“The language of priorities is the religion of socialism”.

If that is so, there was a pretty atheist period when the Labour party last ran the Ministry of Defence. We inherited a financial shambles, which we have had to deal with for four years. The defence programme is affordable over 10 years after some difficult and painful decisions, and as a result of our better financial discipline, the Treasury has allowed us to roll forward recent in-year underspends to supplement our future plans. We are continuing to examine a package of additional investment, including on equipment and cyber. The details of that are currently being finalised, and they will be announced soon.

Mr Baron: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Francois: If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I must say something about reserves, because I suspect that that is what he wants. I have four points to make on reserves. First, we are aiming for a trained Army reserve of 30,000 by April 2019. Secondly, we have gripped the problems regarding the IT recruitment systems and we have reduced bureaucracy in the process. Hon. Members know that we are investing £1.8 billion over 10 years to make the programme work. Thirdly, our target of a net additional 11,000 trained reservists for the Army is the equivalent of slightly more than 16 additional reservists for each parliamentary constituency, and I have to believe that that can be achieved. Fourthly, and crucially, we have halted 18 years of decline in our reserve forces; for the first time since 1996, the total strength of our reserve force has increased. Our forecast for the trained strength of the Army reserve was 18,800 by the end of quarter 4 last year. We have exceeded that forecast and there are a total of 19,400 in the trained strength of the Army reserve, which is 600 reserve soldiers ahead of the forecast. That is a five-year programme, not a five-month initiative, and as a former Territorial Army officer I remain confident that we can do that.

Mr Baron: I was not going to ask about reservists. Only time will prove us right in the end, but we need that time to pass. Briefly, will the Minister return to the 2% question? One hears what he says about the comprehensive spending review in two years’ time, but that should not preclude the Government from committing now to 2% of GDP, whatever that GDP is in two years’ time.

Mr Francois: I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, but I have already attempted to give a clear answer on the position.

I referred earlier to D-day, which resonates with me because my father was at D-day on a minesweeper. He taught me a valuable lesson, which was never to take living in a free country for granted. I think he was in a good position to be able to say that. Yes, we must live within our means, but equally we must not shirk on our

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nation’s insurance policy. My father taught me that the first duty of Government is the defence of the realm, and I will always remain conscious of that.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered defence spending.

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Revenge Pornography

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Harriett Baldwin.)

5 pm

Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): I would like to thank Mr Speaker for granting me this Adjournment debate this afternoon. I am particularly delighted to see that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), will respond for the Government.

I asked for this debate because of the growing problem faced by adult women in this country who have had sexually explicit pictures of themselves posted online without their knowledge and without their consent on dedicated websites, readily promoted by search engines such as Google and Yahoo. These are ordinary women who have been in loving relationships in which nude or sexually explicit pictures have been taken in private, something that is not illegal. When that relationship goes wrong, their partner’s revenge is to post on the internet intimate pictures taken over the course of that relationship as well as distributing them to employers, families and friends.

The experience was first raised with me by a constituent. In my constituent’s words this bullying behaviour or harassment—perhaps we should call it sexual abuse—

“leaves the victim feeling powerless—it can result in that person losing their career, damaging their future job prospects and devastating their relationships”.

The term “revenge pornography” has been used to describe these actions, but however we refer to them, they have to be recognised as the abhorrent crimes they are, which take place mostly but not exclusively against women.

A great deal of time has rightly been spent in recent months and years on making young people aware of the dangers of sexting—that is, sending nude or sexually explicit pictures of themselves to friends. What I am talking about today affects adults and is a different but equally important problem. I believe that we in this House of Commons have a duty to ensure the law recognises such activities as criminal. At the moment, it does not.

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): I thank my right hon. Friend for bringing this issue of grave concern to a large number of people before the House. My research reveals that such actions might—although not necessarily—fall foul of a number of Acts, including the Obscene Publications Act 1959, the Protection of Children Act 1978, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and legislation from 1988 and, most recently, 2003, years before much of the technology involved came into use. Does she therefore agree that the law on this distressing issue urgently needs clarifying and updating if we are to protect the women involved?

Maria Miller: My hon. Friend puts her finger on the main issue. The law predates the digital age and as a result of the work I have done I would say that it has not kept pace with the challenges we face today. I urge her to listen to some of my later remarks, which might address some of the issues she raises.

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We all owe a debt of gratitude to the people who are already doing a great deal to support those who are affected by these heinous crimes: the UK Safer Internet Centre, particularly Laura Higgins, and, of course, the experts at Women’s Aid, who are doing a great deal of work in this area. I also thank Saffo Dias, who helped me with her expert legal advice as I prepared for the debate. It is the matter of law that we must focus on.

The UK Safer Internet Centre has identified between 20 and 30 websites displaying revenge pornography that are available for people to view in the UK. Some are pay-to-view, some are free to access, but all display sexually explicit images of women that have been posted without their permission. The situation in the United States of America is so severe that three states have already passed new laws criminalising revenge pornography and more are considering following suit.

The problem, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) said, is that the law we have predates the digital internet age and fails to cope adequately with such situations. In many ways we are trying to tackle digital problems with an analogue law. We now need to look at that in more detail. Some have sought to dismiss it as something that affects only the younger generation. Although the images are for the most part electronic, many have been scanned and clearly predate digital cameras, so the issue could affect many people of all ages.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I congratulate the right hon. Lady on securing the debate, which is on a subject that is very important to one of my constituents as well. One of the problems she has faced is not so much the existence of the website itself, but the search engine results, which almost always put the website at the top of the search. Google, while very sympathetic, will not act without a legal sanction. Is that something she thinks it might be possible to address by changing the law?

Maria Miller: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We must have the law in place first. As I will say later, if the act was illegal, of course Google, Yahoo and others would respond accordingly. The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton is that at this point in time the situation is, at best, confused. I hope that the Minister can help to shed some light on the situation today.

As with so much to do with the internet, as a society we are constantly running to try to keep up. We all agree that the internet is a force for good. For the most part, internet service providers, social media organisations and many more want the internet to liberate us to think freely, to inform ourselves and to see our backyard as the whole globe, not just our street, village or town. However, a force for good can also provide a platform for those with less worthy aims and ideals. It is in that regard that the Government do have a role.

I applaud the work that the Government have already done in that area, for example to address illegal online child pornography. We heard in the news today about the sheer scale of the problem and the use of the dark net by those who want to access that sort of appalling imagery without the threat of being traced. I saw for myself how the UK is leading the way in cross-border

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action on the issue when I visited the Washington-based Centre for Missing and Exploited Children last year. It is vital that that work continues.

Internet revenge porn does not involve children, but it does use sexually explicit images to publicly abuse and humiliate a victim. An image that could have reasonably been expected to remain private can, with the press of a button, be distributed without permission to thousands of individuals in seconds, through the dedicated websites I have already mentioned, but also through a number of bespoke applications such as WhatsApp, Kik, Snapchat, which has 5 million active users every day, Facebook Poke—and the list goes on.

The case studies provided to hon. Members by Women’s Aid in preparation for today’s debate are, at best, alarming, demonstrating how social media and the posting of images, or indeed the threat of posting images, are being used to threaten and intimidate women. Some of the people Women’s Aid has supported have had such images taken under duress and then distributed to family members, friends and employers. Too often the victims of such crimes have found it difficult to get action—to get the police to take the crime seriously or to get the website owner to take the material down. One revenge porn website goes a stage further still by asking victims to pay a $400 fee to have the material removed—it is called reputation management, but I can think of other words to call it—although I understand that some material has been known to reappear on the same site.

It is clear that the police are struggling to identify a way to support women who have been subjected to revenge pornography. There are, of course, civil law protections under copyright, but few people have the resources to pursue that route, and does that level of legal sanction really reflect the nature of the offence? I do not believe that it does.

Some revenge porn postings are part of a pattern of behaviour. Given the nature of the material involved, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 could be used to provide protection in some cases. However, a series of events would have to be involved—not a one-off, which many of these postings are. I am concerned that the existing legal framework does not provide the protection required. Perhaps the Minister will detail how many revenge pornography cases have been prosecuted under the 1997 Act, to indicate how effective it is already.

The days of treating the internet as the wild west are, I am glad to say, long gone. Freedom on the internet is not unconditional. The challenge for the Government is to be able to respond swiftly and nimbly to new cybercrimes as they present themselves. Today there is a clear opportunity for the Minister to provide leadership and reassurance to our constituents. There is a need to demonstrate clearly, as is happening in the US, that revenge pornography will not be tolerated in a modern free society and that loopholes in the law will be closed, and quickly. In the US, a number of states have decided to criminalise such actions and we should take a similar approach.

The Serious Crime Bill will shortly be before the House. It would provide a vehicle, perhaps under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, to establish as a serious criminal offence the distribution, without permission of the subject, of a sexual image or recording. That would sit well alongside other similar offences in the 1997 Act, such as voyeurism and indecent exposure.

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Secondly, the Crown Prosecution Service is in the process of updating guidance to courts on the prosecution of domestic violence. Although not all cases of revenge pornography involve domestic violence, many do. According to detailed research done by Women’s Aid, 45% of domestic violence survivors have experienced online abuse in some form. As part of the current consultation process, which I believe closes next month, changes need to be considered to ensure proper recognition of abusive online behaviour as yet another part of the growing spectrum of domestic violence. The proposals in the consultation do not seem to cover online abuse; perhaps the Minister could clarify whether such a change could be made.

Then, of course, there is the role of the police. The same research identifies that three quarters of women who have been victims of cyber-based domestic violence said that the police simply did not know how to respond. A critical part of getting the issue right is ensuring that the strategic policing priority given to domestic violence is turned into operational reality on the ground—something raised by the recent Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary report, which identified that victims of domestic violence are still not always taken seriously by the police or, indeed, believed. That is a problem, particularly when it comes to cyber-based domestic violence.

We need to be assured that there is a strong programme of training on the nature of cybercrime and its corrosive effect. I very much welcome the National Crime Agency’s focus on cybercrime and hope that it can be expanded to include revenge pornography.

Finally, the social media and ISPs need to play their part. They should improve their policies, respond so that people can use their services safely and ensure that, when images are posted that should not be, there are clear ways to take action. I know from my discussions with Google, Facebook, Yahoo and others that they, as major global businesses, do not want their business model to include support for those who break the law. If revenge pornography were clearly illegal, they would, I am sure, ensure that such sites could not be promoted through their search engines. That issue was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton earlier.

This debate is about making sure that the law of the land supports women properly and about sending a clear message to the perpetrators of these crimes—that their behaviour should be seen as criminal and will not be tolerated. It is about saying that we as a nation show total abhorrence for all sexual abuse against women in whatever form, whether it occurs offline or online.

5.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Shailesh Vara): My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller) has made a very powerful and passionate speech on a hugely important subject. She has used this debate to highlight the truly despicable behaviour involving so-called revenge porn, which can cause serious distress and humiliation. The victims are, as she says, often women, but we must recognise that men can also be part of this category of suffering, the consequences of which can be absolutely devastating. I share her concerns about the misery and upset that such

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actions can inflict on others. Let me make it clear at the outset that I very much hope that victims of such behaviour will not hesitate to contact the police.

It may help the House if I outline some of the sanctions that we already have in place to combat this type of problem. All published material, online and offline, is subject to the Obscene Publications Act 1959, including material that has been uploaded to the internet. Under the Act, revenge porn material, depending on the content, may constitute an offence that carries with it a five-year maximum prison sentence. An article is deemed to be obscene if its effect, when taken as a whole, is such as to tend to “deprave and corrupt” persons who are likely to read, see or hear it. This general test of obscenity is flexible, allowing the courts to reflect society’s attitudes towards pornographic and other material.

Importantly, if images misused for revenge porn activity are of children under 18, and are perhaps being used to bully the young, legislation such as the Protection of Children Act 1978 could be used against those making or circulating them. The Government are determined to do all they can to curb the distribution of indecent images of children, on the internet and elsewhere. The law in this area is very clear. Under the 1978 Act, the UK has a strict prohibition on the taking, making, circulation, and possession with a view to distribution of any indecent photograph of a child under 18, and such offences carry a maximum sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment. The term “indecent” is not defined in the 1978 Act. The courts decide in each case whether the material in question is indecent.

Even if the content of revenge porn postings does not fall foul of the laws on pornography and obscenity, other communications offences might apply to this behaviour. For example, if the content is grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or menacing, it may fall under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, which makes it an offence to send such material over a public electronic communications network. Depending on the content, sending this material may also amount to an offence under the Malicious Communications Act 1988, provided that it is sent with the purpose of causing distress or anxiety to the recipient or to any person to whom the sender intends that it or its contents or nature should be communicated.

Depending on the circumstances, a civil action may also be available under the law of tort in respect of the misuse of private information. Remedies available include damages and an injunction to require removal of the material and/or to prevent repetition of the behaviour in question. Even if the content itself is not illegal, if its distribution is carried out as part of a “course of conduct” that alarms a person or causes distress, this could amount to a criminal offence under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

Maria Miller: The Minister is eloquently outlining all the laws that could apply in these cases. If we are to assess the effectiveness of those laws, it would be useful to know how many convictions have been secured as a result of the police taking action. Does he have that information available for the House?

Mr Vara: My right hon. Friend asks a very good question. We do not have specific figures relating to revenge porn in cases that have been prosecuted under

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the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. We have figures for prosecutions under certain sections of the Act—such as section 2 on pursuing a course of conduct that amounts to harassment and section 4 on causing someone to fear that violence will be used against them—but not for the specific offences covered by them. We do not, therefore, have the specific details for which my right hon. Friend asks.

Maria Miller: I thank the Minister for giving way: he is being very generous with his time. Will he consider gathering that specific data, because that would strengthen his case that the law is as it should be? I fear that many people who are affected by these crimes are not able to use the remedies he has suggested. I think there is a mismatch between the support people expect from the law and what the law is actually delivering.

Mr Vara: My right hon. Friend raises another very good issue. There are questions of logistics in terms of obtaining specific information, given the number of cases involved. For example, in 2013 the number of section 2 cases proceeded against was just under 6,000—5,970, to be precise—and the number of those found guilty was 4,459. The total number of section 4 cases proceeded against was 1,040 and 641 of them were found guilty. I very much take on board what my right hon. Friend asks in terms of specifics and I would be happy to look into that, but I hope she will recognise that when such large numbers are involved there can sometimes be a logistical issue.

Other laws in the area of cyber-crime may be breached if, for example, the images have been obtained via computer hacking. Section 1 of the Computer Misuse Act 1990 provides for a criminal offence of unauthorised access to any programme or data held in a computer, which is commonly known as hacking. This carries a sentence of up to two years on indictment.

As with all crime, although we need strong sanctions when offences are committed, the ideal, of course, is to prevent them from being carried out. That is why, across Government, we are carrying out work that touches on areas affected by the use of revenge porn. For example, in schools we are giving teachers stronger powers to tackle the scourge of cyber-bullying and we are helping to educate pupils about the dangers of the internet.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the internet is a force for good. It is a great resource for learning, entertainment and many other positive activities. It is also, of course, a great British invention. However, like many tools that are capable of doing immense good, in the wrong hands it can equally do immense harm. That is why we need to be alive to those possibilities and to take appropriate and proportionate measures to counter them.

Martin Horwood: I am afraid I am going to go a little further than the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller) and say that nothing I have heard suggests that there are any laws that can be used in a situation when, for instance, the image has not been hacked, the person is an adult, the photos are not grossly offensive—because they were probably taken in a private context originally—and Google, or whichever search engine transmits them through links, does not intend to cause

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offence. There do not seem to be any legal remedies among the Acts the Minister has mentioned, so I think a more thorough review of which laws need to be passed or which amendments need to be made to imminent legislation is now called for.

Mr Vara: If my hon. Friend can be a little patient, he might find that I will be able to give him some food for thought later. There may be remedies in the Malicious Communications Act 1988 or the Communications Act 2003, where there is a fair amount of flexibility. I will come back to the issue he raises a little later.

When indecent images have been circulated via social networking sites or abusive behaviour has occurred on social media networks, the Government expect social media companies to have robust processes in place to respond promptly when abuse is reported. That includes acting quickly to assess a report, removing content that does not comply with existing acceptable use policies or terms and conditions and, where appropriate, suspending or terminating the accounts of those who breach the rules.

The Government are working through the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, as well as at EU level, to improve the transparency of reporting processes and the ways in which reports are handled. We will continue to work closely with social media companies to ensure that they have measures in place to protect their users.

Following consultation, in June 2013, the Director of Public Prosecutions published guidelines for prosecutors considering cases that involve communications sent via social media. The guidelines are designed to give clear advice to prosecutors who have been asked for a charging decision or to give early advice to the police, as well as in the review of cases charged by the police. The guidelines seek to draw the difficult balance between protecting freedom of speech and acting robustly against communications that cross the threshold into illegality.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke asked about the consultation currently being undertaken by the Crown Prosecution Service and specifically referred to online abuse. I am happy to look into whether the consultation covers the issue of online abuse, and I will write to her in due course.

The Government already have a strong framework of offences for dealing with, and projects in place to respond to, this deeply upsetting and, frankly, cowardly behaviour. However, I very much recognise that the internet is fast moving, and it is important for the law of the land to keep pace with it. This is a global issue. Countries such as the United States of America, which my right hon. Friend mentioned, and Australia and Israel have legislated on the issue, and other countries across the globe are looking at it further. Let me be clear that the Government take the concerns expressed by my right hon. Friend very seriously. I am happy to look again at this area and to assess the extent of the problem to see whether we need to legislate further to ensure that such behaviour is dealt with appropriately.

Maria Miller: My hon. Friend has not so far referred to my issue about police training. If he is saying that there is a suite of laws that can deal with the issues I have mentioned, is he happy that the police can use

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those laws in a way that gives proper support to the women and, indeed, men who are affected by these sorts of crimes?

Mr Vara: In the less than two minutes that I have left, let me briefly say that the police do an outstanding job, wherever possible, but there are difficulties, and there is always an ongoing process into how matters can be improved. I will certainly speak to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims to make sure that he is aware of this issue, and to ensure that improvements are made where they can be.

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I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke will agree that the need for further legislation must be properly examined, particularly as the subject has implications across a wide area of the criminal law and of Government policy. Moreover, any further sanctions on internet content need to be carefully assessed against the possible implications for freedom of expression and of the media. I again thank my right hon. Friend for bringing this important debate to the House, and I reiterate that I shall look very seriously into the matters she has raised today.

Question put and agreed to.

5.29 pm

House adjourned.