HC Deb 06 May 1999 vol 330 cc1080-2
13. Mr. Nigel Beard (Bexleyheath and Crayford)

What plans he has for regulating the advertisement of military weapons and manuals on the internet. [82370]

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Mr. Ian McCartney)

Before I answer my hon. Friend's question, may I take a few moments to thank you, Madam Speaker, and right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House for the many cards, letters, e-mails and faxes that I received wishing me well during my recent illness? I assure hon. Members that the rumour that I am the first DTI Minister to be bitten by the millennium bug and survive is completely untrue. I hope that they will see from my responses today that I am back in full working order.

In the United Kingdom, the law applies equally on-line and off-line, which means that goods or services can be advertised or sold on the internet in the same way as on traditional media, provided that they comply with UK law in that area. The majority of British defence manufacturers advertise their equipment and services in the "British Defence Equipment Catalogue", which is widely available. It is an offence under the Official Secrets Act 1911 to publish classified material without authorisation, regardless of the medium of publication. In addition, the Government's White Paper on strategic export controls, Cm 3989, contains a proposal to make it an offence to publish controlled technology relevant to the development of weapons of mass destruction.

Mr. Beard

I thank the Minister for that reply. Has he seen the pages on the internet that advertise, for example, lock-picking tools that are described as "deluxe" and "the standard choice of the industry"—it does not say what industry that might be. Even more sinister are the pipe-bomb-making instructions, which carry the thoughtful caution, "Pipe bombs are killing devices", and the helpful advice, "For more bombs, click here". The intellectual market is also catered for with the "Improvised Munitions Handbook" and the "Anarchist Handbook", which provide advice on making small arms, mortars and incendiary devices and the explosives that go with them. Does the Minister agree that the greatest danger lies not in importing the American gun culture to this country, but in allowing a few criminal and crazed individuals to access such material and know-how, which leads to tragic consequences, which we witnessed recently in Brixton, Brick lane and Soho?

Mr. McCartney

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and comments. There is no one in the House who is not filled with horror, revulsion and continuing concern about recent events, some of which we can make no further comment on because they are now part of the court process—I want to say nothing that would interfere with that. We are concerned also about the incident that took place in my hon. Friend's constituency.

We are taking action and will continue to do so. We need international co-operation on enforcement in different jurisdictions. Businesses and consumers need tools to protect themselves, such as the ability to filter material for harmful content and the ability to ensure that children and young people are not able to skim the net and get information that they can use inappropriately. The users and sellers of internet and hardware products could assist in that process. Service providers should and must uphold the law on-line. However, we shall keep the options open, while remaining mindful of the potential need for future regulation. I shall report to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary the comments made today about issues that hon. Members would like the Government to review.

It makes sense to have laws controlling the misuse of information. For example, it is an offence to make or possess explosives under suspicious circumstances, and that is appropriate. Internationally, we need to do much more and to try to co-operate on what is a difficult matter, given the different jurisdictions.