Previous Section Index Home Page

The Government have chosen a path that will hit employment, jobs and businesses very hard indeed. That should be borne in mind when we consider the Bill. It is odd that this Bill is separate from either of the Finance Bills. I have not quite figured out the Government's tactics, and perhaps they had not quite worked out what they were going to do. In that wider context, it is necessary to compare their choices in VAT against the national insurance changes.

Hon. Members mostly spoke about part 2 of the Bill, which includes the concept of a national insurance holiday. Such a holiday is, of course, superficially attractive, but there are reasons to be concerned about the poor design of the measure, which applies only to new businesses and not to existing firms. That is important. Many businesses could be under the misapprehension that they will qualify, and a lot of effort and time will go into contacting Business Link and the Treasury to find out whether the measure applies to them, and many will be disappointed.

The proposal is complex because of the limited time and extent of the scheme. It applies only to a small number of employees and there is a convoluted application process. Government Members pointed out that efforts need to made to ensure that the measure is as simple as possible. The Bill will require HMRC to take on 240 extra staff-I am not sure that they will be additional staff, especially given that HMRC is cutting numbers-and we will press the Minister on that extra complement in Committee. Businesses could apply for the national insurance holiday but not get it because they have to swim for hours through treacle to get someone in the Treasury to pick up the phone. That could be a significant problem.

The Minister gave a vague figure when asked how many people had applied since the scheme started in September. Very few people are aware that the scheme exists, and it has hardly been advertised- [ Interruption. ] I am glad that Liberal Democrat Members have joined us in the Chamber, even if they are just passing through, because they have been conspicuous by their absence. Perhaps that is related to their embarrassment over the VAT comparator.

23 Nov 2010 : Column 228

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), who highlighted the discriminatory nature of the national insurance holiday proposal-it affects some parts of the country but not others-and my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) and for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) pointed out the unfairness of a crude system that will exclude the east of England, London and the greater south-east, as my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South called it. That will cause significant disquiet, and many new entrepreneurs in those parts of the country will complain. Legitimately, they will not understand why they are excluded while reasonably affluent areas of the country outside the greater south-east-Chester, Worcester, Harrogate, York Outer, Tatton and Richmond, to name areas at random-will be eligible for the benefits. My hon. Friend put things perfectly when he said that the boffins at the Treasury ought to be capable of understanding the distinction between the greater south-east and other parts of the country. Of course they are capable of that, and we will seek to make amendments to deal with that problem in Committee.

Unfortunately, this small and partial measure-a national insurance holiday for some businesses in some parts of the country-reveals first of all the Government's complete failure to develop a regional growth strategy, especially for the English regions. They have taken the knife not only to regional development agencies, but more importantly to the budgets at their disposal to help to build SMEs and provide the infrastructure necessary for businesses to survive. We know that for every £1 spent through the auspices of RDAs, £4.50 of benefits accrued to the regional economies. The Government disregarded evidence from the National Audit Office. They have damaged the prospects for growth in our economy, but particularly in those parts of it that have not benefited from the historic engine of growth that has surrounded London and the south-east. The Government's alternative -these local enterprise partnerships, which are unfunded, and only partially covering the country-is a poor substitute for a proper regional economic strategy. Nearly 21 million people and 780,000 businesses will not be covered by the LEPs, the Business Secretary has described them as "chaotic", and Richard Lambert of the CBI has called the process a "bit of a shambles".

That sums up the Government's lack of a growth strategy. We know that they have pulled the rug from under the growth White Paper that was meant to be forthcoming. They did that because they have no clear idea of how to drive growth: they are fixated on austerity alone and have no solutions for the long-term course of our economy. That is a great pity. The regional growth fund has been hacked down to a pathetic size, with few opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises to apply for support under it. In many ways, therefore, small firms have been cast to one side, with perhaps a few crumbs from the table made available for them as a result of this Marie-Antoinette strategy of the Ministers-"Let them eat cake" seems to be the approach they are willing to take.

The hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) rightly pointed out that the Government should be trying to make the banks lend more and give more support to SMEs, making inroads into that desert of loan and credit available to them. We know from the Chancellor's statement at Treasury questions last week and from Ministers' comments that they have gone soft
23 Nov 2010 : Column 229
on the banks in a number of ways, particularly on the coalition commitment to restart net lending targets for the banks in which they have a shareholding. They have decided now to row back from their commitment to institute those net lending targets, and I urge hon. Members, particularly Government Members, to ask serious questions of Ministers about why they are not prepared to ensure that the banks play their full part in repairing the economy.

I would not like to think that we cannot trust the Chancellor to fulfil some of the pledges to lessen the impact of these national insurance increases. As we know, the Government have already reneged on the commitment on employee national insurance changes, even though the press reported before the election that the Conservative party would do so. It is true that in many ways the personal allowance changes deal with some of these elements, but only in part-there was a commitment on national insurance as well, but it folded and absorbed it into that change. Again, it raised people's hopes before the general election, but has not fulfilled them.

In particular, the Government are not fully offsetting these changes for employers, which will be a surprise to many people. Before the election, the Conservative party gave the impression that it was fully against the 1% increase and that it would repeal it entirely. [Interruption.] Ministers seem to think that they were going to repeal it entirely. As I see the measures, the impression they gave- [Interruption.] There was small print, it is true, but that was not the impression given. The £4.5 billion change is offset by the £3.1 billion increase in the threshold for employers on national insurance, so there is a deficit of £1.4 billion in the compensation that the Government will not be giving to employers. This is a question not necessarily of a broken promise, but of an impression that many people had that the Government were going to end the jobs tax, as the Prime Minister and Chancellor characterised it. As ever with this Government, however, when we look at the small print, we see that those changes will not be forthcoming.

We have not seen the secondary legislation yet. I would like to know when the Minister will introduce it. Presumably on Monday-traditionally the time of what was the pre-Budget report-we will hear from the Chancellor about the threshold changes and the indexation elements of these changes. Ministers have said they are going to add £21 to the employer threshold, but what will be the indexation? Will they follow the long-standing traditions of the Rooker-Wise amendment when it comes to allowance and threshold changes and follow the retail prices index option, or will they row back again and go for the cheaper consumer prices index option? In other words, will they be giving with one hand, through the threshold change, but taking with the other, by only opting for CPI?

This debate has revealed significant concerns among Government Members about the crude discrimination shown against London, the south-east and the east of England. The Bill reveals a lack of a proper strategy for growth, especially in the English regions, and the Government have revealed their preference for regressive taxation, particularly VAT, which will harm businesses and raise unemployment. We will certainly need to see serious improvements in these measures in Committee.

23 Nov 2010 : Column 230
7.15 pm

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Justine Greening): We have had an interesting debate and I am grateful for hon. Members' contributions, especially that of the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), who provided the most entertaining canter through an explanatory memorandum I have listened to in years.

At the beginning of the debate, my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary explained that the Bill contains two important measures: an increase in national insurance contributions and a regional employer national insurance contributions holiday for new businesses. Both are part of the Government's plan to reduce the burden of labour taxation, reducing obstacles for those who want to recruit and retain staff. It is worth stressing that the clauses are part of a much wider package of reforms to help businesses and ensure that Britain is again open for business. The reforms are designed to reverse the most damaging aspects of Labour's ill-conceived jobs tax. I listened with care to the contributions from Labour Members, but members of the public listening will have found it easy to forget that the Labour party left office with unemployment higher than when it entered.

Nevertheless, I am pleased that the debate has led to so many Opposition Members-and, indeed, Government Members-recognising that the best way to kick-start new business, as the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) put it, is to ensure that businesses are not over-taxed. In fact, the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) was extolling the virtues of low tax on businesses. That is why the Bill is so important. Were the coalition Government not in power, rather than corporation tax on businesses going down, it would have gone up, and rather than the national insurance burden, particularly on small businesses, being held down, it would have risen remorselessly.

The hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) talked about a split personality, but it is probably fairer to level that charge at the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), who, on the one hand, wanted to raise national insurance for all employers, but, on the other hand, complained that the tax break we wanted to introduce to reduce national insurance was not fair because it did not apply to all regions. He cannot have it both ways.

Mike Gapes: I am glad that the hon. Lady was listening so carefully to what I said. She refers to unemployment, but will she confirm that 3 million more people were in work when the last Government left office than when they entered?

Justine Greening: A lot of people would debate who those jobs were taken by. In reality, unemployment was higher-every Labour Government leaves office with unemployment higher than when they entered.

I want to talk about some of the most important aspects of the Bill. Employers will be £150 better off each year for each employee earning above the threshold. There will be an increase of 650,000 in the number of employees in respect of whom employers pay no national insurance contributions. Compared to this year, employers will pay less national insurance contribution in respect of those employees earning under £20,000. In fact,
23 Nov 2010 : Column 231
low-earning employees will also be better off, because the point at which they start to pay national insurance contributions is also going up-by about £23 per week. By reversing the planned employer national insurance increases, this package will help to maintain the UK's attraction as a place to do business. In doing so, it will support the Government's aim of creating a fairer and more competitive tax system. The national insurance holiday will help with the transition to a more sustainable model of economic growth, encourage private sector enterprise and investment where it is most needed, create jobs in some of our poorest regions, and encourage people to become business people, entrepreneurs and wealth creators-the very people who will lead the recovery.

Those points were made eloquently by my hon. Friend Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon) and later by my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), who also talked about the burden of red tape, which is another matter that the Government are keen to reduce for businesses. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) talked about the need to support business, and to create new jobs and the positive culture that we need to engender throughout the country. That is absolutely what the Government want to do.

The Bill should be seen in the context of wider measures. The Government have taken several steps to support business. In the emergency budget we announced measures to reduce corporation tax, not raise it on large companies year on year. We announced measures to reduce the small companies rate of corporation tax. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about what we can do to help small companies and new companies. He was right, and that is precisely why, instead of increasing corporation tax on those companies, we preferred to try to ensure that they can enjoy a rate decrease.

We have gone further. The regional growth fund will benefit all communities in our country. The capital infrastructure plan was announced as part of the spending review, and more capital will go into supporting our country's infrastructure than would have happened under the previous Government. We have published the local growth White Paper.

Chris Leslie: In the hon. Lady's list of Budget changes, what will be the impact of the VAT increase on employment?

Justine Greening: Clearly, that must be seen in the context of our desperate need to tackle the fiscal deficit that the Labour party left us. It is one reason why our overall plan is not just to support business-that is clearly how we will grow our economy back to the healthy state that it needs to get to-but, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, to make our numbers add up across the board. We must get rid of the structural deficit that his party handed over to us.

We believe that the package of measures is right, the OECD has said that it is moving in the right direction, and it has been welcomed throughout Europe. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that we should not increase VAT, that prompts a question. His right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) was interviewed recently and said that the Labour party would have increased VAT, so we cannot accept the hon. Gentleman's comments that his party would not
23 Nov 2010 : Column 232
have increased it. There is a blank piece of paper, and at the top are the words, "Labour economic strategy". It is time for the Labour party to start to become credible by trying at least to pull together and to plan for our economy. Most people will put the contributions about jobs and the complaints about reductions in national insurance not going far enough in the context of a party that has absolutely no alternative plan for managing our economy. They will realise that its arguments are not credible.

The regional aspect of national insurance policy must be seen in the context of the broader package to support business. The level of VAT registrations in different parts of our country and the number of jobs created in different parts of our country show that we need to ensure that we can stimulate growth, particularly in the communities that can benefit most from it. The policy should be looked at not in isolation, but in the context of the broader tax reductions on business and the rise in the personal allowance for employees. Nearly 900,000 of the lowest-income workers in our country will be taken out of income tax altogether. The vast majority of people will benefit from our proposals, and under the Bill many of them will be small businesses with a handful of employees.

Barry Gardiner: I do not think I heard a single speech from either side of the Chamber that suggested in any way that those benefits should not flow to certain businesses. The question that was repeatedly asked and that the Economic Secretary and her colleagues failed to answer is why those businesses are favoured, not only when they are specifically not the ones in the areas that will produce the economic growth that she indicates is required from the policy, but because of the manifest unfairness that will result from their distribution.

Justine Greening: I realise that the hon. Gentleman takes a different view about how to target the policy. I happen to believe that he is wrong. We recognise that there needs to be some targeting, but the way in which he would have done that would have been unwieldy and unaffordable. In the context of our broader measures to reduce corporation tax instead of allowing rises, which would have happened under the Labour party, and the measures to take the lowest-income employees in our country-nearly 900,000-out of income tax altogether, we are trying to strike a balance, and I believe that we have struck the right balance.

I have no doubt that we will continue the debate in Committee, but we must be pragmatic. I draw attention to the hon. Gentleman's attempts to target policies when the Opposition were in government. They faced difficulties with their changes during their final years in office. Under the deprived area fund, and the neighbourhood renewal fund, which became the working neighbourhood fund, some communities that had previously received funding were cut off. We want an overall package that supports business across the board, while retaining an element of support targeted at the regions that we think need to benefit most from the next economic upturn. That is what the Bill is doing.

The package of reforms of which the measures in the Bill are part will benefit individuals and employers throughout the country, and help us to achieve the twin objectives of creating a fair and competitive UK tax
23 Nov 2010 : Column 233
system. The burden of labour taxation will be reduced by more than £6 billion a year in a way that will help the lowest earners in Britain and protect lower-paid jobs.

The national insurance holiday provides targeted support to new enterprises, and encourages people to set up their own businesses and to employ new staff. It is an important part of our economic strategy to help the parts of the country that are most reliant on the public sector, and to ensure that we make the transition to a more sustainable model of growth and employment as smooth as possible. The Bill will ensure that as the recovery takes hold, all parts of the country will benefit. It will enable a reduction in taxation on labour nationally, and provide extra support in targeted areas. It will be good for growth, and for jobs. I commend this Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

National Insurance Contributions Bill (Programme)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7),

23 Nov 2010 : Column 234

Question agreed to .

Business without Debate

Delegated legislation

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Nuclear Energy

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Environmental Protection

Question agreed to.

23 Nov 2010 : Column 235

Internet Pornography

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. -(Norman Lamb.)

7.29 pm

Claire Perry (Devizes) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this matter tonight. I thank Members on both sides of the House who have either made time to attend the debate or expressed support for my proposal since it was announced yesterday. I am asking for a change in regulation that would require all UK-based internet service providers to restrict universal access to pornographic material by implementing a simple opt-in system based on age verification.

The internet is a phenomenon that has changed our lives. I well remember my new year's resolution in 1996, which was to get to grips with this thing called the internet. Since then, there has been a massive growth in the size and complexity of the online world. In Britain today, more than 19 million households-73% of the total-have access to the internet, and the speed of access and complexity of content are growing all the time.

Children, with their annoying ability to be early adopters of new technology, are particularly heavy users of the internet, with 99% of 12 to 15-year-olds, 93% of eight to 11-year-olds and 75% of five to seven-year-olds saying that they use it regularly. We know that many obtain access in an unsupervised way, which is not surprising, given that 31% of 12 to 15-year-olds have internet access in their bedrooms. We also know that many children use this either knowingly or unknowingly to access pornography.

Pornography is one of the most widely available forms of content on the internet, representing 12% of the estimated 250 million global websites. Studies suggest, shockingly, that one in three British children aged 10-a third of our British 10-year-olds-have viewed pornography on the internet, while four out of every five children aged 14 to 16 admit to regularly accessing explicit photographs and footage on their home computers. The world has really changed.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I am very glad that the hon. Lady is raising this important issue tonight. Does she see, as I do, a connection between the figures to which she refers and the research by the End Violence Against Women coalition that suggests that a third of young girls experience unwanted sexual contact at school?

Claire Perry: The hon. Lady makes an excellent point, as always. I will speak in a moment about the unpleasant impacts of access to pornography on our young girls and boys.

The numbers that I have just cited are drawn from a relatively small sample, but more extensive studies suggest that almost 60% of children aged nine to 19 had viewed online pornography and that the rate of unwitting or unwanted exposure was increasing sharply. I know that many parents will have had that sickening feeling as their child clicks through, quite innocently, to a website after searching for a particular term. For example, a search for American Girls-a series of wholesome, culturally appropriate dolls-can end up at the American
23 Nov 2010 : Column 236
Girls website, which is certainly not a wholesome place to be. It is truly shocking how easy it is to access that kind of information.

These statistics are simply red-lining a problem that every parent recognises-namely, that our children are viewing material that we would never want them to see, especially at such a young age. So what can we do about it? The current way of controlling access to pornographic material on the internet is via safety settings and filtering software, installed and maintained by users-parents, teachers and carers across the country. Unfortunately, however, through technological ignorance, time pressure or inertia or for myriad other reasons, this filtering solution is not working. Even among parents who are regular internet users, only 15% say that they know how to install a filter. It is unfortunately also the case that our children know better than we do how to circumvent the filters, while the constant changes in internet technology and content mean that they can quickly become outdated.

I would like to raise two key issues about the current, unsatisfactory situation. The first, as the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) has just pointed out, is that access to pornography has a profound and negative effect on our children. Against the backdrop of a drip-feed of sexualisation that promotes pole dancing as healthy exercise for young girls and high-heeled shoes as appropriate footwear for six-month-old babies, the availability of soft-core and hard-core pornography in our homes is damaging our children.

Yesterday I attended a Safermedia conference sponsored by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), and heard compelling evidence of this damage, including the explosion in the number of children in this country being referred to addiction clinics with a "pornography problem", and the fact that many studies demonstrate that watching internet pornography contributes to people seeing women as sex objects, increases sexual risk-taking such as having unprotected or anal sex, and relaxes the boundaries of sexual violence in a completely unacceptable way.

It is of course the ease of access to unimaginable acts of sexual violence and depravity on the internet that causes the greatest problems for parents. We all know what happens when a bit of innocent investigative clicking leads us to images that are truly sickening. Phillip Hodson of the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy sums this up very appropriately when he says:

The second problem in the current system of internet provision is the presumption that it is entirely the consumer's responsibility to safeguard their family from harmful imagery. I am a fervent supporter of personal responsibility and have an innate dislike of Big Brother regulation, but there is a form of content delivery in this country that, in contrast to the internet, is either regulated by the Government or has a successful self-regulation model that does not appear draconian or heavy-handed. Our television viewing is restricted by sensible Ofcom guidelines, including section 1, which says that material equivalent to the British Board of Film Classification's R18 rating must not be broadcast at any time, and that adult sex material cannot be broadcast at any time other than between 22.00 and 05.30 hours on premium subscription services or on pay-per-view or night services, which
23 Nov 2010 : Column 237
have to have mandatory restricted access, including PIN verification systems. We all accept such regulation of our television viewing quite happily.

What we see on our cinema screens is subject to regulation by the British Board of Film Classification, and we have accepted that for years. Our high street hoardings and general advertising are regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority, which displayed its teeth recently by removing posters from the Westfield shopping centre. Government guidelines inform newsagents' displays of lad magazines and porn magazines. Even the mobile phone industry, which has arguably seen even more change than the internet in the past 10 years and whose products are increasingly used to access the internet, has introduced a reasonably successful self-regulation model that requires an adult verification check before users can access inappropriate material on the internet.

George Hollingbery (Meon Valley) (Con): Carphone Warehouse is conducting a campaign on this issue, working with Professor Tanya Byron who has been working with the Government in this area for three or four years. A survey conducted by Carphone Warehouse found that 85% of children did not have parental controls activated on their mobile phones, 81% of parents felt that they needed to know more about how to deal with this problem, and 48% of parents wrongly thought that it was impossible for their child to download adult content on their mobile phone. I welcome the efforts being made by the mobile phone companies-there is no doubt that they have tried hard-but does my hon. Friend agree that there is still a great deal more to be done?

Claire Perry: As always, my hon. Friend makes an excellent, fact-filled point. I agree that although the self-regulation model is better than the one that pertains for internet service providers, there is much more to be done.

Why should internet service providers be any different from other content providers? Why is the onus on parents, teachers and carers to act as web guides and policemen? Where is the industry responsibility?

Three objections are usually raised when changes such as I am proposing tonight are discussed. The first is that any restriction on access to pornography on the internet is an infringement of free speech. I hope I am no Mary Whitehouse figure, although she was right about many things, but the nature of the internet has led to a proliferation of imagery and a discussion of sexual practices which is quite mind-boggling in its awfulness. I will not read out some of the information that was provided at the Safer Media conference yesterday, but I, at the age of 46, was introduced to sexual practices-one or two clicks away-that I have never heard of and simply cannot conceive of having my daughters view. It was simply sickening.

It is simply beyond belief that people can find sexual pleasure in viewing images of children, men and women being subject to the worst sexual degradation and violence. If that is our definition of free speech, the definition is wrong. That is not the purpose of tonight's debate, however. I do not propose to reduce or restrict inappropriate
23 Nov 2010 : Column 238
content for adults who access the internet; I would simply like to make it more difficult for our children to access that material.

The second objection to my proposal is that it is too costly and too difficult to implement-that it is a regulatory burden on a struggling industry. That is a red herring. Although the content of the internet is generated out there in the wild west on millions of international websites, access is concentrated in the hands of a small number of companies. The Digital Economy Act 2010 states that there are 450 fixed internet providers in the UK, but that the top six, which include household names such as BT, Virgin, TalkTalk, BSkyB, Orange and O2, have more than 90% of the market share. That is not a large group of companies to deal with and regulate. Notably, the combined revenues of that business model are more than £3 billion a year, so it is a deeply profitable industry in which to engage.

Another concern is the definition of pornography. If we are to have an age-verification system, how do we define pornography? We already have perfectly workable definitions of adult content provided by the Obscene Publications Act 1959, and provided and used by Ofcom in the television industry. The required blocking technology is available in distributed form, with the onus on parents and users to implement it, but one does not need to be Bill Gates to pull the whole thing into a more sensible system of internet regulation.

Interestingly, although the official view of the Internet Service Providers Association-confusingly named ISPA-is that any official restrictions would be hugely expensive, technically difficult and open to circumvention, one provider, TalkTalk, proposes to provide a ratings system in the new year, with an opt-in system including U, 14, 18 or unclassified ratings similar to those of the British Board of Film Classification. Although that is a responsible and welcome step which I commend, it is a voluntary system, again with the onus on parents to sign up. Surely it would be better for TalkTalk to offer a default U setting and then allow an opt-in to more advanced levels.

Nick Boles (Grantham and Stamford) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that this is simply a matter of consistency? We think it perfectly reasonable for Governments to pass laws that prevent young people from accessing damaging things such as cigarettes and alcohol, but pornography is just as damaging, if not worse, because damage to the mind can be permanent, whereas damage to the body can be temporary and recovered from. As a matter of consistency, therefore, Governments should act as she suggests.

Claire Perry: I thank my hon. Friend for making his usual deeply eloquent and relevant points. He is right. We have thrown up our hands, put the issue in the "too hard" basket-forgive the pun-and basically said that this is something Governments should not regulate. I believe it is.

The third objection to such proposals is that if we have age-verification software, children will just lie about their age and access the information anyway. The previous Government sensibly introduced workable age-verification restrictions on online gambling sites in 2005, however-an excellent model that works well and searches financial and electoral databases to verify that users are old
23 Nov 2010 : Column 239
enough to enter the site and engage in the gambling within. It is a workable model, the previous Government introduced it, and they are to be commended for doing so.

Britain has taken steps towards internet safety before. The industry acted independently and responsibly on child abuse imagery by setting up the Internet Watch Foundation, which finds sites displaying abuse that the industry then works to block. We have led the world in introducing that technology, and the people and organisations involved are to be strongly commended. It has been a huge success: the amount of child sex abuse content reported or found to be hosted in the UK has dropped from 18% to less than 1%; and 95% of our broadband services use that blocking technology. It can be done.

The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) is also to be commended for introducing the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, which brought in a ban on the possession of extreme pornographic material. That is highly commendable, but of course the content is there on the internet and available for viewing by us and our children with one or two clicks of a mouse.

All that progress has been made, but regulating internet access to inappropriate content continues to stump successive Governments and, in my view, the industry. I believe the time has come to stop ducking an issue of enormous concern to parents, teachers and carers throughout the country. We are often ridiculed for raising it, barraged with information on why the internet should be treated differently, bamboozled with the problem of international co-operation and told that it is our responsibility and no one else's to keep our children safe,

I beg to differ. It is time for Britain to take a lead on the matter and for the Government, with their commitment to family-friendly policies, to act. Without action, and with technological convergence, we will increasingly be able to access internet pornography and all internet content via television, raising the prospect of this damaging and degrading material, which is shocking enough when viewed as thumbnails or on an A4-sized computer screen, being piped into our homes and displayed in high-definition glory on 4-foot-wide television screens.

The arguments for passive acceptance and self-regulation are past their sell-by date, and it is time to regulate the provision of internet services in this country. We already successfully regulate British television channels, cinema screens, high street hoardings and newspaper shelves to stop our children seeing inappropriate images, and mobile phone companies have come together to restrict access to adult material, so why should the internet be any different?

British internet service providers should share the responsibility for keeping our children safe, and there should be an opt-in system that uses age verification for access to such material. I urge the Minister to engage with the internet service providers to set a timeline for those changes and, if they will not act, to move to regulate an industry that is doing so much damage to our children.

7.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport (Mr Edward Vaizey): May I say how grateful I am to my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) for raising this important
23 Nov 2010 : Column 240
subject and giving the House the opportunity to debate it? She put her case incredibly forcefully. We are used to saying that we are middle-aged when policemen start to look younger. Perhaps we can add a new phrase to the lexicon: when we start saying Mary Whitehouse was right, we might be approaching middle age. My hon. Friend's points were very well made, and chime very much with my thinking.

The subject of this debate has been misleadingly referred to as the regulation of access to pornography on the internet; what we are really talking about is ensuring that we can protect not only children from accessing unsuitable adult material, but adults from the extreme versions of pornography-to which, I am glad to say, my hon. Friend only alluded. As she said in her opening remarks, the internet is fast becoming the dominant medium not just in this country but all over the world. Moreover, as she noted at the end of her speech, when it converges with television it will become all pervasive. The struggle to deal with what one might loosely call internet regulation is something that we are having to come to grips with very rapidly as the internet advances so speedily.

I found out to my cost only last week, after making a speech on net neutrality, that anyone who ventures into the vexed subject of internet regulation, in the broadest sense, can set a number of hares running. There are many people who believe that the internet should not be regulated at all. This Government's position is that the internet should be lightly regulated, so that we benefit from many of the advances that have come about from a lightly regulated internet. Although we are focusing in this debate on the internet's negative aspects, it is important to remember that a lightly regulated internet has brought transformative companies to the web. As we learned from a piece of research published a couple of weeks ago, in just 15 to 20 years, internet commerce has come to represent something in the order of 9% to 10% of our economy.

This remains a very serious subject, which deserves very serious consideration. As with any area of life, it is vital that children and the vulnerable be protected. Where there is harm and safeguards are not heeded, we need effective sanctions to prosecute illegal acts.

Before addressing my hon. Friend's specific points, it might be helpful to set out the issue in the broader context of the Government's approach to the regulation of adult material in general. It is important to remember that we regulate adult material, regardless of the medium through which it is transmitted or published. The Government's policy is that controls on published material, including material published online, should strike a balance between freedom of expression and protection of the public. It should also be proportionate to the potential harm caused.

Clearly, there is material that should not be published at all. This is covered by the criminal law. All material published or broadcast in the UK is subject to the Obscene Publications Act 1959, under which it is a criminal offence to publish any article or image considered to be obscene. The Act also applies to the distribution of material on the internet or by mobile phone. It is important to note the general principle that an action that is illegal if committed offline is also illegal if committed online. Just because it is on the web does not make it all right. This applies both to the distribution of illegal material and to harmful behaviour.

23 Nov 2010 : Column 241

Claire Perry: I am grateful to the Minister for launching into what sounds as if it will be a full and reasoned argument, but is it not the case that there have been almost no successful prosecutions of British companies within our criminal jurisdiction domain-I am thinking particularly of the Perrin case, but also subsequent cases-and that it is almost impossible to apply international law to shut down what we know to be blatant breaches of the regulation governing "appropriate adult material"?

Mr Vaizey: I shall come to the point that the web is global, so there is an international aspect to these issues. On the specific question of whether there have been prosecutions, it is not necessarily the case that the number of prosecutions reveals the effectiveness of an Act. The existence of an Act might often be enough to keep people within the relevant boundaries. As my hon. Friend says, the internet is a global phenomenon and people can access content from other jurisdictions. I will address that point in a few moments. As she rightly points out, I am trying to build a reasoned argument.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Does the Minister agree that this is a worldwide phenomenon, not just a United Kingdom matter? It is often other countries in the world that originate those websites, and then they are broadcast in the UK. What steps does the hon. Gentleman envisage us taking with other countries, whether those be Brazil, Spain or elsewhere, to ensure that we do not allow access to such material in the UK?

Mr Vaizey: I am coming to self-regulation, which is what I understand my hon. Friend to be calling for on the part of our internet service providers, to prevent access to inappropriate content. It is obviously not for this country to change the obscenity or pornographic laws in other jurisdictions, but it is important to recognise that we are dealing with content from beyond our own jurisdiction. Let me press on. I shall make my argument before accepting further interventions, so that hon. Members will be in a position to see the argument in the round.

On 26 January last year, Parliament further strengthened controls in the UK by making unlawful extreme pornographic material, including pornographic material containing explicit sexual violence that is life-threatening or likely to result in serious injury or bestiality. The Government also increased the maximum penalty for offences under the Obscene Publications Act from three to five years' imprisonment. Under the Protection of Children Act 1978, as amended, the UK has an absolute prohibition on the taking, making, circulation and possession with a view to distribution of any indecent photograph of a child under 18. Such offences carry a maximum sentence of 10 years' imprisonment.

There is also a law against the distribution of indecent images of children. Section 160 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 makes the simple possession of indecent photographs of children an offence, and it carries a maximum sentence of five years' imprisonment. In this context I am delighted to be able to welcome the appointment of Peter Davies, the new chief executive of CEOP-the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre. I want to pay tribute to the work of his predecessor, Jim Gamble, as well as to the outstanding work of CEOP in tackling the sexual exploitation of children.

23 Nov 2010 : Column 242

My hon. Friend also referred to the work of the Internet Watch Foundation, which I am due to meet shortly to discuss self-regulation of the internet. As she pointed out, the IWF was set up in 1996 by UK ISPs to enable members of the public to report child abuse content in newsgroups or websites hosted anywhere in the world, as well as obscene content hosted in the UK. If that content is considered potentially illegal, the IWF passes the details to the UK police to start action against the originators, and will seek to get the material taken down at source or ask ISPs to deny access to the websites concerned.

I am very interested in the work of the Internet Watch Foundation, because I believe that it provides a model that is now well established and working effectively. The issue I particularly want to discuss with the IWF is whether its work, which has hitherto focused on child abuse content, can be widened to cover some of the other issues that my hon. Friend has raised this evening.

As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out, access to online pornography is not a problem for the UK alone. We have to recognise that the internet is a global network. This brings with it real challenges to the effective regulation of access to pornography. The overwhelming bulk of obscene material published on the internet originates abroad, sometimes in countries that do not share our approach to such material. It is simply the case, and has been for many years, that much pornographic material that it would be illegal to publish in the UK remains legal to publish in many other European countries, and even in the United States.

The UK ISPs take a responsible approach to the content that they host, both of their own volition and in co-operation with law enforcement and Government agencies. Where they are advised that content that they host in the UK contravenes UK legislation, they will readily remove it.

My hon. Friend talked about an age-verified opt-in procedure for internet access to pornography hosted in the UK. This is already the case, although my hon. Friend made her own forceful argument that it might not be effective enough. The managers of websites featuring mature content have a legal responsibility to indicate clearly on their front page that those sites are unsuitable for anybody under the age of 18. Additionally, when websites charge for access, they must place their adult content behind a credit card barrier, to reduce further the risk of children and young people accessing it. We will continue to consider how that protection might be made more effective.

Ms Louise Bagshawe (Corby) (Con): Is the Minister aware of the private Member's Bill proposed by the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies), which is designed to remove the anonymity of prepaid credit cards for purchases under £100, whereby such material can be anonymously purchased by under-age people-or by anybody else? That is important, because it is what drives the child pornography industry.

Mr Vaizey: That is a very interesting point, and I suspect that the consumer credit Minister is aware of it. I will certainly sit down with him and discuss whether there is a read-across into the issue we are discussing this evening.

23 Nov 2010 : Column 243

As I said earlier, a UK-based website was recently forced to take down its front page because it hosted adult content that was accessed by under-18s. That shows that there are some examples where this is working.

Claire Perry: I am sorry to be constantly interrupting the Minister, because I know that he has a great deal of material to get through, but I think that he is going down the dead end of focusing on content. As he said, much of the content is provided and hosted by websites that are outside the United Kingdom's jurisdiction. We all know that the age 18 verification is simply a figment, and that there is almost no way of enforcing it.

The Minister has cited one website, but there are more than a quarter of a billion websites in the world, of which more than 10% are pornographic. I firmly believe that the onus of responsibility lies with the six British companies that are piping 90% of the content into our homes to provide some sort of opt-in software, so that we need not chase the red herrings of random porn websites in jurisdictions over which we have no control.

Mr Vaizey: I hear what my hon. Friend says, and I will address it in a moment, but first I want to talk about the UK Council for Child Internet Safety. I do not think that this is a dead end, because UKCCIS does incredibly important work. It focuses on content, self-regulation and joined-up government. Although, as I have said, we have a legal framework, that framework alone will not keep our children safe online. Real, effective protection for children can be achieved through parents, charities, industry, law enforcement authorities and Government working together. That is why Professor Tanya Byron-to whom my hon. Friend referred-was asked to take charge of an independent review on child internet safety, which led directly to the launch of UKCCIS.

UKCCIS is chaired by Ministers from the Department for Education and the Home Office, and Ministers from other Departments, including mine, attend its meetings regularly. It brings together more than 170 organisations from across industry, including internet service providers, the third sector, law enforcement authorities and the devolved Administrations, so that they can take positive steps to help children to stay safe online.

I assure my hon. Friend that the Government are working with the internet industry, through UKCCIS, to create an online environment in which children are protected from potentially harmful or inappropriate content. We want our young people to develop the knowledge, skills and resilience that will enable them to avoid accessing such content, and, if they do come across it, to avoid it in future and report it to the appropriate authorities when it causes major concern. UKCCIS is also working to encourage parents to take responsibility for what their children see online. I hear what my hon. Friend says about the need for ISPs to block this content, but I think it important for parents to take responsibility, and to use the filters and parental controls that are available in current technology to prevent their children from accessing harmful material.

My hon. Friend pointed out that people access pornography not just through their computers, but through their mobile phones. That is another issue to which I am hugely sympathetic, and it has been raised with me in my capacity as a constituency Member of
23 Nov 2010 : Column 244
Parliament. As my hon. Friend said, all UK operators operate a parental control regime on mobile phones that should prevent access to over-18 sites. It is set as a default on all phones when they are purchased, and it is for the consumer to request its removal, subject to proof of age. Ofcom provides detailed information on parental controls and access to adult content on its website. However, that goes only some way to protecting young mobile users from harmful content. Unfortunately, it is not possible to tackle content that is shared via bluetooth, for example, on a phone-to-phone basis. That is why the work of organisations such as UKCCIS is so important

What causes me to have a huge amount of sympathy with what my hon. Friend has said is the fact that I do not subscribe to the view that internet service providers are simply dumb pipes. In opposition and now in government, I have waged something of a campaign to that effect. According to one school of thought, ISPs are there simply to channel the content to homes, and should not interfere with what goes down their pipes. It is often said that asking them to do so would be the equivalent of asking Royal Mail to open every envelope and parcel and have a look at the contents. In that context, the hon. Lady rightly identified a red herring in relation to both expense and the idea of regulation. I also believe that we should not over-regulate the internet, and that self-regulation should be the first stop before we consider Government regulation or legislation. However, I think it should be put on the record that ISPs can play a role, and, indeed, have played a very effective role in combating child abuse content online.

Matthew Hancock (West Suffolk) (Con): I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) on initiating such an important debate so early in the evening. I am glad that the Minister has enunciated the principle that ISPs are not merely a pipe through which information flows, but he has not taken the opportunity to point out that they could do more. Will he take that opportunity now?

Mr Vaizey: Now I understand why my hon. Friend is regarded as a rising star. I was about to say that ISPs could do more. My hon. Friend's anticipation of my next sentence was almost uncanny, especially as I am now speaking off the cuff rather than from a prepared text.

We have seen that ISPs can do very effective work in removing child abuse websites. We also know-and I mentioned this during my speech on net neutrality last week-that they can manage the traffic that crosses their network in order to give their consumers a good service. A couple of weeks ago, I held a round table with ISPs and rights holders from the music and film industries and from sport to discuss what measures we could take to provide more legal content as the Digital Economy Act 2010 comes down the line. It seems to me that, given that rights holders are fully aware of the websites that are distributing their content illegally, ISPs could do more in that regard. However, what I learned from the meeting was that it is important to arrange for people to sit around a table, discuss the issues, and seek ways in which we can work together to make the system operate effectively.

After that meeting, which was productive-I felt that in two hours we had made substantial progress-I made it absolutely clear that I would follow it up. It
23 Nov 2010 : Column 245
would not be a one-off meeting that we would forget about, perhaps returning to it in a year's time. I should like to offer the same opportunity to my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes, and perhaps to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) and other interested Members, as well as to charities and other organisations that are involved in the debate.

If we do have such a meeting, it must not interfere with, or cut across, the important work that UKCCIS is doing. However, I think it important for the side that is concerned about the issue-which consists of most of us, especially those of us who are parents-to sit around a table with ISPs, air their concerns, ask questions, and establish what further action they can take, and for the ISPs to respond. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes that if we have such a meeting, I will not leave it there. We will see what progress we make, and we will follow it up.

Claire Perry: It is uncanny how the Minister is anticipating my questions. I can see why he is a risen star.

I should welcome the opportunity to participate in such a round table, and I know that many other Members would as well, but does the Minister agree that it must not be simply more jaw, jaw? What we need is a time frame for improvement. I think that there is now almost universal acceptance that we have a huge problem. The fire is burning out of control, and we need to be specific. We need to say, "Clean up your house within a certain time, or we will come and clean it for you".

Mr Vaizey: The House will unite in describing me as a risen star. It would probably be accurate to say that I have risen as far as I am going to rise.

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that it should not be just jaw, jaw. I do not want to set any hares running, which is what I seem to do every time I talk about anything to do with the internet, but I think that the meeting with the rights holders and internet service providers was productive both because it was probably the first time they had sat around a table with an honest broker-me, representing the Government-sitting between them, and because we have the Digital Economy Act 2010 on the statute book, controversial though it is. If anyone ever wants to start a Twitter storm, they should write something about net neutrality or the Digital Economy Act. Especially if they write that they are in favour of that Act, they will then see what comes.

It is important that we impress upon ISPs that we take this issue very seriously. Trite though it may sound, it is also important for people to know that sitting around a table and exchanging views can be an effective means of getting across both the views of the ISPs and the huge concern expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes on behalf of her constituents and the country at large. She has made this an important issue and raised it in Parliament. It is perfectly legitimate for the ISPs to raise issues such as costs and regulation because although, as my hon. Friend pointed out, they
23 Nov 2010 : Column 246
make £3 billion in profit, it is important also to remember that we, as users of the internet, rely on them to make those profits so that they can invest in the broadband infrastructure and we can have the best superfast broadband in 2015.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con): The debate is concentrating on the issue that matters most, which is extreme pornography. We are not concerned about nudity or ordinary sex. Most of us have a naked body, and very few of us inherited celibacy from our parents. The Minister mentioned the Royal Mail. Sending pornography through the mail is illegal. Can the Minister say whether the six ISPs who are currently providing the channels in question are the organisations who came to his meeting, and if they were not, will he have them in as well please?

Mr Vaizey: We had four of the main internet service providers, I think. I do not want to get too carried away and go to the other extreme. The ISPs in the UK do act to take down illegal content where it is pointed out to them, and they do hugely important work in taking down child abuse images. With the greatest of respect to my hon. Friend, who has inadvertently signed an early-day motion put forward by a Labour MP calling for an open internet-a slight distortion of my speech on net neutrality-we are, to a certain extent, talking about ordinary sex. We are talking about preventing children from having access to inappropriate content, and how we can work with ISPs to make it that little bit more difficult for them to do so.

My free-wheeling conclusion to this speech has probably not been helpful, so it might be helpful if I pull together a coherent final few remarks. We believe in an open lightly regulated internet. The internet is, by and large, a force for good. It is central to our lives and our economy, and a Government have to be wary about regulating or passing legislation. Nevertheless, the advent of the internet has brought a number of problems. One of them is the proliferation of images of child abuse, which I believe is being dealt with extremely effectively through the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre and UKCCIS, with the co-operation of ISPs. ISPs remain under an obligation to take down illegal pornographic content, which can extend beyond child abuse images, but there remain, from my position as a Minister, two issues. One of them is access to illegal content in terms of music, film and the creative industries, on which I am working with ISPs and rights holders. I take the second issue very seriously as a constituency MP alone: how we can work harder to ensure that it is more difficult for our children to come across inappropriate adult content? I firmly believe we can make progress, in co-operation with the ISPs, and that we can proceed on the basis of self-regulation. As I have said, I think it is important that we meet and sit around a table to exchange views, and I look forward to brokering such a meeting with my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes and a number of organisations she deems to be appropriate.

Question put and agreed to.

8.14 pm

House adjourned.

    Index Home Page