Peer calls on online retailers to regulate underage sales

May 11, 2009 at 1:51 pm Leave a comment

by Tony Grew

Knives, alcohol and pornography are all being bought by children under 18 from internet retailers, a peer has told the House of Lords.

Baroness Massey of Darwen was speaking during the second reading of the Online Purchasing of Goods and Services (Age Verification) Bill, which she introduced.

Private Members’ Bills can be introduced in the House of Lords by any peer.

This bill was introduced in the Commons last year but ran out of time.

It calls for online retailers and  “providers of specified facilities enabling the purchase of such goods and services” to take reasonable steps to establish the age of customers.

“Trading standards officers have put effort into testing compliance with age-restriction laws, but they are very busy,” Baroness Massey said.

“My Bill would change the situation by putting an obligation on online retailers of age-restricted goods and services to have effective systems to prevent underage sales.

“Some may ask whether there is a real problem. Let me go into some detail of why I think that there is a problem.

“In the second quarter of 1999, only 9 per cent of the UK population—2.2 million people—could access the internet from home.

“Between 2000 and 2004, internet usage in the UK increased by a massive 126.5 per cent.

“Today, over 35 million UK residents— 58 per cent—now access the internet. Close to 90 per cent of teenagers have a personal TV, as do 60 per cent of five and six year-olds.

“We are simply in a new electronic age, with more opportunities and more hazards for children.

“Children can bypass regulations by using a computer.”

Baroness Massey said self-regulation is not working.

“Very few online retailers have procedures in place to prevent underage young people buying almost anything over the internet.”

She pointed out there is “little to prevent” a parent giving their child access to their credit card and said a code of conduct is needed and “DCSF and DCMS need to be involved in investigating possibilities.”

“Banks can and do provide children, some as young as 11, with Solo or Visa Electron cards, which can be used to make payments on the internet and are accepted on websites.

“There are also pre-paid or store value cards which can be bought as gifts and given to people of any age or bought over the counter. Such cards allow children to buy goods and services online, which they would not be able to do in normal circumstances.

“A newspaper recently worked with a 14 year-old boy to test the system. I know of some parents who have also tested the system and found it wanting.

“The boy bought a pre-paid card with cash at a local store. Card retailers say that their cards can be sold only to people over the age of 18 but this boy was not questioned about his age.

“He was able to order porn videos from Amazon, and knives from Tesco that were delivered to him personally and signed for.

“Oddbins delivered some vodka to his home, and he was able to bet on a football match online.”

The Earl of Erroll was sceptical.

“I sympathise with the intentions of the people behind the Bill and I am not in favour of allowing anyone to break the law, but the practicalities worry me. Will it work?” he asked.

“The great cry is “something must be done”, and I very much associate myself with the comments of my noble friend Lady Coussins about the regulatory burden.

“We have to be careful about what we inadvertently introduce. I want to say something about the unintended consequences of something like this measure.

“We must allow young people to buy things online. Many things are only obtainable that way nowadays—certainly the better bargains.

“We must not outlaw methods of payment that will completely stop them buying anything.

“There is the loss of privacy every time one has to give personal details to yet another database.

“We have to be careful how that information is retained and that we do not have a plethora of databases that could be attacked or used for other purposes at some other point in their lives.”

The Earl of Erroll also expressed concern about the wide powers that would be given to government ministers under the bill.

“The legal duty to comply with these laws already exists, and I do not think that Parliament should micromanage people in how they do these things. We should not be passing laws just to send a message. That is not a good idea. One of the challenges is enforcement.

“The Home Office currently argues that e-crime is no different from other crime. It has taken a long time to fund a police central e-crime unit, for instance. It would be better to fund people who can do something about the problem rather than passing more laws and regulations and making great statements.”

Lord DeMauley said he was broadly supportive of the bill but worried it might place ” unbearable burdens” on retailers.

“Would it be practical or desirable for someone to have to provide various personal data—perhaps a credit record—simply to buy a set of kitchen knives for someone from an online wedding list?” he asked.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Cabinet Office, Baroness Vadera, told the House that “this government completely share her objectives and that her concerns will be brought to the attention of all relevant departments.”

However, she went on to say the focus must be on enforcing existing legislation and stressed the importance of online retailing to the economy.

“Since 2002, for example, internet sales have grown from 19 billion to nearly 163 billion a year,” she said.

“Of course, we want these innovative industries to flourish, but the primary importance given by this Government is to the protection of children.

“We agree—it has always been the Government’s position—with the statement made by the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, that activities deemed to be illegal offline are also illegal online, which includes the selling of restricted goods and services to underage customers.”

Baroness Vadera said “responsible online retailers” are making “real efforts” to ensure they are not selling goods and services to underage consumers.

“I must express reservations about the new regulations being called for in the Bill,” she said.

“We do not think that they would address the difficult issues in practical terms and would not lead to a foolproof means of age verification … there is a risk that having separate rules for online transactions could create confusion for retailers, consumers and the authorities, thus making enforcement more difficult.

“Here I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, and the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, about the imposition of regulatory burdens and the risk of potential unintended consequences and a lot of practical difficulties.

“While we are sympathetic to the aims of my noble friend’s Bill, the law outlawing the sale of restricted goods and services to underage consumers is in place for good reason, and we believe that the focus should be placed on rigorous enforcement of the clear and comprehensive rules that are already in place.”

Baroness Massey responded:

“Of course people should be allowed to buy online and of course laws exist, but the current laws are simply too easy to break.

“The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and I have stood shoulder to shoulder many times talking about children’s protection and children’s rights. She showed her concern about knives. I agree with her.

“We need action. Local councils such as Greenwich, which I and several others cited, are very concerned about this. I think that more of them will express their concerns.

“I thank the Minister for her detailed reply. I am glad that she will share the concerns across the relevant government departments. It is a cross-government issue, as I said earlier.

“I repeat that the law is not working here. It is being got round. The bottom line is the protection of children, who are not being protected by existing measures. I now ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.”

The bill was read a second time and now moves to a Committee of the Whole House.


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