HL Deb 13 October 2004 vol 665 cc356-72

7.32 p.m.

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.

7.41 p.m.

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.

7.45 p.m.

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?

7.56 p.m.

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. Ever 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.

8.1 p.m.

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?

8.3 p.m.

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 he 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 etect 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.

8.12 p.m.

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?

While I would be the first to defend our civil liberties, freedom of speech and expression, violent pornography on the Internet exceeds all boundaries of what we in our society should be prepared to live with. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, that ICSTIS is doing some great work, as is the Internet Watch Foundation. However, unfortunately the technology of abuse remains ahead of the law. The sentiment throughout the debate of tackling those problems head-on can be the only way forward. Perhaps we should initiate further debate so that we can hear from other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, who has a wealth of knowledge in this area to contribute.

8.19 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I, too, express my gratitude to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford for instigating this debate. Sadly, it is an issue with which regrettably I am all too familiar being a Brighton resident and following the tragic murder of Jane Longhurst who was very much a part of the Brighton community. I pay tribute not only to the dignity of her parents and sister for the way in which they have campaigned on the issue following her death but also to the MPs, David Lepper and Martin Salter, who in different ways have pressed for more and urgent action regarding this abuse.

Following the death of Jane Longhurst the Government have given very active consideration to what more can be done in this field. The implications of her trial have focused our minds tremendously. We are now reconsidering what can be done regarding websites that feature necrophilia and sexual violence. We are considering how we can proceed in relation to strengthening the law in that area.

The Government are obviously very concerned about the availability of violent or extreme pornography, and the influence that this sort of material could have on our children. The availability of such material on the Internet, accessible directly from our homes wherever we live, makes this an issue that affects all countries. As the right reverend Prelate and all other contributors to this evening's valuable debate have rightly said, it is a global and international problem.

Attempting to limit illegal material that is available via the Internet is an issue which can be tackled on many fronts. These present different, difficult but also interlocking challenges. However, they may also offer some opportunities for tackling the problem. We need to consider all of them in our attempts to reduce the availability of illegal material.

First, it is important that the Government seek to consider combating this problem domestically, and I shall go on to outline what our approach has been to this issue within our own jurisdiction.

However, the Internet is, as we all know, a very effective communications medium and allows millions of people to access and publish vast quantities of information. There are many hundreds of thousands of websites and news groups that purport to contain violent pornography of various types. Most sites require a small credit card payment to gain access and the registration and hosting of sites is spread around the world with many centres of activity, particularly in the United States, Russia and China.

Dealing with this issue internationally presents many challenges, not least because there are no common definitions or agreed priorities for criminalisation of adult pornography internationally. Indeed, that is perhaps the root and the cause of the problem. However, there is much that can be done in respect of seeking to deal with this issue internationally on a variety of fronts which I shall go on to outline.

The first consideration in any attempt to deal effectively with such material, whatever medium is used to convey it, is to consider if it is illegal. At present the obscenity laws (the Obscene Publications Acts 1959 and 1964) cover the publication, distribution, showing, giving, et cetera, and possession for gain, of material that has a tendency to "deprave or corrupt" those likely to read, see or hear it. This is admittedly a difficult test to apply, and very different from the way we deal with indecent photographs of children, which are relatively easy to identify. However, the purpose of the obscenity Acts is to tackle the spread of the material and the possible corruption of individuals by it, rather than the protection of children. That is why the obscenity Acts do not penalise simple possession of any material. They leave the test of what is obscene ultimately to the jury, which ensures that juries can reflect the moral standards of their day. The flexibility of the test is part of its strength.

It remains the case that it is illegal to publish some extreme images under the Obscene Publications Act 1959 whether via the Internet (websites) or other means. The Government are currently considering whether the law relating to pornographic material featuring violence and sexual abuse should be strengthened.

The Government and law enforcement agencies have developed excellent working relationships with our domestic Internet service providers in recent years. This means that where it is found that a United Kingdom Internet service provider is hosting illegal material, there is an excellent record of co-operation from the Internet industry in removing that material.

In addition, all Internet service providers have a customer relationship established via an acceptable use policy with those who use their services to host material. If that material is not illegal, but is considered to be of an objectionable nature by the company, again there are established procedures in place by which such material can be removed. The Government are currently working with the Internet industry to further promote good practice within such acceptable use policies.

The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, referred to the important work of the Internet Watch Foundation in the UK in providing a hotline for the reporting of child abuse images. She rightly paid fulsome tribute to its work. The IWF decides whether the reported website carries potentially illegal material, and passes details of illegal material to the relevant law enforcement agencies to take action. When the site is hosted within the UK, law enforcement will seek its removal with the relevant Internet service provider. That procedure has been extremely successful in practice.

In 2003, less than 1 per cent of illegal material identified by the Internet Watch Foundation was hosted in the UK. In respect of adult pornography, we are confident in the ability of the IWF to identify material that is potentially in breach of the Obscene Publications Act 1959 in response to complaints, and to refer to the police any that is hosted in the UK.

We are told by the IWF and UK law enforcement that hardly any extreme material that might he illegal in the UK if distributed to an adult is hosted within the UK. As already outlined, we have well established procedures and industry co-operation for seeking its removal. That may mean that the legislative environment, action taken by law enforcement agencies and industry co-operation in the UK have all contributed towards such material being hosted elsewhere. That makes it very difficult for the producers and distributors to be dealt with unless they also break local laws in the country where they operate.

There is much being done at present and which can be done in the future to combat extreme and violent pornographic websites, wherever they are hosted. It is important to tackle the problem on a variety of fronts. For example, dealing with the producers and distributors of material is much more effective than simply taking down one website.

One role undertaken by the Internet Watch Foundation and police units, such as the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit, is passing on the details of sites that are hosted outside the UK to other hotlines and law enforcement bodies in the hosting countries. They will consider the site under their own legislation and take action where appropriate. Law enforcement agencies have well-established relationships with their counterparts in other countries to share information and work together on investigations. In particular Interpol, Europol and the G8 contact network all facilitate that working.

However, it is important to recognise that this is an area on which there is no clear international consensus on what, if anything, should be done. Different countries have taken different approaches to violent pornography and what is legal to possess or distribute within their own jurisdiction. There are no common definitions or agreed priorities for criminalisation among adult pornography. Even with images of child abuse, there are different approaches, although with child abuse images there is a clearly agreed international consensus to tackle the issue.

The G8 countries have agreed a strategy to protect children from sexual exploitation on the Internet. It currently focuses on building a shared international database of images to speed the identification of victims and offenders to prevent further harm, and on targeting those who make a profit from trading in child abuse images. The strategy also seeks to promote mechanisms for sharing information and best practice internationally to further protect children from exploitation on-line. We continue to work with colleagues around the world, particularly the US, on what more can be done to close down those violent pornography sites. The Home Secretary has made it clear that we shall work with our G8 partners to see what more can be done to deal effectively with violent pornography.

Other work has focused on preventing payment mechanisms being used to purchase illegal material. The Association for Payment Clearing Services (APACS), the UK trade association for payments, the Internet Watch Foundation, and the Children's Charities' Coalition for Internet Safety, have all worked actively to prevent payment mechanisms being used for purchasing child abuse images.

The arrangements now in place have made it possible for law enforcement agencies to become more effective in investigating, detecting and taking action against the sites that use specific payment services to sell child abuse images. The relevant card companies will also seek to trace the banks and the billing companies involved in processing payments and will cease the use of their cards.

Units such as the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit, through its industry outreach programme, have been especially successful in working closely with industry on intelligence and designing out hi-tech crime. Again, while much of the focus here has been on child abuse images, given the clear international consensus to tackle this problem, action has been taken against illegal pornographic sites more generally, and we continue to see how the lessons learnt from dealing with child abuse images can apply more widely to other illegal images.

In addition, the Government continue to work with the Internet industry and others to see what can be done in various ways to reduce access to illegal material or that which might be deemed to be inappropriate by the user.

Much can be done by parents to seek to protect their children from discovering violent pornographic material. Chief among that is the need for responsible parenting, providing good advice and ensuring that children feel able to talk about material found which upsets them. Also available is a variety of software which can control content and allow parents to monitor their children's activity.

Through the work of the Task Force on Child Protection on the Internet, the Government are considering ways in which the Internet can he made a safer place for children. They have engaged in several public awareness campaigns. They are also currently working with industry to see whether filtering and monitoring software products can be evaluated against an objective standard and impartial advice provided to parents. They are working with search engine companies to seek ways in which search can be made a safer experience for our children. We are also considering what technical solutions can be developed to block illegal images.

In closing, I want to deal with an issue relating to extreme and pornographic websites which presents us with a variety of challenges. Our resolution to deal with this issue domestically is not enough in itself. The development of the Internet has made a difference.

In 1959, the supply of obscene material was far more easily cut off. The advent of the Internet means that we now have to seek to influence other countries whose legislation, policy or practice in this area may well be very different from our own. The Government continue to work in a variety of international fora, seeking to discover how we can influence others and take other positive action.

As I highlighted, action needs to be taken on a variety of fronts, and the actions of law enforcement, industry and others in seeking to disrupt the mechanisms which support and facilitate this trade continues to play an important role in this work. This is a continuing problem, and we must continue to seek new approaches as the problem evolves.

Specific questions were asked but I do not have time to answer them all. However, I give a commitment this evening to write to noble Lords on the points that they raised so that I can deal with them thoroughly—particularly those relating to cost, the role of BT and international co-operation, in particular with the United States.

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