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22 Jan 2008 : Column 1357

Point of Order

3.32 pm

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I recently attended a meeting with a Minister in the Department for Transport on the proposed upgrade of the A120 in my constituency. The departmental minutes of that meeting were subsequently leaked before I had seen or corrected them. Unfortunately, as the Minister is aware, they misrepresented the position that I have always taken on the issue: to oppose the preferred southern route. Indeed, the minutes implied that locally there was a broad consensus in support of the route, although the opposite is true.

Can you, Mr. Speaker, advise me on how I can hold the Department to account for that misrepresentation, given that my views on the scheme, and those of local people likely to be affected by it, have been a matter of parliamentary record since I raised them in an Adjournment debate on 20 January 2006?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The hon. Gentleman has raised an entirely legitimate concern. He has not been well served by the internal processes at the Department for Transport and at the Highways Agency. As the Minister to whom the agency is accountable, I offer him a full apology. I accept full responsibility for what has happened. I assure him that the record to which he has referred will be corrected as a matter of urgency.

Mr. Speaker: The Minister has been kind enough to clarify the matter. I hope that all future meetings between hon. Members and Ministers will be kept confidential; only with the consent of both parties should anything about such meetings be made public].


Football Spectators and Sports Grounds

Mr. Russell Brown, supported by Alan Keen, John McFall, Mr. John Leech, Bob Russell, Joan Walley, Mr. Iain Duncan Smith, Mr. John Greenway, Christine Russell and Jim Sheridan, presented a Bill to amend the law relating to football banning orders and their enforcement; to confer further powers on the Football Licensing Authority and to amend its name; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 22 February, and to be printed. [Bill 59].

Climate Change (Sectoral Targets)

Colin Challen, supported by Mr. Tim Yeo, Mr. Michael Meacher, Andrew Stunell, Joan Walley, Peter Bottomley, David Howarth, John Battle, Paddy Tipping, Chris Huhne, Dr. Desmond Turner and Dr. Doug Naysmith, presented a Bill to set sectoral targets relating to energy generation and consumption; to make provision for the sectoral targets to be met; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 22 February, and to be printed. [Bill 62].

22 Jan 2008 : Column 1358

Online Purchasing of Goods and Services (Age Verification)

3.35 pm

Margaret Moran (Luton, South) (Lab): I beg to move,

In simple terms, my Bill would require online retailers and those who facilitate the sale of goods and services online to abide by the laws of the land in respect of age-restricted goods and services.

In days of old, when knights were bold and I was young, and the internet had not been invented, retailers had a comparatively easy job when it came to the sale of age-restricted goods and services such as alcohol, tobacco, gambling, solvents and so on. If there was any doubt about a person’s age, they could ask for identification and, if necessary, decline to sell the goods or services. The consequences of getting it wrong could be dire. A bookie or a landlord could be fined, lose their licence or worse; a cinema or nightclub could be closed down.

The growth of the internet and e-commerce, however, has meant that the same goods and services can now be bought online, and we are increasingly a nation of online buyers. With that has come a loophole that urgently needs to be addressed—namely, that there are most often no checks online, thus enabling children to buy age-restricted goods. This is at a time when we are all rightly concerned about the increasing availability of knives and alcohol to under-age youngsters. The Bill would require online retailers and those who facilitate such purchases—for instance, via pre-payment cards—to take positive steps to ensure age compliance. We cannot have a wild west scenario whereby anything is sold to anyone and no one takes responsibility. Children can now get hold of some very disturbing items—things that they would never be able to buy if they walked into a shop. That has to stop.

It is clear that very few online retailers have procedures or software in place to prevent the sale of age-restricted goods to children. Sadly, self-regulation is not working. I believe that online retailers caught selling alcohol, knives or pornography to under-age children should face a hefty fine or even imprisonment if they fail to put in place procedures to check the age of their customers. No one is seeking to hold back the tide of e-commerce, even if we could, or to place more onerous requirements on online retailers, or to prevent people from using pre-payment cards, but an increasing number of cases have exposed the ease with which children under 18 can buy alcohol, watch pornographic films, or worse.

Only a small number of goods and services are subject to any kind of age restriction, but they are in sensitive areas where society and the law have said some limits need to be applied. They are there for a reason, but there is a real risk that the internet could make them redundant. Many online retailers simply ask customers to confirm their age by ticking a box and take no other measures to verify whether the person
22 Jan 2008 : Column 1359
meets the age criteria. “Of course”, cry the online retailers, “retailing on the internet relies on systems that are very highly automated and work at very high speeds with little direct human intervention.” They are right to say that the life of the vendor is so much harder online nowadays because banks routinely provide legal minors, in some cases children as young as 11, with the sort of plastic cards—for example, Solo or Visa Electron cards—that can be used to make payments on the internet and are widely accepted on every kind of website. Many members of the public associate the logos of these cards with credit cards, and everybody thinks that credit cards are available only to legal adults, not least because contracts cannot be enforced against legal minors, other than for “necessities”, which very few online sales are.

These brands are becoming associated with a range of other financial products, particularly pre-paid, or stored value cards, which can be bought as gifts and given to people of any age, or even bought over the counter for cash. One company in particular sells cards that use these logos and it advertises them as being available for use by persons of any age. The cards are accepted anywhere the logos appear, which includes millions of websites. I understand that the financial services industry sees the development of these stored value cards as a major new market that will grow exponentially over the next few years. However, such cards can allow children to get to places on the internet or buy goods and services online that they would never be able to access in real life.

We all know that children like to push the boundaries and, indeed, one online company survey found that of 300 18 to 30-year-olds, 57 per cent. admitted lying about their age to gain access to, or buy, age-restricted goods before their 18th birthday. Nobody compels anyone to sell age-restricted goods or services over the internet; they choose to do so. Therefore, unless companies can be sure they are selling goods legally, they should stop selling them online altogether.

The evidence that children are obtaining age-restricted goods and services online is becoming compelling. For example, last summer The People newspaper worked with a 14-year-old called Zach. He got a pre-paid card at a local store; he paid cash and walked out the door with it. The card retailers say that their cards can be sold only to people over the age of 18, but Zach had no trouble getting his—there was no check whatsoever—and since there is no law that says it is illegal to sell the cards to persons under the age of 18, one is bound to wonder how carefully many retailers monitor it. Using the card, Zach was able to order XXX porn videos from Amazon, and knives from
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Tesco that were delivered to his home where he signed for them personally. Oddbins delivered some Vodka to his house, and apparently William Hill let him bet £10 on a football match. Some other children in Glasgow were also able to get alcohol delivered to their door, to join online bingo sites and to get X-rated horror movies sent to them.

Asking people simply to tick a box to confirm that they are a certain age is not acceptable in the internet age. The Gambling Act 2006, which came into force last September, specifically requires online gambling companies to implement an age verification service that is in no way dependent on the method of payment being used. In relation to gambling, the House has said it is not acceptable simply to ask people to confirm their age. We require companies to verify that their customers are over 18, for themselves, separately. We did that specifically and solely to protect children.

There are technological solutions, and companies are providing online age and ID check solutions in order to screen minors One who contacted me is currently working with online gaming vendors. It says that it supports the introduction of an age verification mandate to online retailers selling age-restricted goods, and adds that

What is illegal in the real world is illegal in the virtual world. The evidence is clear that the laws restricting access to a limited number of goods and services on the basis of age are being circumvented online. That is a risk to our children and the community as a whole. The Bill would enable us to get rid of this loophole and provide the protection to our children that we intended to be there for them.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Margaret Moran, Ms Sally Keeble, Kali Mountford, Judy Mallaber, Barbara Keeley, Fiona Mactaggart, Ian Stewart, Martin Salter, Lynda Waltho and Linda Gilroy.

Online purchasing of goods and services (age verification)

Margaret Moran accordingly presented a Bill to make it a requirement for the providers of goods and services and the providers of specified facilities enabling the purchase of such goods and services to take reasonable steps, in certain circumstances, to establish the age of customers making such purchases remotely; and for connected purposes. And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 16 May, and to be printed [Bill 57].

22 Jan 2008 : Column 1361

Orders of the Day

Energy Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

3.45 pm

The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. John Hutton): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I believe that the Energy Bill, with the measures on planning and climate change, has an important role to play in implementing our strategy for tackling climate change and ensuring secure energy supplies. We are all aware of the scale of the energy challenges that the UK and other countries face.

First, we need to take decisive and effective action to tackle climate change. The Climate Change Bill will establish legally binding targets for cutting UK emissions.

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way so early in his speech. On decisive action, will he confirm that there have been at least 22 Green Papers, five White Papers and more than 100 consultations on individual energy issues since 1997?

Mr. Hutton: I am not sure what point the hon. Gentleman is trying to make. I do not regard his comments as criticism of the Government—in a modern democracy, it is good to consult. Consultation has strengthened, not undermined, the Government’s energy policies. It is not true that the Government have been inactive in introducing policies to tackle climate change and deal with the problems of energy security.

The hon. Gentleman said that he had interrupted my speech—I do not think that, technically, I had started to make it. Let me carry on from where I had reached—a little after the second line.

Changing the way in which we produce and use energy will have an important role to play in meeting targets that we have set ourselves. We must ensure that we have the widest possible range of cleaner, low-carbon energy sources and technologies. The Bill will help with that.

Secondly, we must maintain the security of our energy supplies as the UK makes the transition from being a net exporter to a net importer of energy. The transition requires new forms of energy infrastructure in the UK. For example, the UK requires more gas storage by 2020. We need to increase our gas import capacity by between 15 and 30 per cent. and we must ensure that we support investment in such important infrastructure projects. Again, the Bill will make a positive contribution.

Thirdly, beyond import and storage infrastructure, the UK needs investment in new generating capacity of between 30 GW to 35 GW in the next 12 years or so. We must create the right environment to encourage investment, which will not only maintain the UK’s diverse energy mix, but—most important—make it increasingly low carbon. Again, the Bill tackles those concerns. A key part of delivering the new investment is giving the private sector confidence in our planning
22 Jan 2008 : Column 1362
system. That is why we have introduced the Planning Bill, which will deliver a timelier and more efficient decision-making process for consenting to large-scale energy projects.

The policies that we introduce now will determine over the long term the investment decisions that the energy markets make and the new technologies that they develop. They will also enable our successful transition to a truly low-carbon economy, while helping to ensure continued energy security. There is no single answer to the multi-faceted problems that we face. No single technology is capable of solving all our problems. However, the solutions to the challenges go hand in hand with each other.

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. It is not like me to interrupt him so early in his speech, but will he explain to the people of this country exactly why we need a balanced energy mix, as he has just outlined?

Mr. Hutton: Yes, I intend to make that point, which my hon. Friend is anxious for me to make, in a few moments. However, may I now thank him personally for the support that he has given Ministers as we have set about finding some of the answers to the highly complicated questions that we face?

It is for all the reasons that I have set out that the Energy Bill incorporates wide-ranging but complementary measures for cutting carbon emissions and improving security of supply. It will therefore help us to meet the energy challenges that we face.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. He may know that an application for a wind farm in my constituency has just been turned down on appeal, to great local rejoicing. Now that the Government have finally found the courage to restart the civil nuclear programme, will he abandon the pretence that inefficient, expensive and ugly wind farms are any part of the solution in what is, after all, supposed to be an environmental policy?

Mr. Hutton: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making that intervention. I have a strong feeling, however, that his comments would have been better addressed to his Front Benchers than to ours. I strongly believe that we need a balanced energy policy, which will include onshore and offshore wind as an essential component of dealing with the challenge of climate change and energy security. I am afraid that I will not jump on the bandwagon that the right hon. Gentleman has laid before me—

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Hutton: I will, Henry— [ Laughter. ] I meant Hooray Henry, of course.

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