Digital Economy Act 2017 (Commencement of Part 3) Bill [HL] Debate

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Digital Economy Act 2017 (Commencement of Part 3) Bill [HL]

Baroness Benjamin Excerpts
Baroness Benjamin Portrait Baroness Benjamin (LD)
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My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, on tabling this Bill to debate this important issue and I declare an interest as a vice-president of Barnardo’s. It is frustrating that once again we find ourselves in this House debating the need to protect children and women from the dangers of online pornography, because this matter was settled in 2017 with Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act, which should have been implemented by 2019. It goes without saying that children must not have easy access to harmful material online, and women and girls should no longer be placed at risk of abuse, violence and harm resulting from the ever-increasing deluge of online pornography. It is shocking that legislation exists that could alleviate some of those risks, yet it has not been brought into force.

Barnardo’s believes that many children in the UK are developing a view of sex and relationships that is void of context, especially in relation to consent and violence, which will stay with them well into adulthood. Research shows that pornography has wide impacts on the development of children and young people, including poor mental health, low self-esteem, sexual aggression, violence, child-on-child sexual abuse and the shaping of future sexual behaviour. Another generation of young people will face these same issues unless we act now.

It is not just children and young people who will be protected by Part 3 of the DEA; it also seeks to protect women and girls from the harmful influence of violent and extreme pornography on men and boys. All the research highlights that male sexual violence against women and the distortion of sexual relationships have their roots in extreme and violent pornography. This is why, on 7 May last year, I and a group of other parliamentarians, women’s organisations, head teachers and children’s charities wrote to the Prime Minister expressing our concerns regarding this issue. This letter was written because of the tragic death of Sarah Everard, who was murdered at the hands of a man addicted to extreme pornography. This has sparked women from all over the UK to share their stories. Listening to these stories, it is clear that pornography plays a significant role in increasing violence by men against women.

I raised these issues almost a year ago, in debates in this House on the Domestic Abuse Bill. We know that Part 3 of the DEA will not end sexual violence or protect all children from harm, but it is the very minimum we can expect and trust our Government to do. At the beginning of last year, I wrote to the Government to ask why they have failed to implement Part 3 of the DEA and to encourage them to implement it as an interim measure while the online safety Bill is considered by Parliament. I was informed that implementing Part 3 as an interim measure would not be possible because of the time it would take to designate a regulator under Section 17 of the DEA; that it would take two years for a regulator to be designated and for the relevant consultation to conclude. I was given no information as to why this would take two years—that was two years ago. The BBFC, which was designated and then de-designated under the Act, could have been reappointed as the regulator under Section 17.

In March 2021, had the Government redesignated the BBFC as regulator, interim protections for children and women could have been in place within 40 days. Protection would be in place pending the online safety Bill. Had the Government acted at that time, commercial pornography sites could have been regulated and age verification put in place by the summer of last year. It is still open to the Government to follow this course and I so wish that they would.

Here is the reality: the Bill we are debating today is not actually needed. All that is required is that the Government do what they are obligated to do by law and implement Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act. If the Government refuse to do this, it will take time for Ofcom to be designated as the regulator once the online safety Bill is eventually passed. But the Government do not need to wait until the online safety Bill is in place: they could designate Ofcom now.

Last March, the Government wrote to me stating that it would take around two years for Ofcom to be designated as a regulator. If they had acted last year and designated Ofcom under Section 17 of the DEA, it could have laid the regulations and guidance before Parliament this autumn. By the end of the year, Ofcom would have begun its work as regulator, pending passage of the online safety Bill through Parliament. If, as the Government claim, it will take two years for Ofcom to be designated as a regulator under the online safety Bill, it could be 2025 or later before age verification and curbs on extreme pornography are in place. This is totally unacceptable.

While it is preferable for the Government to implement Part 3 of the DEA immediately, the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, that Ofcom be designated now under Section 17 of the DEA and that it commence work to prepare to be the regulator is reasonable. It would be shameful if the Government further delayed action on age verification and protecting women and girls from the harm of violent pornography by failing to act now. Children and women have waited far too long for these protections. The Government should act now to alleviate any more harm and suffering.

A mother wrote to me telling me that her four year-old daughter was sexually abused by a 10 year-old boy, who told her, “I am going to rape you and you are going to like it”. Now when the daughter hears the word “rape” on the news, she asks her mother, “Did she like it mummy?” It makes me weep to tell this story, because childhood lasts a lifetime. This is why I support the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Morrow. It is a moral issue.