Unless we support my noble friend’s amendments and can say to parents that we have been holistic about this and recognised a degree of parental responsibility but also the world that children will go into and how it may change—we have heard about the possibility of more app stores, creating a more confusing environment for parents and young people—I do not think we can confidently, hand on heart, say that we achieved what this Bill set out to achieve. On that note, I wholeheartedly support my noble friend’s amendments.
Lord Bishop of Guildford Portrait The Lord Bishop of Guildford
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My Lords, one of our clergy in the diocese of Guildford has been campaigning for more than a decade, as have others in this Committee, on children’s access to online pornography. With her, I support the amendments in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Kidron and Lady Harding.

Her concerns eventually made their way to the floor of the General Synod of the Church of England in a powerful debate in July last year. The synod voted overwhelmingly in favour of a motion, which said that we

“acknowledge that our children and young people are suffering grave harm from free access to online pornography”

and urged us to

“have in place age verification systems to prevent children from having access to those sites”.

It asked Her Majesty’s Government to use their best endeavours to secure the passage and coming into force of legislation requiring age-verification systems preventing access by people under the age of 18. It also recommended more social and educational programmes to increase awareness of the harms of pornography, including self-generated sexually explicit images.

Introducing the motion, my chaplain, Reverend Jo Winn-Smith, said that age verification

“ought to be a no-brainer … Exposure to sexualised material is more likely to lead to young people engaging in more sexualised behaviour and to feel social pressure to have sex”,

as well as normalising sexual violence against girls and women. A speech from the chaplain-general of the Prison Service towards the end of the debate highlighted just where such behaviours and pressures could lead in extreme circumstances.

One major theme that emerged during the debate is highlighted by the amendments this afternoon: that access to online pornography goes far beyond materials that fall into what the Bill defines as Part 5 services. Another is highlighted in a further group of amendments: age assurance needs to be both mandatory and effective beyond reasonable doubt.

It was also commented on how this whole area has taken such an age to get on to the statute book, given David Cameron’s proposals way back in 2013 and further legislation proposed in 2018 that was never enacted. Talk of secondary legislation to define harmful content in that regard is alarming, as a further amendment indicates, given the dragging of feet that has now been perpetuated for more than a decade. That is a whole generation of children and young people.

In an imaginative speech in the synod debate, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York, Archbishop Stephen, reminded us that the internet is not a platform; it is a public space, where all the rights and norms you would expect in public should apply. In the 1970s, he continued, we famously put fluoride in the water supply, because we knew it would be great for dental health; now is the opportunity to put some fluoride into the internet. I add only this: let us not water down the fluoride to a point where it becomes feeble and ineffective.

Baroness Benjamin Portrait Baroness Benjamin (LD)
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My Lords, I will speak in support of the amendments in this group in the names of the intrepid noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, and my noble friend Lord Storey—we are kindred spirits.

As my noble friend said, the expectations of parents are clear: they expect the Bill to protect their children from all harm online, wherever it is encountered. The vast majority of parents do not distinguish between the different content types. To restrict regulation to user-to-user services, as in Part 3, would leave a great many websites and content providers, which are accessed by children, standing outside the scope of the Bill. This is a flagship piece of legislation; there cannot be any loopholes leaving any part of the internet unregulated. If there is a website, app, online game, educational platform or blog—indeed, any content that contains harmful material—it must be in the scope of the Bill.

The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, seeks to amend the Bill to ensure that it aligns with the Information Commissioner’s age-appropriate design code—it is a welcome amendment. As the Bill is currently drafted, the threshold for risk assessment is too high. It is important that the greatest number of children and young people are protected from harmful content online. The amendments achieve that to a greater degree than the protection already in the Bill.

While the proposal to align with the age-appropriate design code is welcome, I have one reservation. Up until recently, it appears that the ICO was reluctant to take action against pornography platforms that process children’s data. It has perhaps been deemed that pornographic websites are unlikely to be accessed by children. Over the years, I have shared with this House the statistics of how children are accessing pornography and the harm it causes. The Children’s Commissioner also recently highlighted the issue and concerns. Pornography is being accessed by our children, and we must ensure that the provisions of the Bill are the most robust they can be to ensure that children are protected online.

I am concerned with ensuring two things: first, that any platform that contains harmful material falls under the scope of the Bill and is regulated to ensure that children are kept safe; and, secondly, that, as far as possible, what is harmful offline is regulated in the same way online. The amendments in the name of my noble friend Lord Storey raise the important question of online-offline equality. Amendments 33A and 217A seek to regulate online video games to ensure they meet the same BBFC ratings as would be expected offline, and I agree with that approach. Later in Committee, I will raise this issue in relation to pornographic content and how online content should be subject to the same BBFC guidance as content offline. I agree with what my noble friend proposes: namely, that this should extend to video game content as well. Video games can be violent and sexualised in nature, and controls should be in place to ensure that children are protected. The BBFC guidelines used offline appear to be the best way to regulate online as well.

Children must be kept safe wherever they are online. This Bill must have the widest scope possible to keep children safe, but ensuring online/offline alignment is crucial. The best way to keep children safe is to legislate for regulation that is as far reaching as possible but consistently applied across the online/offline world. These are the reasons why I support the amendments in this group.