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Exclusion Of Exhibitions Promoted For Private Gain From Certain Exemptions Under The 1909 And 1952 Acts

Volume 22: debated on Friday 30 April 1982

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

With this we may take amendment No. 27, in schedule 1, page 8, line 45 leave out 'in section 9(1) of the 1952 Act' and insert—

`(1) For subsection (4) of section 5 of the 1952 Act (exempted organisations) there shall be. substituted the following subsections—
"(4) In the last foregoing subsection the expression `exempted organisation' means a society, institution, committee or other organisation as respects which there is in force at the time of the exhibition in question a certificate given by the Secretary of State certifying that he is satisfied that the organisation is not conducted or established for profit; and there shall be paid to the Secretary of State in respect of the giving of such a certificate such reasonable fee as he may determine.
(5) The Secretary of State shall not give such a certificate with respect to any organization—
  • (a) the activities of which appear to him to consist of or include the giving of cinematograph exhibitions promoted for private gain; or
  • (b) the objects of which do not appear to him to consist of or include the giving of cinematograph exhibitions to which the public are admitted;
  • and the Secretary of State may revoke such a certificate at any time if it appears to him that, since the certificate was given, the activities of the organisation have consisted of or included the giving of cinematograph exhibitions promoted for private gain.
    (2) Any certificate given by the Commissioners of Customs and Excise under that sub-section before the commencement of this Act shall have effect as if given by the Secretary of State.
    6A. In section 9(1) of that Act.'.

    These amendments have no direct bearing on the main objects of the Bill. Their purpose is to make a number of changes in the administrative arrangements for issuing exempted organisation certificates under section 5(4) of the 1952 Act. Such a certificate enables a non-profit-making body to put on exhibitions to which the public are admitted on payment on up to three days a week without having to obtain a cinematograph licence or comply with regulations or conditions.

    At present, certificates are issued by the Commissioners of Customs and Excise, but I understand from my right hon. Friend the Minister of State that it has been agreed that in future this work should be carried out by the Home Office and the Scottish Office.

    I am also taking the opportunity to make three further changes of a minor character.

    The first is to enable the issuing authority to recover its costs in issuing these certificates by charging a fee. This is effected in the new section 5(4) of the 1952 Act, which is added by amendment No. 27.

    The second is to provide that certificates shall not be issued to bodies whose objects do not appear to include the giving of exhibitions to which the public are admitted. Since such bodies do not require licences, there would be no purpose in issuing them. The amendment ensures that unnecessary work is avoided.

    The third change, which is effected by the new subsection (5), is to provide that a certificate may be revoked if its issue is no longer appropriate. Provision is also made for the continuation in force of present certificates.

    As a Home Office Minister who sometimes thinks that both he as an individual and his Department carry an already formidable and wide enough list of responsibilities, I am always a little reluctant to add further to those responsibilities. When the Commissioners of Customs and Excise have been carrying out a responsibility for a good many years, normally it is not the desire of the Home Office to seize hold of it. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Lloyd) has explained that there are good reasons for the proposal in his amendment to transfer from the Customs and Excise to the Home Office the function of issuing certificates to the effect that organisations are not conducted or established for profit.

    My hon. Friend described the broad significance of this piece of machinery. Section 5 of the Cinematograph Act 1952 provides for a number of exemptions from the licensing and regulatory controls which apply to the generality of commercial exhibitions. One of the exemptions concerns exhibitions given by what are called "exempted organisations" on up to three days a week. This exemption was designed expressly for the myriad of small local organisations, including film societies, education institutions, cultural organisations and so on, which might want to charge for admission to exhibitions in order to cover their costs but which could not remotely be considered as commercial—that is, profit-making bodies. The 1952 Act enables such an organisation to operate free of controls on up to three days a week, provided that a certificate is in force to the effect that it is not conducted or established for profit.

    As the House has learnt, at present these certificates are issued by the Commissioners of Customs and Excise. The proposal is that henceforth the responsibility should lie with the Secretary of State—in England and Wales, the Home Secretary and, in Scotland, the Secretary of State for Scotland. In my view, this proposed change is right in principle. The present responsibility of the Commissioners of Customs and Excise is an historical accident which arises from their one-time function of collecting entertainment duty, which was abolished in 1960. They have no general policy interest in this legislation, even though the certification procedure is central to the mechanism of exemptions under the 1952 Act. Clearly it is sensible, therefore, that the Department charged with operating this procedure should be the same as that which also has responsibility for the general law relating to cinematograph exhibitions—that is, the Home Office. On this main issue of principle, therefore, I can say readily that the Government concur wholly with these amendments.

    I also commend the other minor changes proposed in the amendment. A fee-charging power is consistent with our general approach of seeking to recover the reasonable costs of specific services performed directly for the public by the Government. It is a power which will be exercised responsibly and with due regard to the nature of the organisations which request those certificates.

    I also agree with the proposed subsection (5), which seeks to avoid the unnecessary work which would be involved in issuing certificates to organisations which did not really need them or to organisations run for private gain which sought to evade the other provisions of the Bill by attempting to represent by some ingenious device that they were not run for profit.

    Finally, there is provision for the revocation of a certificate, which would be appropriate, for example where the activities of an organisation had changed or where a certificate would not have been granted if the new criteria in the Bill had been in force.

    I hope that the House will accept the amendments.

    11.15 am

    I am grateful for the Minister's explanation of and support for the amendments. I wish to ask three questions.

    I do not think that I shall be alone in being glad whenever the Customs and Excise people give up any function. Although I have much admiration for many of the individuals who serve in that organisation, over recent years, notably in respect of value added tax, they have not enhanced their reputation among my constituents as public servants who would be "Top of the Pops". Therefore, I for one am glad that they will cease to have anything to do with this function, which they obtained only by an historical accident. In any event, they have not had very much to do under this heading since, happily, entertainment tax was abolished.

    None the less, although I am glad to see the Commissioners of Customs and Excise giving up any function, I do not automatically throw my hat in the air at the prospect of the Home Office taking on any further functions. I have a good deal to do with the Home Office, though not as much as my right hon. Friend, and again I declare a great regard for many of the dedicated and frequently unthanked civil servants who inhabit and manage the Home Office. However, it was well said of Home Office officials by a former distinguished Minister in a Conservative Government that they were on occasion the original inhabitants of square one. That is a perfectly proper description, and I hope that now that they are to take on this new and not very onerous task the Minister will assure me, first, that they will be able to operate with dispatch and without costing the applicant for a certificate too much and, secondly that we shall not have a proliferation of people in the Home Office who need to be recruited to handle the job.

    Those are not animadversions which are thrown out recklessly. I invite right hon. and hon. Members to examine what is to be done. Henceforth, I assume that applications for certificates will be made by small private organisations, many of them, for example, In the villages of Suffolk which I represent and in many of the other communities so admirably represented by the large number of Conservative Members present today—I do not think there will be many from Labour constituencies, because no Labour Member is here to speak for them. But let us suppose that there is now to be a considerable amount of correspondence arising from small local organisations which want certificates of exemption so that they can quite properly show films to children, over-sixties clubs or the British Legion in their villages. I assume that they will write to the Home Office. I know of no other way in which they would be able to seek a certificate, because, unlike local government and the Customs and Excise, the Home Office, happily, does not have a local organisation. It does not have an extensive regional organisation, except perhaps for civil defence.

    The Studlands Park residents association near Newmarket does a splendid job of showing films occasionally for the benefit of children who, because we lack buses in our area, are unable to go to the towns to see them. The association's secretary, being a law-abiding person, would be bound to write to ask about the position. If my constituents think that there is the slightest possibility of infringing the law, whether on bingo or anything else, they always write in advance, usually to me, to ask whether it will be all right. In future I shall have to tell them that they should write not to me but to the Home Office.

    What happens when a series of letters from the Studlands Park residents associaion and numerous other organisations around the country arrive at the Home Office, saying that they want to show a little film about an agreeable local topic to their children, the Boy Scouts, the WI or the over-sixties? I have no doubt that forms will be sent back. The forms will have to be written up. When will they be produced? How will they be sent out? When the completed forms arrive at the Home Office, how are they to be dealt with?

    There is, rightly, an element of discretion. That is common sense. I suppose that in most cases broad criteria will be drawn up within the Home Office so that officials can deal with these matters sensibly. What are the criteria to be? Will the Home Office decide that there is no need for a certificate for a small village hall under a certain size, where the showings are to be fewer than two a week and the type of videotape film to be shown has been put in a harmless category by the censors? Alternatively, will a blanket certificate be given to run unless the local police have reason to believe that under the guise of the certificate some nasty fellow has slipped a blue film into the village hall?

    Those are administrative details which cannot entirely be dealt with in the House. However, I hope that the switch from Customs and Excise to the Home Office will not result in my villagers writing letters that get lost and having to deal with forms, while weeks elapse, and at the end of the day paying a fairly sharp fee—£5 or so—to show "Bo-peep" to a children's party in the village hall. I ask my right hon. Friend to give some attention to this little difficulty of how the Home Office will handle the matter.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Lloyd) proposes in amendment No. 27 that
    "(2) any certificate given by the Commissioners of Customs and Excise under that subsection before the commencement of this Act shall have effect as if given by the Secretary of State."
    That allows retrospection, so that henceforth it becomes a Home Office rather than a Customs and Excise matter. That is clear, but I should like to ask something about the certificates that the Commissioners of Customs and Excise have already given. What do they consist of? To whom do they apply? What is the position in respect of the kind of small village organisations of which I have been speaking? The stipulation of the amendment is that the existing certificates, no doubt properly given by Customs and Excise, will be carried forward as if under the authority of the Home Secretary. That is a logical development, but the House should know what kind of certificates are already outstanding.

    I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State will take into account the need for a speedy service. A number of charitable and other small organisations tend to discover far too late in the day that a certificate is required. When a new process is introduced, such organisations can be caused much heartache if they discover to their horror, possibly only a few days before their special event is to take place, that they are required to obtain a certificate from the Home Office, which will take a considerable time. I hope that there will be special provision for a simplified process for such organisations, so that they will not be frustrated in trying to provide a service to the local community.

    In my admiration of the Home Office I yield only to that shown by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths). I have always found those in the Home Office to be most diligent people, but they are perhaps a little less than able to react at short notice in the public interest. That is what this matter of the issue of certificates is all about. There are occasions when a little elasticity is needed.

    How will the procedure work? My right hon. Friend the Minister of State might consider delegating this important responsibility to local authorities, no doubt after issuing them with guidelines so that there is a national procedure. The powers to issue some certificates which used to be issued centrally by the Home Office have already been delegated to local bodies. I think, for example, of the storage of dangerous and inflammable materials. The local authorities which now carry out examinations in relation to that matter are reasonably flexible and can respond to public demand with reasonable alacrity.

    What will be the charge for the certificates? Will they be renewable annually, bi-annually, or every five or 10 years as one would hope, to reduce overheads? The main factor in the cost of issuing certificates, which in this instance will be borne by the public purse, is the frequency of issue. One would not imagine that certificates of this nature, which will be issued by the Home Office, would have to be renewed all that frequently.

    11.30 am

    Finally, how many licences will be involved? The procedure is to be transferred from Customs and Excise to the Home Office. Presumably Customs and Excise has records of the number of transactions that it has engaged in from year to year. The House will be interested to know what the total is and whether the number of transactions is declining or increasing annually. Having said that, I welcome the amendment.

    I shall not attempt to answer questions about the way in which the Home Office will discharge its new responsibilities. However, one question was put to me direct by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) and indirectly in the questions posed to my right hon. Friend by my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr). My answer is that there are about 47 or 48 certificates outstanding. They relate to community associations, cinema and film clubs and charitable organisations. I shall leave my right hon. Friend to deal with fees and the frequency with which certificates will have to be renewed, should he catch the eye of the Chair.

    With the leave of the House, I shall pick up the various significant and practical issues that have been raised by my hon. Friends and try to answer them.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) had kind words for the Home Office but they were not unalloyed. He hinted that occasionally it is rather leisurely or conservative in its approach. He accused the Home Office of being the original inhabitant of square one. It is in the process of celebrating its bicentenary, and I suppose that it may claim entitlement to some slight conservatism in its ways. Experience counts for a good deal in these matters, and the Home Office does not want to be rushed. To be serious, I do not think that the Home Office will be disposed to deal with this matter other than with dispatch.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr Lloyd) said that the number of certificates outstanding is only 47. It is relevant to consider the scale of the operations in other spheres. In terms of immigration, for example, for which I am responsible, 47 certificates is as nothing compared with the massive inflow of paperwork with which we try to cope. The certificates will be sent to community associations, clubs and societies. I assure the House that they will be absorbed. There will be no need for additional civil servants or more bureaucracy.

    The total of 47 seems extraordinarily small. As the new legislation bites there is likely to be a much larger number of organisations that will seek and probably require exemption. The video cassette revolution is developing and many small organisations can cheaply and properly obtain cassettes. What will be the position of Conservative, Labour or Liberal clubs? They may wish to put on film shows for their members at no cost and certainly not for profit or gain. I hope that they will put on such shows. What about the local clubs, which recently have shown, for example, the BBC's programme entitled "The War Game" to help the CND? I do not ask my right hon. Friend to deal with these matters in precise terms now, because I understand that he may require advice. I merely say that I shall be surprised if the numbers remain within the 40s and 50s. I ask him to bear in mind especially the position of political clubs.

    I would not argue that because there are 47 now there will always be 47. However, it is worth remembering the context in which the scheme operates. I remind the House that the need for an exempted organisation certificate will arise only if an organisation gives exhibitions to which the public are admitted on more than six days a year. Occasional exhibitions are exempted from the need to obtain a licence under section 7(2) of the 1909 Act. That means that a one-off special event is exempted under that Act. That may help to put aside doubt about a tremendous proliferation.

    There will be no change of substance in the procedure now operated by Customs and Excise. The function is merely being transferred, it is not being created. As I have said, a certificate will be required only if an organisation wants to admit the public on payment. If it does, and on not more than three days a week, it will write to the Home Office. We do not contemplate a procedure that will be any lengthier than the present one. We shall deal with any applications with all possible dispatch. The most that we are likely to ask for will be a set of accounts to satisfy ourselves that the organisation concerned is not being run for profit.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) asked about delegating these activities to local authorities. I think that he will probably accept, after my explanation of the scale of the operation, that it would not be worth the bother of delegation. It is a small-scale operation. If we had to advise local authorities how to handle it, no doubt they would worry about which department would be involved and many other matters. It will be simpler to pick up the present procedure and transfer it to the Home Office without any significant alteration in the procedure. We must ensure that the criteria remain consistent, and it will be marginally easier if everything is done within the Home Office rather than by handing procedures to a variety of other departments.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds asked about the period for which certificates will run. At present they are issued by Customs and Excise to run for two years. When the Home Office has this power, one of the things that it will consider is whether two years is appropriate. I appreciate my hon. Friend's submission that a longer period might be better. I cannot give an undertaking, but the matter will be considered.

    I have said that it is our aim to ensure that the fee is reasonable. The rough and ready yardstick of what is held to be reasonable is a level of fee that is related to the cost of the operation. If the cost of the operation is small—we do not envisage that it will be necessary to create a larger bureaucracy to administer it—it should be possible to keep the fee low. I accept that it is desirable to keep the fee to a minimum.

    The determination of a "reasonable fee" causes many of us concern. Once a fee gets into the hands of the Home Office, a "reasonable fee" tends to be scrutinised every year in the light of inflation. If the Home Secretary or the Minister of the day forgets to exercise that proper scrutiny, he will receive a severe reminder from the Treasury. Some stability in the level of the fee will mean a great deal to those concerned.

    I know that licence fees increase. I am responsible for radio regulation and for nationality. In those areas, fees are charged. I cannot conceal from the House the fact that I have had letters about fees increases in those areas over the last year. It would be hypocritical of me to get into the business of giving assurances that fees are not rising. If the certificates run for a longer period than one year, there will not be an annual increase in the fee charged for the certificate. It is our desire that the fees should be kept to a minimum. No one can see this as a revenue-raising area or an area for disguised taxation. We have no desire for fees to be any higher than they have to be.

    The need for certificates should not be affected by the Bill. The Bill bites on commercial bodies. The certificates are, by definition, issued only to non-profit-making bodies. Clubs are not affected. A certificate is needed only where an exhibition is given to the public on payment.

    I hope that I have picked up the valid and genuine points that have been made during the debate. I commend my hon. Friend's amendments to the House.

    There is one point that I might usefully add to what my right hon. Friend the Minister has said. There is an amendment that empowers the Home Office not to give certificates to organisations which do not regularly give film shows to which the public are admitted. The rest of the Bill takes care of the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths). As long as a body—be it a political society or any other—which shows a film such as "The War Game" is not run for private gain it will be within the law in showing the film without such an exemption certificate.

    Amendment agreed to.