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

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Baroness Merron

Main Page: Baroness Merron (Labour - Life peer)

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

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Baroness Merron Portrait Baroness Merron (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, for bringing forward this Bill and for laying out the arguments and rationale for it so clearly, as well as the background.

I agree that it is quite remarkable that this Bill is even needed. However, it is needed because we find a continuing situation where children have unfettered access to damaging pornography, which affects how they see, experience and play out in the world. Noble Lords have made important contributions and put challenges to the Minister, who, I fear, will be put in a position in his response of defending the indefensible: the fact that we still await protections. I hope that he will be able to make some positive comments in response to the debate that has taken place not just today but on many previous occasions.

As noble Lords have said, this situation is entirely baffling because it seems that, although legislation is in place and much of the preparatory work has been done, the department for some reason will not make a move swiftly to introduce age verification for online pornography. As the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, there has been a catalogue of errors for some reason and a failure to implement legislation that has been agreed. I hope that the Minister will give us some explanation as to why that is the case.

As we discuss this today, I feel that there is an even greater imperative because of the circumstances in which we are having this debate. Since Part 3 of the DEA was cancelled, in October 2019, we have lived through several lockdowns during which internet usage has soared. Yes, the internet is a great source of education and positive entertainment, but, as we have heard so clearly today, it can also have a very negative impact if the proper online protections are not there. In that case, it means that many children and young people find it easy to come across exposure to pornography that they have not even sought out. This is disturbing and harmful, with potential long-term and unhealthy consequences for their future adult relationships and their current relationships as children and young people.

It is interesting that, when Ofsted did a rapid review of sexual abuse and harassment in schools in June 2021, it reported that

“easy access to pornography had … set unhealthy expectations of sexual relationships and shaped children and young people’s perceptions of women and girls.”

In response to Ofsted’s findings, the Government asked the Children’s Commissioner to investigate actions that could be taken in the short term. I am interested in this point because this Bill gives the perfect opportunity for some action to be taken in the short term. As the letter sent by the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, and 60 others—including MPs, Peers, head teachers and non-governmental organisations—said, interim action can and should include the implementation of Part 3 of the DEA.

However, there is a further reason why there is a greater imperative at present. As we have heard several times in this debate, there is great concern about the obvious impact of pornography on violent acts committed against women, which have hit the headlines since the death of Sarah Everard. That will be on our minds for ever, and I hope that the Government will see that the need for action is ever more pressing.

This is of course an ongoing cross-party initiative, and today we have a Bill seeking to implement a settlement reached by representatives of all parties and none. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron—it is right to do so regularly—and others, including the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, who deserve credit for their relentless focus on this subject. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, reminded us, we are dealing with a multi-billion-pound industry with a wilful disregard for the impact that it has on children. As she said, voluntary standards require volunteers, and, regretfully, we do not find voluntary co-operation as it should be. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Stevenson of Balmacara. While no longer on the Front Bench, he has played a significant role during the passage of the Digital Economy Act, and has since leant his expertise to the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill.

Given that we agree wholeheartedly with what the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, seeks to achieve with this Bill, and knowing the Minister’s likely argument as we do, I will make two points to draw out the main issues. First, while the Government may say that this matter can be better dealt with in the online safety Bill, the fact is that the worst offenders and the most harmful material will not, as things stand, fall within the scope of that legislation. Secondly, even if we were satisfied that the online safety Bill will address these concerns, enactment will take several years, so there is no reason why Part 3 of the DEA cannot be enacted as an interim measure. Children’s lives will not be put on hold while we delay putting legislative provision in place. The Government have repeatedly promised to keep young people safe; that is a solemn promise, as I know the Minister understands. However, if this Bill is opposed today by the Government, I regret to say that that solemn promise will have been broken.