Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 580-599)


14 MAY 2008

  Q580  Mr Evans: On a general basis, what do you think that this Council is going to be able to do to achieve? Where do you see the weaknesses that currently exist which need this Council to fill the gap?

  Kevin Brennan: Dr Byron's report, which I know you have read and which I think is an excellent report and quite an exemplary way of making this kind of policy, says that the Home Secretary's Taskforce has been very successful so far. In a sense, rather like a video game, it is time to move on to the next level. I think that, in the UK Council, we have a very powerful potential vehicle here which will be reporting to ministers but containing all the main stakeholders including industry representatives, co-chaired by Government Ministers with other departments represented reporting directly to the Prime Minister with an annual summit to monitor progress. I think what she is looking for is a body which will have additional traction in order to make progress in this area and in particular in the recommendations that she has made in her report for what we need to do both in relation from Government to public education, education of parents and education of young people and children, but in addition to the way in which we draw the industry in to upping its game in relation to its own user policies and the independent monitoring of that as well. I think that the Council is the vehicle which will enable Dr Byron's recommendations to be brought to fruition within the timescale she has outlined.

  Mr Coaker: I would like to add in to what Mr Evans was asking. What we have to also remember is that the Home Secretary's Taskforce was specifically around child protection on the Internet and often had as its focus illegal content and trying to do something about safety on the Internet. The move to the Prime Minister's Taskforce is to try to have a more all-embracing taskforce to look at some of the other issues that are involved, not just with respect to illegal content but also what to do about some of the—we have all read the evidence and I know that the Committee has been deliberating as well—not only illegal but harmful and inappropriate content as well and how you do with all those aspects of content on the Internet which may not be illegal but which cause all of us concern, Therefore, I think that it is broadly within the remit of the Home Secretary's Taskforce into the bigger Prime Ministerial Council but using that as an example of good practice as to actually how to do it and I think that that is the fundamental change between what we have now and where we are trying to move to.

  Margaret Hodge: I would like to add one final point which is that technology is changing so fast and, with the development of new platforms, you are never quite sure where the intervention may be required or at least consideration of intervention needs to be required. Having this broader based council with all stakeholders plus all Government departments is really, really of huge importance so that we can take preventative action before something emerges that we did not know about.

  Q581  Mr Sanders: You have pledged to implement all of Dr Byron's recommendations in full. Is there no area in which concerns have been registered meriting additional consideration, for example the dual classification on Internet game packaging which has received some negative comment?

  Margaret Hodge: We are certainly committed to implementing all the recommendations. What Dr Byron said on the dual classification of games was that because many parents do not know and do not understand and, because they do not really understand, they do not really have proper regard to the current age classification that go on games. She therefore recommended a hybrid system and what she then said was that we should consult on it. We are going to consult. We hope to have our consultation paper ready by the end of June and have a proper consultation. I have already started having discussions with certain industry interests and they have concerns. We need to listen to those and then come to a conclusion which will give us something that works and which gives us a proper age classification system that has respect, that parents understand, that they have regard to and therefore that it properly plays its role in preventing children playing unsuitable games.

  Q582  Mr Sanders: So, you do not expect us to end up with a system where you would have the PEGI classification on the front and the BBFC classification on the back or the other way round?

  Margaret Hodge: It is the other way round. Her recommendation is BBFC on the front. She makes another recommendation which I think is really important which is that the BBFC should take responsibility for looking at classification of games from 12 plus which would be a change, so we need to consider that, and I think, quite rightly, that is because her view, experience and professional judgment is that, at 12, children are much more autonomous in the decisions they make. So, we need to consider that. The final answer I think depends on the outcome of the consultation and I think that she wisely said there—because it is one of the more contentious recommendations—that we should consult. Let me pull out a little one of the areas of contention. She recommended that we move to this hybrid system of classification. What the industry has said to me so far—and presumably to you in the course of your consideration of this issue—is that they think that is difficult in the context of a global market and that they would rather see a European classification. So, they would prefer the PEGI classification. I have question marks about that which she clearly had. One is that Germany has its own classification at the moment and various other countries do, so does it really muddle people if countries have different classifications? I can understand that it makes the marketing more difficult. The other question mark I have is that the PEGI classification system is a paper-based system—people fill in tick boxes and fill in a form—whereas the BBFC classification system is, I think, rather more thorough and therefore commands greater confidence and I think that that is what has swayed her towards having this more hybrid system. We are going to test it, we are going to consult, and the paper should be out by the end of June.

  Q583  Mr Sanders: In terms of consultation, the important people here are actually the parents.

  Margaret Hodge: Absolutely.

  Q584  Mr Sanders: Far more than the industry or indeed, for that matter, Dr Byron. From the parents' point of view, a single classification system is far easier to understand than two classification systems on a box. Would that sway you in reaching a determination?

  Margaret Hodge: First of all, she is suggesting a hybrid single classification system with the BBFC symbol, which is much bigger and clearer, on the front and the PEGI classification on the back.

  Q585  Mr Sanders: But that is two, is it not?

  Margaret Hodge: It is a hybrid but it is a bringing together—

  Q586  Mr Sanders: You might call it a hybrid but it still ends up with two different age ratings on the same package.

  Margaret Hodge: It is not two parallel systems which we have at present. It is a hybrid system with the BBFC having the role of assessing and classifying—

  Q587  Mr Sanders: With respect, if I am a parent and I am looking at packaging which says 18 on the front and 12 on the back, what does it say?

  Margaret Hodge: It will not say 18 on the front and 12 on the back because the hybrid system will be the coming together of the two organisations. It will not say that. You raise a perfectly legitimate concern which is why we are going to have a period of consultation and you are right to say that a system which parents can easily understand is the most important objective that we must bear in mind and we will just have to test it. The industry on the whole prefers the PEGI system. As I said to you, I think that the advantage of the BBFC system is that it is a more thorough assessment of the games and I think that it was that conflict between thoroughness and ease and the expense associated with that process—remember, these are self-financing systems by the industry—representations from the industry and priorities for parents that led Tanya Byron to talk about a unified but hybrid system bringing in the two. Let us test it. I hear your concerns, I do not know if they are shared across the Committee, but let us test it, let us consult and then let us take a considered view at the end of that consultation.

  Q588  Chairman: May I come back to the role of the Council on Child Internet Safety. Yesterday, the Committee took evidence from Ofcom. Ofcom have a role particularly in the implementation of the Audio Video Media Services Directive which for the first time means that they have some requirement to look at the material on the Internet. They also were fairly critical of the present self-regulatory structure being administered by ISPs and others. They suggested to us that they would want to be satisfied that improvements were being made and they clearly saw themselves as having a role. Indeed, the Chief Executive suggested that Ofcom was the ideal body to decide whether or not sufficient improvements have been made. How do you see Ofcom and the Council working together or is Ofcom off their patch and should this be left to the Council?

  Mr Coaker: In the first instance, Ofcom are members of the Home Secretary's Taskforce and will be invited to be members and we hope will be members of the UK Council. The concerns that they have will be shared and will have to be worked through. As you know, the Government's view is that by and large a self-regulatory framework is appropriate and the way forward with some recommendations that others have made to further improve that system and no doubt Ofcom will play a part in developing that framework under the auspices of the new UK Council.

  Q589  Chairman: The evidence that we received prior to Ofcom was generally that the self-regulatory structure was working pretty well and you, chairing the Home Secretary's Taskforce, have played a part in continuing discussions in the interim. Do you agree with Ofcom that actually there are some serious areas where improvement is needed?

  Mr Coaker: It would be complacent to say that there are not areas across the board where there is not a need for improvement. We can look at the issue of blocking when we come to it if we need to and we can look at the issue of clarification of the law which Dr Byron recommends and I also think is important; we can look at how the system works in terms of ensuring that the various bits of guidance that have come out from the Home Secretary's Taskforce are implemented and ensuring that all of that is done and therefore at the independently monitored codes; we can look at what we actually mean by harmful and inappropriate content and how that is actually looked at and dealt with and how companies take that down. In all of those areas, there is a need for improvement. In answer to Mr Evans's question earlier on, Ofcom has been a part. Has the Home Secretary's Taskforce been successful? In many respects, yes, it has. Now, however, there is a need for a step change, a move forward, to take account of some of these other areas where we need to actually take further action to move again and Ofcom will play a role in that alongside us and alongside the other departments in ensuring that we build a safe environment that we want particularly for our children but for everyone and it is incumbent upon us to have some monitoring mechanism, some way in which we judge whether what we are saying at that Prime Minister's Council actually reflects into changed practice and actually reflects into better procedures throughout the industry and throughout what is happening on the Internet.

  Margaret Hodge: Ofcom have a statutory remit around media literacy and that is hugely, hugely important in this area. They are going to have a role to play on the Council but I think that they will take a lead around the media literacy issues and no doubt they will play their part particularly if you think about new platforms. It is this whole thing of, as we move into new platforms, we think about harmful content on new platforms, so they will play their part, but media literacy is their lead.

  Q590  Chairman: There is also a little confusion about the extent to which the structure will remain as a self-regulatory one or whether or not it will become co-regulatory. There has been a lot of praise for the self-regulatory system but Dr Byron was suggesting that the Council would be standing behind and would actually have some potential powers to intervene if it was felt that the self-regulatory system was not working sufficiently.

  Kevin Brennan: I did read her evidence to the Committee and I think that what Dr Byron was describing was self-regulation plus, if you like. With the new Council, it would give additional backing to the self-regulatory system but essentially what she was calling on the industry to do was to show in the period to come that they can be held to account for their own safe use policies and that the Council obviously is there in part to help facilitate and assist in the industry in making sure that it can achieve those safe use policies to which she has referred in her report, that they can be independently monitored so that they are prepared to be held to account for what they say themselves that they will do and the Council stands there to monitor that. Ultimately, I think that remains a self-regulatory system but with a much more effective means of traction for getting some movement and improvement in the industry itself.

  Q591  Chairman: Do you see the Council as having any powers beyond exhortation?

  Kevin Brennan: I do not think that she recommends in her report that it should have any powers in relation to some sorts of sanctions against industry, but I think the power that she is talking about in a sense is in the nature of the industry itself, in that these major providers that have grown very rapidly in recent years from pretty small companies into huge multi-national, multi-billion dollar businesses depend for their revenue on their reputation and ultimately, if their reputation is poor, then they will not get the kind of brand advertising that they need in order to generate revenue. So, it is in a sense an enlightened self-interest argument that Dr Byron has put forward backed up with creating the UK Council to say to the industry, "If this does not happen, people will know about it" and I think that that is the power of her approach as opposed to simply trying to use the very blunt instrument of regulation and sanction to achieve it.

  Q592  Chairman: May I give you a specific example which came up in our evidence. Microsoft operate MSN Messenger and there is a single button which one can click on which takes you directly to CEOP. So, a child who has an approach from a potentially harmful adult can get help very quickly. We were told by CEOP that other providers had been asked to provide a similar one-click route to CEOP and have been unwilling to do so. Is that the kind of area where the Council might step in and, if nothing else, perhaps name and shame?

  Kevin Brennan: That is an area in which we would definitely like to see progress and in which I would definitely like to see progress in the period to come. I visited CEOP, as I know the Committee has as well, and I know that Vernon is very closely associated in his department with CEOP. It does seem that there is much more that could be done in this area and hopefully this will lead the Taskforce towards making sure that there are quick, easy and direct routes for abuse to be able to be reported quickly and to the appropriate authority and, in the case of the UK, that would be CEOP. Certainly my view—and I have said this publicly before—is that this whole process should help to shine a light on that issue and encourage at this stage those providers who have millions of very young users who use these sites. I know that my own daughter and children of members of this Committee use sites such as Bebo and so on. I am sorry, no reference to you, Chairman, intended, and I should tell you that my daughter is 14 and I am not going to tell you how old she was when she first joined! Clearly that is a concern, but we have accepted Dr Byron's recommendations in full because we think that the quality of the work that she has done and the evidence that she has drawn from industry, from other stakeholders, from children's charities from parents and from children really does point to the way forward for us. There is always a danger in this area in that we can all issue tough words, statements and so on, but really what we are looking for is an effective regime in the end that will protect children.

  Q593  Paul Farrelly: That is really welcome, Kevin. There is a phalanx of civil servants here who are all busy taking notes, so which Minister here is now going to commit to writing to all the other Internet providers to ask them to follow Microsoft's lead in having that one stop?

  Kevin Brennan: What we have done is written to them today and invited them to join the Council which I think is a mechanism by which we are going to get the action that the Council needs.

  Q594  Paul Farrelly: Which Minister is going to say to the Committee now, "I am going to write to all Internet providers whether or not they join the Council to ask them to follow that system"?

  Mr Coaker: You will be aware of the social networking guidance that we recently published from the Taskforce and that lays out a number of different principles which different internet service providers should try to adhere to and, as part of that work, we also looked at different reporting mechanisms that different internet service providers had and, as you would expect, there is a variability between them. One of the things that I will ask in the letter that I have already decided—and it is a very good point but just to give you a little clarity—to write asking them to look at what they have accepted as part of the Home Secretary's Taskforce on the Internet and what is currently provided and look to see how, within the self-regulatory framework—they are going to move to be much more consistent with these principles. There is one other thing that I think is important for the Committee. CEOP deals with illegal content and with child abuse and clearly there has to be a way for children or whoever who are on the Internet to be able to get from that to CEOP and we need to ensure that that is there. However, we also have to recognise that there are other harms and other inappropriatenesses, for want of a better way of putting it, on the Internet which may be cyber bullying or may be violent images or may be suicide websites or whatever that somebody would want to report as well. Of course, reporting abuse with respect to child abuse and protecting children is a CEOP issue, but there is also an issue which I think that the Prime Minister's Taskforce will help us address in regard to where somebody goes if they believe that they have come across something that is illegal but may not be child abuse. Where does somebody who has come across a suicide website or something that they want to report go? Where does somebody go if there is something else that is inappropriate? I think that of course there should be a mechanism, whether it is one click, two or whatever, a clear definable way of getting to CEOP. It seems to me that there is also alongside that the necessity for having a clearly defined way of getting, say, to The Samaritans or whoever. In direct answer to what Paul Farrelly was asking earlier on, I will be writing along the lines that I have said and I had already decided to do that.

  Q595  Paul Farrelly: Lest there is no action because we cannot have one click or we cannot incorporate five or ten clicks, the answer to the question you have rightly raised, Vernon, is that CEOP's website should provide that pathway to report alternative [...]

  Mr Coaker: That might be a solution to it. As you know, I work very closely with CEOP and you have had Mr Gamble here as well who is excellent and who I think has been a trailblazer in this area. It is a question of what we then do with respect to CEOP. If, all of a sudden, instead of getting, let us say, a few hundred child abuse reports, these are prioritised and dealt with, we then, not only receiving that, start to receive hundreds of reports of bullying, hundreds of reports of suicide illegality and hundreds of violent reports, all sorts of things, in a sense, we would need to consider what the implications for CEOP would be if everything that was a problem was directed to them. I know that some others who are involved in this like The Samaritans and so on would feel that—and this is the debate that takes place—in the first place they would want something directed first to them rather than through somebody else. These are the sorts of things that we need to resolve between ourselves through discussion and through deliberation to actually achieve the common goal, but I agree very much with what Paul Farrelly has just said about the need for action and that it cannot be used as an excuse for not taking action.

  Kevin Brennan: I will also be meeting as part of our Cyber Bullying Taskforce some of the industry in June and no doubt these are some of the issues that we will be exploring further at that point. It is also worth making the point—and I am sure that the members of the Committee would agree when we have these discussions—that the Internet and these social networking sites are not just a dark force. They are actually overwhelmingly a good thing and a wonderful opportunity for young people to be creative and for children to interact with each other. We are obviously trying to put in place a system that means that just in the same way that we would not let our children wander down a dark alley in the Inner City after midnight on their own—that would not be a sensible thing to do—parents know how they can help protect their children when they are on the Internet and that the industry is co-operating fully in making sure that it is a safe environment for them.

  Margaret Hodge: This is a bureaucratic point but I think that it is an important point in response to Paul Farrelly. It is not really who writes, it is whether we will write collectively. The structures that we have in place and the mechanism that we have in place would ensure that action is taken. Whether Kevin signs the letter, Vernon signs the letter or whatever is less important than whether we have those mechanisms in place to take the decisions and the answer is "yes". Are we committed to implementing the recommendations and the answer is "yes". I think that the structure coming through will enable us to act collectively.

  Paul Farrelly: Three is better than one!

  Q596  Philip Davies: All of you have said on a number of occasions that you are going to implement the Byron recommendations in full but may I press you a little further on that because it is not just a question of whether you appear nominally to have implemented the recommendations, it goes a little deeper than that and it is about whether or not they are implemented in the way that Dr Byron envisaged when she wrote the report. Therefore, are you actually saying that you are prepared to take the cost and that, whatever the cost might be of implementing of the Byron recommendations, you will commit to meeting that cost?

  Kevin Brennan: In the action plan that we are announcing in June we will be setting out the full costs of implementing Tanya Byron's recommendations and you can certainly hold us to account if you think that we have not adequately covered those costs at that time. Of course, with any report of this kind, it is not a case of a blank cheque. We would have an idea broadly about the sorts of resources that her review are likely to need. We are going to have to set up the UK Council which will have a secretariat, it will have an annual summit; it will have to have council meetings and so on. On top of that, of course a number of the recommendations within Byron fit very well with a lot of the strategies that are already ongoing in Government. For example, in February, we launched across Government the Staying Safe: Action Plan for Children which already has built into it a significant budget line for an information campaign to improve children's safety and the recommendations in Byron fit very, very well with that approach. It is not entirely a case of always having to invent the wheel all over again because a lot of government working is moving in that direction, but it is our pledge to implement it in full. We will be issuing the Action Plan in June and if we think that that is inadequate at that time, then obviously you can hold us to account about that.

  Margaret Hodge: Some of the recommendations will need implementation by our partners in industry. For example, Dr Byron's recommendation is that the promotional campaign for parents should be funded by industry and clearly we have already started those discussions rolling to see how we ensure that they too play their part in helping us implement what we all agree on this table is a very, very powerful and excellent set of recommendations.

  Q597  Philip Davies: Have you not potentially put the cart before the horse in saying that you will implement all the recommendations before you have worked out what the cost will be? Can we therefore not envisage in the future one of you coming back to us and saying, "Well, of course we accept all the recommendations and it is something that we aspire to, but we have just totted it all up and actually it is going to cost far more than we thought it was going to cost, so we cannot implement it all in one go as we had hoped; it might have to take longer"? Are we potentially getting ourselves into that kind of situation?

  Kevin Brennan: Whether the Government should say that or not is an interesting process which I have accepted, but the point is that the recommendations are not entirely a mystery neither in the course of taking evidence—it is an independent review—nor in reporting progress on it. The direction of approach that Dr Byron was heading down is not entirely a mystery and therefore the likely resource implications of her report are not a mystery to us. In other words, I do not think there are hidden billions in here that we do not know about that you will have to worry about in the future. We are confident that her recommendations contain, as I said, a number of things including the communications on child safety issues which we have already factored into our Staying Safe: Action Plan which was issued in February before Dr Byron's report.

  Q598  Philip Davies: You say that but, when we asked Dr Byron how much the UK Council would need to be effective, she said that she was not really sure and that she had not really given a great deal of thought to it, but what she did know was that they would need lots of money.

  Kevin Brennan: I read her evidence and it was amusing. In fairness, I do not think we asked her to produce a detailed budget line for the new Council. I think that it is for us in Government to have a pretty strong idea of what this sort of thing costs rather than for Dr Byron, whose expertise in fairness lies elsewhere.

  Q599  Philip Davies: Following on from that, I was certainly very impressed with the evidence she gave to us and I think that many other members of the Committee were too. It struck me that one of the things she appeared to be quite passionate about was not just that these things were implemented, although she was obviously passionate about that, but that they were implemented in a timely fashion. In fact, we had quite a detailed discussion about the timescales involved. Are you equally committed to implementing the recommendations in the timescales that she envisaged because that to me is what is meant by implementing her recommendations in full?

  Kevin Brennan: We are and of course we are ahead of the timetable at the moment because we have just invited stakeholders to join the Council today and we are obviously issuing our across-department action plan in June and then starting off the Council launch in September, which is six months ahead of schedule, and looking for that first Internet Safety Summit in the spring. As well as Government timetables, you are quite right that there are industry timetables and clearly getting the Council off to an early start is something that we hope will stimulate the industry to fulfil the quite challenging timetables, I would accept, that Dr Byron has set in relation to the acceptable user policies for particularly user-generated content sites that she recommended in her report. Clearly, quality is important and, at the end of the day, we need to make sure that what is produced is what is required. I think we are pretty confident that we can fulfil the timetables from the Government point of view and that the Council will play a strong role in helping industry to fulfil its side of the bargain.

  Margaret Hodge: On the whole, industry has also welcomed the recommendations, so I think that everybody sees that this is an area in which everybody wants to work together. Interestingly enough—and Vernon now leads on that work—when I was Children's Minister and we started that work, what was so fascinating about this was how easy it was to build a partnership between industry, parents, education and Government to try and ensure that we all have successful interventions which ensure that you protect children certainly at that point child abuse images and now we are moving it a little further and we are thinking about new platforms. I think that there is a good record of co-operation between all the partners on which we now need to build.

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