Delays to Online Harms legislation ‘regrettable’ says Government

Published:  Thu 4 Jun 2020

The Government says delays to Online Harms legislation are “regrettable” amid concerns more 18 to 25 year olds may be watching “abhorrent” child sexual abuse online.

There were also calls for the Government to increase funding for “vulnerable” charities working to keep children safe online.

Today (4 June) Home Office Minister Baroness Williams of Trafford said tackling child sexual abuse is a “key priority” for the Home Office and that the Government will advance the Online Harms Bill “as soon as we possibly can”.

This came amid questions from peers about how the Government is keeping children safe during the Coronavirus lockdown.

Speaking in the Lords, Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Benjamin asked what steps the Government is taking to prevent 18 to 25 year-olds becoming child sex predators online.

Baroness Williams responded: “Child sexual abuse is an abhorrent crime and tackling it is a key priority for the Home Office.

“We aim to prevent offending by halting the escalation of harmful sexual behaviour in young people. We support the Lucy Faithfull Foundation’s Stop It now campaign signposting those concerned about their behaviour towards confidential support, and the joint project by the Marie Collins Foundation and the Internet Watch Foundation to increase awareness of the law.”

“The IWF is essential in preventing internet users, especially young men accessing, often accidentally, this type of horrific content and going on to committing sexual offences."

Baroness Benjamin added: “In April during lockdown data from three internet companies serving the UK market and deploying the Internet Watch Foundation’s webpage blocking list identified 8.8 million attempts to access known child sexual abuse imagery of innocent children.

“The IWF is essential in preventing internet users, especially young men accessing, often accidentally, this type of horrific content and going on to committing sexual offences.

“What is the Government doing to tackle the issue of the estimated 300,000 people who currently pose a threat to children in the UK, and what steps are you taking to encourage smaller ISPs who do not deploy the list?”

Baroness Williams replied: “We not only engage with our Five Eyes partners, we employ technology for takedown of such images, as do our international partners. We also are very engaged with our police and law enforcement agencies.”

In response to a question from crossbench peer Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho, Baroness Williams said delays to Online harms legislation are “regrettable”.

She said: “We are going to come forward with the Online Harms Bill as soon as we possibly can.”

Liberal Democrat Peer Lord German asked about the timescale for Online harms legislation.

He said: “We still have not received the response to the Government White Paper on this matter.

“Can you assure me that, before November of this year, we will get a response to the Government’s white paper, and also the legislation – will it occur before 2022, or are we going to have to wait that long before we can see a Bill to rectify this matter?”

Baroness Williams said: “I was giving evidence to HASC the other week and one of the things that I was doing with Caroline Dinenage, and she committed towards it before the end of the year.”

Speaking at the Home Affairs Select Committee yesterday (June 3), Susie Hargreaves OBE, Chief Executive of the Internet Watch Foundation, said new legislation to combat online harms is “desperately needed” to end uncertainty.

She said: “We desperately need the Online Harms legislation speeding up. We need to know where we stand. The level of uncertainty is really unhelpful to us all.

“We are still waiting for the Online Harms formal response and the code of practice, and all of us collectively need to know what is going to be within the scope of regulation, what we are going to be required to do. It feels like we are all operating in a kind of unclear space at the moment.”

She added: “I think the rest of the world is looking to us in terms of our regulation and what we do to find ways to mirror it and learn from it.”

Speaking in the Lords, Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Walmsley asked whether the UK Government would commit to providing additional funding to the UK Safer Internet Centre if EU funding is withdrawn.

She said: “Will the Government provide the 10% of funding for the UK Safer Internet Centre currently provided by the European Union after the end of the transition phase of leaving the EU?

“Childnet gets 50% of its funding from the EU, so it is even more vulnerable.”

Baroness Williams replied: “Efforts to combat CSA come from a number of funding sources, from the Home Office and elsewhere, and into various NGOs.

“We will make our funding decisions based on the best needs of children in this country and how to keep them safe.”

Conservative peer Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate said online games with chat functions are often used by sexual predators to “gain access to their victims”.

He asked if the Government is doing enough to make sure the operators of online games, as well as parents, are aware of the threat.

Baroness Williams said: “We are very concerned about some of these games and apps, particularly those that have end to end encryption.”

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