Leader: David Cameron plans | Alcohol advice

IT MAY be the height of summer, with more people taking advantage of the hot weather than watching political interviews on television, but David Cameron took advantage of such an interview yesterday to position himself on two highly sensitive voter issues.

David Cameron wants to implement stricter controls on internet companies who do not block access to child abuse images. Picture: Getty

One was a bold declaration of intent that he would impose new legal controls if internet companies did not act to block access to child abuse images. The second was affirmation that a Conservative administration would seek to avoid any new tax rises and indeed lean towards tax cuts if re-elected in 2015. Both issues have resonance and will draw widespread agreement from the casual listener. But populist declarations of intent are one thing; in reality effective legislation can be quite another.

Google is one of a number of firms which recently agreed on measures to step up the hunt for abusive images. It said it would allow the Internet Watch Foundation charity actively to seek out abusive images, rather than just acting upon reports received. But the Prime Minister wants search firms to do more. He has promised further details this week on proposals to spur search companies to block access to child abuse images. The case for action has been fuelled by public revulsion over recent convicted child sex offenders where images of abuse were found on their computers.

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Banning images of child abuse from the internet is a highly desirable objective but the challenge for the government is how to introduce legislation that would not give a green light for bans and restrictions in other areas. Civil liberties campaigners fear that blocking certain searches in one country could set a precedent elsewhere, making other governments more confident in applying censorship.

Even assuming this hurdle can be overcome, many child protection experts warn that most illegal images are hidden on private forums, in cyber-lockers, and on peer-to-peer networks, and are not available via search engines. The “hidden internet” can help distributors of child abuse images to evade detection by using encrypted networks. Better, say some, to crack down on those responsible for producing and distributing child abuse images.

As question-begging is the Prime Minister’s declaration ruling out tax rises after the next election and his stated desire to “give people back some of their hard-earned money” as the economy improves. Coming on the heels of long-term forecasts from the Office of Budget Responsibility on rising public sector debt to meet the needs of an ageing population, there is deep public scepticism as to how far taxes can be cut. It also assumes continuing public support for the current bias towards cutting the budget deficit more by spending cuts than by tax rises. However powerful Mr Cameron’s instincts on tax cuts may be, he will need to show how they can be afforded before voters are convinced.

Consistency needed in alcohol advice

IN PUBLIC health programmes, consistency of research and approach is vital. Without these, we cannot know for sure the extent of health risks and the damage suffered. So it is proving in Scotland’s approach to the dangers of drinking while pregnant. While these have long been known, the problem persists because of uneven monitoring in different areas of the country.

Thousands of pregnant women have been quizzed about their drinking habits amid concerns about the effects of alcohol on their health and their babies. Official figures for 2012-13 show a wide variation in alcohol counselling and advice to antenatal patients where harmful consumption levels are suspected. Most of the interviews last year were in Ayrshire and Arran – a total of 2,280, while other health boards carried out almost none. Only four took place in NHS Lanarkshire. NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, Scotland’s biggest health board, carried out just 23. For an area with such a large population and with a longstanding culture of alcohol indulgence, this is an absurdly low number. Only last week research revealed worrying levels of deaths among women in their 30s and 40s in Scotland from alcohol-related illnesses.

The need for early alcohol counselling is compelling, given the dangers to which babies could be exposed during pregnancy. Indeed, such interventions for young women ought to be carried out before pregnancy is confirmed. The Scottish Government highlights that to date it has “delivered” more than 366,000 interventions to help people cut down on their drinking. Such a figure underlines both the size of the problem and the need for more consistent interview and intervention nationwide.