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13 Nov 2008 : Column 365WH—continued

All children now effectively have access to the internet, so it is incumbent on policy makers to debate how to protect children from harmful content. A number of specific examples of what the internet is capable of producing have been cited. We are in a very new age. Protecting children from harmful content even five or
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10 years ago was pretty straightforward. We had to ensure that they did not watch the wrong television programmes and did not get hold of the wrong magazines, but now they can get hold of any material they like via the computer, and also on the mobile phone.

The Select Committee’s report sets out in clear detail the sort of developments created by the internet. We heard not only about access to extreme content—pornography, violence and radicalisation—but about potential changes in behaviour. The ability of unsavoury people and sexual predators to make contact with young children is a unique feature of the internet. However, it has also changed the conduct of young children.

Phrases have entered the mainstream vocabulary that were not part of it five years ago, such as cyberbullying and happy slapping. Those phrases are directly attributable to changes in technology; it gives people an incentive to behave in a certain way, which would not have happened previously. Of course, bullying existed before the internet, as did mugging, but the internet provides a bizarre focus for such behaviour.

Mr. Hayes: I am delighted that my hon. Friend is saying that the internet not only acts as a vehicle for what has always been prevalent in society—the malign, the mischievous, the malevolent—but that it may catalyse various kinds of behaviour in a particular way. As I said in an earlier intervention, that can affect everyone. We will all be brutalised, because those who are malign or malevolent have access to a different kind of media.

Mr. Vaizey: Effectively, that is what I am saying. My hon. Friend will be delighted to know that, when I move on to the regulation of the internet, freedom will not necessarily be my watchword, although it is an important element of the debate.

The Government have done some extensive work in this area and have rightly received plaudits from hon. Members, and certainly I do not seek to create any artificial party-political divide between ourselves and the Government. In March 2007, the then Chancellor, now the Prime Minister, asked Ofcom to consider certain matters, including an information campaign, software blocking, assistance to parents in restricting access and getting internet service providers to provide parents with access to blocking software. Then came the well-received and well-publicised Byron review, which was commissioned in September 2007 and reported in March.

After that came the report by the Select Committee of my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford, which rightly praised the Home Office task force on child protection on the internet. It brought together in the same room the relevant parties to get them to talk about the issues—that sounds like a trite way of describing the taskforce, but as I have discovered in my political career, bringing parties together in the same room is probably the most valuable thing that can be done when trying to get any initiative off the ground. As a result of the Byron review, the Government brought forward—this is another cause for congratulations—the introduction of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, which effectively is a beefed-up version of the Home Office taskforce.

I agree completely with my hon. Friend—I think that the Minister does, too, judging by her reaction to his remarks—that we should have one Minister with clear
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responsibility for the issues before us. I understand, of course, why different Departments want to have a say in this debate. There are four relevant Departments: the Home Office and the Departments for Children, Schools and Families, for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, and for Culture, Media and Sport—but just saying that exhausts me! As hon. Members have mentioned, people want a hotline that they can ring to get through to an internet service provider. Similarly, however, policy makers need to know that they can go to one Minister and that their concerns and interests will be followed up.

Mr. Don Foster: Given that there is to be at least a dual-headed chairmanship, does the hon. Gentleman not find it bizarre that the DCMS, which has a Committee that has investigated the matter, will not be represented, because the DCSF and the Home Office have been chosen instead?

Mr. Vaizey: Absolutely. I do not wish to make up policy on the hoof, but we would not necessarily vigorously oppose it if it transpired that the single Minister in charge of that committee were to come from the DCMS.

The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre has been enormously successful. Essentially, it is a branch of the Serious Organised Crime Agency—the police arm of child internet safety—and has gained a very good reputation. Again, I note my hon. Friend’s remarks, particularly in the report, about the concerns about continued proper resourcing of that organisation, which has proved itself to be extremely effective. It deserves proper funding.

I would like to touch on a matter that frustrates me about this Government. The issues before us have been well canvassed today and in the report; we know what the problems are and imaginative solutions have been created. However, yet another review is being conducted into the matter. My hon. Friend pointed out that Dr. Tanya Byron’s work is not yet done, because she has been appointed to another committee headed by Lord Carter, a newly appointed Minister. Clearly Ministers must get briefed: they must arrive at their offices, get sat down and be asked by their officials, “What review would you like to start, Minister?” We have had reviews on convergence, the internet, broadband, copyright and so on, and now Lord Carter has his digital Britain review, which comprises all the people who conducted those other reviews. So, having conducted her review of online protection, Tanya Byron suddenly finds that she is a member of a review of the reviews. It is becoming an absurd “Yes Minister” situation. All the public want are some decisions and action.

On internet regulation, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) departs just as I concede to his superior wisdom and his constraints on freedom. It is absurd to say that we must not regulate the internet. It is utterly ridiculous to me. These large, multinational companies provide internet services that go directly into people’s homes. Their work is not that different from that of broadcasters. The internet is a unique and new technology in its ability to allow the consumer to put up content and create a bespoke service for themselves. However, it is absurd to say that the Government should have no role, when this is being piped into our homes.

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I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Bath about self-regulation being the best way forward where effective. I also counsel caution, because the internet is in part one big conversation. The trouble is that we now hear conversations that we could easily have avoided a few years ago. The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) recounted some of the revolting comments that she has chanced upon on the internet, particularly about dead babies and the prevalence of suicide in Wales. Those are put there by vile people who would have such conversations in the pub regardless. The trouble with the internet is that those pub conversations are now on our computer screens.

Paul Farrelly: The hon. Gentleman said that it is absurd to say that we cannot regulate the internet, but it is a myth that the internet cannot be regulated. Too often, people say, “Oh, it’s the internet; we don’t know where it is. It’s around the world, so it cannot be regulated.” That is a recipe for inaction. In fact, as we found out, everybody who connects to the internet has to do so through an internet service provider in their home country. We are not sufficiently advanced that people can connect without those intermediaries via satellites, and connections can be regulated.

Mr. Vaizey: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.

To a certain extent, it is in big brands’ self-interest to self-regulate. For example, in some instances, blogging has become the equivalent of the green-ink letter. On newspaper sites, the comment pages are moderated. When I post one of my superb articles on “Comment is Free” on The Guardian website, very kindly its staff protect me from the most aggressive and lewd comments that might be posted, because it is in the interests of the website and The Guardian brand not to have a complete free-for-all in terms of swearing or libellous comments. However, internet service providers, and some of the enormous companies that we have been talking about, such as Google and YouTube, must show a sense of social responsibility.

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. Those organisations say, “We are the pipes, and we cannot regulate the content that passes through those pipes.” They say that it would be like asking Royal Mail to check the contents of every envelope. Well, it is not. If, for example, I decide to send by direct mail a letter to every household with “Open this envelope for really hardcore pornography” written on it, hon. Members and the Government would be perfectly within their rights to say to Royal Mail, “Do you mind intercepting this material and ensuring that it is not posted to every household?” It is perfectly possible to use search engines to track down unacceptable internet sites. As has been said, we are not talking about checking every 12 hours of video content uploaded on to YouTube. We are talking about using common sense to ensure that the worst material is targeted and taken down.

In that sense, some of the recommendations in the Select Committee’s report are right. The Government must take a lead clarifying the e-commerce directive so that internet service providers know that they will not be caught inadvertently by it. Moreover, we need to work harder to get a common set of terms and conditions and to ensure that there are quicker take-down times for some of the more unacceptable sites.

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I want to make a number of general remarks about how we promote internet safety, particularly for children. All of us have talked about our children and grandchildren. I do not want to be left out of that debate, so I can now inform the Chamber that I, too, have children. One is two years old and the other is eight months old. My two-year-old introduced me to YouTube, although not personally; we had watched the DVD “Ted the Tractor” 15 times, and I was running out of inspiration. I remembered the website YouTube, went on it and typed in “tractor”. I can assure hon. Members that, as far as I am aware, there is nothing obscene to do with tractors on YouTube, and Joseph and I had a very nice time watching tractor videos.

If I wanted to regulate Google or the computer in our sitting room when Joseph is slightly older, I would not have the first clue how to go about it or where to start, nor would I know how to access information on the number of concerns that have been raised. I typed “child internet safety” into Google. The eighth site that came up was CEOP. I happened to know what CEOP is because it falls within my brief and I have read up about it. I hesitate to say this because it might appear rude or patronising, but I suspect that the average man or woman on the street—

Mrs. Moon: Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman. I can provide him with a booklet published by Google, which gives a step-by-step guide on how to put in place all the secure systems that one needs for their young child. I know that Google publishes such a booklet because I have distributed it around the schools in my constituency.

Mr. Vaizey: I cannot start a conversation with the hon. Lady about that now, but I would be interested to know how she found out about that booklet. She makes the point for me. It should not be in the middle of a debate in Westminster Hall that I discover that Google has a booklet. The fact should be very prominent on Google’s website. It has links to “Maps” and to “Earth”. Why can it not have a link to a site called “protect your kids on the web”? Clicking on that link should give us the Google guide. That is what I call social responsibility.

As I said, CEOP is a meaningless phrase. I only understand it because it falls into my brief. This may sound trite, but why can we not start giving organisations names that people understand, such as the internet police or other similar phrases? We need normal language. Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre is a name that has clearly been written by a lawyer. It is full of long words, and is utterly meaningless. It does not tell us what CEOP actually does.

Yesterday afternoon, I typed in “child abuse police”. The first site that I got was for the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux. This is an interesting point that I would like the Minister to address. When I typed in—in the vernacular, as it were—“How do I protect my kid on the internet?”, I got a range of different sites, such as “protecteverychild”. It is at this point that one enters a potentially surreal world. How do I know that “protecteverychild” is a legitimate site? I have no idea who put up that site or whether it is an official site. There are numerous sites that are probably put up by
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concerned parents in a random way, which may give leading or misleading information. Therefore, rather than having endless reviews, I would like the Government to take the issue by the scruff of the neck and show a bit of imagination and proactivity—I know that that is a dreadful word—in finding out what kinds of sites there are. They should check the Google rankings of the official sites that are meant to give advice, and they should start to think like a mum and dad about how on earth they can get the information that they need. That leads me on to the astute comparison of safety on the internet being like safety crossing the road.

I remember the green cross code man from my childhood. He was a hero in many children’s lives. Somewhere in my attic, I still have a signed photograph of the green cross code man, who later became Darth Vader. It strikes me that the Government should consider a proper public information campaign. We have one about digital Britain. The Government are not averse to using cheesy cartoon characters to get their message across. We have Digit Al telling the country how to convert to digital television. Why can we not have a public information campaign that runs year in, year out, and points mums and dads to the right places?

Paul Farrelly: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I did not want to interrupt the Darth Vader story. With regard to industry rankings and league tables, I have a strong memory of when the Labour Government came into power in 1997. They quickly cut through the nonsense said by the financial services industry that naming and shaming people over how many pensions or policies they mis-sold would not work. In fact, it was instrumental in getting the industry to clean up its act. Similarly, the Committee considered whether the industry—whether through the council or the Government—should be forced to publish league tables of take-down times and how long it took it to respond to complaints.

Mr. Vaizey: I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I am now into the territory of making up policy on the hoof. Internet providers will come back and say that such a system will cost too much and that it is bureaucratic and so on. None the less, the Government are in a position to put out the information, and it is up to the internet service providers to react to it. If they are happy to be 55th in a league table of take-down times, so be it, but it should be something that they consider. It is part of their brand and part of the way in which they can sell their services to parents to show that they are socially responsible providers that help to protect children from harmful content.

As I have been progressing in my speech, I have noticed a lot of raised eyebrows, so it is clearly time to bring my remarks to an end. I want to turn briefly to video game classification. This is where I bring in my mild criticism of the Chairman of the Select Committee. As has been pointed out by the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), I am a strong supporter of the UK video games industry. The title of the Select Committee report, “Harmful content on the Internet and in video games” continues to promote the myth that all video games are harmful. Clearly, that is nonsense. Most video games are not harmful; nor do they contain
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inappropriate content. Most kids play football video games, which are extraordinarily realistic. As I pointed out earlier, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings can introduce himself to video games by playing “Strictly Come Dancing”.

I suggest that there should have been a separate report, pointing out what a pea soup the current system for classifying video games is. The system is a perfectly legitimate issue to consider and one that needs to be sorted out. I echo and support a lot of the comments made by the hon. Member for Bath. He pointed out how important the video games industry is to the UK economy. The Government continue to sit completely on their hands, as Canada mounts an extremely aggressive campaign to attract video games companies to Canada. I have no doubt that the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee will be paying their air fares. The fact is that they contribute to the UK economy. The Government’s excuse for inaction is that they are taking up the matter with the World Trade Organisation. However, by the time it gets a hearing there, our video games industry could well be on the floor.

There are some strong merits to the argument that the British Board of Film Classification should take over the classification of video games. It already classifies 18-plus films. The BBFC says that, if the role were extended to 12 and over, as it wants, it would have to deal with 300 to 500 extra games over and above the 270 that it already monitors. Similarly, PEGI has some strong advantages. By its very nature, it is a pan-European system. One of the advantages of playing legitimate online video games—I do not include “Kaboom” in that group, as I said earlier—is that one can play with people from across Europe.

Keith Vaz: There is nothing wrong in principle with increasing the size of the 18-plus warning label on the front of a video game to make it clear that it is for adult consumption only. The hon. Gentleman has no objection to that, has he?

Mr. Vaizey: None whatever. I have no objection to the right hon. Gentleman criticising “Grand Theft Auto”, either. I have never played “Grand Theft Auto”, and from the way that he described it, it does not sound like a particularly edifying game. The only point that I wish to make is that I feel that the whole video games industry has been unfairly tarred with the same brush on the back of one or two inappropriate video games. As I said earlier in an intervention on the Chairman of the Select Committee, hon. Members should remember how important, successful and legitimate the vast majority of the industry is.

PEGI has the advantage of being a pan-European system. It also enables people to play online together. The point that PEGI made to me at the secret tea exposed by the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee was that, if Europe had split rating systems, an 18-year-old who went online to play a game rated 18 by PEGI but classified differently by the BBFC might find themselves playing what they regarded as an 18 game not with adults, as they expected, but with a 15-year-old in the UK or another jurisdiction.

Keith Vaz: To be clear about this, I did not expose the hon. Gentleman at the secret tea; he came up to me and told me that he was having tea with some of my best friends.

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Mr. Vaizey: That is absolutely right.

There are advantages in both systems. The consultation closes on 20 November, and we look forward to a swift decision from the Government about how things will proceed. From our point of view, we want one rating system, with ratings as prominent as the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee wishes.

Mr. Don Foster: I am grateful to my mentee for giving way. As his mentor, I advise him that, in his position as the lead spokesman on the issue for a major political party of this country, he might have been expected to come down on one side of the fence or the other, rather than saying that he is looking forward to the outcome of the review. Can he tell us what the Conservative party’s thinking is?

John Bercow (in the Chair): Order. Before the hon. Member for Wantage does so, and although I am conscious that his speech is both stimulating and informative, he is about to take longer than will be left for the Minister.

Mr. Vaizey: It is a humiliating position not only to be admonished by the Chair but to be accused by a Liberal Democrat of sitting on the fence, but I would say to my mentor that, sometimes, one should pause and hear all the evidence. If the Government are going to spend taxpayers’ money on expensive consultation on the system, it is important to see the evidence before coming to a final view. I hope that my mentor does not suffer from having come to a premature conclusion. With that in mind, I will sit down and wait to hear from the Minister.

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