On the 20th March 2017, the House of Lords debated a Government amendment to the Digital Economy Bill at its Report Stage, on access to online pornography. Original Government proposals were that the threshold of censorship and prohibition should be as consistent as possible for material distributed online and offline. In a new amendment the Government offered a revised approach, with a higher threshold for prohibiting material online alongside a focus on age verification measures. The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, and the Bishop of Chester, the Rt Revd Peter Forster, spoke against the amendment, arguing to keep the original approach. The amendment was however agreed without a vote. The Bishops’ speeches are below, with an extract of the Minister’s reply. The full text of the debate on the amendments can be read in Hansard, here.
Lord Bishop of Leeds: My Lords, it seems odd in a society such as ours that we are even thinking about how to give access to violent pornography or trying to mitigate it in some way. It seems clear to me is that most of us sitting in this House probably have less idea of how online digital communications work than a five year-old. Children—my grandchildren’s generation—are very adept and almost intuit how to do this stuff. The technology is advancing so quickly—more quickly than we can imagine—and you can bet your life that many of our children will find ways around it more quickly than we can set down laws. What is online ought to be held at least to the standard of what is appropriate for offline, because it is online that children, as well as young people and adults, will access this stuff, and it is too easy. If the higher standard applies to offline, surely it ought to be maintained for online communications. Otherwise, we are saying that this is acceptable for the common good and that it represents an acceptable anthropology—our understanding of what a human being is—in which we are happy to normalise violence, the commodification of people and sex, and even the exploitation, not just for sexual purposes but for commercial profit, of something that ought to be held in higher regard.
Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, I know we want to get to the Front-Bench speakers so I shall be very brief and, like the contestant on “Just a Minute”, not repeat anything that has been said so far in the debate. I will say just two things.
First, virtually the only defence of the Government was from the noble Earl. He is half right and half wrong, in my view. The problem is that the Bill is not about the regulation of what adults should be watching, but changing the designation of pornographic material does just that. That is the internal problem in the Bill.
Secondly, there seems to be an agreement between the Government Front Bench and the Opposition Front Benches that the government amendments are going to go through. Then we have the amendment in the name of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. When he replies, I would like the Minister to speak about the White Paper and the further review that is in prospect. What are its terms of reference? If the Bill goes through in the form in which the Government now want it to go through, it will leave a very unsatisfactory state of affairs in terms of how adult pornography is dealt with in our country, with the distinction between offline and online, and all the questions about the actual impact of what will be accessible. It would be helpful to me if the Minister would say a little more about what the review that the Government have in mind is intended to cover.
Lord Ashton of Hyde (Con, Minister) [extract]: We have listened carefully to the criticisms that, in defining prohibited material in Part 3 as anything that would not be classified, we were going too far. Some noble Lords may not agree with that, but freedom of choice should be curtailed only after a lot of thought. We have agreed, in our internet safety strategy, to provide the opportunity to think about these things and some noble Lords have already been asked. We are not kicking it into the long grass: we have already planned round tables. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester asked about the White Paper. It is a Green Paper; we have promised to publish it in June and we are having round tables before that. As far as legislative time is concerned, I too heard the “Today” programme this morning. Of course, Brexit is going to take a lot of time, but there is still room for the domestic agenda. I think we can be certain that protecting women against violence, and other things like that, are going to be high on it, but I am giving no promises. I may be new, but I have been around long enough to know that I am not going to commit the Government to that from this Dispatch Box. However, we are taking it seriously and producing a forum, led by my department and in conjunction with the Home Office, to look at the internet safety strategy.