The Online Purchasing of Goods and Services (Age Verification) Bill received its first reading in Parliament on Tuesday when it was introduced by Labour MP Margaret Moran as a private member's bill.
Moran said in a speech to the House of Commons that e-commerce provided people under 18 with a loophole, enabling them to buy age-restricted goods such as alcohol, cigarettes and pornography.
"There are most often no checks online, thus enabling children to buy age-restricted goods," she said. "This is at a time when we are all rightly concerned about the increasing availability of knives and alcohol to under-age youngsters."
"The Bill would require online retailers and those who facilitate such purchases – for instance, via pre-payment cards – to take positive steps to ensure age compliance. We cannot have a wild west scenario whereby anything is sold to anyone and no one takes responsibility."
While credit cards are only available to over-18s, many goods can now be purchased using pre-payment cards which can be obtained by people under 18.
"The People newspaper worked with a 14-year-old called Zach," said Moran. "He got a pre-paid card at a local store; he paid cash and walked out the door with it. The card retailers say that their cards can be sold only to people over the age of 18, but Zach had no trouble getting his – there was no check whatsoever."
"Since there is no law that says it is illegal to sell the cards to persons under the age of 18, one is bound to wonder how carefully many retailers monitor it. Using the card, Zach was able to order XXX porn videos from Amazon, and knives from Tesco that were delivered to his home where he signed for them personally. Oddbins delivered some Vodka to his house, and apparently William Hill let him bet £10 on a football match," said Moran.
Though many websites ask customers to verify that they are over 18, Moran said that this was not sufficient protection. She said that the gambling industry was having to find ways to ensure online gamblers were over 18, and the retail industry should also be searching for technology to make this possible.
"The Gambling Act 2006, which came into force last September, specifically requires online gambling companies to implement an age verification service that is in no way dependent on the method of payment being used," she said. "In relation to gambling, the House has said it is not acceptable simply to ask people to confirm their age."
"We require companies to verify that their customers are over 18, for themselves, separately. We did that specifically and solely to protect children. There are technological solutions, and companies are providing online age and ID check solutions in order to screen minors," she said.
The Bill will have its second reading to the House of Commons on 16th May, at which point it will be generally debated. Most Private Members' Bills do not become law but can succeed in raising awareness of an issue.