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 1998

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02.11.98 Obscene Publications
19.10.98 Customs and Lap-Top Computers
07.04.98 Internet Watch Foundation
31.03.98 Crime & Disorder Bill
30.03.98 Scotland Bill
08.02.98 Video Recordings Act 1984
27.01.98 Film Classification
 
2nd November

House of Commons

Home Office Questions

  Obscene Publications

Mr. Prior: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement, on the effectiveness of legislation relating to obscene publications. Mr. Boateng: The Obscene Publications Act 1959, as amended, has shown itself capable of reflecting changing standards and of adapting to developments in technology. The Government are determined to ensure that the criminal law is effective in protecting people from harmful material and, with this in mind, keep the legislation under review. Mr. Prior: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many people have been convicted under the Obscene Publications Act 1959, for publishing obscene literature, in the last year for which figures are available. Mr. Boateng: Provisional data for 1997 show that 189 offenders were convicted in England and Wales under section 2 of the Obscene Publications Act 1959 as amended by section 1(1) of the Obscene Publications Act 1964. Information on the type of obscene matter (book, magazine, Internet etc.) used for such an offence is not collected centrally. Mr. Prior: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what steps he is taking to prevent obscene publications from reaching young people. Mr. Boateng: The Government are determined to protect young people from potentially obscene material by ensuring the effectiveness of the existing law.

All publications--including material available via the Internet--are subject to the Obscene Publications Act 1959, which makes it a criminal offence to publish an obscene article; that is, an article which in the view of the court has a tendency to 'deprave and corrupt' those likely to read, see or hear it. In the first instance, it is the responsibility of the police to decide whether there are sufficient grounds to launch a criminal investigation, and that of the Crown Prosecution Service to decide whether to prosecute those alleged to be responsible for the publication.

In respect of material which is not potentially obscene but which may, nevertheless, be unsuitable for young people, the Government support non-statutory schemes, such as the voluntary Code of Practice under which newsagents refuse to sell 'adult' magazines to persons under the age of 18, and the Teenage Magazine Arbitration Panel which oversees a binding set of guidelines on how editors of teenage magazines should deal with sexual matters. Mr. Prior: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the role of the police in investigating the publication of obscene literature. Mr. Boateng: Under the Obscene Publications Act 1959, it is the responsibility of the police in individual cases to decide whether there are sufficient grounds to launch a criminal investigation, and that of the Crown Prosecution Service to decide whether to prosecute those alleged to be responsible for the publication.

Under section 3 of the Obscene Publications Act 1959, the police are also granted certain powers of search and seizure with respect to obscene articles.

Three police forces have units dedicated to the investigation of obscene publications: the Metropolitan Police Service; Greater Manchester police; and West Midlands police. These units investigate the production and distribution of pornography , including pornography on the Internet, supervise licensed and unlicensed sex shops, supervise divisional obscene publication cases and provide advice in relation to obscene publication matters to other forces. Police operations are increasingly targeting mail order and duplicating premises in order to tackle the problem at source.
 

Children's Literature (Classification)
 

Mr. Prior: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will establish a body to classify the suitability of literature for children in the same way as films are classified. Mr. Boateng: The Government recognise the importance of protecting children from unsuitable material. The criminal law, booksellers, publishers and parents all have a part to play. The criminal law, through legislation such as the Obscene Publications Act 1959 and the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act 1955, protects children from material which is likely to deprave or corrupt them. Responsible booksellers generally place children's books in a designated area within the store, thus reducing the possibility that children--or their carers--would seek to purchase age-unsuitable material. In addition, publishers of teenage magazines have developed a binding set of guidelines dealing with the portrayal of sexual matters. It is also a responsibility of parents to guide their children's reading and to guard against their exposure to unsuitable material.

The Government believe that this offers the best approach and that the establishment of a body to classify works of literature would be likely to pose immense practical problems, given the number of such works which are available and which are produced each year.

19th October

House of Common

  Customs and Lap-Top Computers

Mr. Baker:

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what action he proposes to take in respect of the practice of HM Customs officials routinely scanning computer laptops brought into the United Kingdom; and if he will make a statement. Dawn Primarolo:

HM Customs and Excise do not routinely scan laptops brought into the UK; Customs' anti-smuggling checks are guided by risk profiles and intelligence assessments, in order to concentrate their effort in the most productive areas and cause the minimum delay to the travelling public. Mr. Baker:

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what assessment he has made of the practice of HM Customs officials routinely scanning laptops brought into the United Kingdom; what record is kept of information so gleaned and for what purposes; and what safeguards are in place to prevent the misuse of such information. Dawn Primarolo:

HM Customs and Excise do not routinely scan laptops brought into the UK; Customs' anti-smuggling checks are guided by risk profiles and intelligence assessments, in order to concentrate their effort in the most productive areas and cause the minimum delay to the travelling public. The aim of checks on laptops is to detect indecent or obscene material, in particular material featuring children; no record is kept of any other information encountered. Officers regularly encounter private or commercial correspondence and similar material in the course of their duties and are bound by their normal duty of confidentiality. Anyone misusing such information would be subject to Departmental disciplinary proceedings and, if appropriate, dismissal.

April 7th

House of Commons

Home Office Questions

  Internet Watch Foundation

Ms Beverley Hughes :

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department who will undertake the review of the Internet Watch Foundation; what arrangements are being made to allow interested parties to submit their views to the review team; and if the report will be published.

Mr. Michael

The review will be undertaken by outside consultants. The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) has the lead in taking forward the review in view of that Department's responsibility for regulation of the industry, and has the full support of the Home Office. DTI officials will be meeting representatives from the Home Office. Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and National Children's Homes (Action for Children) after Easter to discuss the finer details of the review. However, it is envisaged that the review will focus on:

  • Progress on the removal of illegal material, including the number of reports received, time taken to turn them around, compliance of Internet Service Providers with IWF advice and the possibility of establishing a system to provide more reliable feedback on results;
  • Structure of the IWF and representation of interested parties.
  • Next priorities for IWF--a broader focus than child pornography. New priorities might include adult pornography, racism, breaches of copyright and protection from legal but potentially harmful material;
  • Awareness of the Internet industry and consumers of the IWF and or rating and filtering tools for self protection and how far this awareness translates into usage.

Once the full specification of the review has been agreed, applications will be invited from interested parties who may wish to carry out the review. It will be open to anyone who wishes to do so, to submit views to the team which is appointed. The report of the review is likely to be published in the Autumn.

Ms Beverley Hughes :

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will extend the review of the operations of the Internet Watch Foundation to include an assessment of the effectiveness of the current procedures of (a) the Metropolitan Police, (b) other police forces and (c) the National Criminal Intelligence Service, in responding to reports on potentially illegal child pornography from the IWF.

Mr. Michael:

The focus of the review announced by the Government on 3 March will be the work of the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), its structure and composition, the effectiveness of its arrangements for dealing with reports of potentially illegal material, extension of its priorities for action and promoting awareness of its work.

The review will look at the effectiveness of the administrative procedures for passing on information about potentially illegal material to individual police forces and for collating information about the use to which the information has been put, including resulting prosecutions. Any procedural difficulties will be highlighted in the report. The operational effectiveness of the Metropolitan Police, other police forces and the National Criminal Intelligence Service in responding to reports which they receive from the IWF on potentially illegal child pornography is beyond the scope of the current proposals.

The efficiency of the police response to the information received from IWF is a matter for the force concerned.

March 31st 1998

House of Lords

  Crime & Disorder Bill

Lord Alton of Liverpool moved Amendment No. 6:

After Clause 16, insert the following new clause-- Video recordings designation

In the Video Recordings Act 1984 , at the end there shall be inserted the words "and having special regard to the likelihood of video works, in respect of which such certificates have been issued, inciting their viewers to anti-social behaviour, crime or disorder".

At the end of section 4 of the 1984 Act there shall be inserted the following new subsection "The Secretary of State shall not make any designation under this section unless he is satisfied that adequate arrangements will be made for an appeal in prescribed circumstances against a determination on the grounds that a video work submitted for the issue of a classification is likely to incite its viewers to anti-social behaviour, crime or disorder."

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment stands in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and the noble Lords, Lord Dholakia and Lord Ashbourne.

In February we had a short debate about the appointment of Mr. Andreas Whittam Smith as the new president of the British Board of Film Classification. It was an appointment which I welcomed. I said then that it was the intention of a cross-party group of Peers to lay an amendment to the Crime and Disorder Bill before your Lordships' House today. The purpose of that amendment is to strengthen the public's right to have their voice heard when gratuitously violent films are released and, inter alia, also to provide better protection for children. I am very pleased to say that I have received a faxed note today from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which says:

  • "The NSPCC believes that the appeals procedure against classification decisions should be opened up by the British Board of Film Classification. The procedure should allow bodies like us, as well as members of the public, to appeal if it is felt that the film or video might incite viewers to anti social behaviour such as child abuse".

My amendment is jointly sponsored by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, by the noble Lords, Lord Ashbourne and Lord Dholakia, and by many others, including the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford, the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, and more than 60 Members of your Lordships' House who have kindly added their names to the amendment, underlining the widespread concern about the proliferation of violent imagery and the disparity between the huge influence wielded by the industry and the comparative powerlessness of the public.

On 17th March the Daily Telegraph reported that Mr. Whittam Smith had told the Home Office:

  • "In principle he is in favour of broadening the system of appeals against classification".

Under the present arrangement, film makers are allowed to appeal if they feel that a classification is too restrictive. Under the amendment before your Lordships today, organisations designated by the Home Secretary--those could be children's charities such as the NSPCC or the Children's Society or professional associations such as the Professional Association of Teachers--would be given the right, along with the industry, to appeal against BBFC decisions. Mr. Whittam Smith told the Daily Telegraph that he was,

  • "in principle in favour of anybody with a genuine interest in classification being able to use the appeals process".

In reality, the amendment I am moving today is far more modest than the general right of appeal which Mr. Whittam Smith says he favours. This does not open the process to anybody.

In a letter to me dated 30th March, the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, who has been extremely considerate and patient in dealing with the points which I have raised with him in meetings and in correspondence concerning this matter over the past few weeks, said that neither he nor Mr. Whittam Smith consider the amendment before your Lordships' House today to be workable. Let me deal directly with the arguments the Minister put in his letter of yesterday.

First, he says that the other interest groups will demand equal treatment. He does not say who the other interest groups are. It would be interesting for us to learn their identity. But if this argument were reduced absurdum, the National Association of Paedophiles would need to be treated comparably with the NSPCC, the National Front with the Commission for Racial Equality, and organisations promoting heroin and cocaine given comparable treatment to the National Drugs Misuse Council. It would be political correctness of the worst kind. The real point is that other interest groups are already represented by the industry and have an unlimited right of appeal already--a right currently enjoyed by no one else.

Secondly, in his letter dated yesterday, the Minister said that different groups may appeal against each other. But this is already perfectly normal in many appeal situations. The whole point is that the BBFC would then need to consider conflicting arguments in arriving at its decisions. The designated list of those who can appeal would be entirely composed of organisations chosen by the Home Secretary. What greater control could the Home Secretary wish for?

Thirdly, the Minister said:

  • "A person could only reasonably appeal against a classification decision after having seen the video work".

What happens in reality is that if a film is trailed in advance and many people are aware of the general storyline, people then raise their opposition or their concerns. It will be at that point, in advance of circulation, that the Home Secretary's designated organisations could ask to see the film. Their response and/or their appeal could be required--it would be quite proper for the Minister to expect this--in a very short time span. That is wholly practical and it would add no more time than the industry adds when it appeals a decision under the existing arrangements.

The truth is that the Government could have come forward with their own proposal at any time since I wrote to them before the Committee stage. These are the same arguments deployed against my 1994 amendment, which I moved in another place, which was only successful when an all-party group told the Government to overcome what they claimed were insurmountable hurdles. I was especially grateful, I might add, for the help given to me at that time by the then shadow Home Secretary, Mr. Tony Blair.

In the February debate, to which I alluded, the Minister likened the situation to the planning process. It is not in many respects to be likened to the planning process. First, when an application for planning permission is made a local council will advertise the fact in the local papers and publish notices that an application has been made. The British Board of Film Classification is obliged to do no such thing. In fact it is only in the board's annual report, which is published a year after the event, that full details of the application for certification are available, by which time of course it is far too late to do anything about it. The only other method of letting the public know is by press release, which the BBFC has done on several occasions. By the time the public sees the film, again it is too late.

Secondly, if a local community does not like the decision made by a local council in the case of a planning decision, it is able to vote the local councillors out. A local council is demonstrably accountable. The British Board of Film Classification is not. A local planning authority is meant to be a democratic body. It was made quite clear in the report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan, that councillors are not simply meant to rubber-stamp planning applications but to play an active role.

In contrast, there has been continued and ongoing concern about the board's accountability. In another place in July last year Mr. Julian Brazier MP, the Member for Canterbury, raised the issue of the BBFC's openness and accountability. In response, via a press statement on 7th July 1997, the then director of the BBFC, James Ferman, defended the board's accountability by saying:

  • "Under the Video Recordings Act 1984 the board is already accountable to Parliament".

Mr. Ferman continued by saying that if Mr. Brazier,

  • "looks in the House of Commons Library, he will find the board's very detailed annual reports which have set out every year since 1985 the composition of the board, its procedures and a statement of accounts".

Section 6 of the Video Recordings Act 1984 does indeed require quite clearly that the designated authority, the BBFC,

  • "shall, as soon as it is reasonably practicable to do so after 31st December, make a report to the Secretary of State".

It is clear that the board has previously failed lamentably to fulfil this responsibility. The last annual report that should have been published as soon as practicable after 31st December 1996, was not published until 2nd December 1997. I am grateful to Stewart Gregg of the Movement for Christian Democracy for discovering that and for pointing it out to me.

By any stretch of the imagination a whole year later clearly does not meet the requirement to present an annual report, as soon as is practicable. After its presentation to the Secretary of State, the annual report has only just been laid before Parliament. That means that at one point the latest information about the board's activities with which Parliament has been presented, was two years old. Even if the board does present its annual report on time it does little to address the issue of public participation. The board has a monopoly on film classification. It is also funded by the very industry that it is supposed to regulate.

Thirdly, I return to the analogy with planning law that the Minister drew in our February exchange. It is generally accepted that the granting of planning permission should not have detrimental effects on the people of a local area. However, there are different categories of planning applications to identify the application which might cause harm. In such cases licences must be obtained for certain properties to be able to act or trade in a certain way. Therefore, it would be more correct to draw a parallel between film classification and the granting of licences for the use of specific purposes. For instance, if premises are to be used as a betting shop or a public house, the police and local residents are frequently consulted. There are powers to take licences away if there are problems of harm, crime or disorder. There will be a court hearing at which local residents are able to make their case and the police are able to express their concerns. There are licensing magistrates.

To all intents and purposes this is a system of appeals. Provision is made for appeals in situations where there might be harm and so it should be for films as well. There is an ever-growing amount of evidence of the harm that violent images can cause. The BBFC's own annual report for 1996-97, page 3, says that handled irresponsibly, screen violence can teach techniques, encourage aggressive attitudes or reinforce aggressive behaviour. The House should be in no doubt about the seriousness of this situation.

Dr. Ken Parsons of Manchester University has demonstrated how children are being affected by the playing of violent video games. After a study of 61 teenagers over a six month period, he concluded that playing a game can be like real life for a child and that young people may well become addicted to violence as a result of playing the game. That is particularly grave if it happens during a time of key personal development. That is hardly surprising given that children are often playing computer games for up to 30 hours a week.

A recent Home Office report into the viewing behaviour of young offenders, which was unfortunately widely misreported in the press in January, finally concluded something that we all knew in our hearts for very many years. It states that, there is some evidence that young people do imitate films. The BBFC needs to be much more open to the concerns of people drawn from right across the spectrum. Its present disposition is invariably elitist and often very patronising. For instance, the decision last week to allow films such as "Crash", "Lolita" and "Kiss" to be made available for home viewing illustrates how out of touch it has become. This is not about censorship because each of the films which I have just mentioned can be seen by adults in the cinema. But should they be easily available in thousands of homes where children are bound to see them?

For 25 years, at one level or another, I represented people in the inner city of Liverpool. In those streets and humble homes where often there was great material poverty, one thing that one would often find would be piles of videos, many of them totally unsuitable for young children and young people to see. The Daily Mail described last week's decision as, being a gross betrayal of public interest. In a leading article it said of the BBFC, that, encased in their own celluloid bubble they appear to exist on another planet. They are utterly remote from that inhabited by ordinary people who have all too real reason these days to fear for the safety of their children.

Two days after the BBFCs decision, a national newspaper reported on the death of four children and their pregnant teacher gunned down in Arkansas by two boys aged 13 and 11. The older boy, Mitchell Johnson, had bragged to his school friends,

  • "Everybody I do not like is going to die. I have a lot of killing to do".

Where does a child learn language like that? In a report in The Times of 26th March, Mr. Mike Huckabee, the Governor of Arkansas, said that he blamed a national culture in which films, television, language and music promoted a glorification of violence. He said,

  • "What makes all of us angry is that our culture would create the kind of atmosphere where a 11 or 13 year-old student could feel that the way to respond to whatever anger is inside them is to take up a whole battery of arms and indiscriminately shoot their fellow students and teachers".

The report continued by saying that he was not sure much else could be expected in a country where children are exposed to tens of thousands of murders on television and films.

The prevalent gun culture in the USA is the other combustible in this lethal cocktail. But guns have always been present in American society. In contemporary times the old restraints have been displaced by the coarsening of society; by the glamorising of extreme violence and by the normalising of viciousness and brutality. Who can doubt that the culture of casual violence has played its part? Certainly, increasing numbers of film makers from the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, to the actor, Dustin Hoffman, have been excoriating in their criticism of the industry for dressing up gratuitous violence as entertainment or as a form of art.

The stark reality is also that some parents are not fulfilling their responsibilities with regard to supervising what their children are watching. According to a survey in March 1997 by SMRC Childwise, nearly half of British children aged five to six years claimed that at weekends they watched television after the 9 o'clock watershed. These issues illustrate why we need to take action on a variety of fronts.

Perhaps I may draw the threads of this argument together and concentrate in my final remarks on why this amendment is practical, workable and urgently required. The BBFC state in its annual report that the most direct channel of accountability is replying to letters and telephone inquiries. This amendment will provide a far more satisfactory method of accountability and a way of allowing the public to voice their concerns, not merely their reactions on a telephone once it is too late.

The BBFC is faced with a huge problem about how to gauge public feeling. It is clearly frustrated that so often the tabloid press is left to be the vehicle for the expression of public opinion. Its annual report and press releases continually make reference to circumstances with which it has become depressingly familiar. It says that, somebody sees the film in question in its country of origin or at a film festival prior to international release and writes an article attacking it as the most dangerous film ever to be offered to the public. The press then canvass the opinions of dozens of prominent figures.

Then long before the BBFC has had a chance to view it and make its own analysis, it is deluged with warnings and injunctions not to permit the showing of the film. This amendment will provide a civilised and workable alternative to this vicious circle. The film "Crash", described by the BBFC as, an unusual and disturbing film, concerns a couple who are unable to find sexual satisfaction inside or outside marriage and who fall in with a group of people who associate sexual excitement with car crashes. A BBFC press release says that their legal adviser took the view that rather than sympathising or identifying with the attitudes or tastes of the characters in this film, the average viewer would, in the end, be repelled by them. The film was granted an 18 certificate uncut for cinema release and now for home viewing by the viewer.

At the end of the press release James Ferman welcomed this advice by saying,

  • "Now the debate can move to the public arena".

But there can be no adequate debate. There is no mechanism for allowing such a debate while the industry has total access to the appeals procedure and ordinary members of the public have no method of finding their way into the appeals procedures. This amendment will make a small contribution to challenging the prevailing culture of violence and it will enhance the role of those who protect children. Powerful vested interests prefer the status quo. I hope that tonight your Lordships will resist the status quo and those powerful vested interests and support the amendment. I beg to move. Lord Ashbourne:

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, for once again taking the initiative on video recordings. Some noble Lords present--although not many, I suspect--may remember that this is the subject on which I made my maiden speech in 1984. It is a sad reflection that many of the points that I made then need restating 14 years later.

I am concerned about the diet of sex and violence that we see in the video industry today. I realise that those with responsibility for classifying videos cannot control what Hollywood produces, but they are the guardians of deciding what material is appropriate for what age groups in this country. In this day and age, that is, indeed, a weighty task, so I support the proposals to add more definition to the task of the designated authority; namely, the British Board of Film Classification.

The last annual report from the BBFC acknowledges that video violence could affect individual behaviour. It states:

  • "The board's 1996 international conference on screen violence confirmed the causes for concern, which centre on the teaching of aggressive habits, the rewarding of antisocial impulses, and the fostering of increased callousness towards victims of violence through desensitisation".

Surely then it is not unreasonable for noble Lords to support the proposal that before making a classification the BBFC should take into consideration the additional criteria of the likelihood that a particular video could incite the viewer,

  • "to antisocial behaviour, crime or disorder".

One of my other concerns is the public accountability of the BBFC. I noted in the recent annual report descriptions of the home viewing panel and work with students, and I do commend these interactions with the video watching public, but they have still no right to appeal against classification decisions or to find out why certain decisions were made. They are more a test of, "Did the BBFC get it right?".

In 1984, I asked whether members of the public would be able to appeal to the Video Appeals Committee against a decision by the BBFC. I am pleased to see that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has proposed that recognised organisations, other than producers, will be able to appeal against the classification decision in certain circumstances. This would give some balance back to a process that currently allows practically no redress when a particular video is released which causes public concern.

I know that other appeals processes do not give an objector this sort of opportunity to pursue their objections. But I am sure that noble Lords will agree that comparing a planning application to classifying a video cannot be taken to extremes. An application for one house will affect only one particular area. Licences for pubs and betting shops can be revoked if the licensee acts outside the terms of the licence.

In contrast, a video work is classified by an unelected body, is likely to be reproduced thousands of times, circulated around the country and shown in individual homes, where, by the very admission of the BBFC, it could influence an individual to antisocial behaviour. I believe that there should be an appeal process that allows an organisation apart from the video producer to appeal against a video classification in the circumstances outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I give the amendment my full support and I commend it to the House. Baroness Young:

My Lords, I have added my name to this amendment. The speech of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, covered the ground so completely and satisfactorily that there is little else that I can add, except to commend the amendment to your Lordships' House and to say that I hope very much that the Government will accept it.

The subject of the amendment affects parents very deeply, particularly good parents who are trying to do the best for their children in a world which is beset with difficulties for them. As I understand the purpose of the Bill--it is one with which I entirely agree--it is to try to prevent young people falling into crime and to propose ways of dealing with them if they do. I cannot understand why there should be any question over trying to tighten the restrictions on such videos or giving those who object to them the right to appeal.

I have read many reports purporting to state that there is no link between seeing violence and actually practising it. I have never understood that argument. Why we believe that advertisements can affect people, but not video nasties, I cannot think. When I was at school, and in the schools in which I have been involved, teachers spent a lot of time trying to put before children those things which are good, right and true in the hope that they will have some effect. Even if they do not have any effect, teachers certainly will not put the reverse before children because they want them to grow up to be good citizens. I simply do not understand the argument that one influence has an effect but not the other. Screen violence has a profound effect. What is so worrying is that even children from good homes can nowadays see on television things that would have been simply unthinkable 25 or 30 years ago. They may have opportunities to see in their own homes the videos that were singled out by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. This is a serious situation and we should do everything that we can as a society to support good parents who are trying, in a difficult world, to do the best for their children.

I shall be interested to hear the reply of the noble Lord, Lord Williams. There may be some legal argument about why it is not possible to accept the amendment, but I hope that even if there are technical difficulties he will say that he will consider the matter further and produce a further drafting of the amendment.

However, it seems to me that this amendment says the very minimum that is required. It has two parts. The first would give the BBFC more power to deal with videos which encourage antisocial behaviour by adding additional criteria which would need to be considered by the board. That seems a perfectly reasonable request and I cannot see why there should be any doubt about it. The second part of the amendment relates to an appeals system. It would allow designated organisations such as the police or children's charities, or an individual, to appeal to the Video Appeals Committee in the same way as producers can appeal under specified circumstances. What is wrong with that? The amendment seems a minimum requirement for what is needed in this world.

Although I do not subscribe to the fact that this might be regarded as a provision which runs against artists' freedom to express themselves--as far as I can see, anybody who wishes to see such films, which strike me as being singularly disagreeable, can do so at the cinema--I believe that there is a case for trying to prevent such films being shown in the home. I really believe that there is a distinction. I know that it is difficult to legislate on what goes on inside the home. It seems to me that the two minimum requirements are to give more power to the organisation which is responsible for the standards which are set for home videos and to provide a right of appeal. I should have thought that there could be no real disagreement on this. I very much hope that the Government will accept the amendment. Lord Elton:

Whatever we do with the amendments, that institution should be, as it were, on probation for the next year or two to see whether it is running on the right fuel, whether it should be paid out of the proceeds of the film industry, for instance, and whether it is one of those institutions which those noble Lords who have taught in various places will find familiar as institutions which have developed their own culture and see the world from the position of that culture and do not see the world as the world sees it.

The amendment does not address that issue, except in one respect. The first leg gives to the board what my noble friend Lady Young has described as a new power, and which I strongly hope will be a new duty, to consider the likelihood of video works in respect of which certificates have been issued inciting their viewers to antisocial behaviour, crime or disorder.

It is obvious to all noble Lords that there is this connection. Even the last three tranches of research, to which the noble Lord referred, bear that out. The most recent was published in January of this year by Browne and Pennell at the instigation of the Home Office. While it is again inconclusive on the direct connection, it states that when parental violence was present offenders and non-offenders differed significantly, with offenders distinctly preferring violent film and characters. The implication is that a history of family violence and offending behaviour are necessary pre-conditions for developing a significant preference for violent film action and role models. The children to whom that referred had all committed--the control had not--violent crimes.

Statistically, there may not be the required connection, but all noble Lords must be satisfied, as indeed most have been, as my noble friend said, by the enormous sums paid out by industry to secure the changing of other people's behaviour by showing them things on television. It is perverse, is it not, to suggest that one can change it one direction by producing film material but not in the other?

I want also to draw to your Lordships' attention the merits of having some form of appeal system available outside the industry which this is meant to regulate--outside the people who create this material, but from among the people who have to receive it, whose children have it before them for up to 30 hours a week. They are the people who are affected. The appeal from within the industry protects bank balances. The appeal from outside the industry protects character. That is an essential piece of common sense. However long or short the future life of that board may be, I ask your Lordships to submit it to this new provision. Lord Birkett:

My Lords, although I am technically still a vice-president of the BBFC, I must emphasise that I speak for myself and out of my own experience. I do not entirely recognise myself or the BBFC from a great number of the things that the noble Lord, Lord Elton, said. I certainly do not recognise myself as having lived in an insulated bubble, as described by the Daily Mail, but then, if I were going to sit for a portrait, I would not go to the Daily Mail as the painter thereof.

The amendment has two halves. I cannot believe that they will work. The first half is unnecessary. I share the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, which I know are shared by many of your Lordships, about violence in the cinema, and especially in video, but I do not believe the amendment is necessary because the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 amended the Video Recordings Act with the following words, "The designated authority"--that is, the BBFC--

  • "shall, in making any determination as to the suitability of a video work, have special regard (among the other relevant factors) to any harm that may be caused to potential viewers or, through their behaviour, to society by the manner in which the work deals with criminal behaviour; illegal drugs; violent behaviour or incidents; horrific behaviour or incidents; or human sexual activity".

Further to that, "potential viewer" is defined in that amendment as:

  • "any person (including a child or young person) who is likely to view the video work in question".

At the BBFC we are very much aware that the mere sticking of a certificate on a video box does not by any means guarantee that it will not be seen by people of the wrong age.

However, that amendment encompasses what the noble Lord has put down in his amendment. As I know that belt-and-braces legislation is not favoured in your Lordships' House, I suggest that his concerns may be shared by all but that the necessity for that half of the amendment does not exist.

More importantly, the second half of his amendment deals with the appeals procedure. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, is a little unfair in describing the BBFC as being funded by the industry as if it had a subvention or private source of finance from the industry which somehow put it in the pocket of the industry. The truth is that the BBFC is simply funded by a fee that it charges for classifying either films or videos. That fee is calculated precisely to make the BBFC break even. There is no likelihood of it making a profit and, if it did so, it would not have anything to do with it. It cannot make a profit. Equally, it cannot make a loss if it is to remain in existence. I believe that the funding is as equitable and simple a matter as can be and the BBFC is not the industry, unless one proceeds on the basis that the industry is the only people who need certificates.

That leads me to the question of why, up to now, only the film and video industry has had a right of appeal. The reason is fairly simple. The makers or distributors of the films and videos concerned have a very large financial stake in the matter. If a certificate is granted for an age group much higher than the film maker intended or wished, or in the most extreme cases the BBFC refuses to certificate a work, the financial consequences will be colossal. That is why there must be a mechanism whereby an appeal can be made on behalf of the industry or the maker of the video in question.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, and other noble Lords may say that that is all very well but surely the commercial interests of the video maker are only half of it. What about the public good and the concern of the average viewer or member of the public? I believe that if a system of appeal is to be arranged it must be thought through a lot more carefully than this. If Mr. Andreas Whittam Smith is keen that some form of wider appeal should be possible, no doubt he will talk to the Home Office, and between them they will work something out. But at the moment the problem is very much as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has described it.

Sometimes an enormous amount of protest and controversy arises before a video or film ever appears, based entirely on the views of people who have not seen the work in question. I recognise very well the words in the annual report read out by the noble Lord--because I wrote them. It is indeed a quandary. Often we are faced with storms of protest in relation to works we have not even seen, let alone certificated. I do not see how the public or those bodies designated by the Home Secretary according the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, will get to see the work. Once it has been certificated--at which point anybody can see it--the damage, if any there be, has been done. Even if the appeal overturned the decision of the BBFC, it would take a certain amount of time to withdraw the work in question. I predict that, if that happened, the saleability of the work would rocket in the days before its withdrawal and would be counter-productive to everything intended by the noble Lord, Lord Alton.

At present, I cannot see how an appeal system of this kind can work. I was slightly dismayed by the phrase, "in prescribed circumstances", in the noble Lord's amendment. I did not know what it meant. Now that the noble Lord has explained his intention that certain organisations should be designated by the Home Secretary, the matter is a little more precise, but scarcely precise enough. At present, however well-intentioned the amendment, it will not wash. If the Home Office and the BBFC between them wish further progress to be made, I am sure that both are more than capable of making it. Baroness Wharton:

My Lords, I have great sympathy with all noble Lords who have spoken. We have discussed the matter many times in this House. However, I have reservations about the amendment. It is open to every member of the public to lay a complaint should there be an appeals process, but I should like to know more of the detail. Of whom will the appeals committee be comprised? If there is a request to the BBFC to re-classify videos, how will that affect films? Will there be one classification for videos and another for films?

Once a complaint has been lodged and is being considered, will the videos be taken off the market? What will happen to the videos in homes? How will the procedure be enforced, since there are hundreds of shops throughout the country selling videos? It will be difficult to enforce the measure. Will the BBFC be asked to reclassify a video?

I presume that the Home Secretary will select members of the committee. Therefore, are we not carrying out the work of the BBFC and laying a contentious issue at the door of the Home Office for it to make the final decision as to whether a video receives classification, is re-classified or is taken off the market? Lord Williams of Mostyn:

My Lords, I am most grateful to everyone who has spoken on this matter because plainly there are serious issues to be addressed.

If one looks at the phraseology of the amendment, the first part is not needed for the reason that has already been identified. It is expressed in an extremely broad way that the board must classify,

  • "having special regard to the likelihood of video works ... inciting their viewers to anti-social behaviour, crime or disorder".

Antisocial behaviour is very widely put there and there is no attempt subsequently to define it.

Under the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, the board has a duty--which is in the Act, significantly, because of the efforts of the noble Lord when he was a Member of another place--to have special regard to any harm which may be caused to potential viewers or, through their behaviour, to society by the manner in which the work deals with criminal behaviour, illegal drugs, violent behaviour or incidents, horrific behaviour or incidents or human sexual activity. I take the noble Lord's point about his stance on principle and, indeed, the stance adopted by the right reverend Prelate. It goes further, and I am glad to be able to repeat this. "Potential viewer" means any person, including a child or young person, who is likely to view a video work if a classification certificate were issued.

Therefore, I suggest to your Lordships that the first part of the amendment is of no value--I do not say that disagreeably to the noble Lord--because provision is already made by the criminal law to deal with that aspect. I recognise that that is not the fundamental question at issue because it seems to me that your Lordships' attention has been focused more on what one should do about the appeal procedure. Therefore, I shall spend a few moments on that.

I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that we must ensure that the interests of the child are heard and that there is the opportunity for better protection. I do not believe that this proposed appeal system is capable of working, first, because there is no reference here to designated organisations. The point was made, rightly I believe, that at present the amendment allows an appeal at large. The appeal at large by any member of the public would be on the basis that the classification should not be given, or should be amended on a preliminary basis, on the basis that it was likely to,

  • "incite its viewers to anti-social behaviour".

That is extraordinarily wide. I do not know who did whisper from the Liberal Democrat Benches, "What about free speech?". There may be one or two usual suspects, but it is an extraordinarily wide provision and I accept the whispered encouragement.

To many of us, not least myself, antisocial behaviour includes smoking. I find it grotesquely antisocial, as I constantly remind my wife when she is standing outside the kitchen door having a furtive cigarette. (I must not take Hansard home with me tomorrow.) Therefore, one must see how we can achieve something which is workable. Lord Alton of Liverpool:

I withdrew the amendment in Committee precisely so that the Government could come forward with workable proposals if they did not feel that my amendment was workable. Indeed, I went to see the noble Lord and we had a productive meeting. I am grateful to him for the way in which he has dealt with me personally and for the courteous way in which he has dealt with the points with which he has been acquainted. However, the Government have not come forward with an alternative. Simply to reply on the good offices of Mr. Andreas Whittam Smith, as much as I welcomed his appointment in February when we had a short debate on the matter in this House, is really not good enough.

For instance, last week Mr. Andreas Whittam Smith personally supported the decision of the board to release "Crash", "Lolita" and "Kiss". He said of "Crash" that the subject matter was too obscure to generate antisocial behaviour. Many of us would wish to disagree with that decision, but what good is it to be able to approach an advisory committee on children's affairs? We need some sort of appeals mechanism so that we, as well as the industry, can say that a decision will not stand up and that the materials in question ought not to be available for home viewing. At the moment we have a lopsided system. As my noble friend Lord Tenby said, the advertising industry does not believe that videos and TV have no effect on those who watch them. The industry would not have spent 4,000 million last year trying to sell wares through TV advertisements if it thought that what we saw had no effect whatsoever upon us.

I do not pretend that everyone who views this kind of material behaves in an antisocial or violent manner. However, a child who is living on the edge may be tipped over the edge. If a child who is brought up in a home where there is no love, support or parental help is exposed solely to a diet of gratuitous violence we should not be surprised if that child subsequently behaves in that manner. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, made that point. There have been many telling interventions during this debate. I am grateful to noble Lords for debating these points.

My experience in 1994 was that, if we do not take the Government to the wire, they will continue to rely on advisory committees and nothing will be done to regulate an industry that is allowed to regulate itself. Vast amounts of money are involved in that industry, as the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, said on a previous occasion. If you think that a child is in danger of being run over by a railway engine, you do not wait until that happens before you put up a fence to protect that child. That is all that I ask your Lordships to do today. If the Government feel that the amendment is in any way unworkable, there will be plenty of opportunity in another place to put that right. I wish to test the opinion of the House.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 6) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 81; Not-Contents, 122.

March 30th 1998

House of Commons

  Scotland Bill

Mr. McLeish:

The Government cannot accept amendment No. 472, which would devolve legislative competence for all the entertainment matters reserved under head 2 of schedule 5. We do not agree that the argument that applies to hypnotism and theatres applies to the other issues. The classification of films for public exhibition has been carried out by the British Board of Film Classification since 1912. The board operates on a voluntary basis and has always operated on a UK basis without any difficulty, because audiences on both sides of the border have a shared appreciation of what is or is not acceptable for different age groups. There is also essentially a single market in films, which it is important to sustain for the health of the industry.

Similarly, we remain persuaded that the provisions on the control of exhibitions of films by local authorities under the Cinemas Act 1985 should remain a reserved matter. The local authorities' licensing powers form an essential part of the overall system of control of film exhibitions. The system works well: recommendations of the BBFC are generally accepted by local authorities.

The classification of video recordings is dealt with separately, under the Video Recordings Act 1984. However, similar arguments apply to videos as apply to the classification of films, only more strongly. There are additional important differences in that videos are easily transported and that the purpose of classification is to regulate their sale--they are mostly viewed in the home--rather that to regulate public exhibition. Any divergence in regulation of videos on one side of the border would risk undermining, or being undermined by, the system on the other side.

Feb 8th 1998

House of Lords

  Video Recordings Act 1984

Lord Campbell of Croy rose to move, That this House take note of the proposal to appoint Mr. Andreas Whittam Smith as a designated authority under Section 4(4) of the Video Recordings Act 1984, in accordance with the proposal laid before the House on 18th December 1997. Lord Alton of Liverpool :

At the outset let me make three points. First, when Mr. Andreas Whittam Smith was appointed as president of the British Board of Film Classification I publicly welcomed his appointment, and I do so again this evening. He is a likeable, decent man, and will bring commitment and thoughtfulness to his work.

But the laying of this letter of designation under the terms of Section 5 of the Video Recordings Act 1984 gives the House a rare chance to reflect on the workings of the British Board of Film Classification and to comment on the circumstances on which Mr. Whittam Smith will endeavour to undertake his new duties.

Thirdly, although there is precedent for the will of the House to be tested, it is not my wish to divide your Lordships' House. Amendment No. 270 to Clause 87 of the Crime and Disorder Bill, tabled by myself and the noble Baroness, Lady Young, will provide the opportunity to test opinion, should that prove necessary. In the best traditions of the film industry, tonight's brief debate acts more as a trailer for what is coming shortly.

Our debate also has something of the air of unfinished business about it. Five years ago, in the aftermath of the death in Liverpool of a two year-old boy, James Bulger, the trial judge commented on the possible effect of video violence on the two boys who had murdered him. Before James's death I had taken cross-party initiatives in another place, seeking both tighter curbs on the video industry and greater protection for children. After a battle with the then Home Secretary, Mr. Michael Howard, but with a broad base of support--ranging from Mr. Ken Livingstone, Miss Clare Short, and Mr. Gerald Kaufman on one side, to 12 former Conservative Ministers on the other--'amendments were duly incorporated into the 1994 criminal justice Act. I recognise that in the present Home Secretary, Mr. Jack Straw, we have a Secretary of State who is alive to these issues and who is keen to get to the root of violence in contemporary society. I therefore have no doubt that Ministers in the Home Office will take these matters very seriously.

Five years ago, one of my chief concerns was the lack of public accountability of the British Board of Film Classification. That is the matter to which we return tonight, because it was left largely in abeyance. The then Home Secretary said that members of the public aggrieved by a decision of the BBFC could simply seek judicial review in the courts.

When, in 1996, the board allowed "Natural Born Killers" to be released on video for home viewing, a gutsy young woman, Yvonne Hutchinson, of Bradford, did indeed try to challenge the board. For a single mother without the infinite resources of the industry, it proved an impossibility. The recourse to law is not worth the paper it is written on. The industry knows that, and would prefer to keep it that way.

It is my understanding that the mechanism for appeals could be expanded in the letter of resignation to allow others to appeal against the BBFC 's classification decisions. That could also be done through primary legislation and with cross-party support. That is why the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and I have tabled the amendment to which I referred. It would require the Home Secretary to give others a right of appeal against the BBFC 's decisions, in addition to the right that the film and computer games industries already enjoy. That would not give everyone carte blanche to appeal against any decision that the BBFC makes. Appeals could be made only on the grounds that the video work might incite viewers to antisocial behaviour, crime or disorder. The conditions under which an appeal would be made would also be set out by the Home Secretary in the letter of designation.

At the moment the only way in which an ordinary member of the public can appeal against a classification decision is through a judicial review, which is extremely costly and expensive for all those concerned, in terms of both time and money. Unless we change these things, Mr. Andreas Whittam Smith will continue to head up a board where monied interests can talk but children's interests are stifled. How can that be fair or right?

This is not a trivial matter. Let us consider the violent society in which we live and the violent culture in which our children are being reared. Violence in Britain and in America--where it is considerably worse--has become gratuitous and random. It is ingrained into the very fabric of society. Violent films such as "Natural Born Killers" and "True Lies" are typical box office hits. In "True Lies", Arnold Schwarzenegger throws a meat-hook into a man's stomach; hurls a pointed instrument at his torturer which sticks in the man's eye; breaks a man's neck with his bare hands; and a driver is shot through the head and blood spatters everywhere. Gruesome, violent death, mutilation and serial killing all become an art form which can be turned on or off at the flick of a switch. Is that really what we want our young people to see?

The entertainment industry seems to be in the throes of a passionate love affair with violence, embracing it at every opportunity. We are becoming emotionally deadened by the horrors that we witness and have come to accept violence as normal.

Let us consider the effect on women. According to a study for the Broadcasting Standards Council, women's fear of male violence can be reinforced, and even increased, by watching videos and television programmes that depict violence against women.

And let us consider the effects on children. The Professional Association of Teachers spoke to 1,000 teachers in different parts of the country when my amendment to curb video violence was before Parliament four years ago. The response of teachers does not support in the least the view that children are cynical sophisticates, able to reject those aspects of the adult world for which they are not ready. One teacher said by way of reply:

  • "I am very disturbed by the totally unsuitable films and TV programmes which are available to young children. They often talk of nothing else and revel in tales of blood, cutting off of limbs, disembowelling etc. This is the norm so that children who do not have access to this material often feel they are missing out".

Increasing numbers of parents are using videos and video games as their electronic baby-sitter, allowing children to play with the games or to see violent videos so that they will not themselves be disturbed. Many parents simply do not seem to understand the harm which inappropriate entertainment can do.

More than 90 per cent. of the PAT respondents believed that children's emotional, social and moral development is being damaged, sometimes irrevocably, by what they see. Three-quarters of teachers also believe that there is a link between over-exposure to computer games and factors such as tiredness and inattention, heightened levels of aggression and a tendency to act out fantasies.

Commenting on the link between behaviour and viewing, the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, wrote a letter to me which included a speech in which he rightly asked:

  • "what proof are we looking for? Does the railway company wait for someone to be killed by a train before fencing off the railway line?".

Just before last Christmas, 27,000 people sent a petition to Parliament calling for tighter controls. The common sense of parents--which well understands that children imitate what they see--is often the best yardstick. I say to your Lordships' House, as I conclude, that the advertising industry would not have spent, as they did, 4,000 million last year on advertising their wares on television if they did not believe that what people see has an effect on those who view it. Clearly it has an enormous effect.

In challenging the letter of designation, we can take some useful steps by enhancing parental rights and strengthening the position of the public, by putting it at least on the same footing as the industry. In so doing, we will be enabling Mr. Whittam Smith to do his job more effectively. When the amendments to achieve that are considered by your Lordships' House, I hope that they will be given a fair wind. Lord Merlyn-Rees:

My Lords, I wish to speak briefly on two matters. I declare an interest in that I am president of the Video Standards Council. I am not a consultant or a lobbyist. During 35 years in Parliament I have been neither and I do not intend starting now. It is because I was concerned about violence that I went to the council and I suppose that as a former Home Secretary it was thought I might be of some use to it in the work that it does. The industry sets out in an admirable way to ensure that it carries out the classification terms of the various pieces of legislation, culminating in the 1994 legislation. As a whole, the industry tries extremely hard.

I heard tonight of the problems. Occasionally, I go down to the shops and it is difficult for the assistants in video shops to tell whether a girl is 12, 17 or 18. No Act of Parliament will put that right; there are innate problems with that.

The other problem is one with which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, dealt: the issue of video games. They are in a quite different category. If one is asking for video games to be brought under the same aegis as videos, that is a different matter. We met the video games people who run a voluntary scheme. They come under the BBFC if parts of the game are a video in the normal sense of the term. It is a complicated business.

The aim of the industry is to maintain standards. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, said that there would be another occasion for discussion and this is not the time for it. I wish to suggest only one thing tonight: a better way of dealing with the issue. There is the matter of the Bulger case. God knows! it was a bad enough tale, but I do not believe that the judge made a direct connection between the Bulger murder and the boys seeing a certain video tape.

The problem of violence is real and we have touched on the difficulty with stolen cars and having one's family robbed in the street. I do not say that that is caused immediately by the children and young people having watched or played video games, or having watched a video tape. They are complicated matters and it is too easy to make a simple connection between the two.

I wish to make one suggestion. Over the weekend I have been reading the report of the British Board of Film Classification. It was late arriving. It is an annual report which makes interesting reading. It concerns the investigations that have taken place; the work undertaken; and so on. The noble Lord, Lord Birkett, is here tonight, and he was serving as acting president. He makes one point that:

  • "it is worth remembering that 1996-97, like any other year, produced a vast majority of films and videos which were uncomplicated and unproblematic. The Board sees roughly four thousand films, videos and video games every year. Most of them are aimed at a minority audience. Put all the many minority audiences together and you have contemporary British society."

What we see in contemporary British society we may not like. Sometimes I am glad that my children are well into adulthood and beyond; but I have grandchildren. What one sees on the BBC and ITV is under less control at certain times of the day than the video industry. There are means of dealing with those issues.

There is a real problem; the solution is not as easy as many people suggest. The connections are not as simple as is made out. With the violent society in which we live, videos, films and the like are part of that society, not the cause of it--though in certain instances they might well be. I suggest to the Government--because only they can decide--that the subject is put before a Select Committee of this House. That Select Committee should question people and bring experts in and question them as well. That is a better way of doing it than a short debate of this nature. Lord Birkett:

Nor is it helpful that young children are often able to watch videos which are classified for those over age 18. It is not so much that they can get them in the shops. In the last criminal justice legislation we brought a great deal of pressure to bear to ensure that the legislation was as tough as it could be on supplying over-18 videos to under-age youngsters. It is always easier in the cinema because a person may or may not be admitted.

The real danger is not so much in the video shops as in the home. As the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees said, in many cases there is no control whatever. Children of all ages can run games or videos for over 18s of all kinds because there is not enough parental control to stop them. I do not know how one copes with that problem, except by education.

Education is also to some extent the secret as to how children can come to terms with what they see on the screen. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, pointed out, from his research in schools and among teachers, that many children do not seem to be capable of coping with what they see on the screen. I believe that one of the reasons is that they are not properly educated in the media, what the media mean, how the media work, how videos work,

how films work and the nature of the animal--how videos are put together. There is a provision that all schools shall teach these things. It is part of the national curriculum. It is obligatory that media studies should be taught in schools. Last year, when we went into the matter, we were appalled to find that of all the Ofsted reports we could gather, not one commented on the subject in the schools at all, either for good or ill. Was it being done well? Was it being done at all? There was no mention of that by the Ofsted teams. We complained about that, and I hope that somehow the position can be improved. It seems to me that educating children in the media is one step, albeit a small one, towards protecting them from the more dire effects of the increase in violence.

I share with all speakers so far a distaste for an increasingly violent industry. Not by any means all of it, but certainly some parts of Hollywood have an increasing taste for violence and I regret that. The BBFC can control the violence in its wilder excesses, but it cannot control the media and the nature of film making in Hollywood, much as it would like to do so.

Reference has been made twice this evening to the Bulger case. I should remind noble Lords that in this Chamber the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, in answering a debate on this subject, pointed out clearly that there is no police evidence that the video concerned was seen by the children involved. The judge made a reference to a video; it was not backed by any fact. So far as I know, there has never been a criminal prosecution for violence in this country where a video has been a major factor. Certainly it was not in the Bulger case. We asked particularly that police evidence on the subject should be repeated in this House and the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, did so.

The film "Natural Born Killers" has become a much feared and in some cases a much disliked film--it is not a film that I liked. However, when considering whether or not to certificate it, there was an enormous amount of rumour that in the United States copycat killings based upon the movie were rife. Around 13 cases were quoted. The director of the BBFC took the trouble to talk to the police chiefs involved in those cases to discover whether or not there was anything in the rumour. In no case was there any evidence to suggest that. All the police chiefs in charge of those cases said that there was no connection between the film "Natural Born Killers", as a video or as a movie, and the crimes concerned. We took the greatest trouble over that because everybody is frightened of copycat killings; indeed, everybody is frightened of the effect that videos and films may have on people.

It is right that films and videos must have some effect upon their audience, otherwise, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, why would anybody put them on the screens and why would advertisers pay all that money to advertise their products if it did not have any effect? The trouble is, rather like the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, said, whatever the connection, it is not a simple one. Many people would love there to be a simple connection--violent videos, violent society; put an equals sign between them and that sorts out the matter. Unfortunately, it is infinitely more complicated than that.

A piece of research came out recently, sponsored by the Home Office, suggested by ourselves and carried out by the University of Birmingham. It takes a group of violent offenders, a group of non-violent offenders and a group of perfectly innocent students who have not been in any trouble at all and examines the difference in their reactions to violent videos and movies. The interesting conclusion of that research is that it is not so much the effect of the video; it is the effect of the family background on violent offenders which triggers further violence. They may thereafter, indeed do by a large proportion according to this research, have much more liking for violent videos than the others, but it does not seem in any case to be the trigger. It is merely a concomitant of an already violent background. It is the family background that has infinitely more effect than any video in the world.

The whole question of appeal raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, is interesting. I shall consider and look at his proposals carefully; I have not seen them before. It is true that it is the industry which is allowed to appeal and it always appeals when we are either too strict or, in some cases, decide not to give a certificate at all. It is always the maker of the film who complains--and sometimes wins. On present scoring, the results are around 50-50 between those whose appeals have been successful and our decision of classification overturned and where our decision has been upheld. I like to think that, with an appeals committee, it is not too bad if one wins about half the time. If one wins all the time, it looks too autocratic and if one loses all the time, one is obviously getting it wrong. A record such as ours is nothing to be ashamed of.

I was extremely alarmed by the terms of the Motion tonight. I was pleased to hear the noble Lord, Lord Alton, say that he approved of Andreas Whittam Smith. I met him and he seems to be an amazingly good choice; he is an extremely civilised man. I add my wishes to those noble Lords who have spoken for his continuing success and good fortune in the BBFC . The Viscount of Falkland:

My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for thinking up such an ingenious device to get us here this evening and providing the momentum for what has been, unexpectedly so, a fascinating debate. I expected to disagree with some people quite violently. I have learnt a great deal and agreed with much of what each speaker said.

The debate is running somewhat wider than I expected. I too am glad that Mr. Whittam Smith is not the target of any criticism. He seems to have been widely received. I have not had the pleasure of knowing him personally, but I understand from Mr. Ferman and now confirmed by the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, that he is a highly suitable candidate to replace the noble Earl, Lord Harewood, in that position.

The whole matter of influence on children is important. I have a child under the age of 10 and am much concerned. I have older children who have been through the whole process of being bullied by me into going out into the garden rather than watching television, and into being made to read, some with more success than others. With my six year-old I am more concerned at the moment about comic strips than anything else. I notice with him--it was the same with me as I recall--that he is more disturbed by real events. Perhaps that is an indication--I hope so--of his good adjustment in life. I too was more disturbed by real events than fictional events depicted in a violent manner.

I recall that when I was young I saw several films which disturbed me a great deal. But nothing disturbed me as much as seeing a real fight in the street at the age of six or drunks in the street attacking each other. Perhaps the distinction between reality and fiction has been blurred. There is certainly more violence available in fiction today to all of us, let alone to young children, than was available when I was young and probably more than there was 10 or 15 years ago.

I return to the subject of the British Board of Film Classification which interests and concerns me. I have had several discussions with Mr. Ferman over the years because I have an interest in these matters. I have found him at all times to be a stimulating, interesting, responsible and helpful person to deal with. However, I have not always agreed with him. I went to see him in relation to the classification of a film which I felt should not have been given a "15" classification and he kindly asked me to lunch to discuss the matter. My concern was not that it was violent for adults but that it was violent for 15 year-olds and certainly for those under that age. I shall not mention the name of the film because I doubt whether any of your Lordships saw it but it involved a good deal of violence in prison by prison warders on offenders, homosexual attacks and the like.

I found great difficulty with his answer but he said it with the utmost sincerity. I think it has a great deal to do with the misunderstandings that can occur between a body like the British Board of Film Classification and interested parties, whether government or private individuals. He said, "I agree with you that it was violent and we may have been on the border line. But the one thing which turned us to give that classification was that at the end there was redemption." If an enormous amount of disturbing violence has occurred it takes a rather adult perception to be able to say at the end of it, "My goodness, that was sickening but certain people redeemed themselves at the end of the picture."

I thought it a complicated intellectual argument. He may have been right; he may have been wrong. But it seems to me that we have moved on from there and the fuss which has arisen is interesting.

As I understand it--the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, will no doubt rise to his feet to correct me if I am wrong--in recent times, since the change of government, Mr. Ferman has seen fit to introduce a new classification for videos, an R18. I understand that two videos--I hasten to say that I have not seen them and I would not want to see them--were allowed into the country but were restricted. They were only to be sold in sex shops, which are carefully governed by statute, and would not be sold in the normal way. The videos were of course inspected by Her Majesty's Customs and Excise and found to be against its "laundry list", its criteria as to whether videos are legal. They were adjudged to be illegal. However, they came in--"Bat Babe" and "Ladies Behaving Badly", not original, noble Lords may think, and I do not think the content was particularly original.

I had a talk with Mr. Ferman about the content of the videos. I did not wish to be invited to lunch to see them but he told me that there was a difficulty. He has done the job for more than 20 years. The body is accountable to Parliament under the Video Recordings Act 1984. The chairman is appointed by the Home Secretary but Mr. Ferman has been there for 22 years. He is a great expert in his job and he has seen great changes over the years in what is and is not acceptable.

With regard to the two films, I would probably have come to the same conclusion as the customs officers, being, as I am, in late middle age. What Mr. Ferman described to me as being in the films would have rung alarm bells with me. For example, he described them as being soft porn films but going towards the line between soft porn and hard porn. In one of the films there was some penetration. There was also the male erection, which is now deemed to be not so shocking as not to be seen by people provided there is a context of consent and what takes place is non violent and legal. I took his point absolutely. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, said, these are complicated matters. We have changing times. We have the perception that activities of a sexual nature are not now so alarming as they were some years ago. We have to decide on objective standards of what is acceptable in our society by way of decency and so on. We need a great deal more time than we have this evening to discuss very complicated issues.

I have been talking about the sexual area. I am not even discussing violence. As far as I am concerned, violence is out. I do not mind about sex. I would not want my six year-old boy to see "Bat Babe" and "Ladies Behaving Badly" but I would not want any of my children of whatever age to see violence; and I agree that one sometimes sees violence on ITV and BBC. These are complicated issues.

However, what worries me--I hope the noble Lord who is to answer the debate will be able to give guidance on this point--is the way in which the Home Secretary intervened. He felt that he had been let down

by the two vice presidents of the British Board of Film Classification in not objecting to this new classification of videos, even though the videos were to be shown in restricted circumstances, and that he expected them to be the eyes and ears of the Government. I find it worrying that he should have expected that.

The great advantage of the British Board of Film Classification is that it involves intelligent people bringing objective views to difficult matters. They have done that successfully over the years. Their responsibility to Parliament is very little. They have to produce a report annually, but I do not think we have seen a report since 1996, which is curious. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, has a copy with him. Apart from that, they are fairly unaccountable. I agree that they need to be made more accountable. But accountable to whom? I do not want them to be accountable to the Home Secretary. I do not want them to be accountable to politicians of any kind. I want them to be more accountable to Parliament so that we can have the debates which the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, has said are necessary. However, I do not want to see the Home Secretary, as it were, reducing the arm's length approach--we use this a good deal nowadays in lottery and other matters--which government have had previously with the British Board of Film Classification.

I have spoken for far too long but there is another matter on which I would appreciate a response from the noble Lord who is to reply. If government become more involved in these matters and we get what is effectively more censorship, although it may not be termed censorship, how will we stand with regard to our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights? Article 10 of the convention provides for redress against the restriction by any state authority of the freedom to express ideas and to provide information. That includes ideas which shock, disturb and offend. That is another element in a very complicated area that will need to be dealt with, not necessarily in debates in your Lordships' House but including debates in your Lordships' House.

I do not envy the Government. I understand what they want to do. I understand exactly what the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, wants to do, although he and I would probably not agree on the lengths to which we should go to protect children against all the materials which he described to the House tonight.

We have these obligations. Other countries seem to order their affairs in a different way so far as concerns sex. In France it seems that all systems are go and no one seems to complain. Pornography is regularly available. It is available on Canal-Plus at night. One night when I was at a film festival in France and could not sleep I turned on my television in the early hours of the morning. I turned it off within seven seconds. What I saw in seven seconds gave me the kind of nightmares that my small child now has as a result of whatever happened at school that day. Other countries too--Holland is an example--have adjusted themselves to a measure of freedom in this area. They have obviously concluded that the effect on children and the population as a whole does not require serious attention. We do not

share that view in this country. I certainly do not share that view as regards violence. It is a very serious question. I am very thankful that we have had the opportunity of discussing it. I look forward very much to the amendment to the Crime and Disorder Bill which comes to us in the middle of this month. Again, we shall not have enough time to develop a lot of very complicated issues which arise in this area.

My party is very concerned about striking the right balance. I believe that all parties are keen to do that, but they have different approaches. I hope that we can reach some consensus in your Lordships' House and that that will lead to some consensus in the country with the introduction of a proper approach to the whole business of violence and sex on television and video.

Jan 27th 1998

House of Commons

  Film Classification

Mr. Straw:

I have today laid before the House copies of the Annual Report of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) for 1996-97, which gives details of the Board's financial accounts and activities over the past eighteen months. Copies of the report have also been placed in the Library.

Under section 6 of the Video Recordings Act 1984, the designated authority for the classification of video works (in practice, the President and Vice Presidents of the BBFC) is required to produce a report as soon as is reasonably practicable after 31 December. The production of the report for 1996-97 has been greatly delayed and I have expressed my concern about this very strongly to the new President, Mr. Andreas Whittam Smith. Mr. Whittam Smith has made it clear that he shares my concern and has assured me that he will be establishing a timetable for the production of the 1997-98 report to ensure that it is produced as soon as possible after the audited accounts are available.

I have also made clear to Mr. Whittam Smith my serious concern at the unilateral action taken by the BBFC last year to relax the guidelines for the classification of videos in the R18 category (that is, videos which can lawfully be sold only in licensed sex shops). The BBFC's change of policy was brought to my attention by Her Majesty's Customs and Excise which was concerned that material had been classified which might have been liable to forfeiture under section 42 of Customs Consolidation Act and the subject of forfeiture proceedings under section 3 of the Obscene Publications Act. It was entirely unacceptable that the Board should have acted in this way. As a consequence of my concern, Mr. Whittam Smith has inquired into the handling of this matter and is putting in place procedures to ensure proper controls on the formulation of policy. He is also taking steps to improve management accountability at the Board.

On taking up his post. Mr. Whittam Smith outlined his proposals for reviewing the Board's classification policy and his intention to consult widely on this issue. I welcome these positive steps towards greater openness and accountability at the Board.

 

UK Censorship
Archive
 UK Censorship News Archive: 1998 1999
 UK Parliament Watch Archive: 1996 1997 1998 1999
 Opinion: 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005
 Legal Debate Mail order R18s, satellite proscription etc
 Proscription of Adult Satellite Channels Department for Culture, Media, Sport & Proscription
 Human Rights Abuse - Where Do You Draw The Line? by IanG
 Films On TV Red Triangle films on Channel 4 and the cutting of Thelma and Louise on the BBC
 BSC Guidelines Worthless guidelines on taste and decency from the defunct Broadcasting Standards Commission
 Obscene Interpretation of the Law A police raid on porn historian David Flint
 Obscenity Trials The only obscenity is British Justice
 The Black Market for Sex Videos The Pornographer's Best Friend
 Customs Guidelines & Seizures Up until 2000
 The People vs HM Customs Heroic battles against HM Customs
 Escalating Costs HMRC uses as much money as it takes to ensure decisions cannot be challenged in court (Oct 2000)
 Customs Poking Around in your Lap-top