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 2004

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13th October

House of Lords

  Violent Pornography

The Lord Bishop of Oxford rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking, together with international agencies, to shut down websites that give access to violent pornography.

The right reverend Prelate said: My Lords, I am very grateful to the Government for allowing time for this Unstarred Question. My concern arises out of the horrific death of the teacher, Jane Longhurst, whose mother lives in the Diocese of Oxford. Noble Lords will remember that Graham Coutts, who was convicted of Jane's murder in February, repeatedly accessed websites that depicted violent sex, and how elements of his action mimicked what he had seen online. Sites mentioned during the trial included Necro Babes, Hanging Bitches and Deathbyasphyxia.

Pornography on the Net is big business. In 2001, there were 74,000 adult websites or 2 per cent of all sites on the Web. It has been estimated that, each day, 20,000 new porn pages are added. They generate profits of more than 1 billion dollars a year, which are expected to rise to some 5 billion dollars a year by 2005. For some, the use of those sites is compulsive. Perhaps 1 per cent of the visitors to sex sites, some 200,000, are "cyber sex compulsive". That is the definition of people who spend more than 11 hours a week visiting sexually orientated areas.

The main problem, of course, relates to child pornography and child abuse images. It has been estimated that 5 million images of child abuse are circulated on the Internet, featuring some 400,000 children. In Britain, as elsewhere, the mere possession of such material is illegal and a number of successful police operations have been designed to tackle the problem. I recognise that dealing with adult sex that may depict violence against women, which is the subject of my Question, is more complex and is not so easily addressed.

In the United Kingdom, the relevant legislation is the Obscene Publications Acts 1959 and 1964 and the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. That legislation makes it a criminal offence to publish any article whose effect, taken as a whole, is such, in the view of the court, that it tends to "deprave and corrupt" those likely to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it. That material now includes data stored on a computer disk or by other electronic means which is capable of being converted into a photograph. The difficulty is that other countries do not always have a similar law. In a country such as the United States, where, as a result of the First Amendment, freedom of expression is given overriding priority, it is possible for images that are illegal in this country to be put on websites without prosecution. In addition to different laws in different countries, there are of course different sexual mores, so that what might be regarded as unacceptable in one society is tolerated in another. So I recognise all those difficulties, but I know that the Home Secretary believes that something can and should be done by way of international co-operation.

Mrs Longhurst and those working with her inside and outside Parliament have put forward a five-point plan for dealing with this problem: blocking access to some of the material on which Graham Coutts depended; looking again at the relevant legislation to which I have already referred to consider whether the possession of the kind of material that he used could be a criminal offence; better international co-operation; the role of Ofcom in this area; and the way credit card companies might be involved in putting financial pressure on the providers of extreme images.

In a debate on this issue in Westminster Hall on 18 May, a number of helpful points were made in relation to each of the above proposals; for example, encouraging suppliers of personal computers to build in filters from the start in the way that cars are fitted with seatbelts at the point of manufacture; looking at how the proceeds of Crime Act 2002 might be applicable in this area to stop people benefiting financially from the extreme images on the Internet; using the reserve power in the Communications Act 2003 to regulate, and so on. Ofcom would be very willing to be consulted by the Government about what helpful steps it might take and what might be possible. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, will say something more about that. Whatever steps are taken, it is widely recognised that there is no one catch-all solution and that the problem needs to be tackled from a number of different angles.

During the debate to which I have just referred, I was disappointed that the Minister in another place said nothing about international co-operation, perhaps because of lack of time. That is the issue about which I am particularly concerned. The Internet service providers (ISPs) argue that they cannot be expected to vet the tens of thousands of Web pages and millions of messages on their systems. Many providers argue that their position is much closer to that of a post office, acting as a conduit for information, than to that of a publisher. Although there is some truth in that view, the analogy does not mean that nothing can be done. Some things are being done, at least in the area of child abuse images. For example, in June, British Telecom implemented a ban on illegal websites, using a list compiled by the Internet Watch Foundation—the industry's watchdog. The project, known as Clean Feed, means that subscribers to BT's Internet services such as BT Yahoo and BT Internet who attempt to access illegal sites will receive an error message as if the page were unavailable. BT will register the number of attempts, but will not be able to record details of those accessing the sites. However, the Internet Service Providers' Association (ISPA) has expressed some doubts about the effectiveness of this solution and stated that it will prevent only casual browsing of known websites. It will not hinder organised distribution of such images. It will not prevent access to new websites that offer illegal content. In short, preventing access is not a solution to the presence of those websites in the first place. The question is what can be done about the websites themselves.

My particular concern this evening is what international co-operation may be possible. I recognise the difficulties. As the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, told the House:

"There is no international consensus on what constitutes obscenity, or when the freedom of an adult to have access to obscene or pornographic material should be constrained".—[Official Report, 23/2/04; WA 31.]

But the fact that there is no consensus now on what constitutes obscenity does not mean that it is impossible to arrive at a consensus in the future. Because there is no consensus now on whether an adult should have access to obscene or pornographic material, it does not mean that we should not seek to reach a consensus or strive to implement one.

This evening, I have mentioned other measures to tackle this problem. Some of the five points of the campaigning group are like trying to ward off the tentacles of an octopus. In the end, it is necessary to get at the octopus itself; that is, at the sites themselves. Most of these sites are situated abroad. There is no escaping the need for international co-operation, followed by international action. I know that the Government share this concern and I look forward to hearing what the Minister thinks may be possible and what progress he believes has been made so far.

Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford for initiating the debate this evening. I very much agree with him.

An important issue is that these sites will prevail as long as the mass of people accept that it is difficult, and maybe impossible, to do something about them. Most people would reject that. The technology we now have has provided these websites and I am amazed that similar technology cannot be used to control them.

Although this is just a supper debate, it is on an issue that touches a nerve in many parts of Britain today. There are concerns about children and women—and young men, too—and about the use of these websites. It almost seems that one cannot prevent them coming into one's home. If we wait for international law, we will wait for ever. It needs international co-operation. I know that my noble friend Lord Puttnam, who is present, would like to have taken part in this debate. His vast knowledge of this whole area of technology—not of pornography—would have been an admirable contribution to the debate.

We must look at this from a different direction. One of the models that we can look at is ICSTIS, the telecoms regulator for the premium rate industry. That is an industry that came about as a result of the deregulation of telecoms. That regulatory body was created not by law but by an agreement with the service providers. I reject the view of the Internet service provider organisations that one cannot do a lot about this. One can do a lot by working together.

ICSTIS deals with premium rate services. Some of them come from abroad but immediately they are on UK lines that regulatory body can, and, indeed, does, step in. These services can be provided by telephone, as they originally were, fax, PC—which could be linked to e-mail, Internet or bulletin-boards—mobile phone or interactive digital TV, as allowed by new technology. There are 40,000 services at any one time, costing from 10p a call to 1.50 a minute. It is a sector that is regulated not by law but by consensus between the service providers themselves.

The right reverend Prelate mentioned BT's decision earlier this year. ICSTIS has recently introduced a licensing system whereby services have to be legal, decent and honest. Maybe that is the way forward. I do not know. There are specific provisions for forbidding content that is violent, sadistic or cruel. There was a case almost two years ago of a service from Germany that came into the UK and advertised child pornography. In fact, the service did not provide that. It was the come-on to get the public to go on the line. ICSTIS took the service off and fined it 75,000. That kind of emergency intervention, whereby one can take the service off within a matter of hours by the co-operation of the telecoms companies, is what is needed.

I find it objectionable and unacceptable for the website providers to say that there is nothing they can do about it because if they came together and said that they will work to do what they can, inroads could be made into what is quite clearly offensive and, more than that, dangerous for many innocent people in Britain. We all have computers on which messages pop up. We just click to get rid of them. If a child is on the computer that does not have a firewall, it is not quite so easy to do that. A lot of material is very offensive.

I sense that there is a will in Government to do something. The Minister will cover that when he responds. That is at the heart of this. We could get Ofcom and the service providers together and get a general international consensus. That would not be about the global line of acceptability, because we all have different standards, but the line has to be that if a service is coming into a country and that country finds it offensive then it should be possible to prevent that service going into that country. There are technological ways of doing that.

I welcome the debate this evening very much and I hope that the Minister will be able to be helpful. I am not suggesting that he has the answer because this is a very difficult conundrum. But as long as we try and do something about it, we can achieve something. I am not saying that we will be able to eliminate the cases that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford mentioned, but these services are growing year on year and I suspect that the British people are almost becoming immune to them. It is like everything else. If there is a drip, drip, drip of violence, then it begins to be acceptable because one is no longer as shocked as one was a year before. It is time for us to see what we can do to stop this kind of service. It is not what the Internet was going to be about. It was about broadening horizons, not doing what some of these services are trying to do.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, I am very glad indeed to have this opportunity to support the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford in his bid to press the Government for more action in response to what has been a horrifying growth in the distribution and viewing of violent porn and, particularly, of child abuse images. Clearly, the recent barbaric murder of Jane Longhurst has highlighted the problem of those people who not only have an appetite for watching violent pornography via the Internet but who also go on to act out their abhorrent fantasies in real life. This disturbed group of people may be, and hopefully is, relatively small in number but far too little is known about the long-term wider effects on society of indulging this kind of appetite, especially in a world where the material is all too universally available. By way of an illustration, I go back to the days when flashers were considered to be harmless, if somewhat embarrassing, eccentrics. Yet we all know now that that behaviour was all too often the early sign of far more deviant sexual behaviour.

It is very plain that the Internet has brought unimaginable benefits right across the globe. However, it is the very built-in absence of regulation that has brought the problems that now concern us. Since in today's world every form of communication can now be accessed via the Internet, including—I stress—broadcast programmes, those problems will continue to grow unless we can all globally agree a fundamental, comprehensive and "civil society" approach to what is and is not acceptable.

One hopes that that is not quite as impossible a task as it would have seemed only a few years ago. I agree with the noble Baroness that a lot of the technology produced enables restraints to be placed on that kind of material. It is only right to acknowledge that progress has been made. My own preference was that in this country, Ofcom should be given the main responsibility for the whole area. That was not allowed, and that provision is not within the Communications Act 2003. However, we should not forget that Ofcom has an indirect responsibility—that of media education. That can play a very important part in alerting parents and children to what they need to know to defend themselves.

Not all is gloom; there have been advances. On the voluntary regulation side, I would really rather praise the Internet Watch Foundation. It is funded by the industry itself, and not everyone agrees with that approach. But it has worked with government, Internet service providers, the police and others and has acted as a catalyst in getting other forms of European activities going.

On the European front, there is an organisation called INHOPE, which has the backing of some 17 members. At an international level, many countries are tightening their child pornography codes and their laws—such as Australia, South Africa and Canada, to name but a few. None of that would have been possible without the great advances that have been made on the technical side. A most encouraging sign is the creation of filtering systems, which allow individuals or parents to exercise, if not failsafe then nevertheless considerable, control. We have heard about search engines such as Yahoo, as well. In the UK, Internet service providers can apparently remove sites which break UK law or break their "acceptable use" policy. We can put that against the fact that only quite recently more than 300 MPs signed an Early Day Motion calling for more international action.

Changes in the law have helped, too. The Sexual Offences Act 2003 created the important new offence of grooming. Under Section 46 of that Act, the burden of proof has passed from the prosecution to the defendants to prove if they can the necessity for them to download indecent images of children.

As the paper, Supplying the Skills for Justice, highlights, enforcement needs specially trained police. Of the 140,000 police officers in the UK, apparently only 1,000 are trained to handle digital evidence and a mere 250 work with computer crime units or have higher level forensic skills. Recently, a major investigation involving some 6,000 UK citizens on suspicion of child pornography offences—Operation Ore—showed up that major resource discrepancy. It was itself the cause of delays of some nine months or so. So we can all agree that more action is needed.

I found BT's experience particularly worrying. The official figure for the percentage of reported child pornography hosted in the UK since 1997 had apparently fallen from 18 per cent to less than 1 per cent. That is clearly good news—but then came the bad news. BT reported that over its first few weeks of the new technology, a horrifying 150,000 such attempts had been made and blocked off. There are clearly even darker figures waiting to be uncovered in this distasteful area, as the extent of embedded addiction to what I would call the "drug" of pornographic viewing is revealed.

Clearly the Government have a vitally important task ahead, if the aim of the Home Office Internet Task Force on Child Safety, which we would all support—to make the UK the best and safest world for children to use the Internet—is to be effective. My hope goes further than that. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure your Lordships that far more international as well as national action is on the agenda. The will to enforce decent standards has to be global. However law-abiding most of the developed countries are likely to be, if this distasteful and, as we have heard, hugely lucrative industry can move its operations to a part of the world where few controls exist, the problem is clearly going to continue to grow.

As the Minister will know, many of those concerned with the issue had hoped that the subject would be on the agenda of the recent G8 meeting in June. That did not happen. Can we be reassured that these issues still have a very high priority for this Government?

Lord Chan: My Lords, I, too, thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford for securing this debate on websites with access to violent pornography. He has eloquently outlined the dangers of this pernicious and perverse use of the Internet and the ways in which websites can be shut down, and I support him in this debate. I intend to focus on pornography involving children and accessible on the Internet, where some interventions have taken place.

Interpol and police forces in several western countries continue to co-operate to identify people, mostly men, who use the Internet to distribute child pornography. In that way, some have been arrested. However, as my noble friend Lady Howe said, 6,000 people have been suspected of the crime in this country but not that many have been taken into custody.

The production of child pornography involves the abuse and exploitation of children. An image of a child or children involved in explicit sexual activity invariably identifies adults committing a serious crime. Even images that appear less harmful, such as a photograph of a naked child in a sexually suggestive pose, still involves the exploitation and degradation of a child.

In August 2002, the Sentencing Advisory Panel, of which I am a member, published advice to the Court of Appeal on the sentencing of offences involving child pornography. The panel consulted the police, who gave priority to tracing children involved in recently produced material, because they were still at risk and in need of protection from further abuse. In addition, adults suffer continuing shame and distress from the knowledge that indecent images of themselves as children are still in circulation.

Much of the child pornography distributed by the Internet depicts children of typically far eastern appearance and does not originate from the United Kingdom. That is, however, by no means always the case, because the availability of handheld video cameras has encouraged the growth of a so-called cottage industry among paedophiles, involving their own children or others, whom they have abused.

Evidence exists that child abusers commonly use and are influenced by child pornography. Users of child pornography groom children before abusing them with the intention of having sexual intercourse with those children. People who collect child pornography are therefore a danger to children. People who regularly download child pornography and have been prosecuted are only a very small proportion of the real total, because pornography is easily accessible on the Internet.

Pornographic material involving children varies from images depicting nudity or erotic posing with no sexual activity to gross assault and sadism. Her Majesty's Government strengthened protection against sex offenders by reforming the law on sexual offences in the Sexual Offences Act 2003. A new offence of sexual assault was introduced to cover non-penetrative behaviour, carrying a maximum penalty of 10 years' imprisonment. Special protection for children formed part of the new Act.

The necessity for these legislative changes became clear on 21 January last year, when the Attorney-General referred to the Court of Appeal three cases of men who sexually interfered with children because he regarded their sentences as unduly lenient. All three defendants had assaulted children. The three Law Lords who heard the appeal agreed that all cases of sexual interference, whether amounting to rape or not, should be considered with guidelines formulated for the sentencing of rape. All three men received prison sentences varying from three to 13 years.

There must be many more sexual abusers of children or paedophiles who are at large. They continue to produce and distribute pornography involving children. The Sexual Offences Act 2003 identified offenders against children as the ones to be given the longest prison sentences. But the child victim of a sexual assault is physically and psychologically scarred and damaged for life. Therefore it is clearly preferable that everything should be done to prevent children from being abused by paedophiles.

One important step in prevention is to shut down websites that give access to child pornography. If it were possible to do that with child pornography, with international co-operation the same technology could be used to shut down other pornographic websites, especially those with violent pornography.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, I am particularly glad that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford has already drawn attention to the impact of pornography on children. He also commended British Telecom. I am delighted to agree with my noble friend Lord Chan in drawing particular attention to pornography involving children.

The making of such material almost always involves some degree of violence and/or deception. It harms people several times over. First, it harms the child when the films, photos or videos are made. Then it depraves and dehumanises those who view them, all the more so if the viewers happen—intentionally or otherwise—to be children or adolescents. A lot of this material is believed to originate in South-East Asia where there are large numbers of extremely vulnerable children and also governments who are not always fully in a position to give their own children the protection they deserve.

I therefore ask the Government to give special care and thought to the involvement of children when they are considering how best to prevent violent pornography. I should like to commend British Telecom, because I understand that that company has given a positive lead to all British Internet service providers by using special software which blocks out and more or less excludes material showing child pornography.

Have the Government already asked British Internet servers to adopt this practice? If this has not yet been done, will the Government be prepared at least to use compulsory powers and to provide penal sanctions?

Lord Avebury: My Lords, I join other noble Lords who have expressed congratulations to the right reverend Prelate on bringing forward this important subject this evening. I am grateful for the practical suggestions that he made, all of which I agree with, except that Ofcom should have a role in the regulation content. Both he and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, resuscitated an argument which I think we had at some length during the proceedings on the Communications Bill.

Your Lordships decided that that was not a matter for Ofcom. But I agree with the noble Baroness that ICSTIS has an important role to play and I have listened with care to the proposals that that body has made with regard to voluntary agreements with those who provide the material that goes out, particularly to people using mobile phones. That is an important aspect of the problem in the United Kingdom.

As the right reverend Prelate said, this debate is a useful sequel to the debate which was held in Westminster Hall last May, when a number of suggestions were made, but which the Minister who replied—Mr Paul Goggins—did not have adequate time to deal with. I shall ask a few questions that arise out of that debate.

It is common ground—it has been expressed this evening—that almost all the sites which offer violent pornography are hosted on foreign servers, and therefore are not committing offences under our law as it now stands. Therefore, although perhaps the Obscene Publications Act needs to be looked at, that would not touch the vast majority of the images coming into this country and which generate the enormous profit of 1 billion a year. I am surprised that it is not more than that considering the number of accesses which we have heard about, even in the short interval during which British Telecom has been able to monitor them.

But Operation Ore, which has been referred to, was successful in exposing thousands of people in the UK who had downloaded illegal images from foreign websites, as well as identifying 102 children within this country in need of protection. Chris Hanvey of Barnardo's says that this represents the tip of a large iceberg of abusers and offenders who are not being caught in the UK.

In Operation Ore, responses varied considerably between one police force and another, according to the resources available, and partly also according to the degree of co-operation by local IT providers with the force concerned. To get a uniform approach, there would have to be clarification of the circumstances in which service providers may give information to the police where Internet-related offences are suspected but when charges have not yet been made, and there would also need to be a more national approach to this type of crime. Whether that needs a new type of police agency, or whether it could be added to the terms of reference of the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit, is a matter for consideration. Certainly the great majority of local police forces are not well equipped to deal with this type of crime, as we have heard.

Operation Ore dealt with a single website, albeit a very large one. The data in relation to that site were collected by the FBI via the credit cards of 140,000 people worldwide—of whom I understood that 7,000 were in the UK, although the figure of 6,000 has been mentioned. It was suggested in another place by my honourable friend Mr Richard Allan, among others, that, as the right reverend Prelate mentioned, much more could be done by the credit card providers to block access to violent pornographic sites. I believe that the credit card providers are willing to co-operate through their "brand image protection programme" wherever they have the power to do so.

The problem is that VISA and MasterCard are franchises, and they may not have power to require their licensees to comply with restrictions on the use of cards to access given sites. Is this a question that the Home Office has discussed with credit card providers since May, and has it any methodology for dealing with it? The Home Office Minister Paul Goggins said in reply to a Written Question in another place in June:

"co-ordinated action by the major credit card schemes . . . can have a major impact on the commercial trade in child abuse images".—[Official Report, Commons, 14/6/04; col. 754W].

He undertook to work with them to make that as effective as possible. What progress is being made, and can the Home Office foresee our police having the technology to detect credit card access to the abusive sites by users in the UK, without having to rely on the FBI and the US to do the work for us?

The Home Secretary had discussions with the US Assistant Attorney General when he visited the US last spring, and Mr Goggins said that discussions were continuing after that at official level. There are sites hosted in the US which would be illegal anywhere in Europe, and apparently the Americans find it difficult to close down these sites or prosecute them in spite of the Child Pornography Prevention Act 1996, which makes it an offence attracting a mandatory 15 years' imprisonment to produce or distribute images depicting,

"a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct".

No doubt it would not have been easy for the Government to get the administration to focus on this issue in the run-up to the presidential election, but can the Minister say whether any progress is being made in the conversations with the US, considering that the US is so much a key to an internationally effective solution to the problem?

The Oxford Internet Institute is planning a major international conference in September 2005 on the problems of international co-operation on Internet-based crime. I hope that the Government will come forward with some effective ideas that can be fed into that meeting.

Next year, Britain will occupy the presidency of both the European Union and the G8. This would be an excellent opportunity to develop a more robust European approach and to persuade the US and other OECD countries to join us. Although, as the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, has pointed out—and this has been quoted already—there is no international consensus on what constitutes obscenity, there is agreement at the minimum that images of children involved in sexual acts are totally unacceptable, and there is a European Union framework decision on combating the sexual exploitation of children and child pornography, as well as a Council of Europe cybercrime convention which aims at common definitions and minimum standards for offences concerning child abuse images on computers.

Can we not build on those foundations, and attempt to secure a worldwide prohibition on the portrayal of violent sex on the Internet? Without this, the producers and distributors of this material can always move to a more lax jurisdiction, as they do now, and co-operation between prosecution agencies in different countries will always be harder to achieve.

Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, the pornography industry has many distasteful and horrifying aspects that we would rather forget, but however shocking and appalling it is, it is our duty to tackle these issues head-on. Thus, I welcome the spotlight turned once again to the serious problem of violent pornography. I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford for initiating this debate and noble Lords who have taken part in it this evening.

The right reverend Prelate referred to the dreadful case of Jane Longhurst. Many noble Lords will have seen articles by her sister, Sue Barnett. Jane's murder was aptly summed up by the Daily Mail as,

"unequally disturbing in that it could have happened only in this high-tech age, committed by someone whose murderous fantasies were fuelled by appalling images freely available on the internet".

As we know, Jane's killer, Graham Coutts, was addicted to violent pornography, in particular sites dedicated to necrophilia and sexual asphyxiation. The day before her death he spent hours trawling through dozens of appalling images of women being raped, strangled and hanged.

In the aftermath of her sister's tragic death, Sue Barnett has set up a trust in her sister's name, to help people to educate and protect themselves from violent pornography sites as well as to call for their outright ban. Eight out of 10 computers have no Internet filtering software installed and 48 per cent of children give out personal information online. With such shocking statistics at our fingertips I am sure that your Lordships will join me in wholeheartedly supporting this cause.

I support the call for the Government and Internet service providers to take action to block access to such sites and hope that the Minister may be able to shed some light on progress in that matter in particular when he replies. Have Her Majesty's Government ever considered making it legally binding for all computers to have filtering software installed?

One of the most difficult aspects of tackling the problem is the now-accepted finding that the Internet opens up a world of sharing experiences; of making people feel comfortable and confident that what they are doing and enjoying—and in many cases becoming addicted to—is okay. For many it begins with an initial search for a little excitement; a search that then extends beyond a little excitement into more and greater degrees of obscenity in its worst forms. We know that there are sites that actually teach people how to become "good paedophiles". There are probably similar sites to teach people how to ensnare mature victims, both men and women.

We must do all in our power to confront what appears to be a growing, ugly and despicable trend in our so-called civilised world. We all welcomed the tighter controls and moves against the sexual grooming of children in the Sexual Offences Bill last year. The many debates during the Bill's progress made several points hit home. Pornography is an old crime with new tools; new tools that mean it can reach a wider audience much faster and easier than it used to. It is common knowledge now that it is yet another money-making industry used by criminals and terrorists alike.

Will the Minister inform the House what active steps Her Majesty's Government have taken since the immediate aftermath of Jane's death? Will he inform the House in detail which government departments are involved in trying to stop violent pornography sites; and assure us that cross-departmental co-operation is occurring? I join the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, in asking the Minister what progress has been made with regard to credit card access to abusive sites.

While we welcomed the formation of the National High-Tech Crime Unit in April 2001, it recognises on its website that it is legally limited as to whom it can take action against. There remains a serious problem of offensive websites based in other countries. Will the Minister inform the House—as other noble Lords have requested—what meetings the Government have had with other countries regarding better international co-operation in shutting down such operations?

Are there any official memorandums of understanding or other legal or voluntary agreements within Europe or beyond on these matters? If so, what are they and what are their targets? If not, will Her Majesty's Government be making moves to bring one forward? We know that in the Westminster Hall debate on 18 May this year the subject was discussed in reference to meetings between the Home Secretary and political representatives in the United States. In addition, we understood from that debate that the Government were considering the scope for a wider initiative to influence how the issue is dealt with by other countries and for specially targeting those questions at the G8 summit. Perhaps the Minister can provide us with an update: is any action—as opposed to talks—proposed in the pipeline? We have already heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, that sadly the G8 did not discuss the matter in June this year.

I entirely agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford that co-operation is key and we must seek consensus. Inevitably a balance must be drawn between protecting children and other individuals on the one hand and letting adults make their own viewing decisions within the boundaries of the law.

That said, it is not necessarily adults who are accessing those sites. The next generation have proved themselves extremely adept in their use of the Internet to their advantage. In any event, violent pornography such as that related to Jane Longhurst's murder falls well beyond the legal remit and there is more we can do to address that horrific problem.

I am concerned regarding the paucity of resources targeting the problem. I understand that there are only 240 computer forensic officers devoted to tackling this growing problem and most of them are focused on Operation Ore and child pornography. That is no bad thing; but worse than that, I understand that there are only three police officers in the entire Metropolitan Police area devoted to tackling non-child pornography. Are the Government prepared to put more resources into that vital area?

 

18th May

House of Commons

  Violent pornography in the Commons

David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion)(Lab/Co-op): I cannot say that I am pleased to be leading this debate, because I wish that it did not have to take place. However, I am pleased that so many hon. Members are here and wish to discuss the subject.

The title of the debate is a euphemism: we are talking about violent pornography on the internet. I welcome the action taken by both the present Government and previous Governments to deal with child pornography on the internet. A task group is working on the issue, and there is international co-operation in dealing with the provision of internet pornography involving children, and with those who access such images.

Events in Sussex last year tragically and horrifically threw the spotlight on another form of extreme material on the internet, which until then had not received the same attention—violent pornography in which men and women are depicted as the victims of rape, torture and asphyxiation.

Jane Longhurst was a constituent of mine. She was a talented teacher, and was much loved by her colleagues and the children whom she taught, in a secondary school for children with moderate learning difficulties. My last job as a teacher was at that school. That was before Jane started teaching there, but I have kept in touch with the school and my wife is a governor there, so I knew of Jane's colleagues' high regard for her, and of her students' devotion. It is a difficult environment in which to work.

Jane's disappearance in the early spring of last year touched the community in an unusual way—and not only those who knew her. Those who read her colleagues' testimonies shared something of the anguish felt by her mother Liz, who is here today, and other members of the family. That sympathy and anguish became mixed with horror during the trial of Graham Coutts, the man eventually convicted of her murder, and as we heard of the circumstances in which he had murdered her. We heard of Coutts' obsession with pornography showing strangulation, rape, murder and necrophilia.

There was also shock at the revelation that access to sites such as necrobabes and deathbyasphyxia is so easy. In one sense we should not have been shocked, because the internet is the great democratic tool of communication, providing us all with easy access to the knowledge of the world—whatever knowledge that might be. However, it also provides access to the sort of material that fed Graham Coutts' fantasies—and it doubtless led to Jane's death.

As Jane's MP, I joined my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter), in whose constituency live several members of Jane's family, including her mother. He, the family and I considered how we could try to get some action taken on access to such images, action that might eventually provide a memorial to the wasted life—it was wasted, because it was ended far too early—of Jane Longhurst. An early-day motion has been signed by many hon. Members, for which the family and I are grateful.

We also presented to Ministers a five-point plan of action. First, there should be work with internet service providers, search engine companies and web hosting companies to consider ways to block access to the sort of material on which Graham Coutts depended.

Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware of the Internet Watch Foundation, which has reduced the amount of child pornography hosted in the UK from about 18 per cent. in 1996 to less than 1 per cent. in the past year?

Lepper: I thank my hon. Friend for drawing our attention to the excellent work of that foundation, which I acknowledge. There is concerted action in this country—and, now, throughout the world—to deal with child pornography. Perhaps we need to ask the foundation to consider whether its definitions of obscenity should be broadened beyond child pornography.

The second issue that we took to Ministers was the need to reconsider the Obscene Publications Acts 1959 and 1964, and whether there should be a criminal offence of possessing the sort of images that Coutts used.

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East) (Lab): My hon. Friend will know that the Obscene Publications Act contains a defence of merit, which is sometimes called the Lady Chatterley defence. However, the Protection of Children Act does not contain such a defence. Does he think that that is right?

Lepper: I am aware of the defence in the 1959 Act to which my hon. Friend refers. However, I suspect that we shall hear from the Minister that there is a reluctance to carry out a thorough overhaul of that Act. Perhaps there should be discussion of the question of a defence of merit in relation to child pornography—but I cannot see how such a defence could apply to child pornography.

The third issue that we took to Ministers was the need for better international co-operation in dealing with such images on the internet. Well over 90 per cent. of the material that we are debating originates outside the United Kingdom. However, although it is comparatively easy to take action to block access to sites based in the UK, it is less easy to deal with sites based elsewhere, unless we have the co-operation of international partners. We have co-operation with most of our international partners in respect of child pornography.

Fourthly, we asked Ministers to consider the role of Ofcom. When the Bill that became the Communications Act 2003 was being debated, intervention by Ofcom of the type that we are discussing was specifically omitted from the legislation. However, I think that provisions in the Act allow Ofcom to take action if it does not believe that the industry is progressing as quickly as it might on issues such as filtering mechanisms.

Our fifth point concentrated on the way in which credit card companies might be involved in putting a financial squeeze on the providers of extreme images. In the wake of the trial to which I referred, newspaper reporters had some success in contacting credit card account processing companies and credit card companies, and got a couple of the sites that were specifically mentioned at the trial closed down. That was the five-point plan.

In early March, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West and I, along with Mrs. Longhurst and other members of the family, met the Minister and the Secretary of State to discuss the issues. We came away from that discussion heartened by the response, particularly on the issue of international action. The Secretary of State had already had discussions with his counterparts in the United States about greater co-operation. I hope that Ministers will pursue the matter with the G8 countries as well as with all our European partners.

One of the big problems that we face is that although, by and large, there is international agreement on the issue of child pornography, the same cannot be said about pornography involving adults. Frans van der Hulst, who is based in the Netherlands and owns one of the sites mentioned in the Jane Longhurst trial—one of the sites used by Graham Coutts—was quoted as saying: "I've read all the criticism but I'm doing nothing illegal. I don't feel responsible for what happened to Jane Longhurst. The only person responsible is Graham Coutts."

In a very narrow sense, I suppose that that is right: Graham Coutts committed the crime. However, I feel that many of us here would feel that there is a wider responsibility that Mr. van der Hulst shares with Graham Coutts.

When answering a parliamentary question in the House of Lords in February, Baroness Scotland put the matter quite clearly: "there is no international consensus on what constitutes obscenity, or when the freedom of an adult to have access to obscene or pornographic material should be constrained."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 23 February 2004; Vol. 658, c. WA31.]

That is one of the stumbling blocks when it comes to the international co-operation that is so much needed. I believe that that co-operation is probably at the heart of the issue of access.

Brian White: Is my hon. Friend aware that although restrictions in one country can damage the industry in that country, that does not solve the problem but simply moves it elsewhere?

Lepper: In saying that, my hon. Friend is supporting my view about the need for international co-operation. That issue is at the heart of the matter, although in the shorter term it can perhaps be taken together with looking carefully at what can be done through credit card companies and processors—the companies that process the accounts through which people pay for access to such sites. Most—not all—of those companies do not wish to be associated with this kind of material. It sometimes comes as a surprise to them to discover that they are helping people to pay for it.

Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): The hon. Gentleman has touched on an important point. He may be aware that the credit card companies held a meeting in the House of Commons a couple of years back, where they were keen to put on record their absolute commitment not to profit from inappropriate material. I hope that we collectively press them very hard, because we will then be able to get quick action in that area.

Lepper: Although international co-operation is the long-term objective, in the short term we should deal with the finances. It is not charitable organisations that are providing these images—it is big business. We must not only act in any way that we can against the suppliers but consider action against the consumers, although I understand that is much more difficult to define in law.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): Is the hon. Gentleman not aware that there is a problem with credit cards? How many customers who have been convicted of using their credit cards to buy illegal images on the internet have actually had their cards removed? Is there any truth in the suggestion that people who have been convicted of buying child pornography with their credit cards are being rearrested for committing the same offence with the same credit card?

Lepper: That is a problem, which is why we need to engage with the credit card companies. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) spoke of their professed willingness to become involved in lobbying on the issue, and we must press them as hard as possible to ensure that the situation mentioned by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) is stamped out.

I pay tribute to Mrs. Longhurst and the way in which she has campaigned since the death of her daughter and the end of the trial for the kind of action that I have described. The petition that she launched a little earlier this year will, I believe, eventually be presented to the Home Office and already has 7,000 to 8,000 signatures. Clearly, the issue is of real concern to many of our constituents. Although no one should overlook the difficulties involved in dealing with it, our constituents are telling us that they want us to get on with the job of overcoming as many of those difficulties as we can in both the short and the long term.

I do not often pay tribute to newspapers, but I pay tribute to the Sussex regional paper, The Argus—and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West will want to mention his local paper, too. Both have supported Mrs. Longhurst's petition and encouraged people to sign it.

These are difficult issues with which to grapple, and the technology is moving fast. In the past two or three weeks, the main mobile phone companies in this country met to consider how to deliver "mobile adult content" in a responsible way. The fact that they use the word "responsible" is gratifying, and most of them are considering ways of selling their technology with pre-installed filters either now or in the future. That, too, is a hopeful sign. However, the technology is moving fast, and, in addition to the five points that I mentioned earlier, we might consider involving the manufacturers in exploring more fully the ways in which filtering systems can be installed before equipment is sold to the customer. Indeed, the retailer Comet is already taking action on items sold through its stores.

Many other hon. Members want to take part in the debate, and I hope that it will put down a real marker in the record of the House of Commons: concern about the issue is shared by all parties and crosses party political boundaries. We shall be looking for regular updates from Ministers on progress on the issues that we are discussing. My constituent Jane Longhurst died at the age of 31. We cannot fully share what must have been her family's horrific experience as they heard and read the details of that trial a year ago. As Members of Parliament, we have a responsibility to take action that will be a lasting memorial to Jane Longhurst.

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) has secured this debate. A number of us submitted identical titles, and it is good that we have worked on a cross-party basis. I am particularly grateful for the support from the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) and the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley), who, although she is not here today, takes a particular interest in the issue.

On March 14 last year, Jane Longhurst was brutally murdered by a sexual fantasist. At his trial, Graham Coutts admitted to being an avid user of depraved and corrupting internet sites, such as necrobabes, deathbyasphyxia, and hangingbitches. In February this year, Graham Coutts was found guilty of the horrific murder of Jane Longhurst. He violated her dead body and, in between times, logged on to those very same internet sites, to feed his sick fantasies, which, all too tragically, he now had the opportunity to act out for real.

Incredibly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion said, such internet images are not illegal in themselves. It is only an offence to publish them for commercial gain. Whereas pornographic images of children are illegal to send and possess, images of women being raped and tortured for sexual gratification can be accessed from internet sites hosted from abroad without fear of prosecution.

The Jane Longhurst campaign against violent internet pornography was born to right that wrong. Jane's mother, Liz Longhurst, made an emotional appeal for political and public support for the family's call for action to block access to such sites. Those sites had, in the words of Liz Longhurst, a direct bearing on her daughter's death. I have worked with Liz, who is here today, and with members of her family who come from the Reading area, to take the campaign forward.

There has been remarkable progress in a comparatively short period, as politicians and the public have responded positively to the Longhurst family's call. For example, early-day motion 583 has attracted more than 170 signatures from all parts of the House. I understand that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham has a similar early-day motion, which has attracted between 70 and 90 signatures. There is widespread support for action to limit access to such images, so the question for this and subsequent debates is: what sort of action?

I was not going to mention the Reading Evening Post, but I now have to. The newspaper has been more than helpful: it has publicised the campaign and assisted us on the streets of Readings, with A-boards and other publicity, in generating support for the national petition. We launched the national petition on 8 March, on international women's day. To my knowledge, it has already attracted more than 9,000 signatures, mainly from the Brighton and Reading areas. It is worth pointing out that we are looking for a national charity to pick up the campaign and put some professional resources behind it. Although as Back Benchers, we have done a pretty competent job, we have limited resources. If we had the resources of a national charity, we could, I am sure, roll out the campaign the length and breadth of the country and attract more than a million signatures in the blink of an eye.

The Internet Watch Foundation, as has already been said, has done incredibly helpful work. I would ask whether the current self-regulatory regime needs tightening, but there is no doubt that the foundation's excellent "notice and take down" procedure has been a model and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion said, has reduced the availability of child pornography. However, we are talking about a different beast today—a different animal altogether. As has been said, we had a productive meeting with the Home Secretary on 4 March, and we submitted our five-point plan, which admittedly was rather hurriedly drawn together.

None of us is an expert in the internet industry, and I struggle to surf the web at the best of times, but I have been guided by more knowledgeable colleagues. I am particularly grateful for the support that we have received from John Carr of the National Children's Home, who has provided excellent briefings. One of the problems of circulating briefs among hon. Members is that others have already said much of what I was going to say, but as long as the points are read into the record, the purpose of the debate is served.

I spent an interesting, if slightly sickening, morning with the clubs and vice squad at Charing Cross police station. While there is intense police activity in hunting down those who promote, distribute and possess images of child pornography, it is a sad fact of life that only three police officers in the entire Metropolitan police area are devoted to tackling non-child pornography—and there is no evidence that other police forces have the necessary specialist skills required. I hope that the Minister can offer some clarification.

Brian White: Is my hon. Friend aware that there are only 240 computer forensic officers, most of whose tasks are based on Operation Ore and child pornography or terrorism. There are not the resources in computer forensics to deal with this issue, and we need a major increase in the number of people available.

Salter: My hon. Friend is one of those Members whose knowledge of the internet has been useful to me and other colleagues in this campaign, and he makes a superb point. As patterns of crime change, and as the internet becomes a more useful tool for those who seek to harm members of our society, police resources need to expand to meet that challenge.

The petition has attracted a lot of high-profile support. We are particularly pleased to have the public support of the Solicitor-General. It is rare for members of the Government to sign petitions to the Government, but this is a helpful liberalisation of freedom of speech in the ranks of the Government, and it is only to be encouraged. [Interruption.] Of course I invite the Minister, too, to sign the petition.

The debate is just another step on a long road. We have to grapple with some extremely complex issues. How do we bring in a regulatory framework for sites that are hosted abroad, often anonymously, which can move from the United States to South America, and then possibly across to Europe, taking advantage of disparities within the regulatory framework across the globe?

Before we move on to that matter—I am sure that others will touch on the technical details—I shall quote an emotional appeal that Jane's mother, Liz, made on 29 April at a school in Reading: "As many of you may know, my lovely daughter Jane Longhurst was strangled on 14th March 2003 by Graham Coutts. He had had a fantasy from the age of 15 of strangling a woman. When he discovered the internet he became aware that he was not alone in harbouring these sick thoughts so it then seemed all right to him and he indulged himself by viewing horrific material very frequently. This built up to a crescendo and the day before she died he was on the computer for an hour and a half. The police also found a CD he had made from images downloaded from some of these sites. So in fact he could have been viewing these disgusting images for even longer periods of time than was revealed from a police study of the hard drive of his computer. He was well and truly addicted to these horrible images. At present it is perfectly legal to view such images (although illegal to copy them and transmit them to others). I feel strongly that the law has to be changed."

We are in this place as lawmakers. We scrutinise the actions of the Executive. We scrutinise the laws and the regulations that we pass to see if they are up to the job and sufficient for the challenges of a 21st century Britain. It will be a monumental task, but I suggest a review of our obscene publications legislation—perhaps not in its entirety, but in its application to the internet. Such a task is long overdue. No one wants to upset this country's cultural community, as I understand thespians are known. On the other hand, are laws framed in 1959 and 1964 appropriate for the global communications revolution that the internet industry has seen?

I was disappointed that the regulation of internet content was specifically excluded from the Communications Act 2003. However, Ofcom has reserve powers to intervene if the internet industry does not, in Parliament's view, respond positively to the challenges that we face. There is merit in encouraging the suppliers of personal computers to build in filters from day one. In some of the briefing material sent to us, an analogy with seat belts was made. When one buys a car, the salesman or saleswoman does not say, "Oh, by the way, the seat belts are in the boot. Fit them at your own convenience." The mechanisms that I describe could be built into the provision of PCs in the first place.

Work could be done with internet service providers to provide blocking software. Some search engine companies, one of which is Yahoo!, have chosen to exclude all pornographic items from their operations, and I understand that a Home Office task force, which my hon. Friend the Minister chairs, recently established a sub-group of search engine companies to consider what can be done in that way.

One of the most important tasks is to examine in some detail the role and function of the credit card companies and the banks, which I look to the Home Office to do. Access to credit card billing lubricates much of this sick industry. If it were not for the banks' smugness and complacency, it would be possible to hunt down the people who are putting these images on to our airwaves and profiting from the torture, rape and murder of women on camera for private profit and sexual gratification.

Other hon. Members want to contribute to the debate, so I shall end my short contribution now, by thanking hon. Friends and other hon. Members for the support that they have given my colleagues and me in our campaign. I also pay heartfelt tribute to Liz Longhurst and her family for the courage that they have shown. They asked for public and political support on the steps of Lewes Crown court when Graham Coutts was locked up for 30 years: we parliamentarians should respond, and are responding, to the Longhurst family's call. I look to the Government to build on the excellent start that they have made in their meetings with us by acting to protect people in this country from images that, in my view and in the view of Liz and her family, led to the horrific death of a lovely girl, Jane Longhurst.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I congratulate the Chairman of the Broadcasting Committee, the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion—my near neighbour—on securing the debate. Many of us applied for the same debate, and I concur with all his comments and with those made by the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter). I have an interest in the subject for three reasons. First, I am a near neighbour of Brighton, Pavilion, and the case of Jane Longhurst touched the hearts of many of my constituents, particularly teachers, in East Worthing and Shoreham. For that reason, I signed an early-day motion on that subject soon after those tragic events. Secondly, as shadow Minister for Children, I am very concerned about child abuse. Last week, I spent an afternoon with the Scotland Yard paedophile unit, which was an eye-opening and harrowing experience. The week before that, I spent the afternoon with extremely dangerous child sex offenders at Broadmoor—another harrowing experience that gave me an insight into the problem that we are up against. Thirdly, I, like many others, was the victim of a Trojan horse e-mail, which contained links to pornographic sites.

This is a modern problem; the internet should be a tool and an asset for people to use and enjoy, yet it is falling foul of those who would abuse it for financial gain and other gratification, and for criminal purposes. The problem is getting worse because of the nature of technology: the greater penetration of computers and the internet; the great success in rolling out broadband to many more people, which makes the downloading of images easier; mobile videophone technology, which is coming on stream; and the computer literacy of many younger children.

There is no easy solution. It would be great if we could come up with an international solution involving Governments and big businesses; the trouble is that many of the images come from eastern Europe, and from the US, where people will plead the first amendment against any attempts to censor the sort of content that is made freely available. The Government deserve credit for encouraging broadband, but unfortunately it has brought many problems and more needs to be done to tackle the downside of the greater access that it provides.

Realistically, what we can try to do now is hack off the tentacles of the beast that has been created, because it will take a lot more international effort over a longer term to get to the beast itself. We must make it as difficult as possible for people to abuse the internet. I do not mean regular pornography—individuals have different views about the acceptability of that—but the extreme images that hon. Members have already described in relation to the tragic death of Jane Longhurst. The sites in question are easy to access in seconds, easy to link to from the increasing number of spam e-mails, and easy for children to access.

There was a furore recently about the beheading of Nick Berg in Iraq; video footage of those hideous events is freely available to anyone with basic computer knowledge who taps into the internet. Anybody who goes to a site called ogrish.com, as I did yesterday—I did not go beyond its home page—can have full access to that horrible footage. The site gives the following excuse: "Just like all the other uncensored videos and images previously posted, we feel that it is important to show what the human race is capable of in all its uncensored form. We don't MAKE you watch the footage, we just give you the choice. This is the world we're living in right now, sad but true . . . .Can you handle life?"

On that site, and others, as well as being able to access the footage of that horrific beheading, one can access footage of real suicides, an autopsy on a middle-aged woman, a bricklayer murdered by a co-worker after a drunken argument about a soccer match, a cross-dresser who died of asphyxiation after sniffing model aeroplane glue, burnt Iraqi persons, various cancer-related images, and an Iraqi killed by a sword to the back of his neck. Unimaginably horrible scenes are freely available to anybody who has had basic instruction on a computer.

To some sad individuals, that is purely entertainment, for whatever form of gratification; to impressionable children, it could prove traumatic and result in long-standing disturbed behaviour. At its worst, especially for people with a propensity to mental illness, it could serve to change their behaviour and promote copycat actions, or as an instruction manual for people committed to performing illegal acts of violence.

Salter: The hon. Gentleman talks about the effect on children. Does he accept that many of the extreme and corrupting internet sites are available simply by producing a credit card? It is entirely possible for children to get hold of their parents' credit cards, get into these sites and be exposed to images that no child should ever have to see.

Tim Loughton: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I will not dwell on the subject of credit cards; a lot more can be done to cut off one of the tentacles of the monster. Far greater co-operation is needed from the financial institutions that make it possible for these things to happen and for people to profit from them, which is the key point. At the very least, such images demean human behaviour and attitudes to the targets of such sites, particularly women and children.

The second subject is the use of the internet by paedophiles. As I said, I spent last week with Detective Chief Superintendent Peter Spindler of Scotland Yard's SCD5 child protection group—specifically, with its paedophile unit. That unit investigates more than 15,000 crimes committed annually on the most precious and vulnerable victims in our society. At this point, I should congratulate the BBC for its recent series on the police protecting children, which exposed some of the horrific things that happen.

As I have said, the visit was eye opening. It is soul-destroying work for the police officers who have to trawl through the images. Technology does not help much, because if the officers take from a suspected paedophile a hard drive that contains 2 million images, which is not unusual, they have to trawl through every image, not just take a sample, to bring a prosecution. It is incredible how sophisticated paedophiles have become. Using a system that many people would use just to download music tracks on to an MP3 player, they can download ghastly paedophilic images. They have sophisticated swapping rooms and use key words to swap images that are then easily downloaded through the internet.

I know that other hon. Members want to speak, so I shall be brief. My third point relates to my personal experience of a Trojan horse. While I was using my parliamentary e-mail remote system from home one Sunday night, my system crashed when I tried to access an e-mail that turned out to be spam. Two days later, we found out that our telephone line had been cut off. Unknown to me, the Trojan horse e-mail, with a link to some east European pornographic site, had got into my system and changed the dial-up number for the server to a premium-rate telephone line. A telephone bill for about 1,200 later, and after numerous calls to, and unhelpful responses from, my telecom provider, Telecom Plus, I was pursued for the bill with legal action. I received no help at all. Apparently, that has not happened to me alone—it commonly happens to people throughout the country, and it is another way of criminally making money out of links. I have had great help from the regulator, ICSTIS—the Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services—which is doing some great work. It upheld my complaint, and the internet company was fined. Of course, the trouble is that the company will do a flit and will be hard to pin down. Four years ago, ICSTIS received between 3,000 and 4,000 complaints a year. Last year it received 27,000 complaints, while its helpline received 250,000 calls, 77 per cent. of which were inquiries about high internet bills. Of the 1 million that it has levied in fines, it has been able to collect only 300,000. Action is being taken, but as many hon. Members have said, the technology of abuse is ahead of the law.

What can we do? I pay tribute to John Carr from the Home Office internet taskforce, Simon Moores from the e-Government monitor, and Zentelligence; all those have done a lot of work with parliamentarians. I also pay tribute to the Internet Watch Foundation and the Government, including the Home Secretary's internet taskforce on child protection. Many good things are happening, but trying to attack the heart of the problem is unrealistic at this stage—we need to hack off the tentacles. We cannot go down the line of full censorship, as they have tried in Saudi Arabia or China, where everything is filtered through a central server. We would not want to introduce that level of censorship, and satellite dishes would get round it anyway.

There is difficulty about the definition of what constitutes obscenity under the Obscene Publications Acts. What tends to deprave or corrupt one individual may be inoffensive to another. However, it is easier to define child pornography. If we can show that vulnerable people are likely to see the images, a prosecution should be able to take place. Sites or texts that advocate child sex abuse or provide advice or guidance on how to rape children without any trace should be illegal and constitute an incitement to commit illegal sexual acts with children.

We must chop off the financial tentacles and work with website hosts and carriers. We must also use measures such as the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, because such people are committing crimes. When I worked in the City, I had a legal obligation to report any suspicions that money laundering was happening, and if I did not, I could have been prosecuted, regardless of the fact that I was not complicit in any such activity. However, in this situation, internet companies, telecoms carriers and financial companies are making money out of carrying obscene material.

We must encourage better industry co-operation by threatening to use reserve powers under the Communications Act 2003 for Ofcom to regulate internet content, as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion said. Those powers could include fitting filters at source, using search engines to cut out trigger terms, and working with mobile phone operators to ensure that people registered as being under the age of 18 do not gain access to such material.

I pay tribute to the work of the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion and to the words of Mrs. Longhurst. This is a challenge to all of us and must involve politicians, Governments across the world, players in the internet industry, big business and finance houses. We urgently need a solution that we can all sign up to.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: May I make another plea for brevity? If speeches last only five minutes, the three hon. Members who have just risen will all be called.

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East) (Lab): I begin by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) on securing this debate. Although it is not pleasing that it is necessary, it is immensely valuable; we are at the early stage of debating and investigating these important issues. I also pay tribute to Liz Longhurst and other family members for their courage in seeking to raise the issue publicly. I gently correct my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter)—the Longhurst family live in my constituency.

Over the years, when there have been horrific cases, such as the Jane Longhurst murder, we have sometimes reacted emotionally. That is natural; we feel horror, disgust and anger. However, those emotions make bad law. As my contribution to the debate, I suggest that we must consider the issues in a cold and rational way.

Internet service providers are not obliged to host everything that someone might want to host on their site. They all have acceptable-use policies but there are gaps; no internet service provider is able to monitor absolutely everything. I also draw the Government's attention to the electronic commerce directive, which is now in UK law and which gives exemption to internet service providers that unwittingly give access to material that could contravene either the Obscene Publications Act 1959 or the Protection of Children Act 1999. Under that directive, internet service providers cannot be placed under a specific duty to monitor general content. That places an obstacle in the path of action being taken by this Government or an international co-operative of Governments.

It is not possible to achieve an international or other consensus on what constitutes obscenity. Any site or image showing real or apparently real killing or death should not be permissible. However, that might rule out many cinema productions and would put regulatory authorities in difficulty.

I thank hon. Members present for taking the debate forward. I hope that a resolution can be achieved for the protection of us all, but I fear that it may take considerable time.

Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): May I add my condolences to those already expressed to the family of Jane Longhurst and, in particular, compliment her mother on the courage that she has shown in bearing that awful blow and in turning it to something positive and helpful for society? I compliment my hon. Friends the Members for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) and for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) on their teamwork and diligence. I have hardly been able to pass through Portcullis House in the past few months without being swooped on by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West waving another piece of paper and saying, "This is the next step, Vera. We must move it along in this way."

I welcome the opportunity to add my voice to those of my colleagues calling for reform, and I support their five-point plan. I want to make several quick points.

The argument has been won; replaying abuse or enactments of abuse in the form of electronic imaging are an aspect of abuse. There is no such thing as innocent viewing of some of the images contained on these sites. No one can surf that sort of material without implication. Each viewing feeds the level of demand for such images to be produced, thereby encouraging the market. Each growth in the market pushes at the boundaries of degradation, encouraging future abusers to plumb new depths. Above all, the impact of those images on people already prone to the violent and brutal pursuit of sexual gratification cannot be underestimated. The very existence of those sites appears to normalise perverse sexual drives and to give confidence to those who might otherwise, being aware of the awfulness of their drives, suppress them.

The Government recently introduced the Sexual Offences Act 2003, and will soon introduce a domestic violence Bill. By doing so, they are determined to attack any notion that men, in particular, are entitled sexually to exploit or degrade women and children. Those two pieces of legislation send out the signal that no one is entitled to exploit anyone violently or sexually.

 

5th January

House of Commons:

Questions to Tessa Jowell: Culture Media & Sport

  Pornographic Publications

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): What her policy is on preventing pornographic publications from being sold to children.

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Tessa Jowell:

Children must, of course, be protected from exposure to pornography, and I commend Bedfordshire county council and the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) for their efforts in that area. The magazine industry has established voluntary top-shelf arrangements covering the display and sale of pornographic publications, and those are welcome. In practice, however, there may be difficulties in defining closely what is or is not deemed to be pornographic or obscene under the framework of the Obscene Publications Acts.

There is a case for exploring what more might practically be done to safeguard children in the light of Bedfordshire county council's experience. I therefore intend to convene a meeting with the Local Government Association and other interested parties, including relevant Departments, to discuss the issue.

Andrew Selous: I am heartened by the Secretary of State's reply. Bedfordshire's trading standards authority has clearly shown from its under-age surveillance work that children are being sold sexually explicit material, as is no doubt the case elsewhere. Will the Government make a commitment to pursue Bedfordshire's proposal that trading standards authorities be empowered to prosecute traders for selling sexually explicit material to children, just as they prosecute traders who sell them alcohol or cigarettes?

Tessa Jowell: Having set out the position in my opening answer, I do not want at this stage to commit myself to the outcome of the discussions that we intend to hold. On the basis that we will examine whether the experience in Bedfordshire is a problem that faces local authorities more widely, we will engage in those discussions and produce proposals that are proportionate and practical, and we will, wherever possible, work with the industry.

David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend will be aware that the problem is no longer a question only of the sale of these materials to young people; they are freely available on the internet. All right hon. and hon. Members seem to be particularly plagued by them. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that we are looking at how to shut down all manner of spam involving pornographic material on the basis that we should be prosecuting? I look forward to hearing how she intends to take that forward.

Tessa Jowell: My hon. Friend has a long-standing concern about and interest in this area. He will be aware of the Government's position, which was clearly set out during debates in both Houses on the Communications Act 2003. There are undoubtedly inconsistencies as regards the licensing of videos, the non-licensing of magazines and the unregulated status of the internet. I am committed to achieving the maximum protection for children while taking account of those inconsistencies and the increasing ease with which children are able to secure pornographic material.

Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): Does the Minister recognise that one of the most serious problems is not the top shelf but the bottom shelves on which magazines such as More!, published by Emap, are readily on display and on sale to young children? If the Minister would take the trouble to read such magazines, she would find that they concentrate on the mechanics of sex and that they contain little moral content. It is little wonder that our children have no moral leadership in this country when that sort of material is freely available.

Tessa Jowell: There is an important distinction to be drawn as regards the market for teenage magazines, which I believe provide a very important service, by and large, for many young people. Yes, those magazines provide entertainment, gossip and tittle-tattle, but for many young people—this is to be regretted—they are the principal source of information about sex, development and relationships. By and large, that is a responsibility that the magazines discharge responsibly, through the Periodical Publishers Association and other industry associations. There is all the difference in the world between those magazines and the kind of magazines to which the hon. Gentleman referred, which are pornographic and, in some cases, questionably obscene.