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We asked the Family Planning Association, a laudable organisation that publishes a lot of material about sexual health and guidance, and it was supportive. The FPA says that the problem right now is that children are accessing porn as a way of receiving sex education. That is not good sex education. It teaches children nothing about relationships. The FPA felt that using an age verification system—

Rushanara Ali: I support the hon. Lady’s proposal. It will protect young people not only from being groomed but from being radicalised on the internet; we have seen examples. It happens particularly to Muslim parents but also to others—those whose children are converts, for instance. The individual responsible for the attack on my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) was radicalised on the internet. We need action not just to protect children against harassment but on those kinds of issue. Anything that can address the problem would be welcome from both perspectives.

Claire Perry: I thank the hon. Lady for pointing out that it is not just what we might think of as pure pornography that is a problem, but many other things too. I say to both hon. Members that in the debate on this issue, we have always been in danger of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Filtering systems are well established. A lot of human intelligence goes into the filtering systems used by companies such as TalkTalk, which has gone furthest. It is completely possible to amend the system while ensuring that appropriate levels of material are available, just as they might be in a school environment. However, it is a worthy point.

I will continue, as I know that others are keen to speak. I was extremely proud that with the help of Members from across the House, we were able to persuade the Government to lead a formal inquiry into the opt-in proposal, led by UKCCIS. I will raise the question of Government complexity in a moment, but the inquiry had more than 3,500 responses, and I was proud to help deliver a petition with more than 115,000 signatures to No. 10 calling for an opt-in system and calling on the Government to take the issue seriously.

I think the Government do take the issue seriously, but there are many complications that must be addressed. First, as the hon. Member for Slough said, we do not have a regulator; we have a mish-mash of organisations involved in regulating the internet. In such a system, it is easy for companies to behave in an irresponsible manner or, as she mentioned in referring to a large search company, to basically make it up as they go along, with every test case being a different case. There is no clear regulation setting out a course of direction or what responsible behaviour looks like. That was one of our recommendations: give the issue to one regulator.

Secondly, there is the ideological question. It behoves us all not to have the debate about free speech versus censorship here. Of course, we must have that debate, but it is a false debate here. We are talking about children in unprotected households accessing damaging, dangerous and violent material, and we know that people are concerned about it. It is important to have a pragmatic solution rather than an ideological response.

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I say not to the Minister, to whom I know it does not apply, but to others that we run in fear of the internet companies in many cases. I have asked repeatedly for evidence suggesting that an opt-in solution would be disproportionately costly or technologically impossible, or would somehow damage Britain’s internet economy, which is extremely valuable—it contributes about 8% of GDP—and is growing rapidly. Evidence there is none. It is a pence-per-1,000-users solution. It already exists, the technology is there and it is well developed. We can deal with the question of false positives and false negatives. If I ask start-up companies located at the Shoreditch roundabout, “Do you care if we have opt-in filtering on home broadband or internet provision?”—that is the most developed part of the market; only six companies offer 95% of services—they look at me as though I am mad. It has nothing to do with their business model.

I urge the Government to review the evidence. We have not yet had the evidence review session that we were promised on the inquiry. I understand that faces have changed. I would like to get it right rather than do it quickly, but also to focus as best we can, given the number of Departments involved, on the right solution to protect our children.

3.5 pm

Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) on securing it.

I start from where the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) stopped. Asking for self-imposed regulation of the industry does not mean that the economy of our country, the booming internet trade or what happens on the internet will suddenly come to a stop and that we as a country will somehow become less economically effective. This debate is about the fact that, as has been said, the internet reaches out to billions and billions of people around the world. Unlike what is in newspapers or on television, which may be limited to particular countries—although somebody travelling to a country might be able to see it—something posted on the internet can be seen by everyone in the world who has access to a computer.

What the internet says is therefore powerful. It is amazing that such a powerful institution or body has no regulation and no sense of responsibility for what is put on it or taken off. As has been said, a lot of internet companies act differently in different countries, so they seem to be sensitive in relation to different countries, although that sensitivity is probably based on economic rationales rather than anything else. Although economics is important, so is the internet’s effect on people.

This debate always ends up with arguments about freedom of expression and the idea that saying that there should be an element of regulation of what appears on the internet, or even in the print media or on TV, somehow curtails people’s freedom of expression. Freedom of expression has never been completely unfettered. As has been said, there have always been things that are illegal to say. Some people might say that if we want to take freedom of expression to its extreme, people should even be allowed to say things that are illegal, and that

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there should be no restrictions at all. However, we do have restrictions, and rightly so. There is nothing wrong with talking about objectionable material.

I will not discuss sexualisation or the effect of pornography, as the hon. Member for Devizes spoke about it in detail and it is pointless to repeat the same thing. However, I entirely agree with her about the dangers to young people, adults and others who are vulnerable, and I agree with everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Slough said.

May I say on record that I agree with self-regulation rather than a statutory framework? An awful lot is said on the internet that can harm people’s reputation, for instance. I do not see why everybody always says that people’s sensitivities should be ignored completely and that everything objectionable should be on the internet. I am sorry, but while there is freedom of expression—I know that there is no such thing as the freedom not to be offended—we must draw sensible parameters.

If I, or anyone, was to say on the internet that everyone with pink eyes should be put to death at birth, some might say, “Well, what is wrong with that? That is not too objectionable. Pink is not my favourite colour, so why not?” That is a bizarre example, but people might want to say it—in the past, people have used expressions regarding specific groups of people in the world. That would be objectionable and it might be illegal, but I do not think people should be putting things like that on the internet. If they do, there should be a mechanism for regulation. Even if material is not as extreme as saying that people with pink eyes should be put to death at birth, it is still objectionable. I do not see why there should not be a system in place to enable people to raise the issue with the companies concerned and explain why it is a problem.

We touched on the issue of the American film on YouTube. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris) said that this debate would end up going in that direction, but I want to address the point because a lot of people wrote to me to complain about the content of that film and said that it was objectionable. If people want to discuss a concept in any religion or culture, they should be able to write about it. Nobody is saying that there should not be a discussion or dissemination of ideas. However, when the whole intent is to provoke people, abuse people and vilify people, that cannot be right. Surely somewhere along the line common sense must come into play.

Rushanara Ali: Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be helpful, particularly for those who do not have power and money and are not clear about their rights, for people to be able to receive advice that is free, high-quality and accessible on some of these questions? I am not aware that such a provision exists, but perhaps the Minister could consider that as a first step, particularly to help vulnerable people—parents who worry about what their rights are and how they can be enforced—or to help put pressure, as I found in a case with my constituent, on the police to take action so that these issues do not get passed around before they become more serious. Related to that point is libel—where people’s reputations are damaged, something that I experienced myself during my election campaign. It takes a long time and many threats of legal action

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before libellous material posted on the walls of host sites, or sites that are libellous and wrong, is taken down. Surely the Minister could help with that.

Yasmin Qureshi: I agree with my hon. Friend. Such an example would be the famous case of Max Mosley. Even though what was written in newspapers was found to be defamatory, it continues to be published on the internet.

I was a member of the Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions. The managing directors of Google, Facebook and Twitter gave evidence, and the Committee explored the issue of why content that a nation state has clearly declared illegal is not removed. There were not many issues on which the members of the Committee were unanimous, but we all agreed that all three companies were just twisting and turning and not giving us direct answers. They had to be pressed hard. Initially, they said that it was technically not possible, or difficult, or expensive, or impossible to monitor. When the Committee asked more detailed questions, such as, “Do you have the technology? Is there no software available?” basically, it boiled down to the fact that they did not want to do it—it was as simple as that. It was not in their financial interests to do it. It was not in their profit-making interests to do it. It was not that they could not do it because it was so difficult; they just did not want to. We got that answer—not even then was there complete acceptance—after God knows how many questions. Eventually, there was an admission that, technically, there was no reason why they could not do it. We at least got to the bottom of that.

The Committee looked at the whole issue of regulating the internet. Everybody accepts that there are challenges—they may be technical challenges, but they certainly can be overcome if the desire and intention is there. The issue is all about saying, “We know you can do these things. Why don’t you self-regulate?” If there is content on the internet, whether via YouTube, Facebook or Twitter, that is offensive, rude or defamatory, people should not have to go through the long process of dealing with the law. Max Mosley is a rich man and is able to do so. I think he has challenged Google many times. Every time he makes a challenge, content is deleted before it eventually reappears. Most ordinary people cannot do that—they do not have the money, time or resources. There should be an internal mechanism to deal with such cases. When there is freedom of expression and people can say what they like, it is important for there to be responsibility.

I will return to the recent YouTube case. I accept that YouTube did not cause the deaths, but it is right to say that it knew it would happen. It was done deliberately to provoke, annoy, vilify and abuse. It was not done to discuss and disseminate issues and ideas. It was not done as an academic discussion about a particular aspect of a particular religion, or any particular character in any religious history. It was done purely as a form of abuse. At that point, we have to think about the level of abuse that is aimed at people, whether they are dead or alive.

Mr Tom Harris: My hon. Friend provokes me into one more intervention. She said earlier that where something on the internet is offensive, rude or defamatory there should be processes to resolve that. Offensive and rude are not remotely, and never will be, illegal. Defamatory

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is illegal. I ask her once again to draw that distinction. Something being offensive does not necessarily mean that anyone has to withdraw it. There were many people in our party, before the age of the internet, who were actually apologists for those who wanted to ban Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses.” That was unacceptable then and it would be unacceptable now. We have to be very careful that we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Yasmin Qureshi: I am not an apologist for the Salman Rushdie issue. That was a book that was trying to discuss ideas. As my hon. Friend says, the internal rules of this country can decide whether something is illegal or defamatory. It is one thing to have a discussion about particular issues or concepts, but it is another to take that to an extreme. For example, there is an old film called “The Life of Brian”, and other films have been made about Jesus Christ. Within the Churches, there may be a number of issues—for example, homosexuality—that people would like to discuss. I do not think that anybody says that those ideas should not be discussed.

However, I have sympathy for the billions of Christians across the world. We can debate issues, but that is not the same as showing someone they revere so much in an intimate situation, when one of the aspects of the religion, or of the person’s life, was the fact that he was a gentleman who refrained from intimate relationships. Talking about it is one thing, but to depict it and show it: is that freedom of expression or a deliberate attempt to generate publicity and create loads of money? Obviously, the minute a film becomes controversial it often becomes a bestseller; but at the same time billions of people have been badly offended. Perhaps we should think about the concept of complete freedom of expression—although it has never been complete. We should think about people’s sensitivities. That does not mean talking about censorship, or saying that people cannot discuss ideas, or that there cannot be freedom of expression or discussion; but we should think about it.

More importantly, as most hon. Members who have spoken in the debate have said, there is no system to deal with the issues. If there is something on the internet that is defamatory, wrong, objectionable or offensive, people should be able to contact the companies concerned and express their views. Then the companies would at least have the chance to consider things and say, “Maybe we should take this away, and we should not have this photo online.” There is no such mechanism at the moment. It is difficult. As for YouTube, it was asked to remove material in the US, and it did. Internet companies are selective about what they choose to take off and put on, and mostly the motive, I am sorry to say, is profit. That is the ultimate goal for all of them. They are not talking about freedom of expression. Perhaps mine is a personal and old-fashioned view, but I do not think insulting and abusing people is freedom of expression. It is just downright abuse and bad manners. However, I digress.

I want to end by saying that we should have a system that is simple to follow for people who are unhappy with what is on the internet, and that the response of the internet companies should be swift as well. When something happens it should not go on for months, with the item being taken off perhaps a year down the road. By then the damage has been done. It is important to have a system that is swift, simple and cheap.

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3.22 pm

Damian Hinds (East Hampshire) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) on securing this important debate and this opportunity to discuss the issues. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) for the campaign she has brought to Parliament.

I want to comment—briefly, you will be relieved to hear, Mr Owen—on one aspect of the subject: search returns. The debate opened with the hon. Member for Slough raising the issue of definitions, and making the point that the term “internet company” is no longer appropriate. The term “search engine” is not really any longer totally appropriate either. The companies in question are advertising companies. There is nothing wrong with advertising companies and agencies; we have had them for years. The challenge for public policy in this place is that that is not how people think of them. They tend to think of the giants of the web—essentially Google, Facebook and Twitter—more as utilities than advertisers or advertising media companies.

People who work in the industry like to say, “You just don’t get it. The thing is, on the internet, people are, like, looking for stuff, and we, like, help them, like, find it.” Of course, that is true, but it is tempered by commercial considerations. It is also true that in some cases they “help you, like, find stuff” that you did not actually “like, know you were, like, looking for,” through contextual and behavioural targeting. Again, there is not necessarily anything wrong with that as an advertising media technique, but it creates another challenge, which is that most people, including most public policy makers, do not understand how it works.

It might be worth reiterating briefly how search engines make money. Essentially they do it through paid placements, according to the formula PPC x CTR, which is the pay-per-click bid times the click-through rate. Of course, that applies only to a relatively limited number of search returns—usually a couple at the top of the page and some down the side. However, the number varies over time. A comparison between Google.com in the United States and Google.co.uk in this country shows that variation. Commercially, search engines have the potential to make the market work better, and therefore contribute to economic growth; but they can also add cost. That is relevant to the debate. They add it in two ways: first, through the competitive bidding, because that PPC x CTR formula contains natural in-built inflation. Secondly, in certain sectors, for a mathematical reason with which I will not detain or bore Westminster Hall today, second-tier intermediaries can be created. That is to do with—well, I had better stop there, but believe me, it happened. It happened, for example, in the travel industry in a big way.

The point for corporate social responsibility is that those same pressures also apply in areas that go far beyond the purely commercial sphere. In a good way, search engines and other players on the internet can help people in their quest to get help, but the counter-pressure also applies, which is that where money and a commercial motivation are involved, the effect can be the opposite. It can become harder for people to find the help they need.

The area that I am concerned about is debt. When it comes to chronic personal debt, the normal rules of supply and demand tend not to apply. People regularly

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take out loans that are not the cheapest to which they could have access, and which they cannot afford to pay back. Similarly, for people seeking help—which could be through debt consolidation, a debt management plan or just straightforward advice—the routes they end up on are often, unfortunately, not the ones that are best for them, but the first that they encounter at the point when they think they need to do something different. These days, of course, a key place to go—the first place to go, for many people—would be an online search.

The internet has improved somewhat in this regard in recent years. When people enter search terms to look for help with debt, it seems more likely now than it was even a year or two ago that the top half of the screen will show appropriate, sensible, responsible providers who can help. I do not know what is driving that. I hope that it is a commitment on the part of search engines to improve, and to make sure that people can get access to that information. The issue has been brought up in the past in this place, and I hope that some of the message has got through. However, we must be conscious that however good or bad things may be today—and they are not perfect; the first two results that come up will still be for debt management companies—there is no guarantee of their staying that way. The arena is constantly changing. Technology is constantly changing. The algorithms that drive the ads that get driven to different people are constantly becoming more sophisticated.

I would like a clear, public and ongoing commitment from the providers of search on the internet that, in relation to debt, they will both elevate and clearly mark out providers such as Citizens Advice and the Consumer Credit Counselling Service, which offer a responsible service. That approach could be extended easily to other areas where people find they are in difficulty. I do not think that we need legislation to do that, but the Government can have a role in exhorting providers to do it.

3.29 pm

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) on securing the debate, and other hon. Members who have spoken. I have a lot of sympathy with some of the points made by the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) and hope that she is successful in persuading the Government to take action. I also agree with many of the points about advertising made by the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), and with those made by my hon. Friends. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris), who made several interventions, has a point, with regard to our being clear about free speech, and being clear that we should always, whatever our view of something posted on the internet, condemn violence, which is never justified and certainly was not justified in the cases that we have heard about.

When I was a Minister in the Department for Children, Schools and Families in the previous Government, we took forward the Tanya Byron review on internet safety for children, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Devizes. That was an interesting experience. I commend that report to hon. Members, because it is still relevant, even though it is a few years old. At the time, my daughter, who has just started university, was a teenager,

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and I thought that, as the Minister responsible, I had better look a bit closer at what she was doing online. She had been making videos and putting them on YouTube. I asked her, “Why do you do that?” She said, “I’ve got to think of my followers.” I asked what she meant and she said, “I need to be sure that my fans are getting some good videos.” I had a look, and one of the videos that she made had more than 100,000 views on YouTube. One comment underneath a video—these were Harry Potter fan videos—said, “How old are you?” She replied, “It’s not my policy to reveal my age.” That made me think, during the Tanya Byron review, that having built a swimming pool, the most important thing is not to put up a sign saying, “Danger! Deep end”, but to teach people to swim, and to have the resources to understand the medium they are dealing with, including who is at the other end of an online comment. By and large, although they can be vulnerable, children are quite savvy and intelligent. That proper level of education about the dangers on the internet is the first and strongest protection we can give, before starting to talk about what the Government can do in relation to regulation.

As several hon. Members have said in relation to responsibility, this is relatively new. The internet has emerged as the hugest, most important technological change in the past 20 years, and has changed our lives in a transformational way. It started as a wild west area, but the observations made by the hon. Member for East Hampshire are important and pertinent here, because this is essentially, overwhelmingly, a tool for carrying advertising. In relation to some of the irresponsible things that we see online, including on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, what drives those platforms’ existence, ultimately, is advertising. People advertising on websites are, by and large, companies—often large companies—with corporate social responsibility statements that would not tolerate their brand being associated with some of the things on the internet that we have heard about today, including the activity of trolls, child pornography, and so on.

Turning to public policy, we should hold the advertisers to account, as well as the people who provide the platform, to ensure that we are naming and shaming, and showing companies that purport to be socially responsible corporations where their advertising is appearing, and what it is appearing next to, from time to time. Ultimately, that commercial pressure will force, and is forcing, greater responsibility on to some of the newer companies, such as Facebook, which have only existed for a small number of years. That is important.

In Westminster Hall not so long ago, we debated the way that search engines, because of the algorithms that the hon. Member for East Hampshire mentioned, often throw up results at the top of the page that, say, encourage people to download a music track illegally before they are even offered the opportunity to purchase it legally online.

Damian Hinds: The hon. Gentleman makes some important points about the responsibility of advertisers. Will he acknowledge that a development on the internet that a lot of people do not understand is that an advertiser may not know where their advert will appear, because they give agency, effectively, to the search company to put it in context according to its algorithms, providing them with the greatest number of hits?

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Kevin Brennan: Yes. My answer is that that is not good enough. A company that purports to be corporately socially responsible should insist on knowing where its advertising will end up, and should not just be presented with the result of an impersonal algorithm devised by an advertising company. That is not good enough and not acceptable if a company purports to be corporately socially responsible. That is my point. Companies need to be held to account for ensuring that they care about where their advertising ends up, because if they do not take any interest in that, ultimately that will do reputational damage to their brand.

I want to say a few words about internet trolls and so on. A terrible incident, which hon. Members will have heard about, happened in my constituency a week last Friday. A person drove a van deliberately at people—mainly women and children—killing one of my constituents, Karina Menzies, leaving her three children motherless, and maiming, injuring and traumatising countless others along the way. That was an awful incident. I thank all hon. Members who have expressed their sympathy for my constituents.

Of course, as we know, inevitably there are people out there online who seek to upset, provoke and offend in these cases. Some things that people say in these instances will not be illegal, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South said, but some may be actionable and illegal. Nevertheless, they are offensive and have the capacity to cause public disorder and, in some instances, as we have seen in other tragedies, to lead people to take their own lives, so upsetting is the abuse that they have suffered online. There is, in particular, a strong case to be made for social media organisations to take these matters seriously.

I want to give some small words of praise to Facebook, because after I mentioned some pages of that kind that had appeared in the wake of that incident, it took them down quickly. That is new. Its policies are in the process of being developed. As such companies reach maturity, they will understand that it is unacceptable to hide behind the defence that they simply provide a platform and what appears on it is nothing to do with them. If we were happy for people to paint defamatory or deeply offensive comments about our neighbours, or someone else, on a wall outside our house, we would have to say that we had some responsibility for that wall and what appeared on it, and a responsibility to do something about it, particularly if we were making money out of that process. There is some change, but I sense that it may have been easier for me as a Member of Parliament to contact Facebook and get that action taken than it might have been for some of my constituents.

On every Facebook profile, there is a “Like” button that people can click. Why is there not a button as prominent and clear saying not so much “Dislike”, but “Report abuse”, or whatever? That is the minimum that should be required. When I was a Minister, a social media company called Bebo was quite prominent with young people, although it is less so now—hon. Members probably remember it. It refused time and again to put a prominent button on pages for children to enable them to report abuse, creepy questions or whatever they were encountering on Bebo. That is the minimum that we should expect from these companies.

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3.39 pm

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), who made an excellent speech. This is an important, timely debate. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) not just on her speech, but on the excellent work she did in setting up the all-party group and undertaking the inquiry, which raised the profile of the importance of taking clear steps forward to protect children on the net.

Social media companies claim that they have policies to protect users, prevent crime and avoid bullying, but from what we have heard this afternoon, such policies are clearly failing. I, too, have examples from my constituency. A schoolgirl who recently came to see me had been bullied on Tumblr. When she complained and asked the company to deal with it, she was told that it was up to her to identify the perpetrator. Last week, the Internet Watch Foundation published research that shows that 88% of self-generated, sexually explicit online images and videos of young people are taken from their original location and uploaded on to other websites. While some young people might be getting skills, a lot of others clearly are not. Another family in my constituency came to see me. The father had been murdered and they were being bullied and abused on Facebook by the family of the offender, who is in prison. When they complained to the police, the police took no action.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander), who is not present, tried to introduce a ten-minute rule Bill after some gangs were involved in a murder in her constituency. The perpetrating gang posted an abusive rap on YouTube and it took months to get Google to remove it. When we met its executives, they said that they had people in the UK monitoring things all the time, but they could not even tell us how many people did that work. They also seemed to be confused about whether they were operating within a British or an American legal framework. As a final example, a young constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) was groomed on Facebook and, unfortunately, murdered by the person who had groomed her. All such episodes, including the ones described by other hon. Members, demonstrate that the current situation must change. Ministers need to be far more energetic in tackling the problems.

What do I think we need to do? First, on free speech, of which there has been some discussion and which is a fundamental human right, it is important to remember that in this country, unlike the United States, free speech is a right with conditions and is to be exercised responsibly. Having the right to free speech is not like holding the ace of spades and being able to trump every other right, such as the right to a fair trial.

Secondly, it is worth thinking about what drives so much of the abusive behaviour on the net. We had a little kerfuffle about that last week. I believe that the cloak of anonymity allows or enables some people to behave in ways that they would not in ordinary life. I do not mean that we should all post our bank account numbers online for everyone to see, or that nicknames should be banned on Twitter, but the idea of moral responsibility requires that a person is identifiable in order to take responsibility. To assert rights, there must

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be a rights holder. It is therefore a worry that the private regulator of the list of websites in the United States, ICANN—the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers—does not know the provenance of a third of its websites, and Nominet’s current consultation on how to verify registrants is helpful and something that we might be able to build on.

The Government as a whole should take the issue seriously. At the moment, we seem to be dealing first with one Minister and then with another—there does not seem to be a proper strategy. For example, in the context of the Defamation Bill, we have raised anonymity with the Minister’s colleagues in the Ministry of Justice; I hope that in the light of what he has heard this afternoon, the Minister will go to those colleagues and seek to strengthen clause 5 of the Bill. As currently drafted, it is not mandatory to include and publicise an e-mail address for complaints on open websites, and a complainant may need a court order even to pursue a case against someone who wishes to remain anonymous, which is a slow and costly process.

Thirdly, the idea of an enforceable code, suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough, is extremely interesting. Abuse on the net, whether of children or adults, whether criminal or simply unpleasant, is a growing problem and the Government are failing in their duty to get to grips with it and to protect our citizens. In an Adjournment debate on 17 September on internet trolling, a Home Office Minister responded and listed some of the legislation that can be used to deal with abuse on the net. At this point, I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris) that there is a difference between being offended by someone’s views and being subject to harassment on the net, and that distinction is made in the law.

I asked the Library for a list of the pieces of legislation that can be used to tackle the problem and was told that there were seven: the Malicious Communications Act 1988, the Communications Act 2003, the Protection of Children Act 1999, the Telecommunications Act 1984, the Public Order Act 1986, the Computer Misuse Act 1990 and the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. When I looked at the relevant provisions, many seemed to overlap, so I am not clear whether they are an adequate basis for the sort of code that my hon. Friend the Member for Slough is suggesting, and they certainly present a confusing picture. I want Ministers to initiate a cross-departmental review. Currently, we have shambolic confusion and no coherent strategy from the Government.

In the absence of action by the Government, the Crown Prosecution Service is consulting on the use of the existing criminal law. The Director of Public Prosecutions said:

“Social media is a new and emerging phenomenon raising difficult issues of principle, which have to be confronted not only by prosecutors but also by others including the police, the courts and service providers. The fact that offensive remarks may not warrant a full criminal prosecution does not necessarily mean that no action should be taken. In my view, the time has come for an informed debate about the boundaries of free speech in an age of social media.”

That is an extremely helpful contribution.

The DPP’s remarks highlight another issue. New problems require new solutions, new practices and new skills, not only for the courts but for the police, social workers, teachers and medical staff. Such professions

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will need to adapt and modify their work and learn new techniques to ensure, for example, that e-crime is taken seriously, that court orders to offenders cover cyber-bullying or that teachers can give good advice to young people. All that is a new burden on the public purse, with special training and awareness-raising needed, for instance.

Many colleagues this afternoon have mentioned that money is an important driver, which brings us to the next area in which the social media companies need to improve their social responsibility: the paying of taxes. It is simply not acceptable that through artificial devices such as extortionate payments for licences they continue to depress profits, so Facebook, with an estimated income from advertising of £175 million in this country, paid no tax in 2011. Google, which in the US estimates its UK income to be more than £2 billion, paid only £3 million in taxes. According to the House of Commons Library, Twitter UK has not even submitted any accounts. Such firms are putting a new and costly burden on the public purse, but they are not acting as responsible corporate citizens. The Government cannot stand back and ignore that. Ministers need to ensure that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs uses all the weapons at its disposal and, if necessary, they need to legislate further in order to crack down on avoidance devices. I suggest to the Minister that that is as important as dealing with the regulations and the code described by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough.

3.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport (Mr Edward Vaizey): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) on securing this important debate. We have had some useful contributions from hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), who is well known for her campaigning to protect children from online pornography. I had the welcome experience, for the first time, of hearing the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), whose speech on this important subject was wide-ranging and comprehensive. The hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) brought his significant ministerial experience to bear, and the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) made a useful contribution. My hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) brought his significant experience of marketing to the debate.

Time is short, so I will make some points briefly. First, it tends to be a cliché uttered by Ministers and politicians alike that the internet is all-pervasive. It is worth reminding ourselves how quickly it has become all-consuming. The rise of the tablet and the smartphone means that the internet is with us almost 24 hours a day. It brings enormous economic and social value, and broadly speaking the vast majority of people who use it do so responsibly and it enhances their lives. We also know that it enables individuals to reach a wide audience with bile, bullying and bigotry.

This afternoon, I want to distinguish between what is criminal and unlawful on the internet, and what is objectionable but may not be illegal. It is important to emphasise some of the good things that are happening in the self-regulatory approach to the internet. It is worth remembering that it is not completely the wild

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west. It is absolutely right that hon. Members come to a debate such as this and highlight where things are going wrong and action is needed. It is also important to note that we have made progress.

The Internet Watch Foundation has been mentioned, and is a model of its kind. It was pioneered in this country, and provides unique data to law-enforcement partners in the UK and abroad to investigate distributors of child pornography, with the result that almost all images of children are now hosted abroad and not in this country. The second phase is that the IWF now works hard to ensure that exposure to such content is blocked by the provision of a dynamic list of child sex abuse web pages. It is important to remember that the IWF has made significant progress.

3.53 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.3 pm

On resuming—

Mr Vaizey: Before we were interrupted, I was talking about the important work of the IWF, which, as I said, stands as a model for self-regulation around the world for the job it does in blocking access to websites hosting absolutely pernicious material. There is unanimous praise for the work of the IWF.

The other issue that our debate has covered is defamatory material. People often say that the internet is not regulated, but it is; it is regulated by the rule of law, which applies online just as it does offline, and that would apply to defamatory material. We need to ensure that the law works effectively. The Defamation Bill, which the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) mentioned, recently had its Second Reading in the House of Lords, and that is one such area where we are ensuring that the law applies as it should.

The Bill sets out new procedures that will facilitate the resolution of complaints directly by complainants with the author of the allegedly defamatory material, rather than with the website intermediary. We believe that that will encourage website operators to act responsibly without unfairly exposing them to liability in defamation proceedings. It will help freedom of expression by ensuring that material is not taken down without the author being given an opportunity to express their views, and importantly, it will help to enable action to be taken against authors who are responsible for making defamatory statements online. That is one example of how the law applies online, and there are others.

Moving on to what I would characterise as “grossly offensive” material, hon. Members have rightly provided truly awful examples of internet trolling. However, I am not sure that we need to create new offences and put more on to our already crowded statute book, to which the hon. Lady referred. A plethora of existing legislation is being used to prosecute offenders. For example, in September 2011, Sean Duffy was jailed for 18 weeks under the Malicious Communications Act 1998, after posting offensive messages and videos on tribute pages about young people who had died. In 2010, Colm Coss was also imprisoned for posting obscene messages on Facebook tribute sites, including that of Jade Goody

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and several other people. Section 127 of the existing Communications Act 2003 creates an offence of sending, or causing to be sent,

“by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”.

It has been established that abuse posted on social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, can be prosecuted under that Act and, as case law develops in that area, we will see swift action when such cases arise.

As the hon. Lady pointed out, we have not only that Act, but the Malicious Communications Act, the Computer Misuse Act 1990, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, and the Sexual Offences Act 2003, as well as the common law offence of breach of the peace. Other recent high-profile cases have involved the Olympic diver, Tom Daley, and the footballer, Fabrice Muamba. Quite rightly, the Director of Public Prosecutions is proposing to publish new guidelines in this area, which will be very helpful. We are not in the business of criminalising bad manners, unkind comments, or idiotic views, however offensive we might find them. Cases involving social media involve a difficult balancing exercise, and that is what the new guidance from the DPP will address. Those guidelines will be published for consultation at the end of November, and I hope that they will ensure that decision making in difficult cases such as those is clear and consistent.

The hon. Member for Slough mentioned the “Innocence of Muslims” film, of which there has been worldwide condemnation. President Obama said that the United States Government had nothing to do with that video and called for its message to be rejected. The Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, also called the film “disgusting

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and reprehensible”. The right to freedom of opinion and expression is, as I think we would all agree, a vital component of a free, democratic society. However, with that freedom come responsibilities; particularly, the respect for the beliefs and religious convictions of others.

The right to freedom of opinion and expression is enshrined in our laws. Carefully defined and intensely debated limitations on that right exist under legislation such as the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 and the Public Order Act 1986. Although there are frequent calls to ban websites and online material that carry extremist or offensive content, such content typically tends to fall short of the criminal threshold. Additionally, websites that host the film may be with internet service providers based outside the UK, and removing a website from one host may not result in it being removed from the internet permanently.

The hon. Lady rightly called for more to be done in the area of self-regulation, but again, to balance the debate, I will say that I would not characterise internet companies as flagrantly flouting their responsibilities. The power of public perception is essential to the success of these businesses. If people did not trust them and believe that they act responsibly, they would move on to new services and sites.

This Government are committed to tackling trolling, cyber-bullying and other forms of abuse and misuse of social networking sites, and we will work—

Albert Owen (in the Chair): Order. Mr Joyce has withdrawn his debate on UK-listed mining companies. I suspend the sitting until 4.30 pm, when the final debate of the day will start.

4.10 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Stillbirth Certification

4.30 pm

Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Owen. I hope that you will be as gentle with me as are the other Chairmen whom I have served under in Westminster Hall. I thank the House for giving me the opportunity to talk about stillbirth certification.

On 18 May 2011, I led a Westminster Hall debate on the sensitive and emotive subject of stillbirth. I explained back then that I had wanted to raise the subject ever since a couple of my best friends had a stillborn child. The way in which they and other parents of stillborn children are treated is simply not good enough for a modern developed country.

Seventeen babies are stillborn or die shortly after birth every single day in the United Kingdom, and the stillbirth rate has not changed in a decade. That number is way too high. I have been told that approximately 30% of stillbirths remain completely unexplained and that lots of different factors play into the deaths of the remaining 70%. I know that the Minister who will reply to the debate is concerned that the UK is slipping down the league table of developed nations in this regard. According to a study published last year in The Lancet, the UK has one of the worst records for stillbirths, ranking 33rd out of 35 high-income nations. Although it is important to acknowledge that all women are vulnerable, we need to work out why women in our nation may be at a higher risk of stillbirth and what we can do to change that fact.

There are some troubling regional differences in the percentage rates of stillbirth across the United Kingdom. How can we explain the 33% difference between the incidence of stillbirth in the south-west, which has the lowest rates, and the east midlands, of which my constituency is a part, which has the highest?

I have had discussions with people who point out that in recent years, Britain has become one of the unhealthiest nations in Europe. We are the most obese nation in Europe and we have the heaviest drinkers. As life expectancy has increased, more British women are also waiting until later in life to become first-time mothers. All those could be contributing factors to the horrid statistic that I read out earlier.

I could not let this occasion go by without asking the Minister what research is being done into the reasons behind our high stillbirth rate. Why is there so much regional variation? More than anything, I want the Minister to assure me and those in the Chamber that the Government have an ongoing commitment to reduce the number of stillborn children throughout the United Kingdom, to talk about this subject more and to spread best practice. What will the Minister do to ensure the spread of best practice? There are many hospitals across the United Kingdom that have fantastic practice in this area, but, equally, there are those where best practice is desperately needed. Eventually, I hope that fewer parents will suffer this terrible fate. I was personally delighted by the announcement by the Department of Health, on 16 May, of the Government’s maternity pledges, which include the pledge to provide more NHS support to women who have suffered a stillbirth.

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I do not intend to go over much of the territory that we covered in the debate last year, but wish instead to concentrate on one particular area—the certification of stillborn children. Without a doubt the passing of the Still-Birth (Definition) Act 1992 was a breakthrough and had huge significance for parents. From the passing of that Act, a baby who was born dead at or after 24 completed weeks of pregnancy was recognised in law as an individual. It required that the baby’s death be registered in person by one or both parents at a register office within six weeks of the baby’s birth and it stated that a stillbirth certificate be issued.

Since I raised this subject in May 2011, I have been contacted by hundreds of families who have suffered the terrible anguish of stillbirth. Many of them have shared their stories with me, and I am in awe of how some of those parents have dealt with the worst of all possible situations.

A number of themes have started to fall together around the whole subject of stillbirth. Indeed, many parents had issues that were individual in their nature. If they had complaints about their treatment, they tended to sort them out for themselves. However, there was one very distinguishable theme that came out of my many conversations and e-mails—how to help parents grieve and eventually to move on. I believe that something simple can and should be done in that regard.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter to Westminster Hall. It is something that affects many people across all the constituencies in the United Kingdom. Does he agree that as things stand, the parents are not able to get the closure that they so desperately need? Although nothing can ease the pain, even to acknowledge that there was life in the first place would give a sense of closure to the family. It is a small thing but it could be of great comfort to a grieving family.

Chris Heaton-Harris: Yes, I do agree, and I shall come on to that point in the next couple of minutes. Certainly, that applies to a number of the parents to whom I have been speaking. Although no one will ever be able to give them back their baby, they almost feel as though the state is cheating them. It is as if their baby was never in existence. Having a birth and death certificate might help them get over that point in their grief so that they can move on.

Jim Shannon: The issue for parents is coming to terms with the emotional trauma that they have been through. Having a certificate will mean a terrible lot to those people, and that is what we are trying to achieve.

Chris Heaton-Harris: That is my intention in raising this debate today. However, this is about not just the certification element, which I hope the Minister will answer, but the need for more awareness of all the issues around stillbirth and neo-natal care.

Having the flexibility for parents to be able to choose to have a birth and death certificate for babies born after 24 completed weeks of pregnancy but showing no signs of life, would massively help a large number of parents in their grief and show that the state recognises that they had a wonderful child. As some parents would be distressed at the possibility of having to go down

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that route, I wonder whether we could have a more flexible system whereby parents have the choice of a formal birth certificate, a stillbirth certificate issued by the hospital or—if they so choose—nothing. In modern society, we have the ability and sensibility to deal with the matter of certification, which is important to most of the parents to whom I have spoken because it is a simple process of formally naming their deceased baby.

Over the course of my time in this place, I have raised the matter of stillbirth certification a number of times. However, on each occasion I have received a similar reply from the Department of Health. One reply said:

“The registration of stillbirths and live births serve different purposes.”

It helps Departments collect statistical data and

“enables us to monitor the causes of stillbirth.”

Another reply said:

“Different state benefits are available to parents depending on whether a child was live-born or stillborn, so it is important to be able to distinguish one certificate from another.”

I completely understand the need for the state and the Department to be able to collect these important data for use in research. In fact, I am keen to encourage the Department to do more. However, I simply cannot understand why in 2012, with all the modern technology that we have at our disposal, we cannot, in a sophisticated way, collect all the data that are required and issue birth and death certificates when they are requested by parents.

Jonathan Lord (Woking) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and I commend him for pursuing this issue in Westminster Hall when I know that there is another debate very close to his heart going on in the main Chamber. Does he have any information that he could share with us about how other countries do things, which might help to nudge the Department of Health in the right direction on this matter?

Chris Heaton-Harris: There is actually quite a lot of information out there. There is a very good charity called Sands, which has brought me lots of examples of best practice from across Europe, and indeed from different states in the USA. I am not saying that those methods would all work if they were brought into the NHS. However, by looking at the research that has been going on in Denmark and in Australia, and at the best practice in France and in some states in the US, we might be able to form much better practice in the UK to spread throughout the NHS. There are examples of good practice out there, and although I cannot cite them “fact for fact” off the top of my head right now, the charity Sands has all that information on its website. Sands is a very good resource for information.

I want to go back to the issue of what the state can do when it comes to stillbirth certification. I am quite sure that a sensible and easy solution can be found that allows these certificates to be issued and at the same time enables the state to have all the right information that it might require about any situation around each stillbirth.

Knowing that this debate was coming up, I asked some parents to try to help me to express why this new flexibility—if we are able to have it—would help them. A mum in my local area called Michelle told me this:

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“My son was 9 days past his due date when he died at the end of my labour in May 2011; he weighed 7 pounds and 7 ounces, had wavy fair hair and was perfect. I can still feel the weight of him in my arms and how soft his skin felt. To be told your child has died is the worst pain a parent can feel but to be told they will not be recognised as a person in their own right but a statistic is heart-breaking. My son looked like any other baby, I went through a labour like any other mother but I didn’t have the happy ending. Going to the registry office to register his death was made harder knowing that the parents waiting with us would be registering their baby’s birth yet we would only be allowed to register our son’s death, not given the dignity of having a birth certificate. I feel I am being punished for not having a child that was lucky enough to take a first breath or to hear his first cry. A birth certificate is incredibly important to me and unless you have lost a child who has had the misfortune of being labelled as stillborn it is difficult to understand the need for this recognition. I have been lucky enough to go on to have a daughter, I love both my son and daughter equally yet they are not treated equally in the eyes of the law.”

She went on to say:

“This cruel law needs to be changed, what sense does it make to only register the death when the baby has to be born first regardless if he will take a first breath.”

I know from previous conversations that I have had with the Minister that he completely understands all the issues that I have raised here today, and I very much look forward to hearing his comments. All I ask is that he returns to his Department, reflects on today’s debate and considers whether it is actually not too difficult to build into the system the flexibility that I and a large number of parents from across the country would like to see. It would mean a great deal to a lot of people, Michelle included.

4.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Dr Daniel Poulter): Thank you, Mr Owen, for calling me to speak. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship; like my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), it is the first time that I have done so.

I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend for raising this matter in Westminster Hall today. He and I have worked together in the past to raise awareness of the need to do more to support those families who have had the terrible experience of stillbirth. We have also worked together in the past to discuss the need for greater research in this area. He is absolutely right to highlight a number of the issues that he has raised today, and I will deal with the issues that he has raised in turn.

In my own medical career as a doctor, I have never seen anything more tragic than either a very badly injured or ill child, or a dead baby. The death of a baby is probably the worst situation that I came across, and losing a child is the worst experience for family and friends; it lives with people for ever. For some families, there is no coming to terms with the death of a child. It is a very difficult thing to live with and we must continue to do all we can to support those families, working with Sands and the other organisations that do a very good job in supporting those families; we must continue to do more.

My hon. Friend quite rightly highlighted the unacceptable regional variation in stillbirths. From the figures for 2011, we know that the strategic health authority for the north-east of England reported 5.8 stillbirths per 1,000 live births, whereas the SHAs for the east of England and

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the south-west of England reported 4.7 stillbirths per 1,000 live births. As I say, that is an unacceptable variation. There is an acknowledgment by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, by the Royal College of Midwives and by Sands and many organisations that we need to do more to reduce the rate of stillbirths in this country. We must continue to do more to research the factors that cause stillbirth. As my hon. Friend said, in many cases the cause of a stillbirth is still unclear. We also need to continue to crack down on this unacceptable regional variation, and learn where there is good practice in combating and reducing stillbirth rates and where the NHS is doing things better, so that that good practice can be rolled out across the country.

As I said, the death of a baby, whether during pregnancy or following birth, is probably the worst tragedy that anybody can face, and that is true both from the point of view of a health care professional and from a family’s perspective. Stillbirth is not only the loss of a child, but the loss of all the hopes and dreams that the family would have had about what that baby would have become and what it would have meant to them in the years ahead. That is why it is particularly important that this is an area that we continue to focus on, to reduce stillbirth rates and so that both the Department of Health and medical professionals take this issue increasingly seriously. As my hon. Friend rightly highlighted, our stillbirth rates are 33rd out of 35 high-income nations and as a country we need to do better than that and improve on those rates.

Jonathan Lord: I am glad to hear my hon. Friend the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) talk about the work of Sands. I myself have had constituents come to me with the help of Sands, and my hon. Friend the Minister speaks very well about that organisation and about the real hurt of those families who have suffered a stillbirth.

However, could my hon. Friend the Minister just give us a little bit more information as to why he thinks the stillbirth rates in this country are higher than they should be, and why they are higher than the rates in many other western countries? What are the reasons behind that? That is the crucial thing—to stop this terrible tragedy happening to other families.

Dr Poulter: I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and he makes a very good point. As we have said today, we have high stillbirth rates in this country. One factor that the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has picked up on is the fact that there are sometimes variations in clinical practice, including in picking up on early warning signs that we know are associated with stillbirth, for example reduced foetal movements during pregnancy. That sort of thing always concerned me as a front-line professional and it concerns many midwives.

However, we need to have in place across the NHS better systems so that professionals can work with women to identify those early warning signs that something may be wrong in a pregnancy and to ensure that women come in quickly and seek help, or hopefully, rather than seeking help because something is going wrong, in many cases they can seek reassurance. However, where things are not right for a baby, we must ensure that the medical help is on hand to intervene quickly and to support the pregnant woman and hopefully mum-to-be.

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There are parallels that can be drawn between where we are now with stillbirths and the situation with cot deaths a number of years ago. Back in the 1980s, the cot death rate was very high, peaking at 2.3 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1988. Following the launch of the “Back to Sleep” campaign in the early 1990s, the rate declined dramatically, falling to 0.6 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1995. This reduction has continued as awareness of the key messages on reducing the risk of cot death has increased. By 2010, the rate was 0.22 per 1,000 live births. To put that in real life rather than statistical terms, we are actually talking about a reduction from some 3,000 cot deaths a year to 300 or 400, which is not perfect, because we still have babies dying of cot death, but raising awareness and targeting cot death has proved to be an effective way of reducing rates. That is something we can learn from in the discussion we are having today about stillbirth.

The point that all hon. Members have made today is that the decline in stillbirths in the United Kingdom has not kept pace with that of comparable countries. According to The Lancet, we rank 33rd( )in the world for stillbirths. We need to ensure that we do better and take this issue seriously.

Both my hon. Friends have spoken about Sands. It is worth highlighting what that organisation has done. It provides tremendous support for families who find themselves in very difficult situations. It has highlighted the vital importance of the Government and the medical profession—midwives are taking this issue on board and are taking it more seriously—supporting families to make sure that in future pregnant women and families do not have to suffer the problems associated with stillbirth.

Sands has raised a number of issues, including research, which we have talked about and which I will come on to in a moment, and the fact that action is required to raise awareness, as we saw with cot death in the past, of the known risk factors for stillbirth so that prospective parents can make better choices and understand what could go wrong in pregnancy and what the warning signs may be—for example, reduced foetal movements. We need to ensure that parents are informed and that health care professionals know how to support parents and pregnant mums to help them to recognise the warning signs. They need to provide reassurance and care where appropriate and need to intervene when very serious concerns are raised.

We have said that it is not acceptable that the UK has one of the worst stillbirth rates in the developed world. We have developed a stillbirth prevention work programme, which my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry alluded to earlier. The Government are taking this piece of work very seriously, in conjunction with the Royal College of Midwives, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and the NHS to help to iron out the unacceptable variations in practice and the unacceptable regional variations that we have talked about.

The development of this work programme has been informed by a workshop jointly hosted by Sands and the Department of Health, which took place on 1 March this year. Discussions focused on key areas such as raising awareness and improving identification of babies at risk and improving perinatal reviews. We are continuing

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with this work to ensure that we can put that into practice throughout the NHS so that we provide pregnant mums with the support that they deserve.

My hon. Friend rightly raised the issue of research. It is important that we fully understand stillbirths. We do not always know what the cause of a stillbirth was. It is important that we do research and look into what the unknown causes and reasons might be. What are the factors that cause stillbirths? We know some of the causes; we do not know all of them. Continuing to research and focus on that is important.

The Government have funded a number of research programmes. Most recently, the Department has funded research through the National Institute for Health Research and the policy research programme. An estimated spend relating to maternal and foetal health has increased from £4.4 million in 2006-07 to £12.7 million in 2010-11. The issue of improving foetal health, babies’ health and maternal health is something that we take very seriously.

Working with Sands, the Department’s policy research programme has funded a policy research unit in maternal health and care at the national perinatal epidemiology unit at Oxford university. Research themes focus particularly on pregnancy loss, perinatal morbidity, maternal morbidity and maternal mortality.

The National Institute for Health Research in Cambridge has an ongoing programme of research on women’s health. A major focus of that research is understanding the determinants of stillbirth risk and using that understanding to improve clinical care of pregnant women. Indeed, last week I visited Manchester where there is a very high quality of care for pregnant women and for newborn babies. The university of Manchester’s maternal and foetal health research centre is currently leading projects in understanding the reasons for stillbirth. I know it will be looking to feed that in nationally so that we can continue to reduce stillbirth rates.

Research on its own is not enough. When we have the research, we have to ensure that we get it out there to the professionals, sharing it and the information from that with parents, to help them to make informed choices about their care and to be aware of the risks and the possible warning signs of stillbirth. Raising awareness is so important. It is an issue highlighted in particular by the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. They have said that there is unacceptable variation, as we have accepted in this Chamber, in the rate of stillbirth and in how some health care professionals interact with families and pregnant women during pregnancy. Working up

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national guidelines that focus on professionals supporting families, as well as being aware of the other factors, is an important part of reducing stillbirth.

Another point made by my hon. Friend is that families who have suffered a stillbirth have not always received good bereavement support. We know that a lot of care and attention has been paid to ensure that more support and care is given to families—the royal colleges have taken that on board—and we are looking seriously at how we can provide more support. Many hospitals and trusts have invested in bereavement rooms and quiet areas for families when they have had early pregnancy loss or a stillbirth. That is right, because although maternity things generally go well and we have a good outcome, when things go badly we need to ensure that we are prepared and have a supportive environment to look after families in such circumstances.

Finally, it is important to focus on certification, an issue raised by my hon. Friend. I will look into the matter in more detail and get back to him in writing as well, rather than try to put together an answer in the two or three minutes available to me. He made the point that some mums who give birth have to go through the whole birthing process—they actually give birth to a dead baby—and that is an incredibly traumatic and difficult thing to do, because they know that their baby is not alive. Some mums, however, have to do that. In such situations, although the law, with such things as birth and death certificates, is there for good reason, the human reality is sometimes not recognised in the law as effectively as we might like. There will, though, sometimes be difficulties with law, however we have it. As best we can, we have tried to mitigate such situations by beginning to provide more supportive environments for parents after a stillbirth and by providing certificates recognising that there has been a stillbirth after 24 weeks. That goes some way towards recognising the difficult and tragic event—we recognise that a baby has been born, although the baby was not born alive. I will write to my hon. Friend in more detail in the next few weeks, because the issue deserves more than a few sentences at the end of the debate.

I thank my hon. Friend and pay tribute to his work on raising awareness of such an important issue. The Government are very much committed to taking forward our work with Sands and ensuring that we reduce stillbirth rates in this country, as well as providing more research to investigate the causes of stillbirth and better support for bereaved parents in what is perhaps the most difficult thing I have ever seen in my medical career.

Question put and agreed to.

4.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.