HL Deb 11 December 2000 vol 620 cc100-2

2.58 p.m.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to combat the dissemination of racist material on the Internet.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the Government condemn those who use the Internet to distribute race hate material. Provided that it falls within our jurisdiction, Internet material is subject to the same laws as material distributed by other means. The Public Order Act 1986 deals with material which is threatening, abusive or insulting and intended to stir up racial hatred.

Last month the Home Secretary announced that the Government were making available £25 million to the police over the next three years to initiate the implementation of a national hi-tech crime strategy. That will enhance the capability of law enforcement to investigate crime more effectively where new technology is used. The Home Office is currently discussing with the Internet Watch Foundation ways in which the IWF can act on complaints by members of the public about racist material on the net.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that comprehensive reply. However, is he familiar with the recent report of the racism monitoring unit of the European Union which states that over 2,100 websites on the Internet now promote racism and anti-Semitism and that a substantial number of them are based in the United Kingdom, including the notorious Blood and Honour Combat 18 website, which promotes Holocaust denial, incitement to racial hatred and the adoration of Adolf Hitler? Is he satisfied that the Internet Watch Foundation, to which he referred, has sufficient resources to do the job? Does he not feel that as the Public Order Act 1986 was introduced before the Internet was developed, there is a case for strengthening its provisions in this area?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am aware of the report. I have a copy and I have been studying it. It is very disturbing, particularly with regard to the development of Internet race hate material, as my noble friend said. We are satisfied with the way in which the Internet Watch Foundation works. We have had detailed discussions with it about this very sensitive matter. We are as alarmed as everybody else by the growth of such material. We are concerned, and we shall ensure that the foundation has adequate resources. We continue to support it to that end.

As I said earlier, we are providing additional resources to the police service so that it can improve the quality of enforcement in this area. That requires training and an understanding of the new techniques which are available and of the way in which the net can be used and abused.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, will the Minister say what is the liability of service providers for racist and other unlawful material published on their sites? In view of the impossibility of supervising the immense amount of material which is put on a particular service provider's site, should not the courts be allowed to consider granting orders against racist and other material which would become binding on the service provider so that he had proper notice of it?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, this is an extremely complex and technical area. I agree with the noble Lord that we need to pay careful attention to the activities of service providers in this regard. Yes, there needs to be careful monitoring. We are always grateful when Members of your Lordships' House bring any particular sites to our attention. The police have a primary law enforcement role in that regard and we must ensure that they have the resources and support to carry out a very difficult job.

Baroness Whitaker

My Lords, will the Minister publicise a phone number or helpline to which members of the public can refer if they come across such material?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the best advice that I can give to people who are offended by this appalling material is to make contact with the Internet Watch Foundation or the police if they believe that a criminal offence is involved. The police are the primary law enforcement body in this instance. We should make sure that the police are doing the job they are there to do. We all have a vested interest, in society, in ensuring that such appalling instances of abuse of the Internet are drawn to public attention.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, much vile and offensive material is published on the Internet and organisations have been identified which are operating from this country, as the noble Lord pointed out. Why have no prosecutions been brought under the Public Order Act against those organisations?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, there are some difficulties in the use of that legislation in this regard. The noble Lord makes a very useful contribution to the debate. Certainly, I shall want to look more closely at the statistics and find out why it is perhaps more difficult, with regard to the Internet, to use the Public Order Act in the way the noble Lord suggests. I have been advised that overtly racist organisations, like, for example, the BNP, have skilfully devised their own websites which travel close to the margins of legality but nevertheless manage to skirt round it and avoid prosecution. We should be aware of the difficulties.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, is the Minister aware that on Tuesday, 23rd January, I am sponsoring a meeting in the Moses Room for the Internet Watch Foundation to explain to your Lordships exactly what it is doing? I hope that that will help noble Lords to understand the problem rather better.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am aware of that fact and, if I have the time, I shall certainly join my noble friend because I believe that the IWF does a very good job. We fully support its work and its efforts.

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