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13 Nov 2008 : Column 359WH—continued


As hon. Members can imagine, I have had to keep to just some of the repeatable comments posted alongside these videos.

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Mr. Hayes: The important thing about what the hon. Lady has just said is not that the people who read those comments would themselves feel those sentiments and share those ideas, but that they would be affected by them. When some are brutal, we are all brutalised. It is important that we understand the ripple effect of such malevolence on the whole of our society. I restrict myself to “Strictly Come Dancing” on a Saturday and avoid all exposure to such things. I feel better for that and want all my children to be like that too.

Mrs. Moon: I completely share the hon. Gentleman’s views. Sometimes, one gets too old for the changing values of society, and I am afraid to say that I think I am at that point.

Many of these videos have been made by reusing the photographs lifted from the social networking sites, interspersed with pictures of people hanging themselves and executions in Iran. Oddly enough, they have also been interspersed with pleasant pictures. The most alarming aspect is what that tells us about the use of people’s images and the lack of a family’s capacity to control the use of photographs of their dead family members. The Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), referred to cyberbullying. I consider this to be cyberbullying. I consider those comments to constitute cyberbullying and I also consider the refusal to take down images that cause huge distress to families and their friends to be cyberbullying.

This week, I was sent an online game to look at. The online game is called Billy Suicide. Players of the game are encouraged to stop Billy shooting himself in the head. They are encouraged to keep Billy active—to move him around the room or get him to play his guitar—and to monitor his depression, get him a cup of coffee and do things to stop him taking his life. When people playing the game do not do that, he shoots himself in the head. Someone has said to me, “Well, it’s just the same as the tamagotchi games.” In those games, if someone does not look after their pet, it gets fleas and dies.

What sort of society do we want? What sort of society are we promulgating? I would welcome the censorship of that online game. We must set limits and boundaries when we bring up our children. As a society, we set limits and boundaries on individual behaviour. We must start setting limits and boundaries in the online world and in cyberspace. If we do not, we will give our youngsters access to information and standards that, in fact, destroy the limits and values we set in the real world. As we know, sometimes our young people spend more time interacting in the online, unreal world than they do in the real world.

I am worried about the role that these sites play in relation to social contagion, which is where access to information about suicide—the normalisation of suicide and its social acceptability—makes it more likely that others will seek to take their own lives. We must take responsibility for the distress to the families and friends I have mentioned. We must also take responsibility for prolonging the grief of those families and friends, because that adds to the risk that a member of that family will take their own life.

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The Press Complaints Commission is making progress on the matter, but I agree that an industry body is needed. It is imperative that we have an 0800 number that someone can ring to get a site taken down quickly. That is something I hope will come out of Lord Carter’s review. My constituent had been trying to get a site taken down for two months before she came to me—two months with no action. We cannot allow such behaviour to continue. It is too complex to track down the person in these agencies who will allow change to happen. The public need to be able to send through their comments quickly.

I have highlighted the impact of the industry on just one small community in one small area. That impact has been devastating and has blighted the lives of many people. I am so grateful that the Committee has taken the opportunity to make these recommendations, and I hope that steps will be taken across Government to improve a totally unacceptable unregulated state of affairs.

4.19 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Bercow. I congratulate the Culture, Media and Sport Committee on an excellent report. I particularly commend the work of the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale)—the distinguished Chairman of the Committee, as he was described by the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), who is the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. I also praise the Government, because they have given a thoughtful response to the CMS Committee’s report and recommendations.

My only quibble was with the Committee’s brief. I would have liked the Committee to include in its deliberations internet gambling. As we have heard, there are concerns about age verification in respect of the use of social networking sites. There are also concerns about the way in which young people can access gambling sites on the internet. I understand from the Chairman of the Committee that that issue might be considered in the future.

Everyone present will be well aware that there are 1.4 billion internet users worldwide. That number is growing rapidly, and the uses to which the internet can be put are increasing rapidly, particularly as broadband speeds increase. In this country, research as far back as 2007 showed that, at that time, 99 per cent. of children were accessing the internet and that 96 per cent. of children had access to a mobile phone by the age of 11. One third of those were using mobile internet access. This is a real issue for young people, so I welcome the fact that we have not only the excellent report by Dr. Tanya Byron and the action plan that followed it, but this very helpful report from the Committee.

Dr. Byron asked that we

I agree with her. I accept what the Chairman of the Committee said about the importance of helping children to manage risks. To suggest that they will not access the
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internet would be ludicrous—they are doing so. We have to help them to manage the risks.

I feel slightly disadvantaged in this debate. Your children have been referred to, Mr. Bercow. The hon. Members for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) and for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) referred to their children. Mine are much older than that—I have to be concerned with my grandchildren. I shall share with hon. Members one small thing that concerns me. My four-year-old grandson, Ben, came to our house recently and saw my wife’s Apple laptop. He cannot read or write, and he certainly cannot type. He had never before seen an Apple laptop computer. He started playing with it, and within two minutes, the “Crazy Frog” tune was playing and a “Crazy Frog” video was showing on the screen. When we asked him how he had accessed that, he thought that we were mad. He said, “You must know YouTube and you must know how to access it through your favourites, Grandma.”

People of a very young age are accessing the internet, and it is crucial that we find ways of helping them to manage the risks. However, as has been pointed out, we as adults and as parents or grandparents have significant problems. The Government response to the Select Committee report refers to the UK Council for Child Internet Safety. I welcome its establishment earlier than originally planned. The response states that the Government, through the council,

It will have to go far further than that. I applaud very much what the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) has done, for example, in taking material into her local schools. I hate putting pressure on schools to do yet more, but this issue cannot be left to parents, because many parents do not and will never have the skills necessary to provide young people with the knowledge of how to manage the risks.

Many issues are covered in the Select Committee report. I shall talk first about the video games industry. It is not mentioned in great depth in the report other than in respect of classification. Recently, I was quoted in The Guardian as saying:

It certainly is important. The hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) has already referred to that. It is critically important: 26 million people in this country play video games. About half of them are female. A large number of them, far more than was expected, are older people.

There are many benefits to playing video games. Mr Carrick-Davies of Childnet International said that playing video games


Even Dr. Byron, in her report, recognises the educational benefits of computer games.

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The video games industry is a crucial part of the UK economy. It contributes some £1 billion a year, and nearly half of that money goes into the coffers of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The industry employs 28,000 people, and we should be proud of what they have been achieving, but it does face significant challenges. Other countries—Canada, Singapore, Korea and France—offer financial help to their games industries with salary subsidies or tax credits. As a result, the UK has lost to Canada its position as the third largest producer of video games.

Mr. Vaizey: The hon. Gentleman will have heard the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) about the interactive nature of video games. He remarked that he restricted his activities to watching “Strictly Come Dancing”. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that there is a “Strictly Come Dancing” video game, and would he suggest that my hon. Friend start to play that game to introduce him to this very successful industry?

Mr. Foster: Given that I have already acknowledged that I am by no means an expert on video games, I had better join the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings and together we will learn how to play that game.

The video games industry is a very important part of the UK economy. All the research evidence suggests that, if we do not do something to help the industry, its contribution to the economy will decline quite markedly. We need to help it, and we need to do far more to provide people with the right skills. In the past few years, the number of people graduating from our universities with computer science degrees has dropped by 20 per cent. Although there are 81 so-called video or computer games university courses, sadly, only about four of them have been recognised as adequate by Skillset. We must do more to give people the right skills and training. We must also consider ways in which we might be able to provide financial assistance, as other countries are doing.

The key issue that the Select Committee report faced was the verification system. I think that most people have now accepted that a hybrid system is totally inappropriate. It is unnecessarily complicated and confusing for customers. In coming to resolve that dilemma, the Committee came down on the side of the British Board of Film Classification taking over the classification of video games. I disagree with that, and I hope that the Minister will accept my comments as a formal response from me to her consultation, which ends on 20 November. Having examined all the evidence, I am of the view that PEGI—the pan-European game information system—is best placed to regulate age classification. I have a number of reasons for saying that, and time is tight, so I shall go through them quickly.

First, PEGI was set up in 2003 specifically to deal with the computer games industry—it was backed in this country by the Video Standards Council—and it has significant experience of doing that. As the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee said, video games, because they require interactivity, are not the same as films. As online gaming—as distinct from shop-bought games—becomes increasingly popular and people buy add-on units bit by bit and build up a game incrementally,
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we need a body that has specific expertise in this area. That is why I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme, who supported the original recommendations, said that, in the light of that, we may have to think again. PEGI is therefore best placed to deal with it. As we heard, PEGI is pan-European and operates in 28 countries. I am not aware of any other country in Europe that offers a hybrid film system. PEGI is self-regulatory. As the report says at page 51, in respect of other matters, PEGI prefers whenever possible self-regulation to statutory regulation. It is also a tougher regulator than the BBFC. The BBFC has repeatedly downgraded games that PEGI deemed to be appropriate only for adult players.

Mr. Whittingdale: That is a matter of dispute. There are examples on each side, but I direct the hon. Gentleman to “Singles: Flirt Up Your Life”, which PEGI rated at 15-plus but the BBFC rated at 18-plus, because of its content.

Mr. Foster: We can debate statistics, but for the record the latest figures that I have show that of the 50 games that PEGI rated at 18-plus over the past 12 months, the film rating board downgraded 22—almost half. Twenty were rated at 15, and two were given a 12 rating—including “Mass Effect”, the game that boasts impalement and burning bodies among other things.

I genuinely believe that PEGI ratings are more informative, as they rate games by age and by content. Overall, my view is that that is the better bet. However, I accept the argument made in the Committee’s report that

As I said earlier, widespread recognition, but not with statutory backing, could be achieved with an appropriate campaign. Given that the industry has come up with a traffic light system, I believe the issue can be resolved quickly.

The rest of the report deals with internet regulation, and I am largely content with its recommendations and with the Government’s positive response. Self-regulation seems to be working well; at this stage, I would not want to see us going down the route of introducing strict legislation. Self-regulation is helped through a range of bodies. For instance, the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford praised the Internet Watch Foundation for its work, and I join him in that. It has been successful in getting the ISPs to work together in taking down sites of the sort that he described. I agree that we need a body that brings them together in a self-regulatory way, so that there is some uniformity in how things are done—for instance, in the time necessary for takedown and so on.

Other bodies have been mentioned. I mentioned the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre—CEOP. Like the Committee, I am concerned about funding for that body. On that subject, the Government’s response was somewhat disappointing.

Paul Farrelly: One of the Committee’s main concerns was that, if complaints are refused, no further action can be taken. I think of the suicide site mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon)
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and the refusal of companies like YouTube to take down advertisements glorifying school massacres. Unlikely as it may seem, we heard of companies refusing to take down adverts that were plainly offensive; but there is no other body to turn to, and there is no sanction for such refusals. That is why we proposed that extra part of the jigsaw—a body along the lines of the Advertising Standards Authority.

Mr. Foster: I was moving towards saying that, and I welcome that recommendation. We need something to pull everything together. We need a clear code of practice for all ISPs and some commonality in their operation.

The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme was right about having a contact point for concerned members of the public, but another issue has been touched upon: proactive screening, which was referred to by the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford. It is odd that Google, which is responsible for YouTube, should say that that will not be possible, because of the mass of material involved; yet a similar body, MySpace, finds itself perfectly able to do so. That is another of the issues for which commonality is important.

I am delighted that the Committee should have recommended an additional piece in the jigsaw—one that will bring the various bodies together in a way that provides common standards among all providers and gives a point of call for concerned users, including parents and even young people. I am delighted that it is still to be a self-regulated body. I believe that imposing regulation on the internet would be totally wrong. Broadly speaking, we welcome the Committee’s report, and we are delighted that the Government appear to be fairly supportive of it.

4.35 pm

Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): I am extremely pleased to be speaking under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. Given that we have discussed children extensively, I hope that you will not rule me out of order if I take the opportunity to record the admiration felt by the entire House for the excellent work that you do in promoting special needs education for children and reform in that area.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, on producing such a timely and useful report. However, I have one or two minor criticisms, which I shall make in the most respectful manner. I also thank the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster)—hon. Members should know by now that he is my mentor—for being commendably brief; he knows that I may be under a time restraint. I apologise to the Minister in advance, but I have an Adjournment debate in the main Chamber. It should not cut into our debate, but if it does I shall have to slink off. I also congratulate all hon. Members on their contributions.

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