Previous Section Index Home Page

13 Nov 2008 : Column 372WH—continued

5.4 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Barbara Follett): Thank you for your calm chairing of this extremely interesting debate, Mr. Bercow. I thank and congratulate the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport for its valuable and thoughtful report. It is sometimes difficult to read all the way through a Select Committee report without feeling slightly sleepy, but this one kept me awake and provided me with a great deal of useful information and much to think about, particularly as I was taking over my new portfolio and it was timely for me.

As the Chairman of the Select Committee made clear in his opening address, the issue is one of great concern to many: especially, as we have found out today, to parents. I have five children and four grandchildren—I think that I trump everybody here—and I spent quite a bit of time last weekend trying to extract my 10-year-old granddaughter from a rather noxious video game that she had found on the internet.

The work of the Committee in this crucial area will inform the Government’s work going forward and will, I am sure, fuel the debate among people and parents across the country. It was not that long ago that we all started playing the first tennis games in the mid-80s—little Pingu-type games. They were terribly innocuous. If such changes have happened in 30 years, just imagine what will happen in the next decade.

It is precisely the fast-moving nature of the issue that makes it so difficult. It is new; for some of us, like me, it is difficult to understand and access; but as many Members have stressed today, it can bring huge benefits as well as
13 Nov 2008 : Column 373WH
causing huge problems. We heard some of those problems outlined graphically by my hon. Friends the Members for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson) and for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon). That is why the Government’s response to the Select Committee report generally supported the thrust of its recommendations.

In my response, I should like to give hon. Members some idea of what the Government are doing to follow up those recommendations and what other new work we have put in train. We need organisations and mechanisms that are robust, strong and, as Dr. Byron emphasised in her report, future-proofed.

Mr. Hayes: I can tell that the Minister is about to avail the Committee with an extensive list of the proposals that the Government have formulated in response to the Select Committee report, which I welcome, as have other Members. Will she consider adding to her list the imaginative suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) that we should have some figure—some national treasure like the green cross code man—to send a persuasive and attractive message to children? Given that Her Majesty the Queen—our principal national treasure—is not available, perhaps Bruce Forsyth might fit that role, as our own generation’s green cross man.

Barbara Follett: I am sure that the council will consider that. We must get the message across, and it is through such figures that children understand exactly what we are talking about. The green cross code man certainly played a big part in my children’s life.

The key to the problems that hon. Members have so graphically detailed is responsibility. The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) alluded to that kind of responsibility. It is responsibility on the part of providers, users and manufacturers, and it must cut right across. Without that responsibility, we can have no trust. The Government seek to provide services and advice that people trust. I was glad to hear that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend had taken it on herself to go out and give advice. We certainly need that to happen, and it is a good campaign for hon. Members to follow in their constituencies. She has given me a great idea. Going into a school as a trusted figure is exactly the way to do it. The search for trust is what led us to commission Dr. Byron’s report and to establish the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, as she recommended.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) and many other hon. Members said, Dr. Byron’s work was excellent. She explored the multiplicity of issues that come under the heading of this debate and she also gave a very good guide on how best to strike a balance between Government action, self-regulation and parental monitoring, which is not easy. As anyone who has been a parent knows, it is terribly difficult to release children to experience things on their own and to act responsibly at the same time.

As hon. Members will know, the UK Council for Child Internet Safety was launched in September. Shortly after its launch, the Government moved our involvement in this area up another gear. The reason why we did that—to enlighten the hon. Member for Wantage
13 Nov 2008 : Column 374WH
(Mr. Vaizey), who is the prince of shadow Ministers—was not just to proliferate reviews. The Byron review was focused, but afterwards people asked for a wider focus than just child safety. Consequently, Lord Carter, who was appointed as Minister for Communications, Technology and Broadcasting a month ago, announced that he would lead the “Digital Britain” report. There will be an interim report in January and a final report in the spring. We have brought forward the publication of the final report to make it quite quick, because, as the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings said, we cannot keep having reviews. We needed to broaden the base of that review.

Lord Carter embodies something that is quite unusual but not so unusual in my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s Government, in that he reports to two Departments; the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. I know that hon. Members were concerned that there should be one lead Minister in this area. If they have not done so already, I urge them to read the book written by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), entitled “How to be a Minister”. In that book, he gives details of a disease from which many Ministers suffer: the very grave and critical disease of “departmentalitis”—in other words, the silo mentality that leads a Minister not to see beyond the boundaries of their own Department. The spread of that disease is, of course, encouraged by a Minister’s civil servants, because they also suffer from it; it is a highly infectious disease. We are trying to counter it by having two Ministers dealing with this area, together with a director from the DCMS and another official involved in the “Digital Britain” report. Of course, I also interact very strongly with the “Digital Britain” work.

Returning to the Select Committee report and our progress on it, we agree with the Committee that it is essential to strike the right balance on the risks and benefits of the internet. However, as many of the Committee’s recommendations now fall under the remit of the newly formed UK Council for Child Internet Safety, I am not able to give the Committee members the very detailed responses that they want from me; in fact, it would be wrong of me to do so. However, I know that the council will be listening and watching, and I hope that it will be able to give the Committee those responses, because its recommendations merit very deep consideration. I hope that, when the council produces its report, the Committee will find that some of its recommendations have been taken up.

I will work with the council and we will take into account the useful and sensible comments that the Select Committee made in its report. For example, we agree that effective screening measures are needed—many hon. Members made that point today. We also agree that the CEOP is doing excellent work and that that work should be properly resourced. However—I am about to give the Committee an answer that is affected by “departmentalitis”—CEOP falls under the Home Office and that is a Home Office matter, which must be considered within its resource allocation. I thought that I made that point quite well, although my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton would pronounce mine to be an extreme case of
13 Nov 2008 : Column 375WH
“departmentalitis”. However, we have noted what the Committee said about CEOP: it does good work, which needs to continue.

The Government will also work with the newly formed council to develop an independently monitored voluntary code of practice on user-generated internet content. As several hon. Members said, that content can be highly disturbing. I will not forget an elderly woman coming in to see me five or six years ago. I am sorry to say that her son-in-law had superimposed her head on a series of pornographic images and then made them easily available to members of her family on a website. It turned out that there was absolutely nothing that could be done to stop that, and she was mortified. Obviously, her relationship with her son-in-law ceased.

We also agree about take-down, take-down times, and levels of search. The information on those things needs to be made much clearer. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend, I think that we also need to make it much clearer that the ISPs have, in some cases, produced booklets with this information. However, those booklets are not as well advertised as other things on their services and the providers should be encouraged to make them far more prominent.

Paul Farrelly: I have read “How to be a Minister”, and much good it has done me.

The Minister will know that regulatory bodies are subject to industry capture. That was something that Helen Liddell, our old colleague, recognised when she went into the Treasury and made sure that the Financial Services Authority published league tables of those firms that were the worst culprits in pensions mis-selling. On take-down times, however, we may find that the industry leaders will not want to be No. 55 on the list but rather No. 5.

Barbara Follett: I thank my hon. Friend for that suggestion. I must say that, although targets and similar things are very unpopular, name and shame can sometimes work very well indeed.

We also want levels of search to be locked in, so that that is where users go each time—that is the default setting. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), we also want prominently displayed safety information on video games.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme spoke about pre-screening of user-generated internet content. I am very glad to see that MySpace is doing that. It is that kind of responsible action that we are looking for, as it means that people can trust a company.

Many people have said that the internet is like the wild west in the gold rush, and that sooner or later it will be regulated. Obviously, what we need is for it to be regulated sooner rather than later. We need the service providers themselves to come forward and show that they are the sort of responsible organisation whose services we can trust our children and vulnerable adults—they should not be left out of this picture—and even some adults who are not so vulnerable, like myself, to use. I myself have been quite shocked to find that I can accidentally put in a search parameter that will produce something that was certainly not what I, a boring MP, was looking for.

13 Nov 2008 : Column 376WH

We must ensure that the search engines have a clear link to child safety information and safe search settings on the front page of their website. I very much like the “stranger danger” analogy that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend used, because we must teach children the dangers of the internet. It is sad to make children more scared than interested, but fortunately, the internet is so interesting that children tend to overcome their fear.

We must also work on developing parental control software. As the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), rightly said, the watershed is terribly porous. In fact, it is like a sieve. People can get straight through it, or straight by it. We need that control software to communicate automatically with websites’ age verification systems, to prevent children from signing up to sites with false dates of birth.

I know that the question of identity cards is one that divides this House, and not on party lines. However, one can see the value of some form of age verification, some sort of card. It is useful when it comes to alcohol and cigarettes, and it is certainly useful when it comes to buying video games and other material on the internet.

Mr. Don Foster: May I suggest a system that some organisations use? Whenever a credit card is used for age verification, the relevant bank puts in the monthly statement that it was used in that way on a particular date for a particular reason. Is the Minister interested in exploring the possibility of taking that system further?

Barbara Follett: That is worth exploring, particularly as many children have access to their parents’ credit cards. I hope that the council will consider that. Suggestions like that sometimes look good, but then there turns out to be a problem. At first glance, however, it looks like a good idea.

The issue of video games classification is more difficult. I say that as the mother of two boys who consume such games and play each other online. They are not boys, in fact, but are in their late 30s and early 40s, but they still play. Some of the things that they play make my hair stand on end.

Dr. Byron looked into this issue and, like us, was very concerned about it. The Government have looked at the research on the harmfulness of video games. As today’s debate has shown, there is no single view on that. At the moment, there is no compellingly persuasive evidence to suggest that violent games lead to violent behaviour. I say that as someone who is personally somewhat doubtful about how good or bad they are. The research from Iowa that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East has mentioned purports to have found a link, but that is a long way from scientific proof of a cause. We need to see the sort of scientific proof that eventually came out about the effects of nicotine consumption before we can act.

Mr. Hayes: The difficulty is not with the scientific method. It is hard to glean empirical results in this area, because the effect is diffuse, subtle and, to use a word I used earlier, implicit. It is intrinsic and subliminal, and those things are hard to prove. That does not mean that the research is not valid, but it certainly means that it has to be ongoing and thorough. When I spoke—
13 Nov 2008 : Column 377WH
inadequately—earlier, I made the point that there is a dynamism about this subject that requires constant vigilance. People want a crackdown on the worst. I am sorry to be so blunt, but the public expect nothing less than that sort of crackdown.

Barbara Follett: I agree. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that this subject must be kept under constant review. I also agree with Dr. Byron that action is needed now, and there is no point in getting caught up in that debate, because it will be difficult to reach a conclusion. Let us focus on what we can agree on and what we can do. Violent material is simply inappropriate for children, as is some other material. We do not need proof of that, because we know it to be the case. The best thing to do is to ensure that we have the best possible system in place to ensure that games that feature violence or other unsuitable content are not sold to children.

Dr. Byron found many positive aspects of the systems already in place, but she also identified weaknesses. In the end, she outlined the attributes that a classification scheme for games should have. She set out a potential solution, and recommended that we carry out a consultation. That consultation closes on 20 November, and I, like the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), am looking forward to seeing the results.

We are looking for a trustworthy system with a uniform and clear set of symbols, which is absolutely clear to people. There must be a statutory basis to the video games classification system from age 12 onwards, and a non-statutory system up to age 12. The system has to be flexible and future-proof, it must work for the games industry and it must support retailers. It must also reflect the evidence on potential harm, as has been said. We are not looking to ban games.

Mr. Don Foster: What the Minister just listed is identical to what Dr. Tanya Byron recommended, and would obviously lead to the BBFC system being used because, as the Chairman of the Select Committee has rightly said, the BBFC system is statutory and PEGI is not. Is the Minister saying that the Government are not
13 Nov 2008 : Column 378WH
open to having a non-statutory code and they have already decided on BBFC? That is what she has just said she is looking for.

Barbara Follett: No; I assure the hon. Gentleman that that is not what I meant. At the moment, the BBFC system is statutory and PEGI is not, but if we went for PEGI, we would make it statutory. Dr. Byron gave four possible ways of dealing with the problem. Whichever one we choose will have to be statutory, but there has been no pre-choice.

I am very much in favour of video games. Any hon. Members who have played the new brain-training games will know that they are extremely helpful to a woman who is well past middle life. My grandchildren are very glad that I have improved my brain level.

Mr. Vaizey: If only other Ministers—

John Bercow (in the Chair): Order.

Barbara Follett: The message from internet service providers, video games makers and the people who consume them is that they do not want to lose freedoms. They do not want heavy-handed regulation, but we have to bring some order to the growing chaos out there. We must have a system that we can trust to act responsibly.

In conclusion, dealing with this issue is crucial for the present and the future, because it will affect how our children grow and the values they hold. It is about us communicating values to our children to allow them to sift through the information that they get and make informed choices. We cannot protect them totally from the world—indeed, that would be wrong—but the world out there is a cruel, hard and quite horrible place, as hon. Members have so graphically shown. I was very glad that the dead baby website had only 100 signed-up members, whereas the site that was set up to fight against it had 150,000. That gives me faith in the ability of humanity to choose the best of this wonderful new product and to reject the worst.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Five o’clock.

    Index Home Page