Maggie Jones on Labour’s plans to protect children from internet driven sexual abuse
The internet is transforming the way we learn, interact and organise our lives. It provides enormous benefits to young people – giving them access to ideas and information on a global scale. It is an essential part of their lives.
But the internet also presents new threats and dangers to children who can freely roam across content intended for an adult world, without the skills and experience to make sense of it. This is why the Digital Economy Bill currently being debated in the Lords contains specific proposals to stop children under 18 accessing pornographic sites. It is a principle which has received wide support on a cross-party basis.
The evidence underpinning the need to act is compelling. Recent research by the NSPCC has shown that 53% of 11 to 16 year olds have viewed pornography online and there is growing evidence that primary school children are also accessing these sites. Over half of the boys who have accessed pornography feel that it is a realistic depiction of sex. And research by the IPPR shows that girls are now feeling pressurised to copy the images they have seen.
Sadly, as a result of this trend, children are failing to develop strong and respectful relationships. The recent report of the Women and Equalities Committee highlighted growing levels of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools. It found that abuse of girls had become an accepted part of everyday life in the classroom and playground; and more seriously, the number of sexual offences reported to the police has risen to 5,500, with over 1500 of these relating to under 13s.
So, Labour believes it is right to act now. Crucially, we have put an amendment to this Bill to improve sex and relationship education in schools. It is an outrage that the government has been dragging their feet on the issue for so long. In fact, when a similar amendment was debated in the Commons, the Minister Matt Hancock argued that it wasn’t necessary as e-safety was covered in the computing curriculum – rather missing the point.
The Bill however, also introduces a new concept of age verification filters on pornographic sites, requiring users to prove they were 18 or over. We support this initiative, provided the appropriate checks and balances are in place. On plans meanwhile, to introduce the concept of an age verification regulator, we have tabled amendments calling on the Secretary of State to consult more widely on the functions of the regulator or regulators; and to make recommendations to Parliament about who might be suitable to carry out this role.
The regulator also has extensive powers to fine those pornographic sites that do not install age filters and ultimately to instruct Internet Service Providers to block access. Again, we are keen to ensure these powers are carried out proportionately – with proper appeals processes.
Finally, we want to ensure that adults who want to access online pornography legitimately have their anonymity and privacy protected. We have therefore tabled amendments setting out the data protection and confidentiality measures that must be taken by those providing the age verification checks.
Ultimately, it is important that this section of the Bill stays focussed on its core aim of stopping commercial pornographic sites making their material available to under 18s. There are those who would also like to use this Bill to redefine what is and is not legal pornography. But we do not believe it is the right vehicle for that debate and any such moves should be subject to much wider public engagement and consensus.
Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is a member of Labour’s frontbench team in the House of Lords. She tweets @WhitchurchGirl
Published 31st January 2017