Online Harms — [Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:27 pm on 7th October 2020.

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Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Labour, Putney 3:27 pm, 7th October 2020

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate and thank my hon. Friend Holly Lynch for securing this important and, I hope, influential debate.

Online harms are one of the biggest worries and harms faced by parents across my constituency and across the country. As a parent, I am very worried about what is happening in the safety of my own home, which I cannot control. Speaking to other parents, I know that is a shared concern. In our own homes, children can have free and unfettered access to pornography and to people inciting young people to violent hate and extremist views. Women can be threatened to share intimate images, which can cause long-lasting damage. Our online world must be a safe and positive place for us all to explore, including our children, but at present it is not. Providers are not taking action. Parents just cannot keep up. Self-regulation is definitely not cutting it and online harm in our society is spiralling out of control.

The 2015 Conservative manifesto pledged that

“we will stop children’s exposure to harmful sexualised content online, by requiring age verification for access to all sites containing pornographic material.”

Well, it is time to come good on that commitment. If the Government had acted sooner, large numbers of children would not have been harmed by avoidable online experiences during lockdown. The consequences of ongoing inaction are severe and widespread. Our children can never unsee images they have stumbled across in all innocence in their own home. There are more children online for more time with more anxiety, yet there is less regulation, less action taken by providers and more sex offenders online.

I want to highlight three key issues. The first is pornography. According to the NSPCC, in the first three months of this year, more than 100 sex crimes against children were recorded every day. Lockdown led to a spike in online child abuse, meaning that that is much higher. The second issue is youth violence. The Mayor of London and deputy mayor for policing and crime have been vocal about the role of the internet in spreading violent messages and the incitement to commit serious youth violence. That is around us every day. The third issue is threats around sharing intimate images. One in 14 adults and one in seven young women have experienced threats about sharing intimate images. As a mother of two daughters, I am really concerned about that, and I know that parents across the country share that concern.

Although the sharing of intimate images was made a crime in 2015, threatening to share them can be just as damaging, but it is not illegal in England and Wales, although it is in Scotland. The threats are used to control, damage and affect mental health, and one in 10 survivors said that the threats had made them feel suicidal. There is also a substantial body of evidence suggesting that exposure to pornography is harmful to children and young people and can have a damaging impact on young people’s views of sex or relationships, leading to a belief that women are sex objects. There are links between sexually coercive behaviour and higher rates of sexual harassment and forced sex. We simply cannot let this situation go unregulated any longer, so I have some questions for the Minister.

When will the first reading of the online harms Bill be? Is there urgency to tackle online harms? Will the Minister commit to introducing legislation to outlaw threats to share intimate images as part of the Domestic Abuse Bill? Can she introduce a statutory instrument to redesignate the regulator as the British Board of Film Classification? That could be done very quickly and would enable age verification of pornographic websites. Will the online harms Bill contain strong and robust action, with a framework of comprehensive regulations and an adaptable new regulator that can adapt to the issues that will come up in future that we do not even know about yet?

It is time for tough action. We have really strict limits against hate speech and pornography in other areas of life, but just where most children are most of the time is where the Government are failing in their duty of care.