HC Deb 10 December 2003 vol 415 cc498-9W
Charles Hendry

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what legal restrictions are in place to ensure that children under the age of 18 do not have access to pornographic internet sites. [140652]

Paul Goggins

The same legal restrictions apply to the publication of pornographic material on-line as they do off-line.

The Obscene Publications Act 1959 makes it an offence to publish any article which is considered to be obscene; that is, an article which, in the view of the court, tends to "deprave and corrupt" a person likely to see, hear or read it. The Act has been successfully applied to material published via the internet although enforcement is more difficult because the publisher or website operator is frequently based abroad and beyond UK jurisdiction. In addition, the taking, making, distribution, possession or publication of indecent photographs or pseudo photographs of children are all serious criminal offences.

Given the nature of the internet, we believe that it is not possible to prevent children under the age of 18 having access to pornographic internet websites by legislative means. However, there are ways of reducing the risk of children accessing such material by practical measures and raising awareness.

For example, a wide range of filtering software packages have been developed to enable schools and parents to restrict the types of websites to which their children have access. The Task Force on Child Protection on the internet, a multi-agency group which was established in March 2001, has set up a sub-group on rating and filtering, to consider how to evaluate and provide advice in the long term on filtering and other safety software products. The sub-group has made an initial report to the Task Force and will report again in due course.

At the beginning of the year, the Task Force published a single document covering separate models of good practice aimed at providers of chat services, instant messaging and web services, including providers of adult content. We consider that these models are a significant step forward in making the internet a safer place for children. As far as we know they are unique. They are voluntary but were presented to the industry with a strong recommendation that they be used. We are confident that they will be supported, by the major service providers represented on the Task Force and by the Internet Service Providers Association. The effectiveness of the models will be evaluated.

The Task Force has also run two successful public awareness campaigns highlighting both the huge benefits that the internet has to offer and the potential risks particularly to children of giving out personal information online.

The Government are determined to deal with paedophile activity vigorously, and in the Sexual Offences Act 2003 we have introduced, among other child protection measures, new offences relating to a person showing a child sexual material. Section 12 makes it an offence to cause a child, for the purpose of obtaining sexual gratification, to look at an image of a person engaging in sexual activity. It carries a maximum penalty on indictment of 10 years imprisonment.