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Oral Answers to Questions, Hansard, House of Commons, 19 November, 2001


12. Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands): What action the Government are taking to protect children using the internet. [13351]

The Minister for Criminal Justice, Sentencing and Law Reform (Mr. Keith Bradley): In partnership with industry, the police and children's charities, we have established a taskforce on child protection on the internet. With those partners we share the aims of making the United Kingdom the best and safest place in the world for children to use the internet, and of helping to protect children the world over from abuse fuelled by criminal misuse of new technologies. Backed by the taskforce, a public awareness campaign on internet safety will be launched next month.

Charlotte Atkins: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that response. In light of the Channel 4 news report on the Internet Watch Foundation, does my right hon. Friend consider that self-regulation is working, and should the IWF be more accountable?

Mr. Bradley: I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that the Government work closely with the Internet Watch Foundation and keep its work under review. As a result of lobbying by a number of parties, including the Government, the board of the IWF revisited and revised its policies on 15 November. The result is a recommendation to all internet service providers serving UK customers not to host news groups which the IWF identifies as regularly containing child pornography; to prepare, in consultation with interested parties, a list of news groups which have names that appear to advertise or advocate paedophile content or activity; to draw up a code of practice covering the conduct expected of ISPs that subscribe to the Internet Watch Foundation; and to initiate a discussion concerning the size and composition of the board, the selection process for members and any other matters of governance. The Government welcome the internal review and look forward to seeing the results later this year. I am sure that my hon. Friend, who takes a great interest in such matters, will watch progress closely.

Norman Baker (Lewes): Every hon. Member will welcome any steps that the Government can take to protect children using the internet and to clamp down on paedophiles who seek to abuse the internet, but will the Minister reflect on the powers that he and his colleagues seek to give themselves today under the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill, which will allow the Government to monitor and secure data from all internet communications, in pursuit of any crime, including shoplifting and vandalism? In the balance between civil liberties and protecting individuals, have not the Government got it slightly wrong?

Mr. Bradley: The Government take child pornography extremely seriously. I can tell the hon. Gentleman, first, that what is illegal offline is illegal online, and we must be diligent in monitoring that. Secondly, we are carefully

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considering the current offences associated with sex offences, particularly "grooming", to see whether we should introduce a new offence of intent to meet a child for the purpose of committing such an offence. We must monitor such matters closely. Internet developments are extremely important. We must ensure that children can safely use the internet, because of its great benefits for them, but we must also ensure that they are protected. We intend to do so by means of the sex offences review and other matters that we are examining through the Internet Watch Foundation. We will continue to work closely with the industry to protect our children.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Does my right hon. Friend accept that one of the easiest ways to protect children might be to get the industry to provide software that would be available to parents to monitor automatically what was going into their own machines? I have grave reservations about self-monitoring. It is clear that children can be lured into chat rooms quite unwittingly, and the danger needs urgent assessment.

Mr. Bradley: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Clear public awareness of the dangers of the internet and chat rooms is crucial. That is why we are launching the public awareness campaign and will continue to work very closely on education programmes in our schools to ensure that young people are aware of the dangers. On the point about software, programmes are being developed, including so-called walled gardens, which enable limitation of internet use so that parents can be confident that their children are using it safely. We will continue to look closely at how the programmes are developed and to ensure the absolute priority of the Government in this area, which is to protect children.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): While I welcome the Government's initiative regarding chat rooms and news groups, may I ask the Minister whether he agrees that it is not the role of Government to control the output of websites? Censorship is not their role. As he correctly said, software packages are currently available to enable parents to ensure that their children do not look at unsuitable websites. Does he agree that the Government could be even more proactive in advertising and promoting this issue to parents, educating them on it and ensuring that they are made aware that the software exists?

Mr. Bradley: I am sure that, if the hon. Gentleman reads my previous comments, he will see that I have already covered many of the issues that he raises. I repeat that we must ensure the protection of our children while they are using the internet. Any new ideas or initiatives that he feels to be appropriate for the internet taskforce will be considered. The taskforce is chaired by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes), and is a combination of the industry, users and all people involved in the area. We will consider closely any plans that he proposes.

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