the outcome of the review. Can he tell us what the Conservative party's thinking is?
It is a humiliating position not only to be admonished by the Chair but to be accused by a Liberal Democrat of sitting on the fence, but I would say to my mentor that, sometimes, one should pause and hear all the evidence. If the Government are going to spend taxpayers' money on expensive consultation on the system, it is important to see the evidence before coming to a final view. I hope that my mentor does not suffer from having come to a premature conclusion. With that in mind, I will sit down and wait to hear from the Minister.
Thank you for your calm chairing of this extremely interesting debate, Mr. Bercow. I thank and congratulate the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport for its valuable and thoughtful report. It is sometimes difficult to read all the way through a Select Committee report without feeling slightly sleepy, but this one kept me awake and provided me with a great deal of useful information and much to think about, particularly as I was taking over my new portfolio and it was timely for me.
As the Chairman of the Select Committee made clear in his opening address, the issue is one of great concern to many: especially, as we have found out today, to parents. I have five children and four grandchildren—I think that I trump everybody here—and I spent quite a bit of time last weekend trying to extract my 10-year-old granddaughter from a rather noxious video game that she had found on the internet.
The work of the Committee in this crucial area will inform the Government's work going forward and will, I am sure, fuel the debate among people and parents across the country. It was not that long ago that we all started playing the first tennis games in the mid-80s—little Pingu-type games. They were terribly innocuous. If such changes have happened in 30 years, just imagine what will happen in the next decade.
It is precisely the fast-moving nature of the issue that makes it so difficult. It is new; for some of us, like me, it is difficult to understand and access; but as many Members have stressed today, it can bring huge benefits as well as causing huge problems. We heard some of those problems outlined graphically by my hon. Friends the Members for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson) and for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon). That is why the Government's response to the Select Committee report generally supported the thrust of its recommendations.
In my response, I should like to give hon. Members some idea of what the Government are doing to follow up those recommendations and what other new work we have put in train. We need organisations and mechanisms that are robust, strong and, as Dr. Byron emphasised in her report, future-proofed.
I can tell that the Minister is about to avail the Committee with an extensive list of the proposals that the Government have formulated in response to the Select Committee report, which I welcome, as have other Members. Will she consider adding to her list the imaginative suggestion of my hon. Friend Mr. Vaizey that we should have some figure—some national treasure like the green cross code man—to send a persuasive and attractive message to children? Given that Her Majesty the Queen—our principal national treasure—is not available, perhaps Bruce Forsyth might fit that role, as our own generation's green cross man.
I am sure that the council will consider that. We must get the message across, and it is through such figures that children understand exactly what we are talking about. The green cross code man certainly played a big part in my children's life.
The key to the problems that hon. Members have so graphically detailed is responsibility. Mr. Hayes alluded to that kind of responsibility. It is responsibility on the part of providers, users and manufacturers, and it must cut right across. Without that responsibility, we can have no trust. The Government seek to provide services and advice that people trust. I was glad to hear that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend had taken it on herself to go out and give advice. We certainly need that to happen, and it is a good campaign for hon. Members to follow in their constituencies. She has given me a great idea. Going into a school as a trusted figure is exactly the way to do it. The search for trust is what led us to commission Dr. Byron's report and to establish the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, as she recommended.
As my hon. Friend Paul Farrelly and many other hon. Members said, Dr. Byron's work was excellent. She explored the multiplicity of issues that come under the heading of this debate and she also gave a very good guide on how best to strike a balance between Government action, self-regulation and parental monitoring, which is not easy. As anyone who has been a parent knows, it is terribly difficult to release children to experience things on their own and to act responsibly at the same time.
As hon. Members will know, the UK Council for Child Internet Safety was launched in September. Shortly after its launch, the Government moved our involvement in this area up another gear. The reason why we did that—to enlighten Mr. Vaizey, who is the prince of shadow Ministers—was not just to proliferate reviews. The Byron review was focused, but afterwards people asked for a wider focus than just child safety. Consequently, Lord Carter, who was appointed as Minister for Communications, Technology and Broadcasting a month ago, announced that he would lead the "Digital Britain" report. There will be an interim report in January and a final report in the spring. We have brought forward the publication of the final report to make it quite quick, because, as the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings said, we cannot keep having reviews. We needed to broaden the base of that review.
Lord Carter embodies something that is quite unusual but not so unusual in my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's Government, in that he reports to two Departments; the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. I know that hon. Members were concerned that there should be one lead Minister in this area. If they have not done so already, I urge them to read the book written by my right hon. Friend Sir Gerald Kaufman, entitled "How to be a Minister". In that book, he gives details of a disease from which many Ministers suffer: the very grave and critical disease of "departmentalitis"—in other words, the silo mentality that leads a Minister not to see beyond the boundaries of their own Department. The spread of that disease is, of course, encouraged by a Minister's civil servants, because they also suffer from it; it is a highly infectious disease. We are trying to counter it by having two Ministers dealing with this area, together with a director from the DCMS and another official involved in the "Digital Britain" report. Of course, I also interact very strongly with the "Digital Britain" work.
Returning to the Select Committee report and our progress on it, we agree with the Committee that it is essential to strike the right balance on the risks and benefits of the internet. However, as many of the Committee's recommendations now fall under the remit of the newly formed UK Council for Child Internet Safety, I am not able to give the Committee members the very detailed responses that they want from me; in fact, it would be wrong of me to do so. However, I know that the council will be listening and watching, and I hope that it will be able to give the Committee those responses, because its recommendations merit very deep consideration. I hope that, when the council produces its report, the Committee will find that some of its recommendations have been taken up.
I will work with the council and we will take into account the useful and sensible comments that the Select Committee made in its report. For example, we agree that effective screening measures are needed—many hon. Members made that point today. We also agree that the CEOP is doing excellent work and that that work should be properly resourced. However—I am about to give the Committee an answer that is affected by "departmentalitis"—CEOP falls under the Home Office and that is a Home Office matter, which must be considered within its resource allocation. I thought that I made that point quite well, although my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton would pronounce mine to be an extreme case of "departmentalitis". However, we have noted what the Committee said about CEOP: it does good work, which needs to continue.
The Government will also work with the newly formed council to develop an independently monitored voluntary code of practice on user-generated internet content. As several hon. Members said, that content can be highly disturbing. I will not forget an elderly woman coming in to see me five or six years ago. I am sorry to say that her son-in-law had superimposed her head on a series of pornographic images and then made them easily available to members of her family on a website. It turned out that there was absolutely nothing that could be done to stop that, and she was mortified. Obviously, her relationship with her son-in-law ceased.
We also agree about take-down, take-down times, and levels of search. The information on those things needs to be made much clearer. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend, I think that we also need to make it much clearer that the ISPs have, in some cases, produced booklets with this information. However, those booklets are not as well advertised as other things on their services and the providers should be encouraged to make them far more prominent.
I have read "How to be a Minister", and much good it has done me.
The Minister will know that regulatory bodies are subject to industry capture. That was something that Helen Liddell, our old colleague, recognised when she went into the Treasury and made sure that the Financial Services Authority published league tables of those firms that were the worst culprits in pensions mis-selling. On take-down times, however, we may find that the industry leaders will not want to be No. 55 on the list but rather No. 5.
I thank my hon. Friend for that suggestion. I must say that, although targets and similar things are very unpopular, name and shame can sometimes work very well indeed.
We also want levels of search to be locked in, so that that is where users go each time—that is the default setting. Like my right hon. Friend Keith Vaz, we also want prominently displayed safety information on video games.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme spoke about pre-screening of user-generated internet content. I am very glad to see that MySpace is doing that. It is that kind of responsible action that we are looking for, as it means that people can trust a company.
Many people have said that the internet is like the wild west in the gold rush, and that sooner or later it will be regulated. Obviously, what we need is for it to be regulated sooner rather than later. We need the service providers themselves to come forward and show that they are the sort of responsible organisation whose services we can trust our children and vulnerable adults—they should not be left out of this picture—and even some adults who are not so vulnerable, like myself, to use. I myself have been quite shocked to find that I can accidentally put in a search parameter that will produce something that was certainly not what I, a boring MP, was looking for.
We must ensure that the search engines have a clear link to child safety information and safe search settings on the front page of their website. I very much like the "stranger danger" analogy that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend used, because we must teach children the dangers of the internet. It is sad to make children more scared than interested, but fortunately, the internet is so interesting that children tend to overcome their fear.
We must also work on developing parental control software. As the Chairman of the Select Committee, Mr. Whittingdale, rightly said, the watershed is terribly porous. In fact, it is like a sieve. People can get straight through it, or straight by it. We need that control software to communicate automatically with websites' age verification systems, to prevent children from signing up to sites with false dates of birth.
I know that the question of identity cards is one that divides this House, and not on party lines. However, one can see the value of some form of age verification, some sort of card. It is useful when it comes to alcohol and cigarettes, and it is certainly useful when it comes to buying video games and other material on the internet.
May I suggest a system that some organisations use? Whenever a credit card is used for age verification, the relevant bank puts in the monthly statement that it was used in that way on a particular date for a particular reason. Is the Minister interested in exploring the possibility of taking that system further?
That is worth exploring, particularly as many children have access to their parents' credit cards. I hope that the council will consider that. Suggestions like that sometimes look good, but then there turns out to be a problem. At first glance, however, it looks like a good idea.
The issue of video games classification is more difficult. I say that as the mother of two boys who consume such games and play each other online. They are not boys, in fact, but are in their late 30s and early 40s, but they still play. Some of the things that they play make my hair stand on end.
Dr. Byron looked into this issue and, like us, was very concerned about it. The Government have looked at the research on the harmfulness of video games. As today's debate has shown, there is no single view on that. At the moment, there is no compellingly persuasive evidence to suggest that violent games lead to violent behaviour. I say that as someone who is personally somewhat doubtful about how good or bad they are. The research from Iowa that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East has mentioned purports to have found a link, but that is a long way from scientific proof of a cause. We need to see the sort of scientific proof that eventually came out about the effects of nicotine consumption before we can act.
The difficulty is not with the scientific method. It is hard to glean empirical results in this area, because the effect is diffuse, subtle and, to use a word I used earlier, implicit. It is intrinsic and subliminal, and those things are hard to prove. That does not mean that the research is not valid, but it certainly means that it has to be ongoing and thorough. When I spoke— inadequately—earlier, I made the point that there is a dynamism about this subject that requires constant vigilance. People want a crackdown on the worst. I am sorry to be so blunt, but the public expect nothing less than that sort of crackdown.
I agree. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that this subject must be kept under constant review. I also agree with Dr. Byron that action is needed now, and there is no point in getting caught up in that debate, because it will be difficult to reach a conclusion. Let us focus on what we can agree on and what we can do. Violent material is simply inappropriate for children, as is some other material. We do not need proof of that, because we know it to be the case. The best thing to do is to ensure that we have the best possible system in place to ensure that games that feature violence or other unsuitable content are not sold to children.
Dr. Byron found many positive aspects of the systems already in place, but she also identified weaknesses. In the end, she outlined the attributes that a classification scheme for games should have. She set out a potential solution, and recommended that we carry out a consultation. That consultation closes on
We are looking for a trustworthy system with a uniform and clear set of symbols, which is absolutely clear to people. There must be a statutory basis to the video games classification system from age 12 onwards, and a non-statutory system up to age 12. The system has to be flexible and future-proof, it must work for the games industry and it must support retailers. It must also reflect the evidence on potential harm, as has been said. We are not looking to ban games.
What the Minister just listed is identical to what Dr. Tanya Byron recommended, and would obviously lead to the BBFC system being used because, as the Chairman of the Select Committee has rightly said, the BBFC system is statutory and PEGI is not. Is the Minister saying that the Government are not open to having a non-statutory code and they have already decided on BBFC? That is what she has just said she is looking for.
No; I assure the hon. Gentleman that that is not what I meant. At the moment, the BBFC system is statutory and PEGI is not, but if we went for PEGI, we would make it statutory. Dr. Byron gave four possible ways of dealing with the problem. Whichever one we choose will have to be statutory, but there has been no pre-choice.
I am very much in favour of video games. Any hon. Members who have played the new brain-training games will know that they are extremely helpful to a woman who is well past middle life. My grandchildren are very glad that I have improved my brain level.
The message from internet service providers, video games makers and the people who consume them is that they do not want to lose freedoms. They do not want heavy-handed regulation, but we have to bring some order to the growing chaos out there. We must have a system that we can trust to act responsibly.
In conclusion, dealing with this issue is crucial for the present and the future, because it will affect how our children grow and the values they hold. It is about us communicating values to our children to allow them to sift through the information that they get and make informed choices. We cannot protect them totally from the world—indeed, that would be wrong—but the world out there is a cruel, hard and quite horrible place, as hon. Members have so graphically shown. I was very glad that the dead baby website had only 100 signed-up members, whereas the site that was set up to fight against it had 150,000. That gives me faith in the ability of humanity to choose the best of this wonderful new product and to reject the worst.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Five o'clock.