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13 Nov 2008 : Column 353WH—continued

We are drowning in a sea of data, but I suspect that the comprehension, understanding and simple wisdom which transcends the ages are no greater but are, as that great poet observed, being lost.

Thirdly, I hope that we will not hear anything about how desirable it is that people are made aware of what is explicit, that somehow that will protect them, and that their knowledge and exposure to such things will allow them to make choices to avoid them. Generally speaking, that which is implicit is preferable.

With those few thoughts, and mindful of the greater wisdom of the shadow Minister and the Minister, I draw my remarks to a conclusion and look forward to hearing from them.

3.44 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I apologise to you, Mr. Bercow, and to the House for being late for the opening speech by the Chairman of the Culture, Media
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and Sport Committee, the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), but in the few moments that I heard him I listened carefully to what he had to say. I commend him and the other members of the Select Committee who have spoken today for an excellent report. It deals with an important subject that needed and merited an investigation, and I am delighted that the Committee was able to investigate it.

The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) does not have to apologise for not being an expert. He is an expert, because he is a parent. He is rightly concerned about the effects, harmful or otherwise, of video games on his children. The issue began as an elitist one—not many Members of the House were concerned about it—but, with the spread of video games, more and more people are voicing worries.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. I am sure that if you were not in the Chair you would be participating in the debate. Perhaps that is why you were asked to chair the proceedings.

The Minister has moved to her new responsibilities, and I congratulate her. I met her 26 years ago, when I was the prospective candidate for Surrey West in the European elections. She was then a young girl, of course, but she was my press officer. Every week, she put out press releases on my behalf. I lost the election by 50,000 votes, but she was very enthusiastic, and it was no surprise to me when my first ever press officer ended up as a Minister. She does a terrific job, and I am sure that we will hear further from her.

I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) is a prince among shadow Ministers, as the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings said. I will be interested to hear what he has to say, because I spotted him in Portcullis House having a cup of coffee with representatives of the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association. Let us hear what he has to say when he responds to the debate.

I first became involved in this issue when the son of one of my constituents, Stefan Pakeerah, was murdered in Leicester. The murder mirrored scenes in a video game called “Manhunt”. Warren LeBlanc was sent to prison, and Stefan Pakeerah is dead. Stefan’s mother started a campaign about the harmful effects of video games and got me involved in it. I pay tribute to her for all the work that she has done.

As soon as I took up the issue, I became the subject of much internet abuse from those who felt that there should be absolute freedom in dealing with video games. I am not sure whether I got a website dedicated to opposing me, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson) did. I am fascinated to know who her WeeMee is.

Janet Anderson: It was not my WeeMee.

Keith Vaz: No, it was not my hon. Friend’s WeeMee.

I was once voted the third most unpopular person in the world, after Hillary Clinton and Arnold Schwarzenegger, by the readers of one of the video game magazines. I suppose that I should take that as a compliment, but it points to the almost hysterical approach that the video games industry and the newspapers that support it sometimes take to anyone who manages to raise such matters in the House.

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What we need first of all from the industry is responsibility and partnership. We are all on the same side. We are saying clearly that for someone who is over 18, there should be no censorship or attempt to stop them seeing or doing whatever they want as far as video games are concerned. My interest has always been to protect those who are under 18. Some are our children, of course, but it goes beyond protecting our own children. That is my only concern—not to stop adults buying games but to ensure that harmful games do not fall into the hands of young people and children.

There are three ways in which that could be done. The first is to ensure that there is a clear statement of the age limit on the video game itself. Unfortunately, it is still far too small. When we first started this campaign some years ago, it was the size of a 1p piece, and now it is the size of a 50p piece; but I saw and still see no reason why an indication that something has an 18 certificate and is unsuitable for children and young people under 18 should not be splashed across an 18-plus video game, as it is on other material with adult content.

One problem in dealing with the Government on this issue is that so many Departments have a vested interest in protecting their own territory. The DCMS wants to protect the industry, because, as the hon. Member for Wantage reminds us, it is a multi-million pound—perhaps multi-billion pound—industry based in London. The fear is that if we get any tougher on the industry, it will go off and start operating from Frankfurt, so we have an interest in making sure that the industry stays here, and we should be careful what we do about controlling the content of video games.

I say to the Minister—I know it is not her responsibility but the Attorney-General’s—let us ensure that retailers that sell these games to under-18s are prosecuted. I would be interested to know from the Minister how many prosecutions there have been of retailers who have sold—[Interruption.] She is looking around, but I do not think the answer will come. This is one of the problems with how the Attorney-General’s office operates: it simply does not give us these figures, and we would like to know. I am not sure whether the Committee considered that point, but prosecuting those who sell adult video games to under-18s is important.

The retailers have a responsibility. Sir Trevor McDonald, on his television programme a few years ago, sent some people aged under 18 to try to buy video games from some of the big supermarkets. They returned with the video games in their hands, which was proof that the retailers were not taking responsibility.

The distinguished Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee said that he did not think that there was sufficient evidence to show a link between the content of video games and subsequent actions by people as a result of watching them. We now have research on that from the university of Iowa, and previously there was research from the university of Missouri. One thing that the Minister can do is ensure that she commissions more research, although not necessarily from those who have a view one way or the other—it should be independent research. I hope that that will be done, because that is a good way to take the Select Committee report further. If it could be done, it would be of great importance.

As the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings says, games are interactive. The industry says to us, “But sometimes young people go in to see an
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18-plus film by mistake, or an 11-year-old or a 10-year-old is taken into a 12A.” The new Batman film, “The Dark Knight”, although it had a 12A certificate, was really a 15, so that happens. My point, however, is that games are interactive—one is expected to do something as a result of seeing the violence on the screen. It is not the same as going to watch something at the cinema.

I remind hon. Members that, when I mentioned the Pakeerah case, the industry representatives said to me that the judge and the police made it clear that they did not think that “Manhunt” and the actions in that game had an impact on Warren Leblanc. They said that, yes, the video was in his house, but they did not think it had any effect. However, just last week, on 7 November, to quote The Sun,

Even the prosecutor in that case, Eleanor Laws, said:

In “Grand Theft Auto IV”, the player assumes the identity of a criminal carrying out operations for his mobster bosses. To move up the food chain, characters drive around carrying out increasingly brutal missions, typically robbing banks, drug dealing or gunning down members of rival gangs. Violence is central to all the tasks and, when not busy on a mission, players are free to roam the streets to strike at people in a sadistic way. That is fine if players are over 18—well, it is not fine, but I can understand why those over 18 may want to buy and play such a game—but I am concerned about the effect of such games on young people if they fall into their hands. That is why I urge the Minister to accept what is in the report, but take it further, because it is not the end of the matter.

I was impressed by Tanya Byron. She met Mrs. Pakeerah in my office as part of her review and was all the things that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) said of her. Her report was excellent and was clearly conducted by someone who knows what she is talking about. She made some specific points about children, which need to be addressed.

I welcome the report and I congratulate the Chairman of the Committee and its members. Their report will be a useful tool in our future discussions. Whether we support or do not support what is going on, it will be useful for us to be able to read the report. I thank the Committee for its hard work.

3.56 pm

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Although I am not a member of the Committee and I played no part in its compilation of the report, I am grateful for the opportunity to raise some of the issues that have been directly affecting my constituents and that, perhaps, reflect some of its recommendations.

I first became aware of many of the issues when the deaths were taking place in Bridgend and media coverage suggested that an internet-based death cult was operating and influencing some of the young people in my
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constituency. I examined that claim and found no basis in fact for an internet death cult in operation, but that took me along a line of exploration that has had myriad repercussions for me. It took me to the so-called suicide recipe sites, which do more than give people advice on how to take their life. Some of those sites are so truly pernicious and evil that they actively seek to persuade those who enter them to take their own life.

I have been working with the Ministry of Justice on how we can use the review of the Suicide Act 1961 to look at drawing the activities of such sites into the classification of assisting a suicide. I have also been seeking meetings with the internet service providers to persuade them to actively bury such sites, so that they are made more difficult to access, and that, as an alternative, where people are looking for information in relation to suicide, the ISPs promote information, advice and guidance to help people who are potentially suicidal to access supportive information and supportive sites. I commend those ISPs that are taking those steps, although not all are.

The internet can be used successfully. An Australian website called, which is now looking to expand into Ireland and the United States—I hope that it would be looked at positively here in the United Kingdom—cut the number of young people’s deaths, because young people had a website they could go to for confidential information, where they could test whether they needed help and support in respect of their feelings and confusion—relating to self-harm, for example—and which could help them find out where to go for such support. Positive information can be accessed on websites and it is imperative that we direct vulnerable people to them. I have found the Samaritans and YoungMinds sites to be particularly helpful.

That led me to look at social networking sites. Many of the youngsters in Bridgend who died had been using such sites. I have been impressed at how often the front pages of such sites immediately provide hyperlinks to supportive information, and we must work with those sites to promote that more proactively. Areas that we have not looked at but need to look at include advice to young people on the risks of providing not just information that may allow them to be targeted by people who may want to gain access to them and to hurt them, but photographs and comments that may be utilised elsewhere. I hope to reveal some details later.

A great deal of distress was caused to many of the families in my constituency by the print media and their websites, which took some of the comments and photographs from social networking sites and used them in multiple press reports. In fairness to our print media and thanks to the work of the Press Complaints Commission and its willingness to collaborate and to work with me and families, it was possible to issue desist notices, and such photographs are no longer constantly used whenever there is a story. However, it is not possible to issue similar desist notices for online use of such photographs.

That led me to issue two internet safety leaflets: one for parents and one for youngsters. I had a lot of help from Dr. Tanya Byron when putting them together. She agreed to look at them and to check the content to ensure that they complied with her recommendations.
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They are on my website if hon. Members want to use them in their constituencies. I took them into all my primary schools.

Mr. Whittingdale: The hon. Lady raises an interesting point. I have debated the matter with the PCC, and I understand that if a photograph is put on a social networking site and access is then restricted to a small number of friends, it is regarded as a private photograph which should not be published. The problems arises when there is no privacy restriction, so the photograph is available to anyone. Then, the press say, understandably, that they should be entitled to print it.

Mrs. Moon: The Chairman of the Select Committee is absolutely right. That is a problem, but the big problem is that most young people do not understand the different tiers of access, and they are generally making their pages open. It was interesting that when I went into my schools and talked to the youngsters, I found they had no understanding of that at all. For example, they did not understand that some of the photographs that were taken from social networking sites of some of the youngsters in my constituency had never been seen by their parents—the first time they saw those images of their children was in a newspaper. The parents had no idea of the comments written on social networking sites. They saw them for the first time in the national press, sometimes when they or a family member had gone into a newsagent to buy something and saw a photograph of the youngster in the public realm—an image they had not seen before. That caused huge distress.

I asked the youngsters and their parents to give me feedback on whether they found the leaflet helpful. Again, many of the comments I received are on my website. It was fascinating that when I went into every class in every primary school and asked the children how many of them had access to the internet, 100 per cent. of hands went up. When I asked how many of them had social networking pages, 100 per cent. of hands went up. When I asked how many of them helped their parents to understand the internet and to do things such as programme the recording of television programmes, 100 per cent. of hands went up.

Mr. Whittingdale: The hon. Lady raises another interesting point, which I discovered to my cost. She describes her experience in a primary school, but all social networking sites state in their terms and conditions that users should be 13. That is simply ignored by the vast majority of young people.

Mrs. Moon: Indeed they are, because youngsters lie about their ages. The problem is how to prove their age. They are so savvy—far more so than we are.

I am not the mother of a young child; I have a 24-year-old son who is extremely savvy about the internet. However, I remember when, many years ago, he was in a chat room and was talking to what he thought was a young girl. When I saw him drawing a map of the inside of our home, showing where the doors and windows were, and what equipment was in the house, I asked him what he was doing, and he said, “Well she sent me a description of her house.” I then asked him how he knew that she was not a burglar seeking access to our
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house and finding out where the easy pickings were. He had not thought of that. Sometimes, as parents, we must put nasty thoughts into our children’s minds about how to keep safe on the streets. We all talk about stranger danger and about people approaching our youngsters in the street, but we must now teach them about internet stranger danger as well.

My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mrs. James) came to me about accessing someone on Facebook whom she could talk to. One of her constituents had come to her following the death of her baby. She had gone on to Facebook looking for a support group, which the social networking sites are excellent at providing. She was extremely distressed when she came across a group on dead babies, which had posted comments such as, “Dead babies make me laugh” and, “I like licking chocolate off dead babies.” Despite a complaint being made, that group still exists.

In our discussions, the PCC agreed to look at the management of online newspaper sites, where there is little regulation. I had a meeting with some of the editors of The Sun to express the families’ distress at its online site, which enabled people to click for a video show of the faces of all the young people who had died in my constituency. When I pointed out the bad taste of that, it was quickly taken down, and I commend The Sun on that action. Often different people work in the newsrooms and on the online site. That is a matter we need to consider.

More recently, I was introduced to YouTube. I was absolutely horrified by what I found there. It was brought to my attention by an e-mail from a relative of one of the youngsters who died in my constituency that a number of videos had been posted on YouTube that highlighted the deaths of young people in Bridgend. I looked at some of those videos, and I have to say that I wonder what goes through the minds of some people. Despite the fact that my constituent had tried to contact YouTube several times, she could not get the material removed. I have had one of the sites taken down—in fairness to YouTube it did take it down—but others are still there. The one that is particularly distressing to the relative I have been contacted by is still there.

Briefly, I would like to read some of the comments posted by people on the site. One of the comments suggested that the deaths in Bridgend were okay because the people were all Welsh. It was all right for Welsh people to die—in fact, the world was a better place for the death of these Welsh people. That comment has now been taken down. I will censor the comments from the site because no decent person writes such things and uses some of the language used. The person who posted the video referred to the sister of one of the young men who died as a retard and went on to state:

Further comments state that it is

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