§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Joan Ryan.]9.30 am
§ Mr. 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's 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's 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 170WH 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?
§ Mr. 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?
§ Mr. 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 171WH 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 cooperation. 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?
§ Mr. 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 172WH 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.
§ Mr. 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, at which 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.
§ Mr. 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?
§ Mr. 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 173WH 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.
§ Mr. 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 174WH 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 ReadingEvening 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 175WH 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.
§ Mr. 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 176WH 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 taskforce, 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.
Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. Before I call the next speaker, I should point out that quite a few Members want to speak. I want to accommodate all of them, so I urge people to restrict their remarks to about five minutes. If they do, all will be able to speak. The wind-up speeches should begin at 10.30.
§ 10.4 am
§ Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)
I congratulate the Chairman of the Broadcasting Committee, the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr Lepper)—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. 177WH 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. 178WH 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.
§ Mr. 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. 179WH 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 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. 180WH 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
Order. 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 181WH 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. They send out a clear message that those days are over, that such behaviour is no longer acceptable to society, and that if someone breaches those norms, they will go to jail. How does the deliberate normative signalling in those two pieces of legislation marry up with allowing extreme sexually degrading material to be readily accessible with society's consent? I hope that the Government understand that that welcome and overdue legislation, which is designed to support and protect groups that were formerly abused, is capable of being undermined by the availability of such material.
It is said to be a measure of our commitment to the principle of freedom of expression that we allow those with whom we disagree to express their views freely. We can all say what we want, read what we want and download what we want. That is a human right—need it be a barrier to legislation?
The European convention contains a number of human rights. Article 2 of the convention states:Everyone's right to life shall be protected.I think that I have already made the causation point. Article 3 states:
No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment",which is germane when one is considering this subject. Article 5 gives everyone
the right to liberty and security of person.182WH Article 8 gives everyone
the right to respect for his private and family life",which, in the case of the Longhursts, has now been shattered. However, article 10, which gives the right to freedom of expression itself, is conditional. It states:
The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime.Article 17 prohibits any right in the convention from being used or interpreted in any way that might cause the destruction of any other of the rights and freedoms set forth in the convention. The balance is absolutely clear, without any peradventure.
As a lawyer, I would be happy to try to help in clarifying what is a very complicated area of law, in order to outlaw those kinds of images and sources, and that sort of behaviour. The Government must bring about change and should not hesitate to do so on the basis of human rights. So far as the safety of women and children is concerned, change is urgent.
§ Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab)
I would like to discuss further the role of credit card companies, which has already been raised several times. I also have been working with John Carr of the children's charities coalition on internet safety and have tabled some questions relating to child pornography and the credit card companies.
In opening the debate, the Chairman of the Broadcasting Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) said that concerted action had been taken on child pornography, which involves some of the most violent images available. However, we are only just beginning to address the issue. I shall outline the history, and give some figures to demonstrate the scale of the problem. Arguably, 1995 was the last year before the internet became a massive consumer medium in the UK. In that year, the obscene publications squad of Greater Manchester police seized a grand total of 12 child pornographic images, all of them on paper or videotape. Just four years later, in 1999, the same squad, covering exactly the same area, seized 41,000 child abuse images, all but three of which came from the internet. Today the police do not bother to count—it is common for an individual to be arrested with tens of thousands of images on his machine. Andrew Tatam from Lincolnshire was jailed for five years for amassing and obsessively filing and categorising the largest known collection of child pornography. He had 500,000 images.
My key point is that in the early days of the internet, the exchange of child abuse images was largely restricted to exchanges between paedophiles—money rarely changed hands. It was a matter of devotees swapping and completing their collections. People do not realise that the exchange of child pornography and violent images has become big business. We have to make it clear that it has become the province of organised crime, which is making huge amounts of money out of it. The landslide website, which gave rise to Operation Ore, 183WH took $1.6 million in its last month of trading before United States police closed it down. Other pay-to-view websites still operate on a similar scale; I do not think that the full extent of the problem has been acknowledged.
Such appalling websites exist only because credit cards provide a payment mechanism for the gangsters who own them. Because of credit cards, men who are not paedophiles systematically arrange for children to be recruited and raped in front of cameras in order to provide new merchandise. The same applies to the violent images that are the main topic of this debate. We must deal with the problem. None of the criminals who set up the websites has been traced to the UK, but the people who buy their products have been, and we can take action on them, as Operation Ore has shown. In one day, the UK police were given the names of 7,200 purchasers of child pornography; 7,200 people who used credit cards to buy illegal images.
To give credit to the credit card providers, they recognise their responsibility to act, and have joined and support the Internet Watch Foundation. However, they could do a great deal more. It is not clear what action, if any, has been taken. Having tabled parliamentary questions, I am still not aware that a single credit card customer has been deprived of the right to use a credit card as a consequence of having used it illegally and been convicted for buying child pornography or other pornographic images. However, many will have lost their credit cards because they could no longer afford to pay their credit card bills. So, one can lose one's credit card facility because one cannot afford to feed one's obsession, but one cannot lose it because one has been convicted of illegally downloading child pornographic images. That cannot be right; it must be dealt with. The industry must find a way to prevent people from using credit cards to feed their appalling obsessions and, as has been said, to cut off the financing of the appalling industry at the knees.
Mr. Deputy Speaker
Before I call the Liberal Democrat spokesman, I thank hon. Members for their co-operation.
§ Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD)
This is an important debate. I echo the expressions of sympathy for Jane Longhurst's family, and I can testify to what has been an exemplary response from constituency Members from different parties who have lobbied effectively on the issue.
As Liberal Democrat spokesman on information technology, I shall, in the few minutes available, begin to set out a framework for what can be done to deal with the problem. The objective of the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) in introducing the debate has partly been achieved: this subject is now firmly on the agenda of the internet industry—and high on that agenda—as it may not have been before.
I shall try to answer two questions. The first is the often debated question whether the internet is capable of being regulated, and if so, how that can best be done. The answer must be a clear yes. We should not subscribe 184WH to the view that it is impossible to regulate the internet simply because of the complexity of doing so. That brings me to the second question: how best to achieve our social and public policy objective of preventing access to material deemed to cause significant public harm. Having designated a category of material as causing public harm, we are perfectly entitled to try to prevent access to it. Such an approach has been part of the history of English law.
We need to consider what can be done with specific reference to the literature on internet law. That is not because the internet exists as a separate legal entity, but because there have been studies of the particular challenges posed by a medium that is international and does not conform to old forms of regulation. Lawrence Lessig, in particular, has written a particularly useful book called "Code", which can be found at www.code-is-law.org. Mr. Lessig, defines four forces that act to control content on the internet, sometimes pulling together in the same direction and sometimes pulling in different directions. Those are social norms, the law, the market and the architecture.
In the case of pornography, three of those forces are currently pulling in the direction of liberalisation. Social norms are more tolerant, as seen in jury decisions on cases brought under the Obscene Publications Acts, but they are less tolerant in the case of child pornography and, I suspect, violent pornography. Social norms are perhaps the key determinant.
The market is certainly making access to pornography cheaper, and available to more people. Similar images were available before the internet, but what is different now—the word "democratising" has been used—is that there is no doubt that the images can be reproduced. The unit cost of reproduction is so low that millions of images can be printed and distributed to millions of people far more quickly. The market forces are significant, and have changed the context.
§ Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op)
Surely the difference is that if a market mechanism is at work, people make a definite choice to consume. The problem that MPs—along, I am sure, with the rest of society—face is that people send the images anyway. That cannot be allowable.
§ Mr. Allan
That is a separate issue, and I should certainly come down heavily on people pushing images out to people. However, in the present debate we are considering controlling or dealing with people who choose to access the material in question. The way in which people abuse the internet to push material out, particularly to minors, for whom it is clearly highly inappropriate, is a matter for another equally big and significant debate.
As for architecture, the internet is designed to be open to anyone, so that people can connect without detailed controls. It was built explicitly to prevent people from controlling it, and our aim now is to control something that was designed to be uncontrollable. That is an important constraint.
The most straightforward approach to the problem would be to strengthen the law. That would have a direct effect on the UK internet industry, which is committed to respecting our law in its entirety, which it does 185WH through acceptable use policies and other formats. We should recognise that the UK industry is one of the best in the world, as shown by its support for the Internet Watch Foundation and the way in which it responds to complaints. There is no doubt that when there is a question of illegal material to be dealt with, the speed and type of response here is way above par in comparison with other countries.
The ideal would be for states to enforce the law effectively, in co-operation with their own industries. Clearly, however, we are a long way from that when child pornography sites are still present in significant numbers even in a country such as the United States. It is not just the Azerbaijans and other such countries that cannot be regulated that are a problem; in the United States there are significant numbers of child pornography sites, and they are not taken down instantly as they would be in the United Kingdom.
As the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion pointed out, there is also difficulty about obtaining agreement on what is permitted across jurisdictions. For example, what is permitted under the social norms of Saudi Arabia is clearly very different from what is permitted in the United Kingdom, or, again, what is permitted in the Netherlands. There is a spectrum.
The legal solution would be to review the Obscene Publications Acts and consider whether the category of images that are illegal to possess should be expanded, and more images placed in the category covered by child pornography legislation. Because it would be difficult to change that legislation, attention is now being focused on the architecture of the internet.
There are four points at which access can be blocked: clients' computers, servers, search engines and the physical network. Clients should filter to protect users—in a household, children particularly need such protection, but so do family members who do not wish to receive certain material. Client filters can and should be installed, but they do nothing to prevent those who want to access extreme images or to deal with the kind of illegal and villainous activity that we are considering.
Servers can be taken down if businesses so wish. Internet service providers and credit card companies should take down servers on which illegal material is being posted. The use of that tool by internet service providers in the UK is good, and the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion is right to look to credit card companies to strengthen that, as well as to international action. Similarly, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) was right to talk about the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, which is turning out to be a useful tool across a range of issues, such as people carrying out illegal activities on the internet. As for diallers that change dial-up settings, I hope that the review of the Computer Misuse Act 1990 will deal with that issue.
Search engines are important, and they are acting in response to social norms. It has already been pointed out that UK Yahoo! is behaving differently from American Yahoo!—at some risk of criticism from the American parent company, I believe—as it recognises that British social norms mean that we expect it not to list or highlight child pornography sites.
The final, and perhaps most controversial, way of blocking access is through network level filtering, which throws up questions about the cost-benefits, about who 186WH decides what should be blocked, and about the provision of legal protection for internet service providers if they do block. The cost-benefit question is difficult to discuss in the context of a tragic death, but we need to be aware of the potential conflict between Government objectives. The Government want more and cheaper internet access, but filtering would make access more expensive and, potentially, more complex. That tension between Government policies needs to be recognised. However, I reiterate that it is difficult to talk about cost-benefit in the context of today's debate.
An important consideration is who decides what should be filtered, especially with material that is not illegal, and especially if we do not change the Obscene Publications Acts. Asking people to block legal material is very different from asking them to block illegal material. We need to recognise that that will be contentious and difficult for ISPs. They are not unwilling to act; they want to respond to social norms. We are their customers and they want to respond to our consideration of what is appropriate.
Legal authority and cover is important for ISPs. If we ask them to block sites, we need to give them legal cover for doing so. The risk of unintentionally blocking other sites is significant. Recently, there was a case in which the British Airways website was taken over by a Trojan horse that sent out internet spam. If an ISP unintentionally blocked a company such as BA for a period of time because it had been told that there was dodgy material at that address, its potential legal liability would be significant. The problem is not insuperable, but we will need to deal with that issue if we ask ISPs to do such things.
The objective, which is achievable, is to reshape the architecture of the internet to make access more difficult, rather than carrying out a 100 per cent. block, which is not achievable. The architecture remains a significant problem. I am very much in accord with other points that have been made, but the point about Ofcom regulation is difficult, because it would be rather like trying to get Ofcom to regulate content by regulating people who have TV antennae. The architecture of the internet is such that there are millions of connected computers, each of which is the legal responsibility of its owner, not that of the owner of the network. There is not a BBC or an ITV that we can regulate. The point is worthy of debate, but that is the one area in which we would find it difficult to support that level of action, as there is not a broadcaster as such to regulate.
I thank the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion for his constructive approach to this issue. He is right to say that the solution will involve a range of measures. There is no single silver bullet that we can fire to deal with the problem. I believe that there is cross-party support for sensible measures by which we can try to deal with the mischief that we are trying to resolve.
§ Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con)
I congratulate the hon. Members for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper), for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) and for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) on their contributions and on introducing an important debate. For all the internet's benefits, its darker and more frightening sides 187WH are becoming increasingly apparent. Many sections of the community are being victimised through this powerful medium in different ways. In order to address the varying yet connected ranges of extreme images, I shall briefly cover child pornography, obscene publications and websites that incite others to commit crimes that sometimes go beyond pornography towards outright terrorism.
Much work has gone into tackling child pornography on the internet through projects such as Operation Ore, and there have been results. The percentage of sites hosted in the UK that the Internet Watch Foundation reported as containing illegal images of children fell, as has been said, to 1 per cent. in 2003. Now the problem, to which I shall return, is what to do with the foreign sites. Operation Ore was a two-year investigation into internet paedophiles. Of 7,200 people identified by the investigation, 3,537 were suspects, 1,679 were charged and 1,230 were convicted—and that was a clampdown on just one site.
However, I have concerns about the delays that occurred during the investigation and its wider implications. Scotland Yard received the names of the 7,200 people in 2000, but my local experience is that the police in Cambridgeshire received the names of those identified in the county only in July 2002, and I suspect that there have been similar delays at other forces around the country. Can the Minister comment on those delays and explain what happened?
I am also concerned about whether the police can cope with their current resources. Are forces properly funded and do they have access to adequate IT specialists? As the hon. Member for Reading, West said, only three forces have units dedicated to investigating paedophile activity on the net. Could the Minister comment on how the police would cope if another 7,000 names were passed to Scotland Yard tomorrow?
Child pornography is not the only issue that must be addressed: pornography on the internet as a whole is in need of regulation. The murder of Jane Longhurst in March 2003 by a man who had downloaded hundreds of evil images before he strangled her has, as was movingly expressed by the hon. Members for Brighton, Pavilion and for Reading, West, highlighted the issue. New methods of tackling obscene images on the web must be used, as several hon. Members have suggested.
For example, the banks and collection agents that allow people to pay to enter pornographic sites could cancel cards or make such transactions void; that possibility was well described by the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber). Filters can be put in to computers, there must be more restrictions on unsolicited commercial e-mails and spam, and search engines could be restricted so as not to trigger such obscene sites. Moreover, as other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said, the legislation governing obscene images must be updated. The Obscene Publications Acts of 1959 and 1964 are outdated, with their vague concept of its being an offence to sell or display publicly material likely to deprave or corrupt.
188WH There is the further issue of using images on the internet to incite others to violence and terrorism. I cite here the example of SHAC—the so-called Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty campaign—which, unfortunately, I regularly see in practice in my constituency. SHAC has made effective use of the power of the internet to promote its campaign. Tactics that have been employed include publishing images of employees and inciting or encouraging supporters to target them, and publishing names and home addresses of employees, customers, suppliers, shareholders and professionals, who are then often attacked, intimidated, fire-bombed or sent hate mail. Those problems are indeed serious.
I shall consider briefly what people can currently do by using civil law—if they can afford it—and I shall again use the example of Huntingdon Life Sciences. Its legal department has successfully closed down the SHAC UK and USA websites some 10 to 15 times. Initial complaints are made to the internet service providers, and if unsuccessful, the complaint is passed on to the upstream ISP, which is usually a larger or national or international company. Reference is often made to the ISP's terms and conditions of service, which commonly forbid the use of hate mail or harassing content.
§ Brian White
In evidence to the all-party internet group, which was considering the use of the Computer Misuse Act 1990, some ISPs pointed out that they can go back several stages in meeting other ISPs, but that they will eventually come to a black hole, and not be able to trace the ISP that provides the service. How would the hon. Gentleman deal with such a situation?
§ Mr. Djanogly
I shall come to that issue shortly, so I ask the hon. Gentleman to hang on.
Traditionally, reference is commonly made to the ISP's terms and conditions of service, which forbid the use of hate mail or harassing content, and adopt the so-called principles of netiquette, to which many ISPs have signed up. Reference is commonly made to article 8 of the European convention on human rights, which has been so competently described by the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), as well as to copyright infringement and potentially defamatory remarks. The latter are in line with the case of Godfreyv. Demon Internet, which has eroded the ISP's defence of innocent dissemination if it is informed of the defamatory content but fails to act.
Huntingdon Life Sciences has had less success in the Netherlands, where SHAC's ISP site is currently domiciled, because that ISP holds radical views that make it much tougher to deal with. The interlocutory injunction—a civil remedy—obtained by HLS under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, prevents the publication of protected persons' names and addresses. The order is novel in that breaching it is a criminal offence and is therefore arrestable. The judge also declared that the injunction had to be printed on the SHAC site.
HLS had previously complained to the Information Commissioner that SHAC had not notified itself under the Data Protection Act 1998. The commission investigated the matter and concluded that SHAC had 189WH infringed the Act, but it refrained from pursuing enforcement. One of the reasons seemed to be that as SHAC would not abide by the criminal sanctions in any event, the limited resources of the commissioner would not be best used by trying to enforce them. That is a sad state of affairs.
One further avenue of compliant was to the Advertising Standards Authority. Complaints have been made that the SHAC website is not legal, decent, honest or truthful. Despite the authority's upholding such complaints, SHAC continues to publish; the toothless enforcement powers of the ASA are inadequate to deal with those who flagrantly flout such decisions.
Despite the problems of using the civil law, the expensive use of injunctions has meant that the civil law now goes beyond what the criminal law has to offer. That needs to be changed, not least because many smaller companies and people cannot afford to apply for injunctions and because, in any event, they expect to be protected by the criminal law.
I make two suggestions to deal with the foreign hosting of illegal sites, which is the key problem. First, the Crown Prosecution Service now has to prove who is the author, publisher or recipient of any articles that appear on the website, and then prove that the material constitutes an incitement to commit a crime, or is a crime in itself. That is clearly extremely difficult if not impossible to prove in respect of organisations such as SHAC. However, the law could be changed so that, under section 4A of the Public Order Act 1986, an extremist, threatening or intimidatory offence could be classified as aggravated in the same way as a racially aggravated offence. If the penalty was increased to make it an arrestable rather than a summary offence, it would be much easier for the police to investigate and gain convictions.
Secondly, a law could be introduced to make the person or organisation registering or paying for the website, wherever it was hosted, responsible for what was published on it, with the burden of proof being on the person or the organisation to show that they were not responsible for the contents of the website.
As highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, none of that should stop the Government working to improve international protocols on acceptable behaviour. Some talk about internet freedom as if it were different, but it is a medium, and like other media it should be regulated to protect people from crime.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins)
I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) on obtaining this important debate. He raises an issue of considerable public interest. As we heard, it came to particular prominence following the tragic murder of Jane Longhurst, who lived in his constituency. I hope that he will regard the debate and my response to it as one of the updates for which he called, and to which I am committed, as he and his colleagues roll out the campaign and we seek solutions to the urgent questions that have been posed.
190WH I have listened carefully to the proposals made by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber, and I pay tribute to all those who contributed. They demonstrated that they do not confine their interest in the issue to the debating chamber, but do a lot of active research in a difficult and challenging area. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter). He has supported Mrs. Longhurst, who lives in his constituency, and other members of her family. I am pleased that Mrs. Longhurst has been able to listen to our debate. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I met members of the Longhurst family on 4 March to discuss some of the issues raised in today's debate. Given the profound grief that they must feel, the manner in which they voiced their concerns and made their five specific proposals was extremely impressive.
We are all concerned about the availability of extreme adult material on the internet. We are also concerned that similar material might soon become more widely available through other electronic media, including mobile phones, as new services are developed. If we are to take effective action in terms of legislation and enforcement, we need, as has been acknowledged, to consider not only the law in the United Kingdom but the way in which other jurisdictions deal with the issues. We must also consider what is possible technically at a time when new technologies are developing apace and there is still no clear international consensus on what, if anything, should be done.
During his recent visit to the United States, the Home Secretary, in an attempt to promote greater international co-operation, raised the issue of the availability of extreme adult pornography on the internet. That has been mentioned. Talks have continued since among officials. We are also considering what scope there is for a wider initiative to influence how the issue is dealt with by other countries, and for specifically targeting those questions at the G8.
It might be helpful if I say a few words about the sort of material that is forbidden under the criminal law. The obscenity laws—the Obscene Publications Acts of 1959 and 1964—cover, as hon. Members have noted, the publication, distribution, showing, giving and possession for gain of material with a tendency to "deprave or corrupt" those likely to read, see or hear it. That test can be difficult to apply, and is quite different from the way in which we deal with indecent photographs of children, which are relatively easy to identify and are always against the law.
The primary purpose of the obscenity Acts is to tackle the spread of the material and the possible corruption of individuals by it. That is why we do not penalise simple possession of obscene material, although the measures cover a much wider range of material, going beyond the publication of images to cover other media, including the written word. Ultimately, the obscenity Acts leave the test of what is obscene to members of the jury, who of course reflect the moral standards of the time. That flexible interpretation of the test is part of its strength. Although our obscenity laws are not as clear in defining what is illegal as the Protection of Children Act 1978, 191WH the question of who is in receipt of the publication, and in particular, whether they are a child or an adult, is highly relevant.
As hon. Members have said, the development of the internet has made a significant difference. In 1959, the supply of obscene material was more easily controlled and cut off, so publication was seen to have priority over possession. Now, however, easy access to a wide range of images—some of them extreme—is leading to new and urgent questions about the possession of certain types of material.
Parliament has already taken the view that possession of indecent photographs of children is a criminal act—partly because possession fuels demand for such images. The issues as regards adult pornography are less clear-cut, although we should not be insensitive to the impact of some of the more extreme material on those involved in making it as well as on those who access it.
The question posed in the debate is whether we can find a just and acceptable way of intervening when a person deliberately seeks out extreme material that may lead them towards offending. One immediate difficulty that we face is that there is only a limited amount of empirical evidence to suggest that looking at particular material causes people to commit particular offences. I was struck by the remarks of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who noted that, sickening as it might seem to the majority of us, some people simply see such images as entertainment and are not necessarily led to take a particular course of action—so the evidence is not as extensive as we might like.
There is some indication from sex offenders who have abused children that they have used photographs—including those available on the internet—as part of a process to break down their internal controls to the point where they are ready to commit direct offences. It may seem common sense to all of us that repeatedly looking at an image can accustom the viewer to it and make it appear normal, but the evidence is rather more difficult to evaluate.
§ Mr. Salter
Although some evidence is anecdotal, does my hon. Friend not accept the view of many of the senior police officers who have been active on this issue that access to images of child pornography, and to 192WH extreme images of torture and sexual acts involving adults, has been a factor in leading people to commit certain sexual offences?
§ Paul Goggins
I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution, and I pay tribute to the work of the police officers whom he mentioned. As several hon. Members have observed, they do incredible work in monitoring and intervening in such cases, and none of us would like to do their job. We shall take careful note of their experience and observations; that is part of the evidence gathering that we need to do. I simply make the point, however, that there is no empirical evidence at this time to suggest that looking at a particular image will lead to a particular action. We shall, of course, carefully gather the evidence.
However we define illegal material, we still face the challenge of dealing effectively with it. As several hon. Members have said, we in the United Kingdom are fortunate in having the industry-funded Internet Watch Foundation, which enables anyone to report, for example, images of child abuse on the internet anywhere in the world. The IWF makes a judgment as to whether the reported website carries potentially illegal material and passes details of any illegal material to the relevant law enforcement agencies so that they can take action. Where the site is hosted in the UK, the law enforcement agencies will seek its removal with the relevant internet service provider. That procedure has been remarkably successful in recent years; as my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) said, fewer than 1 per cent. of child pornography sites identified by the IWF in 2003 were hosted in the UK.
We are also confident in the IWF's ability to identify adult material that is potentially in breach of the Obscene Publications Acts and to refer to the police any site hosted in the UK, although evidence from the IWF and the national high-tech crime unit shows that the UK hosts hardly any of the extreme material carried on the internet that might be illegal in the UK if distributed to an adult.
Much more could be said in response to the many points that have been raised this morning. It is important that we continue to work together—the Government, the industry, the internet—
§ Paul Goggins
I fear that I have no time left.
As I have said, in a fast-moving world where technology develops all the time, it is vital that we have this debate and consider what action can be taken together, so that we can intervene where appropriate.