Order for Second Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I am most grateful for this opportunity to call for the Second Reading of my Bill. I am also grateful to the large number of colleagues in all parts of the House who have given up their precious constituency day to be here.
There is growing concern in this House and in the country about the rising tide of violence. Whatever the complications around counting, reporting and recording, the statistics suggest a rise of about tenfold over the past 25 years in violent crime in general and, more specifically, in rape; and the trend remains upwards.
The Bill seeks to address what I believe is one of the fundamental drivers of our increasingly violent society. It has received the endorsement of leaders of several of our religious communities, including the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, the Anglican Bishop of Bristol, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the League of British Muslims.
I am very grateful that the Prime Minister has agreed to see the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, and me to discuss the issues raised by the Bill.
This morning, I shall offer compelling evidence that the growth in violent offences is linked to the growing availability in the media of extremely violent and explicitly sexual material. Part of that material falls within the orbit of the British Board of Film Classification, which is responsible for classifying films on an advisory basis for local authorities, and has statutory powers with regard to videos, DVDs and certain classes of video games. My Bill would reform that organisation.
It is manifestly obvious that some very important media lie outside the remit of the BBFC, particularly television and the internet. In a private Member’s Bill one can only do so much; my aim is to suggest ways of setting boundaries that we could then extend to other areas. I hope that the House will bear with me if I spend the bulk of my speech focusing on the need for reform, and then briefly outline the provisions.
I shall start with a group of videos banned by the Director of Public Prosecutions a generation ago. They were re-examined by the BBFC three years ago, and one of those that it decided to release videos to ordinary high-street outlets such as HMV was “SS Experiment Camp”. Let me quote from the sleeve of this video:
“Female political prisoners are brought to Von Kleiben’s secret camp to have sex with Wehrmacht troops as part of a breeding study—at least the compliant, beautiful ones, that is. The plain Janes and the uncooperative experience a course of cruel experiments by Von Kleiben’s lesbian assistant.”
The film shows in voyeuristic detail women being tortured to death by SS camp guards. A BBFC spokesman commented on the film:
“It is tasteless—but then I find most Mel Gibson films tasteless…It is not going to create an attitude towards Jewish women that is harmful.”
It is certainly true that far more brutal films have since been released, but I urge those in the House who feel—and I know there are some—that although material may be tasteless, adults should be allowed to watch whatever they like in a free country, to read the report published by the Ministry of Justice last September. Its title is interesting in itself: “The evidence of harm to adults”—it focused exclusively on adults—“relating to exposure to extreme pornographic material: a rapid evidence assessment.” The survey was based on 124 independent studies from around the world. I shall quote some of the findings. It says that
“the research reviewed in this report provides evidence of the negative psychological, attitudinal and behavioural effects on adults who access this material.”
The material, incidentally, was hardcore, but not necessarily violent pornography. The report continues:
“These include (for men): physiological arousal…leading to beliefs that women enjoy or desire rape…; attitudinal effects; rape myth acceptance; pro-rape attitudes; self-reported likelihood to use force or to rape; behavioural effects such as: aggression in the laboratory after exposure; using pornographic materials to prepare for sexual offences…; actual real life rape and sexual aggression”.
There will always be those who claim that there can be a correlation without a cause—that this whole phenomenon can be explained away by saying that those who are prone to rape have a greater predisposition to view pornographic material. As someone who worked for a number of years as a statistician, I can tell the House that it is possible to pursue that sort of chicken and egg argument until the cows come home. We do not accept it, and never have accepted it, in areas such as simulated child pornography, where child porn is made with actresses who are actually adults but appear to be children. We do not accept it in the case of racist literature. Interestingly, the Ministry of Justice report addresses this point head on, and comments:
“Research testing theoretical models has identified a mutually–reinforcing relationship between extreme pornography as a causal factor in instigating sexual aggression, and a predisposition to sexual aggression creating an interest in extreme pornographic material.”
There we have the chicken and the egg.
I shall give one or two further examples. In Leicester in 2004, Warren Leblanc admitted murdering his 14-year-old friend Stefan Pakeerah in a murderous assault with a claw hammer and knife. I know that the right hon. Member for Leicester, East will be dwelling on that case, so I will not do so, but the testimony of the father is well worth listening to. An even more horrific case was that of the two 10-year-old schoolboys who were convicted of murdering toddler Jamie Bulger. When the noble Lord Alton was an MP, he commented on the remarks of the trial judge, Justice Morland. Lord Alton said:
“The context of my amendment two years ago was the killing of a young boy, James Bulger, in the city of Liverpool…In the aftermath of the verdicts, the trial judge remarked on, ‘the striking similarities’ between scenes in the video “Child’s Play 3” and the attack on James Bulger.”
He went on to point out:
“440 other videos had been hired during the previous few years by the father of one of the boys. The videos included soft pornography, violent horror and necrophilia.”—[Official Report, 3 April 1996; Vol. 275, c. 309.]
Last year the BBFC at least sought to ban the successor to the game “Manhunt 2”. Its director, David Cook, said:
“Manhunt 2 is distinguishable from recent high-end video games by its unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone in an overall game context which constantly encourages visceral killing. There is sustained and cumulative casual sadism in the way in which these killings are committed, and encouraged, in the game.”
Indeed, I understand that under the points system in the game, the more sadistic the killing, the higher the number of points a player gets. The BBFC’s video appeals committee overturned this ban, but found its own ruling overturned in the High Court. Although this process has finally yielded the right result in that case, the House will not be surprised to hear that one of the provisions of my Bill is to reform the video appeals committee.
Yes, certainly. The gist of the decision was that the standard of proof set by the video appeals committee in determining whether the game was damaging was so high that it could almost never be attained, in any case. The High Court said that that process was legally flawed. The basis that the committee used to justify allowing it would effectively allow anything. In an earlier ruling, nine years ago, the video appeals committee had effectively opened the doorway to almost all forms of non-violent pornography.
Another example that is far more recent than the film I mentioned earlier is the film “Irreversible”. This film includes a scene of the rape of a very attractive actress, which runs for nine consecutive minutes. If one types “irreversible rape” into Google, five of the top 10 links are to clips of that rape scene, which has been passed by the BBFC. If that is not glamorising rape, it is difficult to imagine what would be.
Years ago, I was on the local council, which used to review films and could overrule classification. I would like to know whether that can still be done. Whenever we did overrule classification, the danger was that we would give a lot of publicity to the film, and then everyone would go and watch it in a neighbouring authority area. Is my hon. Friend touching on that issue in his Bill?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Of course, local authorities do sometimes make a stand. In the field of rap music, which is unregulated, Brighton has just said that it will close licensed premises that use such music that features incitement to violence. As my hon. Friend points out, a local authority standing alone is of limited value, for exactly the reasons he sets out. We have to go back to the sources, and the BBFC is what we have at the moment.
I turn to one more example, from a quarter that might surprise some Members of the House. Boyz magazine has given me the following quote and asked me to use it:
“As the leading and longest-standing gay weekly magazine, Boyz has taken a stance against bareback videos”—
that is, sex scenes showing males operating without condoms. It goes on to say that
“we reported last October that three young models, aged 18, 21 and 26, contracted HIV on a British bareback video shoot”—
three young men now facing effectively a sentence of death. The quote continues:
“It is disturbing that the film was released despite the fact that…at least one of the models was very strongly opposed to the film being released…Boyz magazine is in favour of gay adult material being available to our readers, of course, but we do not support the promotion of films featuring unsafe sex. The BBFC is effectively certifying films which eroticise and promote unsafe sex amongst gay men.”
I shall not conceal from the House the fact that I have some disagreements with Boyz magazine in some areas, but I am extremely grateful that it has come out strongly behind my Bill.
It is remarkable that a number of the BBFC’s former leading lights have condemned the institution’s current attitude. Speaking to the Daily Mail, former BBFC chairman Andreas Whittam Smith said that he believed that it had been taking a more relaxed approach to violence. He was, of course, overturned by the wretched video appeals committee when he tried to take a stance on violence as chairman. Referring to a recently released film, “Eastern Promises”, Mr. Whittam Smith said:
“If I thought this was the type of film that was likely to make people leave the cinema, or even make them have to look away for quite a while, then I would question why the scene should be left in.”
Michael Bor, the former principal examiner of the BBFC, came to see me. He said:
“Nobody familiar with the media business could deny that there has been a liberalisation of attitudes to violence…We have to be much more sophisticated in recognising that young people are being desensitised by growing exposure to violence in the media; violence is becoming normalised in their perceptions.”
It is not just the Ministry of Justice report that accepts the argument that violence and sexual material encourage violence against women. The Advertising Standards Authority launched a seminar last year under its chairman Lord Smith, the former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, on violent imagery in advertising. The ASA has an excellent record in that area, unlike the BBFC. For example, in 2005 it banned a Reebok advertisement on the grounds that it glamorised gun violence. A few years ago, Professor Andrew Sims, past president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, commented that
“there is now vast anecdotal evidence associating the portrayal of violence with violent behaviour and more than one thousand papers linking violence in the media to actual behaviour”.
Earlier I quoted Government research and referred to the Prime Minister’s open door. Now let me refer to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, who said last November that
“studies have shown that as many as one in two young men believe there are some circumstances when it’s OK to force a woman to have sex. In my mind, this is an example of moral collapse.
We need widespread cultural change, and addressing this moral failure represents a real challenge to British society: to families, schools, local communities and businesses.”
He went on to say that
“the past decade or so has seen the growing sexualisation of our society, where sex is aimed at an ever younger audience and it’s cool to treat women like sex objects...we need those that work in the media and music industry to exercise their responsibility in how they present female role models.”
The previous August he had remarked that
“the companies which make music videos, films and computer games have a social responsibility not to promote casual violence, the gang culture and the degradation of women”.
My Bill aims to make the British Board of Film Classification accountable to Parliament and the public in a way that should encourage a return to more responsible decisions. Clause 1 gives a power of scrutiny over the appointment of the four principal officers of the BBFC to the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which is the Committee responsible for studying crime and violence. In each case, the BBFC would be required to submit a shortlist of three names to the Committee, allowing it to interview each person. The BBFC would then make the appointment, but the Committee, as well as the Secretary of State, would have a veto.
Currently, the BBFC makes all its appointments internally. Under the Video Recordings Act 1984, the Home Secretary was given the power—it now lies with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport—designate the body with control over videos, so that the Government in effect have a veto over that key position.
That is true, but that veto has never been exercised in practice, and as there are no hearings, it is very unlikely that it would be. The Bill would get it out into the open, and the hon. Gentleman will hear some more reasons in a moment why we need to do that. In his statement to the House on constitutional reform last July, the Prime Minister announced:
“The House of Commons should also have a bigger role in the selection of key public officials. I propose, as a first step, pre-appointment hearings for public officials whose role it is to protect the public’s rights and interests”.—[Official Report, 7 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 816.]
For convenience, I shall deal next with clause 3, which gives a similar power of veto to the Home Affairs Committee over the BBFC’s guidelines. They are the guidelines that the BBFC’s examiners work to and they are available on its website. Let us be in no doubt at all that the guidelines have been progressively liberalised. If we compare the guidelines for 2005 with those of five years earlier, we see that the differences are striking. For example, the guidelines in 2000 for videos rated at 15 said:
“There may be no emphasis on the use of easily accessible lethal weapons (in particular, knives).”
In 2005, that was watered down to:
“Easily accessible weapons should not be glamorised.”
Crucially, all reference to knives was removed from the guidelines in 2005. There have been a string of films portraying knife attacks since then, and we have also seen a large growth in knife crime. I am not suggesting cause and effect, but I believe that such films are a factor. Similarly, to give one more example, the BBFC’s 2000 guidelines for 12-rated videos said:
“Dangerous techniques…should contain no imitable detail.”
In 2005, however, the guidelines said:
“Dangerous techniques…should not dwell on imitable detail”.
In videos, people can dwell as much as they like, whatever their age, and there is lots of evidence that children play again and again even quite short clips that they find intriguing.
Amazingly, the BBFC’s own polling conducted in 2004, shortly before the 2005 guidelines were issued—it was conducted by TNS Media, a reputable body—showed that a clear two-to-one majority among those in the public who had an opinion believed that too much violence was allowed into films for those two age bands. That poll was properly conducted by a reputable polling organisation. The BBFC did not like the outcome, so it went off and conducted an online poll—in fact, we can follow the paper trial through its own documents. In its consultation document, the BBFC admitted to directing people, including
“people active in the film industry”,
to the website survey. The results were, of course, unsurprising. In the new online survey, which was not properly conducted, only 13 per cent. of respondents thought that the standards of violence in the guidelines were not strict enough. Sadly, the BBFC chose to follow its own cooked web poll and watered down standards on, for example, knife crime, instead of following the poll that it had commissioned from a reputable organisation.
More recent surveys record even more startling results. Media Watch, the campaigning organisation, whose work I strongly commend, commissioned an independent survey by CommunicateResearch, another top independent polling organisation. If any hon. Member goes to CommunicateResearch’s website when they leave the Chamber—they will not do so, I hope, before I finish—they will see the top item: the research it published yesterday showing that 76 per cent. of people support the tighter regulation of violence in films and games, and on TV; that 68 per cent. believe such violence to be linked to actual violent crimes; and that 80 per cent. believe that the BBFC process for approving films should be transparent and accountable to Parliament. That—to return to the query that the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) raised—is why we need greater accountability to Parliament.
Currently, only the industry can appeal against a ruling by the BBFC, either to restore cut material or to lower a classification. No appeal from anybody else is allowed. Appeals are currently handled in the BBFC by the supposedly independent appeals committee. The last violent video game to be rejected before “Manhunt 2”—“Carmageddon”, which was rejected in 1997—was released after its makers employed an expensive Queen’s counsel on the appeal.
It may be argued that there have to be limits on appeals because otherwise there might be a vast number of them. In Australia, any single member of the public can appeal to a genuinely independent appeal body, but all my Bill asks is that if 50 MPs sign an early-day motion as a result of public concern, it should trigger an appeal. No one is suggesting that MPs should be directly involved. I do not want direct political interference; we just want accountability, so that an independent body will look at the matter if there is a lot of public concern.
Clause 2 proposes that the BBFC be required to keep a list of volunteers from whom a jury of 12 should be randomly selected to hear each appeal. It also proposes to limit the service of the panel from which juries are selected; it is time-limited to prevent panellists from becoming case-hardened. Incidentally, it is a crucial feature of Australian law that everyone involved in the process is time-limited.
I was somewhat intrigued by the hon. Gentleman’s proposal on the jury, and I am pleased that he has moved on to the detail of the Bill, as my main concerns lie there, rather than with the broad thrust of what he is trying to achieve. What happens if the jury is hung?
I look forward to the hon. Gentleman joining me in Committee so that we can sort that out. In fact, there is an answer: the Bill provides for the appointment of a chairman to the jury, who will presumably have the casting vote. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman’s question, but we can debate it further in Committee—and I hope that he will serve on it. Let me remind the House that at this stage, we are debating whether the Bill should be given a Second Reading.
I have been listening with interest to my hon. Friend. I come at the issue with the perspective of someone who has multiple children, who seem to have access to all sorts of information. I am curious to know whether the Bill deals with access to material on multiple platforms. Violence is not disseminated solely through videos and DVDs, as there are now hand-held devices through which various messages are delivered. Will the Bill deal with those platforms as well?
The short answer to my hon. Friend’s question is that it deals with some, but not others. As I said at the outset, a private Member’s Bill can do only so much. Whole areas of the media, such as the internet, are completely unregulated except with regard to child pornography. I am trying to set boundaries for the BBFC, which is what we already have, but I have already made it clear that that can be only a beginning. As we shift progressively away from straightforward videos and DVDs towards the wider world that he mentioned, any measures will have to be broadened.
One of the key aspects of the BBFC’s work is that it reaches decisions prior to the release of films, often in discussion with film makers. I assume that, under the Bill, the appeal process can take place only after a film has been released, because people will need to have seen it in order to object. Is there not a danger of creating a real double jeopardy for the film industry? I have to tell my hon. Friend that that is why most in the industry are very concerned about his proposals.
I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend, but the film industry’s concerns are not my primary worry. The fact is that the system works perfectly well in Australia and it can be put into effect at any stage. Sometimes people hear about the release of a particularly violent video in America, for example. It is interesting to compare the three common law jurisdictions of America, Britain and Australia. We are positioned somewhere in the middle. In America, the system is completely liberalised, except with regard to child pornography, for which there are very tough federal offences, including those for when adult actors pose as children. Australia represents the direction that I would like to move in. I am not suggesting that this issue is the only factor, but it is a fact that there is a great deal less violent youth crime in Australia than there is here, and I believe that this problem is one of the causes.
I do not want to delay my hon. Friend in advancing his important case, but I am puzzled by the intervention of the Chairman of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale). Surely all the Bill does is provide an additional safeguard in extreme circumstances, not for routine films, which does not exist at present. When a film has been released and people find it distasteful and think that it should not have been released, there would be an additional protection. That is all the Bill does; it seems very sensible, prudent and pragmatic.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend and I hope that my next example will make that point almost as well as he has just made it.
Let me return to the testimony from Boyz magazine, our largest circulation gay magazine, as this particular provision is the one that it most strongly supports:
“If there was an independent body in place with the power to hear appeals against the BBFC’s decisions, then this young man”—
the 19-year-old whom I mentioned earlier, who has a sentence of death hanging over him—
“could have appealed to that body for the DVD—in which he became HIV positive—not to be given certification.”
That was highlighted in our exchange of e-mails as the single reason for the magazine’s support for the Bill.
Currently, there is no way of reviewing a decision retrospectively, except at the behest of the BBFC. After the outcry over the original “Manhunt” case, for instance, a review by the BBFC would have been welcome. Thus, clause 2 allows for that sort of retrospective ruling. If people have heard about a film, they can initiate the process earlier, but retrospective rulings will be allowed. Again, however, that sets a much higher standard than in Australia, where just one person can trigger an appeal. My Bill says that an appeal will be possible if 50 MPs sign an early-day motion.
Finally, clause 4 will introduce increases in penalties for offences. Ian Muspratt, chairman of the Video Standards Council—a body wholly independent of the BBFC—commented that
“a study three years ago suggested that it is more profitable to sell pirated videos and DVDs than cocaine and it is often the same people doing it”.
The current abysmal lack of enforcement, with weak penalties anyway, means that, while there is still some classification, the system for enforcement has effectively broken down. Mr. Muspratt described to me the vast numbers of illegal videos and DVDs moving around the country—that is the case even before we start thinking about the internet.
I am grateful to the Prime Minister for agreeing to see the right hon. Member for Leicester, East and me. I am very much aware that the Government have commissioned Dr. Tanya Byron to research the children’s end of this issue. I must say, however, that although I was very impressed with the work that she is doing when I met her, this is not just an issue about children. Britain today has a rising tide of violence, particularly sexual violence against women and young girls, much of it which, especially when the women are trafficked, never reaches official statistics, but the official statistics are bad enough. The perpetrators are not typically under 18. The tide of violence available through the media, including films, DVDs, videos and video games is fuelling the problem. The evidence shows overwhelmingly that that is the case, so I urge the House to give the Bill its Second Reading.
I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) and I congratulate him on his good fortune in the ballot, which has given him the opportunity—one that few hon. Members have—to bring a Bill on such an important issue before the House. The hon. Gentleman presented his case with skill and eloquence—there was no hysteria in what he said—and he brought to Parliament’s and the public’s attention an issue of crucial concern. It is a 21st century issue that, as a result of technological changes over the past 20 years, will impact on every single household and every single child in this country and beyond.
I am pleased to see my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport in her place on the Front Bench. She will recall our pleasant meeting a few years ago, when I and other Members brought the issue to her attention. At that time, I also met my right hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward)—then a Minister in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, but now the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. We explored ways in which the Government could help to ensure that the classification of video games gave adults access to them while protecting our children from them.
The way in which the hon. Member for Canterbury made his case is important, because this is a question not of censorship but of protecting our children in particular from having access to these terrible games, which show scenes of horrific violence, as he described. His Bill, which I am pleased to support, proposes a procedure that would ensure that the most violent of those games did not circulate in this country. I welcome the procedure and the vast amount of time that he has put into the subject.
The hon. Gentleman said in response to the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) that we do not come here to speak on behalf of the industry; it can make its case very eloquently. The industry is one of the strongest and most powerful in the media today, and London is the centre of that industry. Whenever those of us who raise the issue of video games have done so positively in relation to concerns about violence, we have been pilloried in the press that is sponsored by the video games industry for trying in some way to destroy it.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is right to say that the industry is based in London; in fact, most of it is based in my constituency in Hammersmith. Does he share my concern at the irony that most of those companies are quite concerned about their image and are doing things to promote corporate social responsibility—for example, in relation to payroll giving—while at the same time showing limited corporate social responsibility in the titles that they put out?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We welcome the fact that such companies are in London—they provide jobs and taxes for the Government—but it is important that there should be no duplicity over how they operate. I do not know the specifics of what they are doing on corporate responsibility, but I hope that they continue. Also, I hope they will show corporate responsibility in how they prosecute their policies.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, as this is a big issue. I appreciate the motives of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) in introducing the Bill, but he has himself accepted that the largest platform out there is the internet. The people generating that business are not based in Hammersmith or anywhere else in London; it is an underground business. Surely the House would far better spend its time trying to legislate to control the internet and the messages it sends.
I have another question for the right hon. Gentleman. If we are to teach our children about these issues, would not that message best come from the family? Families should be trying to deal with morality of that sort. It is hard to deal with a tiny fraction of the market by controlling DVDs and videos, as the Bill proposes.
The hon. Gentleman is right on both points. We in the House cannot control the internet, but that is no excuse for not taking the first step in controlling video games. I will come on to his multiple children later, when I discuss the effect of these issues on our children and the fact that parents need to be responsible. I shall cite a number of cases as examples. Let us be clear: we are not against the industry and we are not against having it based in London, contributing to our economy, but it has to show responsibility. We come to the table to help it.
The hon. Member for Canterbury is right to praise the Prime Minister for readily agreeing to see us in March and for setting up the Byron review. Indeed, successive Prime Ministers have been running ahead of their Governments, because in the meetings that we have had with them—we have also raised the issue at Prime Minister’s questions—they have been very concerned. However, I have to tell the House that Ministers, although courteous in their dealings with MPs, have not, I fear, understood the genuine concern among members of the public about how the issue has operated.
I say to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and to the successor to the Department of Trade and Industry, which the Minister represented at my last meeting with her, that they have to understand that there is real concern about the level of violence in video games. Therefore, the issue is not just about defending the industry and London’s position; it goes far beyond that.
The hon. Member for Canterbury mentioned the Pakeerah case. As the House knows, my concerns about these issues arise from the brutal killing of Stefan Pakeerah, a 14-year-old Leicester schoolboy who was murdered in a savage attack in which he received 50 blows with a claw hammer—an attack that mirrored exactly a scene in the video game “Manhunt”. I was not the first to say that; Giselle Pakeerah, his parent, has from the very beginning maintained and strongly believed that the fact that Warren Leblanc had a copy of “Manhunt” and that other children were looking at those scenes of violence led to the attack on Stefan.
The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) talked about parents. Giselle Pakeerah led a parents’ campaign, because she wanted to ensure that such a thing never happened again. She was firm in pushing me and other Members representing Leicester to ensure that the issue was raised. That led to our first meeting with the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, which was most productive. He understood, perhaps because he is the parent of a young child, that something had to be done.
At the meeting, we showed Mr. Blair a video game and, in particular, the casing around the video. We noted the fact that the 18 certificate on that casing—I am looking for a penny, but unfortunately I do not have one on me—was about the size of a 5p coin. The then Prime Minister was concerned that video game packaging was such that the need to ensure that under-18s did not have access to such games was not brought to the attention of parents, retailers and others.
Since then, the 18 certificate has been increased in size to about that of a 50p coin, but it is nothing like what is on a cigarette packet. Therefore, even if children do not buy such games from retailers—I will refer to those briefly in a moment—they can visit the homes of adults, pick up a game, take it home and go upstairs to play it on the computer without their parents being aware of the fact that it contains a lot of violence. That is why I produced my Bill to amend the Video Recordings Act 1984. Although it did not succeed, it drew our concerns to the House’s attention.
The university of Missouri, Columbia, has already produced what I regard as a definitive report—I would be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about it—suggesting that there is a link between the violence in computer games and the violence of individuals. We have no equivalent research here. One thing that I hope the Minister will initiate, which I have urged on her many times, is the production of good research on the subject.
As the hon. Member for Canterbury mentioned, when we raise the need for proper rather than voluntary regulation, the industry always says, “Well, video games are quite similar to films. How is a video game different from a film?” That is quite simple: video games are different because they are interactive.
People who are watching a film at the cinema cannot participate in what is happening on the screen, or if they do they are removed from the cinema. However, someone sitting at a computer playing a video game, or someone with one of those small devices that young people have these days, the name of which I forget— [Interruption.] PlayStations or PSPs, something of that kind. [Interruption.] Well, whatever they are called, when people play these things, they can interact. They can shoot people; they can kill people. As the hon. Gentleman said, they can rape women. That is what is so wrong about the present situation. Dr. Tanya Byron’s report will come out soon. The hon. Member for Canterbury and I are due to meet the Prime Minister around that time, on 18 or 19 March, and the Bill will give the House an opportunity to discuss matters further.
I have two final points to make. The first concerns the role of retailers. People under 18 can buy the video games that we are debating from some of our biggest retailers, such as Tesco and Asda. Such retailers are not doing what they have to do to prevent the sale of those video games to people under 18. No less a figure than the iconic Trevor McDonald, on his programme, sent mystery shoppers under 18 to seek to buy such video games from retailers. They were successful. I have asked Ministers many times how many retailers have been prosecuted for selling video games unlawfully to those under 18. We never seem to get the figures, but I hope that we will get them today to aid the hon. Member for Canterbury in what he is doing.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising an important point about upholding the law. We may debate changing it, but we should be upholding it. Is he as surprised as I was to discover that the figure he is struggling to obtain—the average number of prosecutions a year for the past few years—is just 14?
I am very surprised. Perhaps in future I should write to the hon. Gentleman for my figures, rather than to Ministers and the Attorney-General. The industry is huge and the number of video games sold every single day in this country is enormous, so it is astonishing how many unlawful sales are not detected.
I get the impression that my right hon. Friend is drawing his remarks to a close, but he has not addressed a key part of the Bill: the significantly increased role of the Home Affairs Committee, which he chairs. I am concerned about the extent to which the Committee might have discussed one particular issue. As he knows, the Liaison Committee has just undergone an exercise to determine what appointments should be scrutinised by Select Committees. All Select Committees, including my own, were asked to feed into it. Was the Home Affairs Committee asked to consider whether there should be scrutiny of the British Board of Film Classification, and did it make that recommendation to the Liaison Committee, which finalised its list yesterday?
No, we did not, because we have not had an opportunity to discuss the issue. We are waiting for the House’s views on the Bill. When we have considered them, we will certainly put forward our recommendations. I shall come in a minute to the hon. Gentleman and his role in debates on private Members’ Bills.
The hon. Member for Braintree spoke of his multiple children. I do not know whether that means more than two, but I have two.
My goodness me. The hon. Gentleman will have to look at a lot of computers to check what his children are doing. My son Luke will be 13 on Sunday, and my daughter Anjali will be 11 in April. They disappear to their rooms with video games, and I check on them to see what they are watching and what they are doing on the internet. Of course parents have a role, but it is a partnership. They cannot do everything on their own. They have to check what their children are watching and playing, but retailers also have a responsibility, as do the Government and manufacturers. It is a partnership. One group cannot do it alone, and the hon. Member for Canterbury is trying to ensure that Parliament has a role as well. We cannot just say, “This isn’t a matter for us. Because the internet is big, we won’t interfere. It’s all too much in this modern age.” We must take the first step, which is what the Bill seeks to do.
The Bill deserves a Second Reading. The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) is here this Friday morning. I know his record on speaking on private Members’ Bills, and I hope very much that he will not do today what he normally does, which is to speak for a long time in order to talk the Bill out. That would deny the public the opportunity for the Bill to have a Second Reading.
When I speak on private Members’ Bills, it is because I have something to say. Last week I decided not to speak at all on the Temporary and Agency Workers (Equal Treatment) Bill, because I wanted to ensure that it made progress. I hope that my right hon. Friend will stay to hear what I have to say about the Bill. I have a lot of sympathy with its aims but some concerns about the details of the mechanism that it sets out.
I did not realise that my hon. Friend did not speak last week, for which I think we are all grateful. I will not be able to stay and listen to his speech, because I have to go back to my constituency. It is a Friday morning, and I am rarely here on a Friday morning.
No; I am sorry. I am here because I have a great deal of respect for the hon. Member for Canterbury, I am a sponsor of the Bill and I believe that the issue is important. Those who try to talk it out, whoever they may be—perhaps my hon. Friend will not; perhaps he will speak briefly today—will do this country a disservice. They will do our children a disservice and, more than that—
The Minister says, “No”, but those people will go against what the Prime Minister wants to do about the issue. Whatever the Minister may say, the Prime Minister is very concerned. The Minister may not be concerned about it, but the Prime Minister is, as was the previous Prime Minister, as she knows. The issue concerns our children and protecting them from the violence that video games sometimes portray. The vast majority of video games sail through the classification; I think the figure was 99 per cent. We are talking about the tiny minority of games that are full of dreadful violence: glorification of the Nazis, violence against women and, in the case of the game “Bully”, violence against children. That is what the Bill addresses, not freedom of speech or censorship. I hope that it gets a fair wind from the House.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier). There is absolutely no doubt that the Bill addresses a matter of public concern, and my hon. Friend is doing a public service by allowing us to debate it. Normally, he and I agree about almost all matters, so it is with some sadness that I say I do not agree with all his remarks this morning.
Everybody accepts that there must be a degree of control. I should not think that anybody would argue that there should be no restrictions whatever and that one should be able to buy any kind of video game or other content. The question is where to draw the line. I think that everybody would accept that certain types of content are beyond that line and are unacceptable in society, such as child pornography, videos depicting forcible rape scenes and snuff movies, where it is apparently the case that the people being tortured or killed are actually suffering that fate in reality. Those are clearly unacceptable.
Age ratings are just as important. I agree with the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) that the protection of children is perhaps our highest priority. That does not just mean protecting children from scenes of sex or violence through an 18 classification; it means going below 18 to say that some material is suitable for 15 or 12-year-olds but not for younger children. A lot of debate in the British Board of Film Classification is not about whether something should have an 18 classification but about the correct age rating below that. There is a lot of argument about it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury suggested that society was somehow becoming more tolerant of violence and that films were now being released that would not have been released some time ago. That is the case, and there are certainly examples of that, but I should not like him to suggest that there has not always been huge controversy over films. I remember the controversy over Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers”, which was said to push violence to a new extreme. I actually think that it is quite a good film. It is not very easy to watch, but it is well made and it has a serious point. I also remember the controversy about David Cronenberg’s “Crash”, in which the main character enjoys having sex with the victims of car crashes. I went to see that film as part of the London film festival. It was not particularly good. I did not think that it had great merit, although I recognise that Cronenberg is a good director. Nevertheless, I accepted that some people would take a different view. Nothing in it was so unacceptable that I should prevent other people from going to see it. There are many other examples that I could give.
My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury has not mentioned the issue of faith, but that, too, generates huge controversy. Many people found Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” deeply objectionable, and a number of them thought that it should be banned. Actually, it was made by somebody who has some religious belief, and who argued that it was a deeply religious film. Again, I think that it is a film with some merit.
Then there are films that were banned but that have now been released. My hon. Friend referred to some of the so-called video nasties of the early 1980s. I well remember the furore about “The Driller Killer” and “I Spit on your Grave”. I saw “I Spit on your Grave” on sale in WH Smith a few months ago; it has now been passed for release. There is no doubt that society has changed its attitude. The Hammer horror films were originally rated 18. Vincent Price baring his fangs was thought to be so horrifying that nobody under 18 could watch it. Nobody today would seriously argue that the Hammer horror films should be rated 18.
Similarly, “Straw Dogs”, a hugely controversial film, was banned for many years, mainly because of the rape scene in it involving Susan George. Not only is it now available on release on DVD, but it has been shown on television, as have a number of the films that I have mentioned. Of course, if people believe that the BBFC was wrong to allow the release of a film, as soon as it is shown on television they have a method of protesting against that—they can make a complaint to Ofcom, as Ofcom has powers to rule against harmful or offensive content being shown on television, but as far as I am aware, it has not done so.
My hon. Friend talked about “SS Experiment Camp”. He kindly lent me a copy, and I spent 90 minutes—not the most enjoyable 90 minutes of my life—watching it. It is a truly dreadful film. It is what is called Italian schlock, and many people will find it offensive because of the subject matter—because it involves Nazis and extermination camps. It is pretty tasteless and pretty offensive, but I have to say that there is not a single scene in that film that I could argue should be banned. The scenes of so-called torture and sex are mild compared with anything that a person could see today in the Odeon down the road. I know that that will cause my hon. Friend concern, and he is right to have concern about some of the material—graphic scenes of torture and violence—that is now regarded as mainstream Hollywood entertainment. We are not talking about Italian schlock; we are talking about big-budget, multi-million pound films. My hon. Friend needs to be open about the fact that it is those scenes that he is trying to address.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the courteous manner in which he is making his remarks, but I am a little confused about where he is going with that point. Poll after poll, including that commissioned by the BBFC in 2004, has shown that a clear majority of the public are in favour of tightening standards, so why does he not support a measure that would result in greater accountability for the BBFC, so that it has to come in line with public opinion? We all agree that the transition to which he refers has occurred, but a poll published as recently as yesterday shows that the public want a change. Why does he disagree with the public, and why is he determined that the BBFC should continue to be allowed to operate in a completely unaccountable fashion?
If I may, I will come on to the issue of accountability, because I accept that it is important. I am not necessarily persuaded by the public opinion research. Opinion polls have shown different results, as they always do. My hon. Friend cast doubt on the BBFC’s methodology, but it prides itself on the amount of research that it does on public opinion. I am sure that it will address the concerns raised by my hon. Friend, and if there are serious doubts about the accuracy of its polling, I suspect that it will be the first to want to address that.
My hon. Friend completely misses the point. The poll conducted by TNS, for which the BBFC paid a lot of money, involved a large sample and one of the country’s top polling organisations. It was carried out with a view to changing the BBFC’s 2005 guidelines. The clear, unmistakable outcome was that the public wanted the guidelines tightened. The BBFC went on to carry out a poll—I have described the methodology—on a website. That poll had none of those merits, and it produced the opposite result. The BBFC chose to follow that.
I heard my hon. Friend make that point in his speech, and I am sure that the BBFC will want to respond to it. I look forward to hearing its response. I merely say to him that one should not necessarily be dictated to by pubic opinion. We need to do more research on public opinion on the subject.
The issue affects not just the BBFC; I remember the extensive public research done by the Broadcasting Standards Council when it had responsibility for the regulation of broadcast media content. That, too, showed that there was undoubtedly a change in attitude. A lot of the material that was felt to be unacceptable 30 years ago is now regarded as perfectly acceptable; no one would pretend otherwise. The use of offensive language is another key criterion in determining classification. The use of the F-word used to mean that a film would automatically be rated 18, but that is no longer the case. I suspect that most people would accept that attitudes in that area have changed.
I do not say that the BBFC does not ban films; it does, but rarely. Some might say that it is a happy coincidence—perhaps it is not a coincidence—that yesterday the BBFC announced, for the first time this year, that it was banning a film. It is called “Murder-Set-Pieces”. Last year, it banned a film called “Struggle in Bondage”, which covered a lot of the ground that my hon. Friend talked about. It showed women being tied up and subjected to abuse, with no indication that they had consented to that. The BBFC felt that it was unacceptable and it rightly banned it.
It is important to make it clear that the BBFC has no power to ban a film that is shown in a cinema. It only has the power to advise a local authority. It may interest the House to know that “Life of Brian” remains a banned film in Glasgow.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is of course completely correct to set out that distinction. As I suggested earlier, some of the most controversial questions have to do with age classification. In some cases, the BBFC has been too strict and should have been more liberal. Let me give an example. I went to see “Sweeney Todd”, Tim Burton’s new film, which is very good. It is a musical, but it contains gore and shows people having their throat cut, although it is a fairly unrealistic depiction. The BBFC decided that the film should be rated 18. I have a son who is just about to turn 15, and I would have no qualms about allowing him to see that film. I think that it would be perfectly acceptable for it to be a 15. On the other hand, I went to see “The Last King of Scotland”, which was rated 15, but which in my view should probably have been an 18. All of us will argue about where the line should be drawn, and probably everybody will have different views.
One should be aware that there are big issues at stake when deciding where to draw the line. The certification of a film can have a considerable impact not only on the amount of revenue that it makes, but on public expectation and people’s desire to see that film.
One of the films that led to the greatest number of complaints to the BBFC last year was “Casino Royale”, which contains some gritty, violent scenes. I am thinking of two in particular: a scene where Bond is tortured sitting naked on a chair; and a graphic fight scene right at the start of the film.
The right hon. Gentleman is right; I accept that there is a distinction. I shall come on to video games, but I want to pursue the point I am making.
“Casino Royale” generated a lot of complaints to the BBFC from people who felt it had been far too lenient and the film should have been rated 15. Had that been the rating, my son for one would have been furious, as, I suspect, would most of Britain’s young teenage population. They were all desperate to see that film, and I do not believe that seeing it did them any harm. It has some fairly unpleasant scenes, but it is good that a child should be exposed to such scenes and learn to see them as fiction by the time they reach 12. I did not disagree with the BBFC’s decision on that occasion.
It is worth expanding on the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. Some people complain that the BBFC is too tender in its decision making. He has given a couple of examples, but does he agree that about 10 per cent. of all films that it classifies are given a higher rating than the company producing the film wanted?
That is right. I shall give another example of where the BBFC had an argument with the film maker and where I believe it was correct. This goes back a little while, but I am referring to “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”. Those who have seen the film, probably in their youth, will know that there is a scene where the high priest tears the heart out of a sacrificial victim. The film maker, one Steven Spielberg, felt strongly that it should be included in the film and seen by a young audience. At the time, the BBFC took a different view, had a long argument with Spielberg and stood its ground, and the scene was not allowed to be shown. I was told—I think by James Firman, to whom I pay tribute for pioneering the work of the BBFC—that Spielberg said much later that on reflection the BBFC was right and the scene was a step too far.
Some BBFC decisions are courageous, and it is not always the liberal body about which my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury has concerns. My concern is not about “SS Experiment Camp”, because it is so bad that it will sell almost no copies. I fear that it has probably enjoyed a boom in sales since he put it on the front page of The Sunday Times, but I suspect that those who buy it will be deeply disappointed. What concerns me is the degree of violence that is selling huge numbers of tickets in Odeons up and down the land, although I do not necessarily agree with his prescription.
The hon. Gentleman has an almost embarrassingly encyclopaedic knowledge of schlock and other film categories, to which I cede him first place. He rightly talks about the appalling production standards, vile script and general tackiness of “SS Experiment Camp”, but is there not a danger of getting into a situation such as pertained to the Russ Meyer films in the 1960s? Those films were so appalling that huge numbers of people bought and watched them. The ante increased as more and more Russ Meyer films were made, particularly following “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” and “Supervixens”. Things got nastier and nastier, and increasingly sordid.
I can trade the hon. Gentleman Russ Meyer titles—“Faster, Pussycat…Kill! Kill!” is another example that would meet his criteria. The Russ Meyer films are not to my taste, but I do not have any great objection to them—they are comic strips really.
My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury has to think carefully about a much more serious matter. I shall give two examples of the sort of films that cause me concern. The first is the “Saw” series—“Saw”, “Saw II” and “Saw III”. The other is the “Hostel” series—“Hostel” and “Hostel part 2”. They show scenes of graphic torture and are known as torture porn. They are highly unpleasant, and because they are quite big-budget films, they are highly realistic. They are not grainy B movies; these are mainstream, big-budget Hollywood movies that are selling tickets by the million. They are some of the most successful films in the past couple of years.
Those films should arguably have been cut more than they were, although I accept that a subjective judgment needed to be made about that. A more concerning point, to which I do not have an answer, is the fact that millions of our fellow citizens chose to go to watch them. My hon. Friend must accept that if his Bill were to pass, he would be addressing not the kind of films watched by a small number of rather strange people, but the kind of films watched by huge numbers of people who get enjoyment from them.
This is exactly the point that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition addressed when he referred to very large proportions. Neither of the surveys done was terribly well conducted, but both involved quite large samples. One survey suggested a figure of as much as half and the other suggested that up to a third of young males now fall into the category we are discussing. This cycle must be addressed, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) will join me in supporting the Bill on Second Reading, even if he disagrees with some of my detailed mechanisms, in order to suggest that we should introduce greater accountability into the BBFC.
Young males may be the category about which my hon. Friend is most concerned, but the appeal of these films goes way beyond just them.
Whether or not exposure to films or, to some extent, video games, can directly lead to violence is hugely unclear. My Select Committee took evidence last week from Professor Sonia Livingstone, who has done a great deal of work in this area. We are examining games in particular, and I want to say a few words about them. She said that the evidence is largely anecdotal and no clear peer-reviewed, accepted research can definitely show yet whether there is a link.
I am trying to follow my hon. Friend’s intellectual argument—it seems to be that because a large number of people watched a film, they should have been allowed to do so. Does that mean that if an actual rape was filmed and lots of people wanted to see it, that should be allowed?
I would hope that not many people would want to see such a film, but the answer is that we must draw lines, as I said at the beginning. Of course some things are unacceptable, but we must also take account of the public taste. If a large number of people want to watch a film, even though I personally might find the film distasteful, I would be extremely reluctant to have it banned. I do not like banning things, particularly things that enjoy large popular support. I hope that a number of my hon. Friends share that stance.
The question of a linkage between watching films and committing violence is unproven, although I agree that more research needs to be done. There is an argument in favour of acting on the precautionary principle. We thus need to look seriously at the issue and, in particular, at the impact of electronic games, for precisely the reason expressed by the right hon. Member for Leicester, East. There is a difference between games and films. Games have a much greater degree of interactivity and are played over and over again—neither of those things applies necessarily to watching a film.
I have one or two practical concerns about what my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury proposes. First, he wants appointments to the BBFC to be subject to scrutiny by the Select Committee on Home Affairs. I do not want to get into a turf war with the right hon. Member for Leicester, East, but appointments to the BBFC are made by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, so it seems slightly curious that the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport would not scrutinise them to see whether we agreed with the decision. As the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said, there has been great discussion about the extent to which Select Committees should get involved in scrutinising public appointments. I am certainly in favour of their doing so and welcome the Prime Minister’s decision to allow that. It is the Prime Minister’s initiative, but despite the belief of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury that he enjoys his warm support for the Bill, the Prime Minister did not suggest the BBFC as a body whose appointments should be subject to public scrutiny.
Who knows what the Prime Minister’s view will be? It does not appear to be that the Select Committee should scrutinise appointments to the BBFC.
Another concern that I have is that my hon. Friend’s Bill mentions the appointment of the “principal officers” of the BBFC being subject to scrutiny. It is proposed that a public body’s appointments subject to examination by a Select Committee will be restricted to its chairman. I am not clear about who the principal officers are and how wide that description is. The BBFC has a number of senior staff, and it would be somewhat impractical for the appointment of more than the chairman to be subject to scrutiny by the Select Committee. Perhaps my hon. Friend can address that point.
My next concern, which I referred to in an intervention on my hon. Friend, is about the nature of the appeals process. He set great store by the need for accountability to Parliament and the possibility of an appeal. Almost no regulator has an appeal process. If Ofcom or Ofgem reaches a decision, it remains its decision. The BBFC acts as a regulator, and I am not convinced that a general appeals process such as my hon. Friend describes is a good idea. It would also raise potential difficulties for the industry. I accept that we should not worry just about what the industry wants, but it is an important industry.
At present, a film maker or distributor has lengthy discussions with the BBFC about what it will and will not accept and what cuts might be needed to achieve a certain classification. As I have said, classifications matter greatly to a film’s potential revenue. It seems to be double jeopardy for that process to be undergone, an agreement reached and a film put on general release with the cuts that the BBFC has asked for, and then for the whole process to be overturned because 50 MPs sign an early-day motion saying that it should be.
There is an existing internal appeals body, the Video Appeals Committee, to which my hon. Friend referred, although it is the industry that can appeal to it. He suggested that it was somehow there to do the industry’s bidding—I think that he said it was quasi-independent. I would say only that its president is a former director of the Serious Fraud Office, and its membership includes people such as Biddy Baxter, whom I fondly remember as the producer of “Blue Peter”—my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) will remember her even better than I do—Claire Rayner, Fay Weldon, former head teachers and directors of social services and area child protection committees. It is not an industry-led body. I was pretty horrified when it overturned the BBFC decision on “Manhunt 2”, and I am pleased that its decision has been challenged, but I would not like it to be thought that the VAC is just a patsy for the industry, which will accept whatever argument is made to it.
I hope that my hon. Friend is right, but it would be a strange use of early-day motions. All of us sign a large number of them. [Hon. Members: “No, we do not.”] There are exceptions in the Chamber, but many Members sign them in large numbers, often at the request of their constituents. I know of Members who sign them because they are asked to, a bit like GPs saying that somebody should qualify for incapacity benefit.
It is a way of keeping people quiet and happy, in the knowledge, as my hon. Friend rightly says, that early-day motions are graffiti and have no effect. The Bill would mean a new departure in their use. I do not single anyone out, but Members have often condemned films, perhaps even “SS Experiment Camp”, without having seen them. I suspect that there would be a danger that people would read the Daily Mail’s account of what a film contained, which might not be wholly accurate, and then sign an early-day motion about it, thinking that they would be pleasing the Daily Mail and their constituents. That might be a more frequent occurrence than my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) suggests.
The hon. Gentleman raises the question whether Members of Parliament sign early-day motions. Does he not find it slightly surprising that the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), who is championing the Bill and who raised the issue of “SS Experiment Camp” with the Prime Minister only a few days ago, has still not signed early-day motion 849, tabled by the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz)?
At the risk of infuriating you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we have to nail this point about early-day motions. A huge number of Members regard them as parliamentary graffiti, never sign them and recognise that they are a fee improver for lazy public relations companies trying to prove that they are doing something on behalf of their clients and for Back Benchers who want a couple of column inches in the local paper.
I am sure that there are no hon. Members present who would view them in that light, but I accept my hon. Friend’s point that some do.
I have some concerns about the Bill, first because, in the main, the BBFC does a reasonably good job. I do not always agree with its decisions, but I do not think that it repeatedly gets things wrong. Secondly, there are practical difficulties to the Bill’s proposals, and thirdly, they could do damage to the film industry.
The right hon. Member for Leicester, East focused on the serious concerns about the unregulated environment, and my Select Committee is currently addressing those. We have controls over films and video games, but more and more material is being made available online. It started with music, but now films can be downloaded with ease, often from websites based way outside the jurisdiction of any responsible authority. Very soon, video games will also be distributed online. There is a concern that young, vulnerable people will be able to access and will be exposed to harmful content, which we all agree that they should not see and which is therefore banned—or they are at least protected from it—in this country. The global distribution offered by the internet means that those protections can be circumvented. That is why I welcomed the setting up of Dr. Tanya Byron’s inquiry and why my Select Committee is examining the issue. There is a serious concern about how we protect our young people and ensure that they are not exposed to harmful material. The biggest danger lies in the internet, not in the cinemas in our high streets.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), who speaks with extraordinary erudition, which probably shows that many a night has been spent studying the subject.
It is a great honour to be associated with the Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier). I pay tribute to him for his courage in promoting the Bill and his recognition of the widespread public concern. It is also a great honour to be in the Chamber with my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), who has done more than many a Back Bencher to bring the issue forward. He should be given credit for that.
Let me respond briefly to the points made by the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford. In this country, there is a profound sense of disquiet and a feeling that societal norms—what is normal for the majority of people—are not reflected in the British Board of Film Classification. That is my concern. I understand that we are prisoners of history in many ways. We can think back to Mrs. Bowdler trying to expurgate Shakespeare in the 1870s, or the late James Michael Curley, a much-lamented former democrat mayor of Boston who banned virtually everything and gave the phrase “banned in Boston” to the world. We can think of many examples, but the reality of the situation is that the constituents of the hon. Member for Canterbury, my constituents and—dare I say it—the constituents of most right hon. and hon. Members are profoundly concerned. The problem that they see is that not only the people who access, watch and see the material are denigrated but those who participate in it are denigrated, too. It sets a standard, so that beyond that cinema or wherever people go to watch those foul DVDs—outside that community—such things might be seen as normal.
The hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford talked about “Straw Dogs”. I am a great admirer of Susan George and of the director of that film, but the film contained a particularly graphic scene of anal rape. Many police officers said at the time and afterwards that there were copycat examples of that scene and the foul desecration of that woman. Should we ban it? Should we pretend that such things do not exist? No. We have to accept that there are certain standards, certain information and certain publicity that simply cannot be allowed to flow freely.
The debate comes back to two things. First, does the community have confidence in the present system of classification? Secondly, can we discuss censorship on the Floor of the House without being accused of trying to turn the clock back and wanting to live in a sanitised, homogenised world where nothing nasty ever happens, where we have nothing but endless Disney films and where we are denied Russ Meyer, let alone Sam Peckinpah?
The hon. Member for Canterbury is trying to achieve a balance. Inter alia, he has finally given the House a reason for early-day motions. I tabled an early-day motion six years ago that said that they were a confounded nuisance, that they were a great problem for staff and that they took up far too much parliamentary time. It urged all right hon. and hon. Members never, ever again to sign early-day motions. A large number of my colleagues signed it.
Far too many of my colleagues signed it.
I shall not go as far down the road to iconoclasm as the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford trod so elegantly. In one speech, he not only destroyed the principle of early-day motions, saying that in many cases constituents pressed a button and the Member responded, but he “dissed” the Daily Mail. During my 10 years in the House I have heard many things that have amazed and delighted me, but I do not think that I have heard anything so shocking as a Member of Her Majesty’s official Opposition speaking against the paper that is virtually the house magazine of the official Opposition. I congratulate him on his courage and iconoclasm, and hope that he receives a favourable press in the future.
The hon. Member for Canterbury is simply trying to bring into a system a body that, as the Government say, is not publicly funded and to which there is no obvious link—usually, the fiscal link directs such bodies—so that the voice of the people can be heard. By doing that through a series of steps—there are at least three in the Bill—he is proposing something that is sound, sane, sensible and workable. I have one problem with the principle of the appeal; there may be a difficulty with that. The Government will quite rightly ask what the distributor will do if there is an inbuilt appeal mechanism. Will the distributor have a period of purdah in which the object—the DVD, film or game—is placed in a sealed vault, probably accessible only to the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford, until the classification is made? I do not know the answer to that.
As an accountable Parliament, which is the sounding board of the nation and reflects the individual views and concerns of our constituents, we must have some input into the process. The hon. Member for Canterbury suggests that that should happen in two ways. He suggests, first, that Parliament should have a say in the appointments. I could only be impressed by the names of the distinguished figures whom the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford mentioned were present members of the board. I would certainly not denigrate Biddy Baxter in any way. For God’s sake, she educated my children—and me, for a large part of my life. However, why should there not be a link? Why should there be no coupling between what our constituents feel and the appointment of those who make the decisions?
The Government will rightly say—because they are always right, particularly my right hon. Friend the Minister, who is inevitably and invariably right—that the BCCF is not about censorship—
As always, I defer to my right hon. Friend.
The Government might say that this is not about censorship but about classification. That is arguing about angels dancing on the head of a pin. What is classification if it is not censorship? What is censorship if it is not classification? By classifying something, we place it in a band. By censoring something, we place it in a band. When a constituent comes to me and says that they are disgusted and horrified by something that they or their children have accessed, or, even more frighteningly, when we hear at school governing body meetings that children are referring to some of those productions, it leads me to think about what possible sanction we have in this country. At present, we have the sanction of good intentions, the establishment and the great and the good. We have the sanction of the involvement at the heart of the system of people of great nobility, such as Biddy Baxter. We need something a little more concrete. We need more of a link between the body and Parliament.
The hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford referred to “Casino Royale”. Another film is “Battle Royale”. It is horrifyingly popular among teenage children. It is a Japanese film, in which a large number of schoolchildren are placed on an island and all have a bomb tied to their bodies that can be detonated by remote control. Everyone then has to kill everyone else until only one person is left standing. That is revolting, and the first I heard of it was when I talked to teachers about kids playing “Battle Royale” in a school playground in west London last year. That is a direct link between the foul, fevered, foetid imaginings of some Japanese film producer and the silver nobility of a west London primary school.
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman’s eloquent speech, but I can give him an example much closer to home. I draw his attention to the study published in the British Medical Journal demonstrating how a single episode of “Casualty” showing an attempted suicide by an overdose of paracetamol led directly to a large number of similar suicide attempts over the next month. More than a fifth of the people involved cited that episode of the television programme as one of the things that led them—fortunately unsuccessfully—to try to commit suicide.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He has exposed one of the more worrying aspects of the whole argument: imitation. What concerns me about his point and the point I was making about “Battle Royale” is the implication that in such films people are disposable. That denigrates the humanity of the individual and people’s basic human rights.
I do not want to get on to the appalling problems faced in Bridgend at present in respect of the tragic and awful suicides, but a great many commentators have said that one thing all those poor, tragic children had in common was that they spent much of their life in a virtual world. Much of their life was spent on the web, on Bebo and YouTube, and there may be something in the argument that if people watch and play interactive games and if they see violent films in which people die in enormous numbers—more than 260 people die in the current Sylvester Stallone “Rambo” film—human life becomes less valuable. The sanctity of life becomes diluted and people see human beings not just as disposable but as characters in a cast. A button can be pressed at the end of the game and it can be rewound and replayed. It starts all over again; the dead rise from their graves, the battered and bruised bodies climb up from the gutter, the bullets leave the body, the heads return to the shoulders and life goes on.
I do not imply that everybody is so stupid as to believe that such a mad dystopic world has a wash-over into reality, but when we are dealing with young, impressionable and, in some cases, disturbed minds, a real danger exists. I return to my substantive point: if our constituents come to us with those valid concerns—as they do, over and over again—what are we to say to them?
I do not propose that we set up watch committees. It is a fairly well known fact that when councils originally set up watch committees they had nothing to do with censorship, but were entirely to do with pyrotechnics. Early film was on celluloid, which is highly flammable, so if someone wanted to show a film in a council area they needed a licence. That is why local authorities sat in judgment about whether this or that film could be shown. It had nothing to do with the content of the film, but was entirely to deal with the fire risk, because there was an enormous number of cinema fires, particularly before the first world war.
Such licensing was a completely different issue, but it segued into the application of the prevailing morality of an area to limit its citizens’ access to films. The case of “Life of Brian” in Glasgow is an obvious example and I have already mentioned “banned in Boston”. The key factor, however, is that the local community had a voice in the process. It is easy to take a libertarian view and to say that nobody sellotapes our eyes open, nails us to a chair and forces us watch rubbish, but there is a question of availability.
There is also something else that is very human. When I was a young man there were X, A and AA film classifications, and I freely admit that on a number of occasions I adopted a husky tone, a false beard and an old raincoat to try to get into the Gaumont, Notting Hill Gate to see “Danish Dentist on the Job”, which, as I recall, was subtitled “He knows the drill”. Those films were almost paragons of innocence, naivety and—I have to say—tedium and boredom compared to some of the foul, offensive, nasty, murderous, brutal, anti-women and denigrating films that exist nowadays.
What is to be the power of the House in such cases? We can tell people, “By all means, take the law into your hands and picket cinemas”—as has happened—but do we really want the House shown as so impotent that the only access for the voice of the community is to stand outside a cinema with placards. I do not think that is the answer—
As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), the Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, the decision to show a film in a cinema is down to the local council, so should the hon. Gentleman not advise his constituents to picket the offices of his local council next time a particularly unpalatable film hits our screens?
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. Sadly, since my local authority fell into the grasping hands of the Conservatives, my intercourse with that previously august body has been less than fruitful. None the less, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—technically—but what does a local authority do when a classified film is put on its desk? It looks at the classification. If the British Board of Film Classification classifies a film as acceptable for all people to see, few local authorities will change their mind. The classification is the guide and most local authorities will follow that guidance.
As the British Board of Film Classification is the body under scrutiny and, if I may use the vernacular, it is being given a good kicking, it is interesting to note that over the past year four local authorities have overruled the board’s guidelines and downgraded the classification. Films such as “This is England” have been downgraded to a 15 rating by local authorities.
I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that if a local authority were to reclassify or indeed ban a film, members of the authority would have had to view it first, to form an opinion, otherwise they would be subject to judicial review. In the context of the Bill, does he believe that Members should view the film or video in question before signing the proposed early-day motion?
There is a considerable problem. The old wording was that the film was likely to deprave or corrupt, which I always found extremely difficult, because if one were to study a film in great detail one would, by definition, be depraved and corrupted if one had decided that it contained depravity and corruption.
I might be one of the few Members who has actually sat on one of those committees, so I can confirm that we used to sit in a cinema to view the films before making a decision. However, we were the decision-making body; the Bill proposes that the appeal would be heard by a different panel of people, who would undoubtedly see the film, so I think the point made by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) is a red herring.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and give way to his expertise. I was once asked to sit on the old Greater London council film classification committee, which used to meet in a cellar in Portman square on Wednesday mornings at 11 o’clock. It was an immensely popular GLC committee even in the days of reel to reel and a number of councillors frequently had to take copies so that the items could be studied. However, that was an almost frivolous, innocent and naive world—we are talking about something very different nowadays.
The hon. Gentleman touches on a point that is obviously of concern to us all, in that examining and classifying material has an impact on the person watching. There is no question about that, but police officers look at the foulest of material every hour of every day of every week. They rotate, but someone has to do it. There is a sniggering side to this, but there is also a profoundly serious side to it. When one talks to police officers who have had to view some of the material—we all know what I am talking about—it is apparent that it is one of the nastiest and foulest jobs that one can have, which can be corrosive and destructive.
The hon. Member for Canterbury is simply trying to bring this matter into Parliament by having the names submitted to the Select Committee—whether it is that of the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford or that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East does not really matter. To have not a parliamentary veto but some parliamentary influence at that stage would be so reassuring to the general public.
I am sure that like me my hon. Friend believes in evidence-based policy. The problem that I have is the one that I voiced in my earlier intervention, which he still has not answered: whether people should be expressing opinions—particularly where they may have consequential legal effects, which would be the consequence of the Bill—without having viewed the film in the first place. The subordinate question to that is whether we would be given time off to do so.
I will not allow my hon. Friend to tempt me down the primrose path that inevitably leads to offence in the Whips Office, as that is not something that I seek, but his substantive point—I apologise for not answering it—is important. I do not have to be a murderer to know that murder is wrong. I do not have to be a rapist to know that rape is wrong. I am demonstrably not a woman, but I know that the denigration of women in some of these films is foul and indefensible. When one sees a film such as “SS Extermination Camp” one knows that that ain’t about Butlins. I understand that we are on shaky territory, because this comes down to a question of analysis. However, how many films, video games and DVDs each year would be so contentious that they would be the subject of the proposals? The guidance proposed by the hon. Member for Canterbury would let in some sunlight and daylight, so although we might have to view some, they would be fewer because of the Bill.
Nobody is suggesting that the appeal be conducted by Members of Parliament. In Australia, any member of the public who hears about a film or video coming over from America can object. I am only suggesting that in Britain it would require the signature of 50 MPs on an early-day motion—one that was not graffiti and meant something.
The hon. Gentleman makes yet another extremely sound and telling point. What he proposes is not just a mechanism that gives confidence back to the community, but a mechanism that sounds an alarm bell. It is an early-warning system. If 50 MPs in an early-day motion indicate not their concern but that of 50 MPs’ constituents—50 times 70,000 or 80,000—that is an early-warning system or an alarm bell. That will also avoid the problem that has been raised about people from particular religious groups who might have an objection to a film on religious grounds, which we should still examine. There are some who might feel that there is a knee-jerk reaction to almost any film, but this is a filter, a safety mechanism, an alarm bell, and it is an excellent system.
Surely the hon. Gentleman will agree that the trouble with the point about early-day motions is that it relies on the self-restraint of Members of Parliament in not making a political issue of something. I give one specific example. Six years ago he tabled an early-day motion saying that no hon. Member should sign early-day motions because they were a waste of time, yet we learn, as I have learnt in the last hour, that on 25 February alone he signed four early-day motions. Surely, when an hon. Gentleman has made a point of principle that he cannot stick to, he cannot say anything about the restraint that hon. Members might show in this mechanism.
Over the years I have come to admire and rather like the hon. Gentleman, going back to the old days when we used to sit in the Smoking Room together, when we were younger, more innocent and far less healthy than we are now. But in expressing that admiration I must say that never for a second did I believe that he had at his fingertips, without prompting, knowledge of the number of early-day motions signed by every single Member of Parliament on every single day. I am speechless with admiration. It is almost as if a small part of the analytical brain of the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) has been transplanted into the hon. Gentleman producing a super-Front Bencher. That is awesome. I can only say that if I did sign four early-day motions on that day, it showed extraordinary restraint on my part. I should be interested to know what they were. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could remind me.
Order. The Chair is taking careful note of the extent to which information technology is used in the House following the relaxation of the rules. It will be of interest to those of us who have responsibility for keeping good order.
I am always unhappy about electronic equipment being used in the House, but that is the most valid use of it that I have yet heard.
Dr. Tanya Byron is conducting a review. I am not saying that it was the prompting of the hon. Member for Canterbury that led to that; rather it was the result of the coming together of a widespread and general public concern, and that shows the importance of the Bill. There are some who do not like the idea of scrutinising the classification process, and there are some who feel there is something philosophically wrong about any group in society trying to impose standards on another group in society. There are some who take a purely libertarian view, and there are some who take the view that people should be allowed to do whatever they will to anyone, and let the market decide. Those days have genuinely passed. We have come to the point where we have looked into the abyss. We have seen things of such foul horror that we cannot stand back and do nothing. We cannot simply have a system that allows this foul production, be it Italian schlock, sadism or snuff movies, to continue, and we must do something.
We have at least two options. We have the Bill, which is not perfect in every aspect, but it is perfect in about 99 per cent. of it, and we have Dr. Tanya Byron’s inquiry. I wish the Bill a fair following wind. I would like to see it succeed because I would like to see elected, democratic and accountable Select Committees of this House of Commons have a genuine and meaningful say in an issue that means an enormous amount to so many of our constituents. However, if owing to the travails of the parliamentary timetable and other calls on our time, it is not successful on the Floor of the House, it will be successful on the sounding board of the nation, because Dr. Tanya Byron’s inquiry will be informed by the points that the hon. Gentleman and his supporters have made here today.
I appeal to the House: let no one be in any doubt whatever on this issue. We can talk about structures and mechanisms; we can talk about the philosophical purity of allowing anyone to see anything, as against some sort of retrogressive censorship; we can talk about Mrs. Bowdler, or about attempting to hold back the tide and dam the flow. However, we have to do something. We have to recognise that there is a genuine concern out there that every one of us sees in our mailbags, in our e-mails and in our surgeries.
For Parliament to say, “Something must be done”, and then to do just anything is an abdication of our responsibility as parliamentarians. Simply to do something because something needs to be done is not what we were sent here for. We need to do something because it must be done, and to do anything other than that would be a double abdication of our responsibilities. We cannot simply say that the existing system is in place and we are happy with it, that it is not a censorship system but a classification system operated by the great and the good, and that there is no direct parliamentary accountability, as Parliament does not pay them any money and there can therefore be no link. There are many organisations that Parliament does not subsidise where Parliament has an overview.
We have a locus in laws such as the Obscene Publications Acts. We pass legislation on the Floor of the House that has to be taken into account by the British Board of Film Classification. There is therefore a second-stage link at present. However, laws are passed over a fairly long period of time on a fairly wide scale. We cannot structure a law for a specific film, DVD or game. We can set the broad outlines and indicate what is acceptable and unacceptable, not in Parliament but in a civilised society. We need to do more than simply set the guidelines.
I have read them. They refer to two particular strands. The first is the legislative strand, which explains the law of the land. The second deals with the prevailing social mores. I forget the name of the judge in the “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” trial in 1960, who asked the jury whether it was a book that they would wish their wives or servants to read. That was a different world, and the British Board of Film Classification does not operate in that way. It operates within the reality of contemporary standards. I believe that the concept of contemporary standards is too often used as an excuse for no standards. Just because something is modern, it does not necessarily have to be gratuitous. Talking about modernity does not mean talking about a vicarious process whereby people can satisfy their strange lusts and desires by watching these bizarre films. The BBFC takes guidance from prevailing social mores and legislation. We have a link to it through legislation, but we need to have a tighter, more closely coupled link.
The hon. Member for Canterbury is a man of profound decency. I do not know anyone in the House who has a bad word to say about him. He is widely respected. I cannot believe for a moment that he would have brought the Bill to the House had he not felt that this was an issue of such seriousness that the business of the House could, and should, be usefully employed to address it. His point is that there is something very nasty and very new out there—something that can cause harm to communities and to society and set people down a path that they might not otherwise have imagined treading. Instead of just throwing his hands up and being a nay-sayer, he has come up with a series of proposals. The House should give thought and credence to those proposals, although I am not entirely convinced that they will become law within a short time.
The debate has changed and moved on. Contemporary standards have changed. Too many people are now saying that they are unhappy and unprepared to accept what is happening, and we cannot ignore them any longer. For too long, people have stood back and said, “This is what the world is like nowadays. The country’s going to the dogs.” Whether it is “Straw Dogs” or any other dogs, those voices have now been heard, and those sentiments have been magnificently articulated by the hon. Member for Canterbury. I cannot see how anyone in the House today could do other than support him and his Bill, and support Dr. Tanya Byron. I hope that we can find some means whereby this evil—I do not use the word lightly—can be expunged.
You will be relieved to know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I did not come here today to talk about early-day motions. I came here to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on securing this slot for an important Bill, and to add a few comments of my own. I want to comment on what other hon. Members have said before making one or two points based on my own personal modest media experience.
The serial father of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark), said that we would be better employed discussing matters relating to the internet. There is real concern in the House about the internet, and about the matter that appears on it. If my hon. Friend wishes to introduce a private Member’s Bill to seek to regulate that, he can put me down as a sponsor, because I strongly believe that he is right. However, I do not think that that gainsays the importance of the measure that my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury is seeking to introduce this morning; it might only be a small step, but it is an important one.
Far too often, we talk in the House about doing things, and stress the need to deal with certain matters, but then do nothing. We have before us this morning the opportunity to take a very small step. We have all been here on Friday mornings when Members have introduced their private Members’ Bills, and we are often told that the Bill is imperfect because it is badly drafted or does not go to the heart of this or that issue. In another life, I regularly chair Government Bill Committees, and I would not even begin to hazard a guess at the number of Government amendments that have been tabled in this Session of Parliament to the Government’s own legislation. So, for any Member to stand up and say that this or that piece of a private Member’s Bill is mildly imperfect is absolute nonsense.
The purpose of this morning’s debate is to take an issue and to ask whether it is important, and to determine whether the measure before us seeks to address it. If the answer is yes, the Bill will deserve a Second Reading. I shall try to demonstrate that I believe that the answer is yes, and that any Member, on either side of the House, who seeks to prevent the Bill from getting a Second Reading is doing a disservice to the House, to the legislative process and, dare I say it, to the public whom we represent.
My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) referred to age ratings, and to the fact that society had changed. He knows a great deal more about film than I do; it is arguable that he knows a great deal more about most things than I do. So far as changes in society are concerned, however, I can, simply by virtue of longevity, say that I have experienced slightly more than he has. As a fully paid-up aspirant geriatric, I am prepared to stand here and say that I do not believe that the fact that society has changed means that it has automatically changed for the better: quite the reverse, in fact.
The quality of programmes on television today is nothing like as good as it has been in the past. That is not to say that there are no good programmes being made today; there are. However, the quantity of nudity and bad language—and the paucity of invention and imagination—in many programmes leaves a huge amount to be desired, and I am certain that it has an effect on society. It is no surprise whatsoever to me that, by and large, the British nation is pretty depressed: one only has to sit and watch an evening’s viewing full of soap operas, which I think I am right in saying are universally depressing. Let us consider the storylines. When did anybody in a soap opera enjoy anything? When was anybody in a soap opera happy? I am prepared to put a small amount of money on the fact that that has an effect on society.
We will be told—I will be told—that television merely reflects society. I am sorry, but I believe that television takes a lead. I feel that very strongly, because for 20 years of the early part of my career, before I came into this House, I was a television producer and director. My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford mentioned my brief association with Miss Biddy Baxter. I am modestly proud of the fact that for six months of those 20 years, I was a director of “Blue Peter”, but I am much more proud of the fact that I made for Thames Television a series of programmes called “White Light”, which were made for teenagers. The first of that series was afforded a BAFTA nomination, and it came second. In all modesty, I have to say that there were only two entries.
“White Light” was screened well before the threshold in the early hours of the evening. As a result of an item that I put out in the first series, I was hauled before what I think was then called the Independent Television Commission and asked to explain myself. The item in question was about drug taking. It was put on the screen quite deliberately at a very early hour in the evening. I cannot recall every detail, but I can recall that the final shot of the item was a very explicit one of a body in a mortuary drawer, and of the drawer then being slammed shut. Not entirely surprisingly, that one shot caused very considerable offence to some people; indeed, that did not surprise me at all. My justification was that I believed that if we were to send out a message to young people that drugs are bad—and they are—we had to do so to an audience who might just be influenced by it, and at a time when they might see it. So when I was hauled before the bishops of the ITC, that was the argument that I and my presenter, who was also dragged up before the beak, deployed. The ITC accepted my argument without question, having heard what we were about.
The reason the ITC accepted that argument is that it understood, as we understood, that what appears on the screen influences people. It really is as simple as that. I am not going to try to intellectualise this—I am not even capable of doing so. What I do know is that, for example, companies spend millions of pounds on advertising on the screen to influence people. They do not advertise cornflakes, soap powder and cars into the ether for no good purpose; they do it because they believe that they will sell those products. They do it because they know that those fleeting, flickering images influence people’s behaviour. That is what this is about.
The argument is frequently deployed—to some extent it has been this morning, although less so than I thought it might be—that there is no empirical evidence to suggest that any of the filth, violence and degrading sexuality that is allowed to appear on the cinema screen, on the small screen and in video games has any real effect on people. Of course there is not, because it is not possible to exercise a control. One cannot expose 50 14-year-olds to violence on the screen, and take an identical group of 50 14-year-olds that are not exposed to that and say, “Well, the first group thinks this and the other group thinks that, so QED.” It does not work like that.
However, what we do know is that there are sufficient examples of what is known as copycat crime to indicate that it is very possible indeed—not in any normal person, probably, but certainly in those who may already have some leaning toward violence, physical or sexual—that such images will trigger a response. Are we prepared to go on taking that chance? We can intellectualise this as much as we like. We can be very liberal. We can say that people have a right to see and hear whatever it is they wish to see and hear, or we can respond to what I believe is the public mood and say, “Here is a generation of children and young people who deserve our protection—the protection of this House—from matter that may affect them adversely and may affect their lives”. I believe that we have a duty to take that step.
I am not here to say that I believe that every dot and comma of the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury is necessarily perfect, but I defy anybody in this Chamber this morning to look in the eye a constituent who is a parent and say that it does not deserve a Second Reading. It does, and I wish my hon. Friend well with it.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on introducing his Bill. I think that this is the second time in recent years that he has been successful in the ballot. I have a little more sympathy with the aims of this Bill than I had with his previous one. As I recall, I had to explain at great length why my objections to the previous Bill were justified, and I am afraid that it made little progress as a result.
I have a lot of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman has had to say today. There has been an interesting debate, in which Members have elucidated well the serious harm that we in this House perceive is caused by some of the more obscene forms of video and film—obscene in the sense of violence in particular. I am not going to go through examples in detail. That has been done very adequately today, and if we do so there is a risk that we unwittingly give such examples publicity, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) made clear. If we give them publicity, people might want to watch or buy them.
What this debate is really about, or should be about—we have heard little on this from Opposition Members, except the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale)—is finding the right balance between giving people choice about what they watch, see and do without unnecessary restriction, and protecting the public from violence. In the context of this debate, we are often talking about the fear of copycat violence—people reproducing what they have seen on film. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), who is no longer in the Chamber, gave the very graphic example of a case from his own constituency.
However, whether we like it or not, what is being proposed does amount to censorship. The hon. Member for Canterbury said in his introduction that it is not about censorship, but I am afraid that it is. The question is whether it is good or bad censorship, whether we should be censoring such material, and if so, what the appropriate procedure is for doing so to prevent that material from getting into the public domain.
Sir Isaiah Berlin’s aphorism that freedom for the shark does not equal freedom for the minnow has been quoted in the House before. Does my hon. Friend not agree that some forms of censorship, if that is the word we choose—protection is the word that I would prefer to use—are absolutely essential for the conduct of a civilised society?
I most certainly do agree with my hon. Friend about that, as do the Human Rights Act and the European convention on human rights. I hope to talk about that later on. The point, first, is where the balance lies; and, secondly, who exercises the decision making.
My concern is about skating around the issue and calling it something that it is not. My hon. Friend mentioned protecting the public, but that is the object, not the exercise; the exercise is censorship with the aim of protecting the public in the end. That is a better way of looking at this debate. If we skate around and pretend that that is not what we are about, we run the risk of ducking the issue.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s kind remarks, but I am puzzled by one of his early comments. Unless I slipped up somehow, I did not say that the issue was not about censorship; at least, I did not intend to. Of course it is about censorship, for exactly the reasons that he has just outlined.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman; I had the impression that he had said that the issue was not about censorship. Perhaps I was thinking of another contribution.
If we are to go down the proposed route, we have to be very careful because we operate within a free society and what we do should be based on clear research into cause and effect.
I am not going to ask who guards the guardians, but before my hon. Friend moves off his point, I want to ask to whom the classifiers are accountable. I entirely understand his philosophical point, but there has to be accountability. To whom are they currently accountable?
They are accountable in a variety of ways—in some respects to the Secretary of State, and in others to their own board, the public at large, Parliament and, ultimately, the local authorities that have the final say. There is a complicated set of arrangements, to which I shall refer in more detail in a moment.
I disagreed with the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) when he said that there was no empirical evidence and that none had been referred to. Most of this debate has been about empirical evidence—about examples that we have seen. However, we do not have a proper scientific and statistical analysis and there has been no proper attempt to show where the linkage lies.
Personally, I believe that there is a clear link between some of the things that we have heard about today—between “SS Extermination Camp”, for example, and the violence mentioned. Having listened to the case presented by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East, I certainly think that there is a clear connection between the video game that he mentioned and the foul murder committed in copycat style. To my untutored, unscientific eye, that is self-evident. However, if we are to legislate and try to introduce different controls, we have to make sure that we do so properly and on the basis of proper scientific analysis. That is why I am pleased that the Government have set up the review being carried out by Dr. Tanya Byron; I understand that she is due to report next month. That will be a helpful contribution to our debate.
The debate today has been much more about the philosophy and need for censorship and control in the circumstances that we are discussing than about the Bill itself. That is one of the problems with this debate. I entirely agree with where the hon. Member for Canterbury is coming from on this issue; this is a serious matter that must be addressed. We have to address it on the basis of evidence. To the public, there is clear general evidence that there is a problem, but we need to firm that up to check whether what they—and, by the sound of it, all of us here today—believe is actually the case, or whether we are speculating. Is it coincidence, or is there a causal connection?
If we think that there is such evidence, we ought to think about how we go about regulating and dealing with the issue. I am not sure that the Bill is the right way or sets out the right mechanisms to do that. We have had an interesting debate, but it has been more of an Adjournment debate on the general issue of the problems of foul and violent video games and films than a Second Reading debate on what the Bill proposes or what is missing from it. That, however, is what a Second Reading debate should be about.
One of the Bill’s proposals is that the Home Affairs Committee should have the power to require the British Board of Film Classification to re-examine its guidelines and tighten them if necessary. Does my hon. Friend not at least agree that that is an essential mechanism to allow the voice of the people to be heard through this place?
I should like to say a little about the proposal on the Home Affairs Committee later. I do not wish there to be a turf war, but as the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford said, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which he chairs, would be more appropriate in the first place.
The problem is that the Bill does not say “a Committee of the House” or “a Committee to be appointed by the House”, but specifies the Home Affairs Committee. Perhaps that could be put right on Report, but that is how the Bill approaches the issue. There is nothing to prevent the hon. Gentleman’s Committee from recommending that the British Board of Film Classification should change its guidelines, if that was the Committee’s view. It has the power now to make such a recommendation, through the House, to the board. The House could not require the board to follow it, and that raises the question whether the role of the House is to require such a thing or to recommend it, in respect of reflecting the views of the public and the discussion within a particular Select Committee inquiry.
Let me confirm to the hon. Gentleman that the inquiry that the Select Committee is undertaking is into harmful content online and in electronic games, that we shall be taking evidence from the BBFC, and that it is very possible that we might make such a recommendation.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. I would not be at all surprised if his Committee were to do so, because that would start to reflect the appropriate balance within our society. The regulation of media contracts has always relied on a mix of statutory controls and voluntary codes of practice, as well as self-restraint, although that might sometimes have been rather less evident than would otherwise be the case. It was interesting to hear the hon. Gentleman’s account of the Steven Spielberg film “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”—the director accepted with hindsight that the board was right and he was wrong.
That was a long time ago, of course, and the guidelines that we have had since then have been successively liberalised. The point is whether it is right that having taken soundings in 2004, including an opinion poll that showed clearly that the public wanted various guidelines tightened, in the subsequent year, in its quinquennial review, the board loosened the guidelines and, for example, removed all reference to knives from the guidelines applying to 15-graded films.
My understanding is that the BBFC is about to embark, if it has not done so already, on the exercise of reviewing the guidelines; I stand to be corrected if I am wrong. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and I should like to refer to some of that evidence later.
Perhaps less consensus exists now than at any other time in relation to what adults may properly access. There are potential tensions between the proscription of obscene or violent material and the right to freedom of expression. I should like to read out a short quote from the Library briefing, which refers to the seminal textbook on this subject by Geoffrey Robertson QC and Andrew Nicol QC, experts in media law:
“The deep division in society over the proper limits for sexual permissiveness is mirrored by an inconsistent and ineffective censorship of publications that may offend or entertain, corrupt or enlighten, according to the taste and character of individual readers. The problem with drawing a legal line between moral outrage and personal freedom has become intractable at a time when one person’s obscenity is another person’s bedtime reading”—
or, in this context, viewing. That is the difficulty that we face, first, in general terms, in trying to find the balance that reflects those two conflicting interests, and secondly, in how we go about policing it.
The key question is that of the guidelines themselves. In effect, the Bill proposes a form of parliamentary censorship over those guidelines through the Home Affairs Committee or the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. That gives rise to the issue of the extent to which Parliament is truly representative of British society. We are, of course, elected by our constituents to come here and represent them. However, when I look around this Chamber I see that we are all white, probably middle-class men, with the exception of my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan)—one of the Whips—and two, probably middle-class, women: my right hon. Friend the Minister of State and my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman), the other Whip. I see very few young people—[Interruption.] Perhaps I should back off a little here. I do not know how old the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) is, but he is certainly not the sort of teenager we have been talking about. We are not representative of the class base of our country at large. We are not yet representative, by a long way, of the balance between the sexes, and certainly not as regards faith or race.
I have not intervened to give the hon. Gentleman my date of birth.
Perhaps one way to improve the worthy intentions of the Bill, to make it representative and to ensure that the trigger mechanism was linked to a representative body of people would be to go beyond the concept of a parliamentary trigger and have a people trigger. That might include in Committee a trigger mechanism by way of a petition with the signatures of an appropriate number of people. Those people would be a representative body expressing views about something that is of general concern—the number of deplorable videos and DVDs that are coming into our homes.
The hon. Gentleman’s idea about a trigger mechanism is interesting. If we had such a mechanism, why would it have to go through Parliament? Why could it not go directly—in an appropriate way—to the BBFC, for example? His point also raises the issue of how one makes such a series of representations representative, in a petition or otherwise. We all remember the days of Mary Whitehouse’s campaigns. [Laughter.] The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate might be too young to remember. At that time, there was much debate about whether what she was campaigning for, with the backing of certain sections of the tabloid press, was truly what British society wanted, or whether it was a brake on that society, which was pretty buttoned-up in her earlier life. She wanted to return to that sort of society, but I certainly would not want to live in it.
It may surprise the hon. Gentleman to hear that I agree with almost everything he has said so far. The mechanism that my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) refers to is in fact already there. I am proposing that the appeals committee be replaced by a jury of volunteers from the public.
On the point made by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) about why such an appeal should not be made directly by the public, I can tell him that in Australia that is the case. Any individual can appeal in Australia. I am suggesting a parliamentary filter of 50 MPs having to support an appeal, so that we will not end up dealing with so many. Many people have said that they are concerned about getting too many appeals.
The hon. Gentleman is probably living in cloud cuckoo land. I was going to say a little about this later, but I shall pre-empt my own remarks. What will happen is that we will be inundated. We have seen postcard and e-mail campaigns grow like Topsy over the past two or three years. If it gets out that by lobbying a Member of Parliament one might get a film banned, we will be doing nothing but respond to e-mail and postcard campaigns from every busybody group in the country. Some will want to outlaw perfectly legitimate, decent films because they are offended by one small aspect. We have seen such campaigns already—
Yes. I would not go to see “Jerry Springer—The Opera” because I think I would find it very offensive, but it is one example of something—nothing to do with violence, which is the context of today’s debate—that was offensive to Christian people. Every day, we would have a plethora of requests to sign early-day motions. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North, pressure may be put on us to sign motions that are based on third, fourth, fifth or sixth-hand hearsay. People write in not because they have seen the film but because something they read in the Daily Mail or the Daily Express has set them off. There is also the question of whether the reporter who wrote the story has actually seen the film or video, or whether he has simply read a press release from a pressure group, which, of course, may have just read a press release from the person putting out the video.
If such a campaign comes to us, I am sure that the pairing Whips are not going to give us time off to watch all these things. When faced with such campaigns, we will just sign up to them to make people go away, as was said earlier. The net result of the process will be a huge burgeoning of early-day motions and an enormous increase in work load, as we ask the appeals body—whatever it is—to review lots of films that may be perfectly decent, but not seen as such by small sections of society. That is a recipe for a huge bureaucracy, a huge amount of work and huge uncertainty for the industry, and it does not advance one iota the hon. Gentleman’s argument about dealing with the really evil, violent films.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for sharing his concerns about how the Bill would affect all right hon. and hon. Members. He will be aware that the BBFC makes 17,000 decisions a year, so I can well imagine a large number of requests coming our way. Does he share my concern that the situation could be even worse than he describes, because various newspapers will almost undoubtedly get in on the act and will publish, day after day, lists of those Members of Parliament who have failed to sign early-day motions, even when they and the people lobbying them have probably not seen the films in question, as he said?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The situation might even go beyond that, with people lobbying us to sign early-day motions that we have already signed, which is what happens now. The number of e-mails that I receive asking me to sign something that I have already signed, because they have not been filtered out by the campaign group, is legion. That number would simply increase.
The House is about to overwhelm my hon. Friend with sympathy over the difficulties of his office, but the fact that something is hard work is not necessarily a reason for not doing it. However, perhaps he can help me. My reading of the Bill is that it refers only to video works and some computer games, and is not about the generic process of film classification.
Of course, but let us consider how much stuff is churned out, day in day out. If we take the internet, too, to which the Bill refers, we are talking about a vast quantity of material, much of which will not be videos in the classic sense. We will see “Life of Brian” being watched on the internet in Glasgow, and where will that lead us? Actually, I am not sure where that will lead us, but it could lead to Glasgow MPs being bombarded with requests to sign an early-day motion about “Life of Brian”.
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman carefully. I serve on the Select Committee on Procedure, which is currently considering whether the House should introduce an e-petitioning system, which I would describe as yet more parliamentary graffiti. The hon. Gentleman has just made an extremely good case against allowing e-petitioning. I endorse that sentiment wholeheartedly, but will he explain whether he believes the principle behind the Bill to be right or wrong? If he believes that the principle is right, surely the Bill deserves a Second Reading. He is going into the minutiae of the Bill, but is the principle right or wrong?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I have made my views on e-petitions known to his Committee, which, from what he has just said, I suspect might not be too different from his own. As I said at the start of my speech, I have a lot of sympathy for the objectives that the hon. Member for Canterbury is trying to achieve through his private Member’s Bill. My concern is that the mechanism proposed will be unworkable and that it is not the right way to go. I was taken down the line of early-day motions by interventions and things grew from there, because the more one thinks about the mechanism, the more one sees how unworkable it is.
We need to consider what happens under the existing arrangements. The BBFC bases its decisions on the law, taking into account a series of things that are set out in the guidelines. The starting point is, inevitably, the Obscene Publications Act 1959, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North quoted more or less accurately. Section 1(1) says:
“an article shall be deemed to be obscene if its effect or (where the article comprises two or more distinct items) the effect of any one of its items is, if taken as a whole, such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it.”
“any sound record, and any film or other record of a picture or pictures.”
I should know better than ever to attempt to quote law in the presence of a distinguished lawyer, but as we are talking about legislation, what about article 10 of the European convention on human rights on freedom of expression, enshrined in the Human Rights Act 1998? Surely my hon. Friend is not saying that that should override every emotion in this country.
Of course not. Indeed, I hope to discuss the Human Rights Act and the European convention on human rights later and to make it clear why the right to freedom of expression should be properly balanced by the right to preserve arrangements for public morality, which is an important point in this debate.
The BBFC has to take into account the Protection of Children Act 1978, too, under which
“It is an offence for a person…to take, or permit to be taken, any indecent photograph or”—
inserted by amendment—
whatever a pseudo-photograph is—
“of a child…to distribute or show such indecent photographs,”
to possess them or to distribute them. That has to be taken into account. The BBFC also has to take into account the Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act 1937, which deals with cruelty to animals in the making of films.
As has featured in our debate this morning, public opinion has to be taken into account by the BBFC. It distils public opinion from extensive public consultation exercises. The last round of consultation was in 2004, but I believe that it was published in 2005. As mentioned in a helpful sedentary intervention from the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), the review for this year has already started.
The guidelines relate to what we as a society believe is suitable for each age group, so it is important that the widest possible consultation should allow proper consideration. When the guidelines were published in September 2000, the research that underpinned them was one of the most extensive exercises on public attitudes ever carried out by any media regulator. Some 11,000 people were consulted in 2004, which was 7,000 more than in the 2000 exercise.
The findings of the research, as set out in the Library briefing, are quite interesting. They showed a great consensus about the need to protect young people from material with the potential to cause harm. There was less unanimity about the question of copycat behaviour, although the figures revealed that quite a large majority were concerned about that. Interestingly, when it came to the proposition that watching violence in films generally makes people more likely to be violent in real life, only 45 per cent. of the public agreed. The public as a whole may not be as convinced of that particular argument as our debate suggests we are.
It is quite clear that people want proper parental control over videos, but 52 per cent. felt that there should be no limits on what could be shown in R18 videos as long as they do not contain sexual violence or break the law. The argument is then about what exactly that means. Furthermore, 60 per cent. disagreed with the proposition that there should be no limits. Presumably, that means that the 22 per cent. and 17 per cent. mentioned in the survey were neutral. There is disagreement over whether there should be limits. We thus need to bear it in mind that the public may not be entirely of the view expressed by hon. Members here today. That brings us back to the point I made earlier about the extent to which we are truly representative of the wider public at large.
People in the survey were also asked to attach various degrees of importance to the range of issues that they were asked about. It is very interesting to note that what they thought most important were drugs and drug taking, which was identified at 75 per cent. Only after that was violence seen as an important issue, which came in at 65 per cent. Sexual activity gained 56 per cent.; strong language 49 per cent.; racial offence 46 per cent.; religious offence 34 per cent.; nudity 29 per cent. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North will no doubt be interested to note that smoking came in at 25 per cent., and alcohol, in which he will be even more interested, at 22 per cent.
The reason I needled my hon. Friend about smoking is that I knew he had given up and I thought he would like to know that the public are also very concerned about the issue. I am very pleased that my hon. Friend has been able to give up and I am sure he is looking forward to the end of Lent with keen anticipation.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the consultation, however wide, did not apply to a matter at the heart of the Bill—the accountability of the whole process of classification? Will he respond to the principle behind the Bill—that the present appeals procedure is restricted to persons submitting videos for classification? Does he agree that it should now be extended, which is the point at the heart of the Bill?
I think that there is an issue here. I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman that there are issues about accountability and who makes the decisions, but I am not entirely convinced that it is for Parliament to deal with them.
Of course we should set the general framework, if that cannot be done by the industry through self-regulation, and I suppose that our debate is more about self-regulation by the industry as it stands. That, effectively, is the arrangement we have, with a light touch from all the other methods of control and supervision that I mentioned earlier. However, I would be very concerned if there were a substitution of parliamentary censorship, which would be a dangerous road for us to go down. I have genuine concerns about the process in the Bill.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. Perhaps I will elaborate on them later, if I catch the eye of the Chair.
On the main areas of concern in the debate so far—videos and some video games—will the hon. Gentleman confirm that under the current arrangements the body responsible for classification and for carrying out any further inquiries is the BBFC, but that it does so under designation by the Secretary of State? The Secretary of State has the power to remove the right of that body to be involved in the process. There is parliamentary involvement.
The hon. Gentleman is right. The legislation governing these matters is the Video Recordings Act 1984, which in section 7 makes provision for classification certificates to be issued by the designated authority. Certificates must contain details such as the title and the statement that the video is suitable for general viewing or for over-18s, or that it should be supplied only in licensed sex shops. The designated authority is dealt with by section 4, which clearly states:
“The Secretary of State may by notice under this section designate any person as the authority responsible for making arrangements”.
It then sets out in detail how that should be done. Obviously, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it would be wrong of me to go through all that now, but under that provision the Secretary of State has designated the BBFC—certainly, the officers are designated, I think by name. If there is evidence and a view in Government or in the House that the BBFC is not doing its job properly, ultimately the Secretary of State could withdraw that designation.
From the Front Bench, my right hon. Friend says yes. So, we have a powerful policing mechanism over the BBFC.
Again I return to the basic point of the debate. The hon. Member for Canterbury, who has left the Chamber, has come up with a jury concept for his Bill, but I simply ask him to reflect on this point. When the public were surveyed in 2005, they were asked about not only the standards and guidelines, but their experience of how those were operating, because that is what they go by. In relation to sex, in 2000, 54 per cent. thought that the standards and guidelines were about right, but that figure had gone up to 58 per cent. in 2004. Roughly a third thought that the guidelines were not strict enough. On violence, in 2004, 53 per cent. thought that they were about right and 41 per cent. thought that they were not strict enough. The figures on language and on drugs were similar.
The point I want to make about those figures is that they show that society is divided on the issue. I am concerned that today’s debate, during which we have got quite angry about these awful things, is not reflecting that. If we had a jury system and if a jury were to be properly reflective of society—this brings me to the point that I made in my first intervention on the hon. Member for Canterbury—we would inevitably end up with hung juries of one sort or another, because presumably juries would fail to agree on the guidelines, as indicated by the proportions and the views expressed in that survey of 11,000 people.
There is a real problem here. In relation to what are, effectively, differences of subjective view, Geoffrey Robertson and Andrew Nicol say in their book:
“The central irony of the courtroom crusade—what might be termed ‘the Spycatcher effect’—is always present: seek to suppress a book by legal action [in Spycatcher, the Government actually sued for breach of confidence] because it tends to corrupt, and the publicity attendant on its trial will spread that assumed corruption far more effectively than its quiet distribution. Lady Chatterley’s Lover sold three million copies in the three months following its prosecution in 1961. The last work of literature to be prosecuted for obscenity in a full-blooded Old Bailey trial was an undistinguished paperback entitled Inside Linda Lovelace.”
That had the same effect. That is why, unlike other hon. Members, I have refrained from referring by title to any of the obscene materials that we have discussed today: I do not want to be accused of giving undue publicity in this debate to all those horrible things.
We need to consider what the BBFC’s process provides for. I asked my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North whether he had read the guidelines; I wonder whether all the hon. Gentlemen who have spoken so far have read them as well. I have a copy here, and they are pretty tight. The guidelines provide detailed instructions on the submission for classification of films and videos, and the details take account of the differing natures of the media.
The guidelines start from these basic questions:
“—is the material in conflict with the law?
—is the material, at the age group concerned, likely to be harmful?
—is the material, at the age group concerned, clearly unacceptable to broad public opinion?”
The BBFC tries to reflect public opinion in its procedure, and the legal considerations, particularly in relation to videos, require it to have special regard to the likelihood that the work will be viewed at home, and to any harm to those likely to view the video or to society from the behaviour of viewers afterwards. In considering those issues, the board has in mind the possible effect not only on children but on other vulnerable people. The Video Recordings Act also requires special regard to
“(a) criminal behaviour;
(b) illegal drugs;
(c) violent behaviour or incidents;
(d) horrific behaviour or incidents; or
(e) human sexual activity”,
so the BBFC takes those things into account.
As I have mentioned, the board also takes into account the Cinematographic Films (Animals) Act, the Protection of Children Act, the obscene publications Acts and the Licensing Act, which has additional requirements dealing with public safety, prevention of public nuisance and the protection of children from harm. It starts from the basic premise from which any free society should start that
“adults should as far as possible be free to choose what they see, providing that it remains within the law and is not potentially harmful to society”.
I hope that everybody in the House would agree that that should be the basic premise on which we proceed, as well as the premise that
“works should be allowed to reach the widest audience that is appropriate for their theme and treatment”.
However, of course,
“the context in which something (e.g. sex or violence) is presented is central to the question of its acceptability”.
Obviously, some things will be on the border between 18 and R18, but the BBFC says:
“Classification decisions may be stricter on video, DVD and digital works than on film. This is because of the increased possibility of under-age viewing recognised in the Video Recordings Act, and of works being replayed or viewed out of context. Accordingly, a work may occasionally receive a higher age classification than on film, or require new or different cuts.”
The hon. Gentleman rightly points out the distinction in review mechanisms between films and video works, and their different procedures. Is there not an irony, though? When it comes to an appeal mechanism, there is a degree of democratic censorship in councils that he does not want to have through Parliament. Councils, which are accountable to their electors, are involved in the appeals process for films, but there is not the same democratic accountability for video works when it comes to the video nasties that, as he says, can cause more harm.
The hon. Gentleman is wrong to refer to what happens in local authorities as an appeal. It is actually a decision, not an appeal. The British Board of Film Classification gives a film a particular certificate, and generally a local authority accepts that classification. However, the local authority may have had protests or may decide not to accept the classification. I remember sitting on the licensing committee when I was a member of Westminster city council. I only had to watch one rather unpleasant film, and I think that we decided in the end not to permit it to be shown in Westminster, but that was a decision, not an appeal. The only appeal, I suppose, is a judicial review through the courts of an unreasonable decision by a local authority to ban, censor or reclassify a particular film. I think that that would be the only way to appeal. The hon. Gentleman is therefore wrong to refer to an appeal to a local authority. It may sound like an appeal to him, in that it involves the local authority going beyond its normal processes to intervene in the case of a particular film as a result of public pressure, but he is actually talking about the decision of a local authority, not an appeal to it.
The hon. Gentleman is entirely correct. There is a mixture of regulation, to which I referred earlier. It is not right for Parliament to censor; that would be fundamentally wrong, because the political balance in this place may change. There may be extreme parties in here one day. Who knows? There may be a completely different political balance. The people here might have a very different view of our society—one that was oppressive to a minority, or indeed a majority. Parliament should not engage in censorship. It would be wrong for it to do so in a democratic society. If we start censoring films and videos, where will it end? Will we then want to censor newspapers, because of what they write, or books? That is the road to a very undemocratic society, and it would be wrong for Parliament to take it.
That is not to say that Parliament should not approve an appropriate mechanism that allows an independent body to perform that function. The body should be subject to a very light touch, in case it goes off the rails. At the moment, that light touch is provided through the Video Recordings Act, which provides for the Secretary of State to appoint the regulator, and which sets out clear criteria for it.
Just to ensure that I am absolutely correct, does the hon. Gentleman agree that, as I mentioned in an earlier intervention, there is already an additional stage, as under section 5(1) and (2) of the 1984 Act the Secretary of State can decide to appoint the designated person only if there is no objection from either House? Both Houses therefore have a veto, so there is full parliamentary involvement in that important decision.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. The fact is that we have that parliamentary mechanism. That is probably the appropriate relationship between Parliament and the regulator, whoever the regulator happens to be. The real argument that we should be having today is on whether the regulator is doing its job properly, given some of the decisions that it has made. I do not think that we in Parliament, collectively, should second-guess decisions on particular videos or films, although we may have our own personal views. I think that some of the regulator’s decisions may have been wrong, and I am sure that others in the House think so, too, but it would not be right for us collectively to come to that conclusion. That would be a dangerous course to take, and I would be very worried if we took it.
The first question is whether the independent regulator makes the right decisions, and the second is whether it has the right processes for taking account of the public’s view. We should also ask whether there is an appropriate appeal mechanism that allows the pubic to express its concerns.
The BBFC guidelines show the main issues that the regulator considers, including the theme of the work. It highlights the most problematic themes, which include drug abuse, sexual violence, paedophilia, and incitement to racial hatred or violence—the very things that we have talked about today. The guidelines mention the problem of bad language and how the depth of concern may vary. They mention nudity, sex and violence, rightly saying:
“Violence has always been a feature of entertainment for children and adults.”
The question is how that is addressed. The answer is: through the classification system, and where the film appears. In making decisions about violence, the BBFC particularly considers the
“portrayal of violence as a normal solution to problems”
“heroes who inflict pain and injury”—
in other words, hero-worship. It also considers “callousness towards victims”, “encouraging aggressive attitudes”, and
“taking pleasure in pain or humiliation”.
“Works which glorify, glamorise or sexualise violence will receive a more restrictive classification and may even be cut.”
It goes on to say:
“The BBFC has a strict policy on rape and sexual violence.”
I will not go into that in detail; that would be going a little off the subject. The point is that the BBFC’s guidelines contain all the tools it needs to deal with the ills that we have identified today.
As the hon. Gentleman is on the subject of rape guidelines, may I inform him that the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), who chairs the Home Affairs Committee, mentioned that some video games allow the participant to engage in a rape act? I checked the point with the BBFC and found it to be completely unaware of any such video game. Is the hon. Gentleman aware of any video game that has as its intention the carrying out of rape or that allows the game player to carry out such an act? The BBFC and I are unaware of any such game.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention on that point. This goes back to our earlier discussion about how Chinese whispers can feed debates through the media, and we end up arguing about things that never happened and, through the early-day motion mechanism, creating a huge superstructure to deal with things that do not exist and are not a problem. We have all been spoofed at one time or another, and the possibility of people spoofing us on this issue is particularly horrifying.
I cannot comment on the rape in games issue, but I can tell the House what Stefan Pakeerah’s father said after Warren Leblanc had murdered his son. He said that “Manhunt” is a game
“using weapons like hammers and knives…The object of Manhunt is not just to go out and kill people. It’s a point-scoring game where you increase your score depending on how violent the killing is. That explains why Stefan's murder was as horrific as it was.”
Of course, that game was passed by the BBFC.
As I said, I would disagree with a view that would approve anything like that. The question is whether it is for us in Parliament or for someone else to make that decision and be held to account for it—in this case, by the Secretary of State. Perhaps the Minister will let us know what representations the Government have made to the BBFC about that game. If they have not made any such representations, why have they not done so? It would be interesting to hear the response.
That comes back to the fact that ultimately somebody must make a decision and say where the line is drawn. I agree with the hon. Member for Canterbury that that video game was beyond the pale. I would not dispute that, but we must decide who is the appropriate person to make such decisions. Is it us lay people, doing the best we can, or is it people who have more experience of this issue because they view these things day in, day out in order to have an idea of where to draw the line to reflect public opinion? The latter people use their own opinion polling and surveying and their experience of what is being produced by the industry.
We must reflect on the fact that the BBFC is an independent, non-governmental body that, in one form or another, has been doing this job since 1912. The object is to bring a degree of uniformity to the classification of films nationally. As I have said, the statutory powers ultimately rest with local councils, which can overrule decisions, but a degree of consistency and uniformity in the process is important.
The hon. Gentleman said that the appointments process could be done through Parliament. I fully accept that the BBFC is an industry body, but it is responsible for ensuring fair and effective regulation of the industry. That is appropriate because the industry needs to know where it stands. The BBFC is a private company limited by guarantee, but it also has statutory duties, via the 1984 Act, that go beyond those simple industry body responsibilities. Everybody should accept that it is important to preserve the BBFC’s independence.
The Government are consulted from time to time about the BBFC’s statutory role in relation to videos. That fact emerged from a parliamentary answer that was referred to in the House of Commons Library briefing.
We have a reasonable balance. My main concern about the Bill’s proposals is the scrutiny of appointments by a Select Committee, whether it is the Home Affairs Committee, as the Bill states, or the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which is chaired by the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford, who is no longer in his place.
As I said in an intervention on my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East, the Government have asked Select Committees, via the Liaison Committee, to consider the scrutiny of outside appointments. The Government produced a consultation paper, with a list of jobs on which they think Parliament should be consulted. Parliament would not have the right of approval, but it would have the right to be consulted. Ultimately, the decision would be made by the Government—probably by the Secretary of State concerned.
That consultation exercise has been going on for several weeks. Each Chairman of a Select Committee was asked to show his Committee the list of jobs and whether we wanted to add NGO or other appointments that we thought appropriate. For example, my Committee suggested that we should add the chair of the new Equality and Human Rights Commission, which was not on the Government’s list. I say that by way of diversion to show the matters that we discussed.
The objective of the consultation was to examine senior appointments, not those all the way down the food chain, which could mean Select Committees becoming bogged down. Indeed, discussions seem to suggest that some Select Committees may have bitten off more than they can chew in the number of appointments that they want to scrutinise. Appointments will be made by the Government, not necessarily on the recommendation of the relevant Select Committee, but taking its views into account.
Not one Select Committee proposed that any of the people referred to in the Bill should be part of that scrutiny process. Bearing in mind that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East, who has left his place, is a sponsor of the Bill, I would have thought that if he felt so strongly about it he would have asked his Committee to consider suggesting those posts for inclusion, and proposed them to the Liaison Committee for approval at our meeting yesterday. I am surprised that he did not. Perhaps he suggested it in private discussions and the Committee was not enamoured of the idea.
Similarly, the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford, who chairs the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, could have suggested those appointments for inclusion. His Committee suggested the appointments that it thought it ought to approve, and the heads of the BBFC were not on the list. From his remarks earlier, it seems that he does not think that they should be. That calls into question the extent to which the Bill’s sponsors have consulted those who would be given the additional responsibilities proposed. The inference must be that those people were not asked about it at all, particularly bearing in mind the exercise that has been undertaken by the Liaison Committee at the Government’s request.
We need to spend a little time on the appeal mechanism. The current appeals process is geared towards appeals by those who present films for classification. They may object to the classification that they are given, perhaps because cuts have been made or because they believe it has been put in the wrong age bracket. Ultimately, the video appeals committee’s decisions are subject to judicial review if the film maker requests it.
The problem is that there is no mechanism to allow members of the public to ask for a decision to be reconsidered by the VAC. We need to consider whether we ought to allow a review if a significant number of members of the public ask for it. If there is an outcry about a TV broadcast and a lot of people write in, the regulator examines the decisions made by the broadcaster, which is appropriate. If the regulator thinks that the broadcaster’s decision was wrong, the broadcaster is rapped over the knuckles or can be fined. Perhaps we need to try to find a similar mechanism to allow a regulator to review those decisions. Obviously, that regulator could not be the BBFC, because it makes the decision. Perhaps we could arrange for the video appeals committee to receive complaints directly and to have a trigger mechanism whereby a decision made by the BBFC should be reconsidered when a certain number of representations were made.
I fully accept that all the problems of retrospectivity would apply. Once such things are out in the public domain, it becomes difficult to recall them. One could stop further examples being sold; I suppose that one could not stop them being pirated. It is not the same as in the cinema, where a film can no longer be shown, or in TV, where broadcasters can be told not to put the broadcast out again. We ought to see whether it is possible to work out some appeal mechanism that would allow the public to express their views.
As I said earlier, I am extremely concerned about the proposed system of using an early-day motion to trigger an appeal, not because I think that it would ultimately bring Parliament into even more disrepute with the public, but because it would be a recipe for all sorts of mischief that would not advance the cause that the Bill tries to address. We would be bogged down with all sorts of complaints about trivial matters and the more serious problems would get lost in the herd. We would not have the opportunity to consider what should be done about these evil, violent videos, because we would be getting the requests all the time and signing them away without even thinking about what we were doing, to avoid pressure from the public.
I am concerned, too, about the mechanism of the people’s jury. First, the jury will be drawn from a panel of volunteers. If we are working on the basis of volunteering, how will that jury reflect society as a whole? One can imagine that the people who will volunteer will be those with an axe to grind, not just against the sort of evils that we seek to prevent with the Bill but more generally against such things as the video version of “Jerry Springer—The Opera” or even “Life of Brian”, which is banned in Glasgow, as we heard earlier. There is a real risk that the jury will be drawn from a self-selected volunteer panel.
Secondly, if the jury genuinely reflects our society and we get over the problem of the self-selection of volunteers, we will end up with the problem of a hung jury. That would be a likely consequence, bearing in mind the research work that the BBFC has done that shows how divided our society is on the issues of violence in film and video. If we end up with a jury, we will presumably have to have provision for unanimity, or if not for unanimity for a majority verdict. What will happen if a jury decides 6:6 or 7:5? That is hardly a ringing endorsement of the decision one way or the other. Would it ultimately be binding? We then get into the argument about chair’s casting votes and so forth. That is not a sensible way to go.
I would certainly be happy to have a method whereby certain numbers of members of the public could trigger a complaint and a review of a decision, but that review should be carried out by the video appeals committee. This is a complicated issue under the procedures set out in the Bill that could be made a lot simpler and easier to administer.
The Bill also talks about the internet. The whole question of the regulation of the internet is very complicated. I have grappled with it in relation to problems arising from use of the internet by Muslim fundamentalism trying to create the climate of violence from Islamic terrorism from which we know we suffer in our country. I have grappled with the question on behalf of constituents in relation to anti-Semitism and, of course, racism. The problem is always that the roots of those websites go far away into different countries. Trying to regulate the internet has been complicated, and Governments will continue to grapple with how to deal with it. That is why I think that it is very important that the Prime Minister has asked Dr. Tanya Byron to lead a review to consider, among other things, how best to deal with that problem. I look forward to her review and its recommendations in March.
The real problem is that the available academic research does not actually establish the link that we all think exists between watching such videos and violence. We have already heard about the case of Stefan Pakeerah. Everybody thinks there was a link in that case and there may indeed have been one, but so far academic research does not support it, which is why Dr. Byron’s review is important. Let us hope that she will produce an answer that allows us to decide about the link one way or the other. However, it is important to recognise that in the Pakeerah case neither the police nor the prosecution supported the claim that there was a link between the video and the appalling murder, although I am pleased that afterwards retailers rightly withdrew the game from sale.
The Bill raises important issues, which is why it was crucial that the review was commissioned, because it will look at the evidence of harm and at the measures needed to protect children from inappropriate content. The Bill is based on the premise that exposure to violent behaviour in films or computer games leads to violent behaviour in real life, but the evidence so far does not really suggest much correlation, except in relation to violent pornography and sexual offences, which are of course already illegal, as I mentioned earlier.
The objectives of the Byron review are set out in the Library briefing paper:
“To undertake a review of the evidence on risks to children’s safety and wellbeing of exposure to harmful or inappropriate material on the internet and in video games…To assess the effectiveness and adequacy of existing measures to help prevent children from being exposed to such material and help parents understand and manage the risks of access to inappropriate content, and to make recommendations for improvements or additional action.”
That seems a much more sensible way forward.
Today, based on our view of what is going on in society, we have identified an ill that needs to be addressed. The Government need to respond to the very real fear and concern expressed in the House today, but it is not appropriate for Parliament to be involved in censorship. There is a risk that we would end up interfering with entirely private rights. There is also a risk of rule by the mob or the Mary Whitehouse tendency and a real risk of unbalance in our approach. We need to consider how we can enhance the role of the regulator so that it takes a little more account of public opinion and where we want society to be rather than the direction in which it may be heading, as heralded by some videos.
We need to look at human rights provisions. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North referred to article 10 of the European convention on human rights, which makes it clear that everyone has the right to freedom of expression. The right applies to all of us, but it does not prevent states from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprise, which is the regime we follow. The right to freedom of expression is not unfettered. Exercise of that freedom carries with it duties and responsibilities, which allow the law to make provision for the prevention of disorder and violent crime or the protection of health and morals and so on.
It is important that we bear in mind the fact that an overwhelming number of people believe in freedom of expression—the right to say and do what we want—but within the constraints of the responsibilities and duties we owe each other. We need to ensure that we exercise our right to freedom of expression in a way that does not affect the health and morals of our society or create the risk of disorder or crime. Those provisions are in the European convention on human rights and that is the direction we need to take. However, we must provide certainty. The biggest enemy in the law is uncertainty, so we need a process of classification and criteria for it that are absolutely clear. That is a fair reflection of the law and it is encapsulated in the Library briefing.
To conclude my remarks, I very much agree with the broad thrust of the speech made by the hon. Member for Canterbury when he introduced the Bill, and I agree with most of the other contributors about the need for us to take firm action to deal with appalling, dangerous and violent videos of extreme form. However, in doing so we should reflect on the fact that Parliament should not be involved in censorship. We should put in place appropriate mechanisms to allow independent people to make decisions on behalf of our society, in a way that reflects its morals and views, to stop those appalling productions falling into the hands of the general public.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on securing the debate, which has led to some extremely measured and thoughtful contributions from the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) and the hon. Members for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound), for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) and for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). We had the benefit of learning of the rivalry between the hon. Members for Ealing, North and for Maldon and East Chelmsford in terms of their knowledge of films, and it is clear that they spend a great deal of their time either in front of their video or DVD machines or in the cinema and clearly enjoy many of the films that they see.
More importantly, my sympathies lie predominantly, in terms of the contributions that we have heard so far, with the hon. Members for Hendon and for Maldon and East Chelmsford. The hon. Member for Hendon perhaps above all will join me in paying tribute to the excellent officers in the Library for preparing the briefing in advance of today’s deliberations—a briefing that has definitely informed his own contribution quite extensively, but from which we will all have benefited.
There are a few elements of the Bill with which I have some sympathy, and I certainly accept the point made by others that improvements need to be made, but large swathes of the Bill I find deeply worrying, which is why I certainly will not be able to support it. I have two broad areas of concern. First, notwithstanding that, as we heard from the hon. Member for Hendon, the research shows that a number of people are concerned with the classification system, all the research shows that the majority of people are satisfied with and supportive of it. Secondly, the Bill would give politicians an undue and dangerous influence over these sorts of issues, about which I would be very uncomfortable.
However, it is only right to start with the broad areas of agreement. As we have heard, the Secretary of State already designates the top appointments to the BBFC: the president and the two vice presidents. Before he does that, the names, covered by sections 5(1) and (2) of the Video Recordings Act 1984, have to lie before both Houses of Parliament for 40 days, and there is an opportunity there, in effect, for a veto. However, I point out to the Minister that the chances of Members of either House happening to spot that are slightly remote because they would have to be avid readers of either the London Gazette, the Belfast Gazette or the Edinburgh Gazette, which are apparently among the few places where those names would appear, so we might look at ways of promoting that information and opportunity more widely. None the less, there is already a procedure that gives the right of veto to either House of Parliament and to the Secretary of State.
The Bill proposes that the Home Affairs Committee would have a role in scrutinising appointments and a veto. As the hon. Member for Hendon has already pointed out, the Government are already consulting on that issue and that consultation is well down the tracks, but as he rightly said, that is only in respect of a scrutiny role, not in respect of a veto. The Bill goes further and suggests the Committee should have a veto. Clearly, the hon. Gentleman disagreed with that and would prefer to stick to the proposal that is now being consulted on. However, I agree with the proposal in the Bill that the Select Committee should have the right of veto. Indeed, since 2000, that has been my party’s policy on senior posts in quangos and similar bodies. We have long argued that that would be an appropriate mechanism. The hon. Member for Canterbury, who is now rejoining us after a brief absence, will be delighted to learn that I will support that aspect of the Bill. However, I have two concerns about it that I wish to express.
As I mentioned in an earlier intervention, either House of Parliament has the ability to exercise a veto at present. We are being asked to introduce a procedure whereby a Select Committee had a scrutiny role and a veto role, but I believe that it would be inappropriate to have both layers in existence. If the Bill gets into Committee and further deliberations take place, the removal of sections 5(1) and (2) of the 1984 Act might well be a subject for consideration.
I do not feel particularly comfortable with the notion of the three senior people—the president and the two deputy presidents—being affected by the provisions. I accept that that is the present arrangement, whereby the Secretary of State approves the appointments, with a possibility of a veto by either House. However, I believe that that is already a step too far. As with most other non-departmental public bodies, I believe that the appointment that should lie with the Secretary of State—followed by scrutiny and possible veto by the relevant Select Committee—should cover only the person at the top of the organisation. In this case, that is the president of the BBFC. I am not comfortable with the provisions covering three people.
Nor am I comfortable with the fact that the present legislation—a set of procedures that the new Bill proposes to mirror—allows for the possibility of yet more senior people in the organisation falling under that procedure. Given that I believe it already covers two people too many, it is certainly inappropriate to have the power to extend that further. I acknowledge, however, that that is in the existing legislation, and would only be mirrored by the new Bill.
Another area of concern, which has already been mentioned, is the question of which body is the appropriate one to carry out the scrutiny and to exercise the veto. The Bill is clear that it should be the Home Affairs Committee. However, others have rightly said that, given that responsibility for these issues largely passed to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in 2001, it would be more appropriate for that Department’s Select Committee to be the body to undertake this function.
Some people with whom I have discussed this matter have said that the wording of the Bill is flexible enough to allow that to happen. However, I have looked carefully at clause 5, which deals with interpretation, and it clearly states:
“‘Home Affairs Committee’ means any Committee of the House of Commons appointed under that name or any Committee appointed under a different name with substantially the same functions”.
So, as the Bill stands, it would not be possible for the DCMS Select Committee to undertake this important activity. I happen to agree with that activity, but the proposals would result in it being undertaken by the wrong Committee. I do not understand how that mistake could have been made. The hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member of the House and someone who clearly has a passionate interest in this issue. Perhaps he will explain why this has happened. I find it odd that he seems to be championing a Committee that is chaired by a member of the Labour party, rather than the one chaired by the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford.
Let me make two points. First, this of course has nothing to do with personalities—it just seems to me to be right that the focus should be on concerns relating to murder, rape and the other such issues that we have been discussing, rather than on those relating to the film industry. That is why I felt that the Home Affairs Committee was the more appropriate Committee. Secondly, that said, and as the hon. Gentleman has already mentioned in another context, this is very much a Committee stage issue, rather than one on which the decision whether to support the measure should be taken on Second Reading.
I am delighted to hear that progress might be made on this issue in Committee, if the Bill reaches that stage.
I have tried to be supportive of the hon. Gentleman and his Bill on that issue, but I have to tell him that from now on, it is downhill, because there is no other part of the Bill with which I have any agreement whatsoever. However, I hope that that will in no way lead him to suggest that I am belittling the concerns that he and many other people have about the issues that we are debating. All Members who have spoken so far, and doubtless those who have still to contribute, will share those concerns. To say that the status quo is adequate is simply not good enough. Changes are needed; for example, the hon. Member for Hendon suggested giving greater opportunities for other groups to have an appeal heard by the VAC. There is a general acceptance that there are issues and concerns, and I hope that some of them will be addressed by the Byron review, to which I will return.
I have practical concerns about the detail of the Bill, the first of which relates to the appeals mechanisms, which have been touched on by many others. As we heard, there are in effect two appeals processes. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Hendon that the use of the local authority in respect of films shown in cinemas is not really an appeal, but that is the mechanism for such films. As we have heard, for videos, DVDs and certain video games, the mechanism is the work of the video appeals committee.
A number of people have talked about the VAC being a creature of the BBFC, and it certainly is, but nobody should be in any doubt as to its robust independence. We have already heard probably the best example of that from the mouth of the Bill’s promoter—the row that occurred about “Manhunt 2”. Let us reflect on this point. This can hardly be a cosy relationship, given that the BBFC effectively took to judicial review a decision made by the VAC. The VAC has, therefore, clearly shown real independence. The hon. Member for Hendon referred several times to the excellent book by Robertson and Nicol on media law. Having studied this matter, they make it very clear that the VAC really does exert its independence. So it is an independent body, and we should not forget that.
The Bill proposes to establish a new appeals body for videos, DVDs and some video games. As we have heard, it would consist of an independent panel, 12 of whose members would be selected at random for each hearing, which would be triggered by an early-day motion with 50 or more signatures. The issues to be dealt with include the classification of an existing video game. I have nothing at all against the idea of ensuring that the VAC is independent not only in spirit, as it currently clearly is, but in structural terms.
I accept that we should look at that issue, because there is within the minds of some a lingering doubt that it is a creature of the BBFC. However, the question then is why we need to set up this elaborate procedure. Is there any real evidence of huge dissatisfaction with the work being done or with the classification system itself, against which the vast majority of appeals are actually aimed? As we heard from the hon. Member for Hendon and others, there are clearly mixed views on the matter. There always will be. However, we know from the detailed research—incidentally, it was not conducted, as was suggested, by one independent organisation, but by several—that the majority of the public were satisfied with the guidelines on all the categories, whether on sex, violence, language or drugs. The hon. Gentleman cited the figures on that.
The phrase “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” certainly springs to mind. I have suggested some areas where tinkering is needed, but I am not convinced that we need a radical overhaul, as the hon. Member for Canterbury suggests. I say that particularly in the light of the Byron review, to which much reference has been made today. Frankly, it is bizarre that we should set up a review to consider a large number—although not all, I accept—of the issues on which the Bill touches and discuss those issues without having had its results. Surely it would be far better for us to consider the review’s outcome to help us in our deliberations on how we can address the concerns already expressed in this Chamber.
The notion that an appeal should be triggered by 50 signatures on an early-day motion is the most bizarre of all the things in the Bill. I acknowledge that the hon. Member for Canterbury is looking for a mechanism to reflect what he called public opinion on these issues, and I understand that. However, I am not at all convinced that that is the right way of doing it. I am sure that, like the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey), the hon. Gentleman is an avid reader of early-day motions and that both hon. Gentlemen know that as of last night, when I struggled away from my office at 10 pm and finally checked, there were 1,075 early-day motions before the House. Of those, 380 have 50 or more signatures; I urge all hon. Members to have a look at those. However, they should also note that the vast majority of early-day motions have fewer than 50 right hon. and hon. Members’ names on them.
Having looked at the early-day motions with fewer than 50 signatures, I have no doubt that hon. Members might pick up on early-day motion 590, which was tabled by the right hon. Member for Leicester, East. It expresses his concern about that much-talked-about video game “Manhunt 2”. It was tabled on 17 December, but to this day has only 24 signatures—interestingly, they do not include that of the promoter of this Bill, despite his expressions of concern about the game.
Very good. In a second, I shall help the hon. Gentleman with some other putting right that he might want to do.
It is worth reflecting on why so few Members of Parliament have signed the early-day motion on “Manhunt 2”. The BBFC received 779 complaints about its banning of that game, but the vast majority were from people protesting about the ban, not people suggesting that it should have been done sooner or that something else should have been done.
I want to draw attention to early-day motion 849, a second one with fewer than 50 signatures. I referred to it in an intervention earlier. That early-day motion, which was also tabled by the right hon. Member for Leicester, East, is about the video that I have not seen but that was clearly the bedtime viewing of the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford—“SS Experiment Camp”. It was tabled more than three weeks ago, but as of last night it had only 10 signatures. Again, despite the hon. Member for Canterbury expressing his deep concern about that item to the Prime Minister on 20 February, his signature is not on the motion; no doubt he will assure us that he is going to put that right at the end of this debate.
It is worth reflecting on the fact that early-day motion 983, which deals with the cost of drinks and confectionery in cinemas and was tabled much more recently, already has 32 signatures. That is indicative of the interest that Members of all parties have as regards issues of real concern.
Both early-day motions might, in due course, reach the magic number of 50. However, the question is what would happen in the period between when the motion was first tabled and when the magic number of 50 eventually was reached, triggering the appeal and suspending sales. Bearing in mind the fact that the hon. Member for Canterbury has not yet got round to signing early-day motions from before Christmas, that could take weeks, during which huge amounts of publicity would be given to the item concerned. We heard earlier about the example of “Inside Linda Lovelace”, and “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” sold millions of copies as a result of the publicity relating to the trial. I am certain that this procedure would achieve the exact opposite of what anybody might want to achieve. It would create massive publicity, with names of right hon. and hon. Members who had not signed the early-day motion appearing in newspapers up and down the land and pressure being applied, and sales would rocket.
In practical terms, how would MPs come to know about the concerns of their constituents and other people? As I say, there would be pressure from newspapers, but there would also be pressure from groups that have not even seen the item they are worried about. It is worth noting that huge concern was expressed about two programmes that were recently on television— “Diana: The Witnesses in the Tunnel” and “Undercover Mosque”—before they even had been screened. Yet once they had appeared on our screens, many people who had protested and said how disgraceful it was that Channel 4 was going to show them were much quieter. We should be confident that we have a proper and careful procedure for Ofcom, the independent regulator, to follow.
Another good example of members of the public taking up extreme positions about things that they have not seen is the film “Dogma”, starring Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, among others. That film was protested about by a large number of people from a group within the Catholic church, more than 2,500 of whom complained to the BBFC, saying that it was blasphemous and anti-Roman Catholic and demanding that it be banned. None of those complaining had actually seen the film, which was passed with a 15 certificate. When the BBFC contacted the Archbishop of Westminster’s office about it, the people there did not think it was blasphemous, were not remotely worried that it was in any way anti-Roman Catholic, and encouraged the people who had complained to go to see it. I am worried that there would be similar whipped-up campaigns based on the prejudice of people who had not seen the film concerned. I would be deeply concerned about the system of early-day motions, which has already been brought into question by the hon. Member for North Thanet, being used in such a process.
It is important that such issues are dealt with by an independent body. It is right and proper that Parliament has a say in setting the framework for that body’s work. It is right and proper that a Select Committee can scrutinise any appointments, and even that it has a veto. It is right that Parliament, through the Secretary of State, makes the appointment. Going beyond that to use the approaches suggested by the hon. Member for Canterbury would be a step too far. However, he wants to go still further.
The hon. Gentleman wants Parliament to be involved in scrutinising, and effectively vetoing, the guidelines that apply to videos, DVDs and some video games. He is proposing that that could be done in the way he describes in the Bill. However, we come back to the notion “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I am not aware of wide- scale dissatisfaction with the current arrangements. I have acknowledged that the opinion polling has produced mixed results, but in all polls the majority favour the current arrangements. As we have heard already, those arrangements were put into place in 2005, based on a 2004 consultation.
The BBFC is already planning and undertaking the consultation that will inform the 2009 guidelines. I have no doubt that in the period between the 2004 work and now, there will have been some changes in public opinion, and I have no doubt whatsoever that those will be reflected in the results. It will be for the BBFC to ensure that it reflects changes in public opinion—there may be increased concerns of the sort set out by the hon. Gentleman and others. The BBFC will be able to reflect those concerns in the revised guidelines.
Let us be clear: the 2004 consultation included a real survey conducted by an outside body, which showed that just over half those polled thought the arrangements were about right. Of those who thought that they needed changing, 41 per cent. wanted a tightening, and only 4 per cent. wanted a loosening. A rather phoney web consultation was undertaken, which produced figures almost the other way round. The BBFC admitted in its literature that it encouraged people from the film industry to contact it about that. On the strength of that consultation exercise, the guidelines were significantly loosened—for example, all references to knives were removed.
The hon. Gentleman and I can trade statistics all day long and it will not take us any further forward from the comment I made earlier, which I stick by, and which his figures do not disprove: the majority of people were happy with the current arrangements with regard to sex, violence, language and drugs. I am not denying that a significant minority expressed a different view—the figures are very clear. He read out the figure for violence, but only 30 per cent. of those consulted thought that the guidelines were not strict enough on sex; on language use the figure was 43 per cent.; and on the portrayal of drugs 43 per cent. However, 58 per cent. feel that the guidelines on sex are about right, on violence the figure was 53 per cent., on language 51 per cent., and on drugs 52 per cent. That shows a majority in favour of no change, but I have always acknowledged that this is a difficult issue on which there are mixed views, and that a significant minority is opposed.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. My key point, though, is that on the strength of that survey, the BBFC chose to loosen the arrangements. Only 4 per cent. of those consulted wanted a loosening of standards on violence, but the BBFC chose, very significantly, to loosen its guidelines on violence, particularly for 12 and 15-rated videos.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but the one thing on which I hope we can agree is that work is now under way on a major survey to ascertain the public’s view and whether there has been a change in public opinion. I do not know what the results will be and nor, I suggest, does the hon. Gentleman. However, we both have the opportunity—it is not too late—to influence how the BBFC obtains the information. If he feels strongly that it conducted the last survey incorrectly, I would urge him to contact the BBFC and share his concerns about the methodology used, to ensure that that does not happen again. That way, we will all be in possession of information that none of us currently knows.
As I said earlier, although the BBFC is portrayed as being far too timid, it is worth reflecting on the fact that 10 per cent. of its decisions have been to give certificates of a higher categorisation than were requested by the film makers. There are many such examples, including “I Am Legend”, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and “Cloverfield”, which were given a 15 rating instead of a 12A rating, “The Proposition” and “This Is England”, both of which were given an 18 rating instead of a 15 rating, and “Sweeney Todd”, whose classification the Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee was, as we heard, desperate to have reduced on behalf of his children. There are also a number of cases where films and videos were rejected altogether. The BBFC is therefore not a soft-touch organisation; it is one that that commands the support—albeit by only a small margin—of a majority of the British people and one whose decisions are tougher than it is often given credit for.
I therefore have concerns about Parliament getting involved in the nitty-gritty of the guidelines. For reasons that I have already given, I think that that would be a step too far. Parliament would have the opportunity of throwing out the head of the organisation responsible for the BBFC if Parliament—or, specifically, the relevant Select Committee—believed that it had come up with an inappropriate set of guidelines.
Finally, let me deal with one issue in the Bill that has not been touched on at all, other than briefly in an intervention. The current maximum fine that can be levied on retailers selling DVDs, videos or video games is £5,000. The Bill proposes to increase that to £20,000. However, the average fines in recent years have been considerably below the £5,000 maximum. Indeed, the average fines in the past 10 years have been: £519, £440, £798, £1,028, £1,378, £1,079, £921, £775, £489 and £1,244 in 2006, the last year for which we have figures. If we are thinking of increasing the fine, there must be a significant change of attitude among those deciding on the level of the fine. I would not object to that. Where there have been breaches, those concerned need to be penalised severely to ensure that people know how seriously we take the issue.
The real issue is not the size of the fine, however; it is that not many people are being fined at all. The concern among my constituents and every other hon. Member’s constituents is about the ease with which children can get hold of such material—videos, DVDs and certain computer games—in many shops. We have heard examples of the ease of accessing such material. I said in an intervention that I knew how many prosecutions there had been in recent years. I said that the average over the past 10 years was 14. However, it is instructive to note that the last time we reached even 14 prosecutions was in 2003. There were only six prosecutions in 2004, and only eight in 2005 and 2006.
We can talk as much as we like about increasing the penalties, the level of fine and the length of imprisonment, as the Bill does, but frankly there is no point in worrying about those issues unless we first ensure real enforcement of existing legislation. If that means making the labelling clearer and dealing with the two different types of labelling for some video games, then so be it; it is a task that we should undertake. I know that the Select Committee, under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford, is looking into that issue. We hope for an urgent response.
Labelling is important, but so is the education of members of staff working in the stores, as is educating parents about what the labels mean. With proper enforcement, we can hope that the figures will stay low because everyone will be abiding by the law rather than getting away with it, as I am convinced is currently the case.
Let me end with brief comments on another issue. As others have said, although the Bill is important and addresses issues that are of concern to many people, in some senses it misses the key point. The biggest concern should really be about the internet, particularly the ability of children to access all sorts of inappropriate material on it. That is why, as I said briefly before, I greatly welcome the Government’s appointment of Dr. Byron to look into that issue. I have kept track of her work—for example, her extensive survey work and her engagement with many experts in the field. I believe that the result of her work will influence further movements in Parliament to deal with these issues.
For the many reasons I have provided, I do not believe that the time is right to press ahead with the Bill as drafted. It would not be right to go ahead right now when we are about to receive the results of some very important research. I congratulate the hon. Member for Canterbury on initiating our debate on these important issues. As I have explained, apart from one small area of agreement, I sadly disagree with the majority of the Bill, so I cannot support it.
One characteristic of our debate earlier was that hon. Members declared their interest in respect of the number of children they had. My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark), for example, pointed out that he had five children. In that vein, may I point out that I have one child aged 17 months, but that, more importantly, I have another child due this very leap day. It is thus a measure of my commitment to hearing the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) that I am in my place in the House rather than in the maternity ward. Perhaps I should say that my wife is not yet in the maternity ward either! Clearly, my soon-to-be-born daughter has already taken on board the precedence of Parliament over all other issues.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury on introducing the Bill and on giving the House the opportunity to debate some extremely important issues. Indeed, by the time our debate concludes, some five hours after it began, we may well have discussed the matter for longer than is often the case on Second Reading of many public Bills.
Before commenting on some of the important matters raised in the debate, I would like to put some other points in context. Because the Bill focuses on the working of the British Board of Film Classification and much wider concerns about the increasingly violent and sexual content of video games and films, we may have lost sight of some the merits of the current system.
I want to put it on the record that, by and large, I believe that the BBFC does an extremely good job. It is one of those rare bodies that costs the taxpayer absolutely nothing and it rarely takes up much parliamentary time. Having visited the BBFC, I know that it is staffed by very dedicated men and women who take their job extremely seriously. It is important for the House to recognise that the organisation largely does a very good job. That is not to dismiss the valid points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury, nor to say that no changes could be made to make it even more effective.
As we have focused on the rather seamier side of the film and video games industries, it is important again to put on record the astonishing success of those industries, none of which is due to the Minister. I want to ensure that that is absolutely clear; we do not want to give the Government any credit for it at all.
We have an extremely successful film industry in this country, and the recent Oscars and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts ceremony showed what kind of awards it can garner. The video games industry is often the Cinderella and is rarely debated in the House, if at all, but it is now worth an astonishing £8 billion a year. It is a successful industry, alongside those in France, Canada and the United States. That has to be put in context.
Nevertheless, the regulation of films and video remains an incredibly important and sensitive function. As has been clear from today’s debate, we have to strike a balance between protecting people, and children in particular, from viewing harmful and offensive content, and allowing freedom of artistic expression. As has also become clear during the debate, that has never been under greater strain than it is today because of huge technological advances and people’s ability to watch unsuitable material on all sorts of different platforms. One sometimes feels a bit like King Canute, trying to stop the tide of this material as it seeps into more and more different outlets in our homes.
In September, the Government, as has been mentioned many times today, commissioned the Byron review to consider how children might be protected from inappropriate content. No doubt, Tanya Byron, a celebrity psychologist—thus, the Prime Minister’s self-imposed ordinance on dealing with celebrities is being breached—will produce an important report, which is due in March.
The House should also know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the Leader of the Opposition, has made a strong stand on matters of this kind. In a speech last year, which I think my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury referred to, my right hon. Friend said:
“Companies which make music videos, films and computer games have a social responsibility not to promote casual violence, the gang culture and the degradation of women.”
Last year, the Conservative party made an unequivocal commitment to
“review the regulatory framework relating to films and video games to ensure that violence and misogyny are not directly promoted to young people. This should include the role of the British Board of Film Classification”.
So, we do not yet know the Government’s position, and we certainly do not know the Prime Minister’s position, but we do know that the Conservative party is committed to reviewing the role of the BBFC.
Turning to the specific proposals in the Bill, our film classification system works on two levels: it protects consumers by removing the most extreme films and games from circulation, so a film can be banned outright, and it classifies content according to age groups for which it is suitable. The BBFC carries out both functions.
The organisation was established as long ago as 1912, and as I mentioned it has been financed ever since at no cost to the taxpayer. It is separate from the Government and from Parliament. However, Parliament has given it the function of classifying video games and videos through the Video Recordings Act 1984, which, as far as I can work out, is the only role it has in that respect.
I think that there was perhaps some confusion when the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) made his comments. Parliament has not given itself the power to appoint members of the BBFC, but simply has the power to designate that body as the body responsible—
That is not my understanding, but the hon. Gentleman and I will turn to a much wiser person—the Minister, who will no doubt correct either of us, or indeed both of us, as she has done so many times in the past.
Part 1 of the Bill would make the Select Committee on Home Affairs responsible for making appointments to senior roles at the BBFC. We have debated whether the Home Affairs Committee or the Culture, Media and Sport Committee is better at scrutinising that kind of appointment. I do not know whether the House should read anything into the fact that the Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), has attended almost all of this debate, whereas the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), has departed, but I leave that to one side.
That is a point extremely well made by my hon. Friend, who perhaps should take over from both Chairmen the role of scrutinising appointments at the BBFC, such is his fairness and objectivity. I was seeking to tease the right hon. Member for Leicester, East.
Currently, the BBFC is overseen by a council of management that makes appointments. It is made up of representatives from parts of the film industry with no financial interest in classification decisions and includes a film lawyer, a broadcast engineer and an expert in film industry training, none of whom stands to gain from any policy decision by the BBFC. Indeed, none has any role in film policy development.
I have some concerns about the Select Committee chosen by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury, given that jurisdiction over implementation of the 1984 Act and over the BBFC rests with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Moreover, I have no reason to believe that the current appointment process is flawed in any way. There is no evidence that decisions are made with the film industry’s interest in mind. As my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford pointed out, the proposal to extend the jurisdiction of the Select Committee not only to the chief executive but to other senior appointments does not chime with the review being undertaken by the Cabinet Office, in the interest of the whole House, into allowing Select Committees to scrutinise only the appointments of chief executives of bodies.
Turning to part 2—
On that point, and bearing in mind the comments made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), is the hon. Gentleman entirely comfortable with the representational nature of the body that he described? Does he feel that it accurately reflects this country in all its aspects and can speak with authority for the nation?
I could not answer that question completely honestly by saying that I am entirely comfortable with it, because I do not necessarily know enough about it. Perhaps a more accurate question might be whether a Select Committee’s scrutiny of a range of appointments to the BBFC is likely to increase that representation. As far as I am aware, appointments to both the management committee and the executive of the BBFC, as well as to the video appeals committee, are undertaken according to Nolan principles, so those appointments are as transparent and objective as most public appointments. In that respect, I have no reason not to be satisfied with them. Although I regularly take on the Department for Culture, Media and Sport about some of the cronies that it appoints to other bodies, it does not appear in this case to be involved in such appointments.
I come to the issue of appeals. We have had a long debate about whether an early-day motion procedure is appropriate. As I have made clear in interventions, there are two systems in place at the BBFC, one for films and one for video games. The BBFC has an advisory role as far as films are concerned. It can only advise local authorities on classification; it is up to the local authority, because it has licensed the cinema, whether a film should be screened. As I mentioned, it is a delightful fact that the city of Glasgow remains implacably opposed to the screening of “Life of Brian”, although one can presumably go into any video or DVD store in Glasgow and rent it.
As I said in an intervention during the excellent speech of the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound), it is interesting that local authorities—the democratic guardians of the nation’s morals in this instance—have more often downgraded the classification than upgraded it. In fact, there is no recent example of them upgrading a classification. “This is England” was downgraded to a 15 rating, and “Spider-Man”, “Sweet Sixteen” and “Billy Elliot” were all given lower ratings.
The hon. Gentleman reminds me that it is all to do with Johnny Depp, a film star who is adored by my wife; I say that as we have been on the subject of the family for so much of this debate.
As local authorities do not have jurisdiction over video games, an appeals process—the video appeals committee—is in place. I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury that we support a review of how the committee works, because there is a feeling that the committee exists for the benefit of the video games industry. If the BBFC gives a video game a high rating, the video games industry, acting perfectly within its rights, can come along with an expensive QC and try to get the rating lowered. That is exactly what happened with “Manhunt 2”; the BBFC is now seeking a judicial review to try to reverse the VAC’s decision. It seems that there is very little scope for members of the public to use that appeals mechanism to upgrade a video game’s rating, or even to ban it.
My hon. Friend is making a typically thoughtful contribution. It is not that there is very little scope for the public to use the appeal mechanism; there is absolutely none whatever. Earlier, I mentioned a terrible case in Leicester. The parents of the murdered boy have been campaigning about the first “Manhunt” game ever since the tragedy, but even though the trial judge said that there was a link between the murder and the video game, there is absolutely nothing that can be done about it, without a BBFC sanction.
That is an important point, but it also raises significant questions. As I say to my hon. Friend, we in the Conservative party want to consider ways in which the video appeals committee can provide a mechanism through which the public can appeal, but it is worth considering the difficult issue of how effective post-release appeals can be. I leave aside the issue of whether the early-day motion mechanism would be appropriate. I have to say that during the debate, it became more and more apparent that the idea of an appeal being triggered if enough MPs signed an early-day motion was a recipe for chaos and disaster, but that could well be discussed in Committee, if the Bill proceeds.
The problem with post-release appeal is that one could inadvertently fuel the sales of the game that one is seeking to restrict. I have no idea what the current position is with regard to “Manhunt 2”; I do not know whether it has been withdrawn from sale pending judicial review, but I very much doubt that it has. I suspect that the more that newspapers screamed, “Ban this video game”, with MPs queuing up to sign the early-day motion, the more likely it would be that some of our voters would go to the shops to buy it before it was banned, perhaps to see what all the fuss was about. That is a real problem that I urge the House to consider.
My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury seeks to provide, through his Bill, for parliamentary scrutiny of the BBFC guidelines. The BBFC puts together the guidelines with care and scrutiny. They are not the kind of guidelines that are simply written on the back of a fag packet. As has been discussed, every four years specialist research groups are commissioned, and 11,000 members of the public are consulted, although I heard my hon. Friend’s concerns about the web-based survey and the perhaps more objective research-based survey.
I am particularly impressed that the hon. Gentleman is present on a day when there is to be such an important family production, which I hope is successful. Surely his point is that the criteria change every four years, following a series of inputs. Why will he not allow the House, or a Committee of the House, to be one of the agents of input?
I am coming to that. One of the things that I really like about the hon. Gentleman—he mentioned our friendship—is how he rightly, in some respects, ascribes an enormous amount of power to me. I loved his asking whether, “I would give Parliament the power.” Believe me, I will consider it. [Interruption.]
The next review of the guidelines will take place in 2009. Guidelines change in terms of our cultural context. It is interesting to read the BBFC’s current guidelines, which contain a caveat about scenes that might “glamorise smoking”. Smoking is another thing that the hon. Gentleman and I used to have in common. Can one imagine a British Board of Film Classification in the 1920s, 1930s or even the 1960s having a caveat against glamorising smoking? Anyone who watches a pre-1960s film will see virtually every member of the cast with a cigarette in hand. Thus, the guidelines constantly shift.
As I exercise the power invested in me by the hon. Gentleman, I must tell the House that I have an enormous amount of sympathy with the view that Parliament should have some kind of say. However, I again caution against giving it a formal power to approve or disapprove the guidelines. It would not be beyond the power of this House for the Culture, Media and Sport Committee—I see my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford in his place—to conduct its own inquiry into the guidelines every four years as part of the consultation process on them. It would be perfectly within my hon. Friend’s power to constitute his Committee at the beginning of 2009 in order to examine draft guidelines from the BBFC and present a report.
One of the most interesting and perhaps ironic facets of this debate was the fact that the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), a Labour party member, constantly cautioned the House about increasing the scope of its powers and my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury, a member of the Conservative party, sought to extend this House’s jurisdiction into an area where previously it has not deemed it necessary.
The hon. Member for Bath touched on the penalties that my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury seeks to increase through his Bill. I am in sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks, in the sense that I have not seen any evidence that tougher penalties would act as a deterrent. I agree with him that enforcing the existing law might be the way forward.
The link involving the increasing violence and sexual content in video games and films is at the heart of what we are debating. There is no doubt that there is an enormous amount of concern about this in the country as a whole; it is a feeling that perhaps standards are slipping and almost that anything goes. It is important for this House to take a step back and to reflect coolly on matters of this nature. Interestingly, my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury said that the UK sits somewhere between Australia and America in terms of a free-for-all. He sought to make the point that there may be a correlation between Australia’s tighter regulation and its having a lower crime rate than the UK, although he was careful to say that that was obviously not the only reason.
I would make a counter point. One of my constituents, Mr. Ian Wright of Didcot, who is watching this debate on TV there, sent me a note. He wished to make the point that when he had taken DVDs and videos that he had bought legitimately in other European countries to a charity shop in Didcot, he had been told that it did not want to put them on display because although he had bought them in Europe, it was not thought that they were appropriate for Britain. I hope that I have not mangled that and got him into trouble—I am not saying that they were illegal or obscene. They were perfectly normal videos, but the ratings shown were lower than they would be in the UK. In a lot of European jurisdictions, a film that we would rate as an 18 is rated as a 15, and one that we would rate as a 15 is rated as a 12. Interestingly, those European countries seem to have a lower crime rate than we do, but a more liberal approach to classification.
I caution hon. Members that if we open the can of worms of the classification of films, we might find that the Government trot down to the Chamber and announce that they are handing the whole thing over to Europe. The Opposition are the only party in the House to stand proud and firm against further European integration, and we do not want inadvertently to give the Euro-federalists who populate the Government the opportunity to pass over this important aspect of our lives, which remains firmly under the control of the United Kingdom’s citizens—[Interruption.] It does—not even Parliament controls it. We do not want it to be passed over to the Eurocrats and Euro-federalists who populate the Government Benches and the offices in Brussels.
I congratulate all the right hon. and hon. Members who have participated in the debate. It has been of a high standard, as I am sure the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), whose Bill we are considering, would accept. The issues involved have been addressed seriously in well-considered and well-articulated contributions from both sides of the House. Interestingly, the debate has not been party political; there are varying views among colleagues who agree strongly on other issues. Such debates help to raise the status and credibility of the House, and I want us to engage in them more.
I wish the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) and his wife all the best. I hope that he does not have to hang around too long before he is the parent of a second child. His role as parent will probably be far more important to ensuring that his children and their friends grow up not seeing violence as an integral part of their lives than any regulation that we choose to pass or any debate in Parliament. If he has to choose between tackling the problem in the two places in which he spends his time, his role as parent will be paramount.
I say to the hon. Member for Canterbury that there is not a Member in the House who does not share the concerns that he has highlighted about violence in our society, particularly against women. I took some exception to the contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), which seemed to suggest that he had a monopoly on concern about that. It is of concern to all of us, and the only matter for debate is what action we can take, in the House or through the regulatory bodies that we establish, to ensure that we provide an environment in which children will grow up well.
The hon. Member for Canterbury kindly agreed to come and see me before today’s debate so that I would have some idea of the issues that he had in mind. He said to me during that conversation—I hope that he will not object to my raising it this afternoon—that he was concerned not only about children, but about the impact that videos and films that were classified would have on adult behaviour. We have been debating the subject for more than four and a half hours, and it appears that that concern is not shared across the House. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East, who is not with us now, was focusing on children. The hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), if I read him right, was primarily concerned with the impact of videos and films on children.
Let me set the record absolutely straight. I think that we all accept that children are much more impressionable than adults, because they are at an impressionable age. I said carefully that the empirical evidence, in so far as there is any, suggests that the impressionable of any age are affected—some adults are fairly impressionable and could be just as easily affected as younger people.
I hope to come on to that later.
As the hon. Member for Canterbury knows, the Ministry of Justice has collected evidence from research that it has done. It might be appropriate for me to talk about it now, because it is about pornographic material and the link that that can have to behaviour. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman said this, so it might be worth putting it on the record: the piece of research done by the Ministry of Justice considered only extreme material. When it defined that material, it was talking about material that would never have gained classification under the current BBFC system—not even as an R18. As all hon. Members know, R18 material is available for sale only in licensed sex shops and is therefore subject to severe restriction.
The research applies to material that would in no circumstances whatsoever have obtained any of those classifications. It is only when that extreme material was examined—material that is censored, to use the term of my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore)—that the contention is supported that extreme pornographic material can have a harmful effect on those who access it. There is some element of consensus in the House, but we must be careful about the evidence when that element of consensus exists.
Is not my right hon. Friend’s point about that dark abyss beyond R18 one of the principal motivators of the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier)? None of us is prudish. I do not think that any of us objects to consenting adults appearing in films, and if consenting adults want to buy them, so be it. We are really concerned by the denigration of the performers and the observers and the constant moving of the boundaries further and further away beyond the R18 rating and beyond even unimaginable horrors. Is that not what we should—to use a dreadful, trite, hackneyed parliamentary phrase—be putting down a marker for?
My point was that the marker is there already. Those films that could cause the deepest offence and could impact on the behaviour of adults are not classified.
I agree with what a lot of hon. Members have said. First, judgment is terribly personal on such matters. The BBFC will not always get it right, but it is doing an incredibly good job in a difficult area. Judgment is personal and judgment will change. Let me give my personal judgment. In preparing for today’s debate, I, like the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), asked for a copy of “SS Experiment Camp”. Last Saturday night my husband and I watched two films. The first was “This is England”, which I had not managed to see before, and which had received BAFTA and Oscar nominations; the other was “SS Experiment Camp”. Some of the scenes in “This is England” were utterly outrageous and horrible and could very well have had an impact on the behaviour of young people. The film was set in the ’80s, but it could have been in 2008. One scene showed the crazy and unnecessary vandalism of a building. It was horrific to watch such pointless vandalism; if one wants to link action in a movie and action in real life, the scene could have done so.
The film included—Members must excuse me if this is unparliamentary language—a scene of the most horrific Paki-bashing by a young group of National Front members. They knocked the living daylights out of a young Pakistani boy. Such a scene could resonate with some of the most violent racist abuse nowadays, which I certainly see in my constituency, and it was utterly horrible, yet “This is England” is a powerful film that succeeded in gaining BAFTA and Oscar nominations.
No, I think the film was completely properly classified. It would have been outrageous if anybody had suggested censoring it, but it contained violent scenes, portraying a reality in Britain in the 1980s that could be mirrored in the reality of Britain in the first decade of the 21st century. We need to experience the film. Violence is sometimes portrayed in films—I shall discuss interactive games in a moment—that reach the top of various competitions.
I started to watch “SS Experiment Camp”, but I could not manage the whole lot because it was so poor. It would not convince a soul. There was gratuitous ugliness and hideousness, but I thought that there were no connotations of a Nazi concentration camp. I say that as someone who lost family in the camps. People in Nazi concentration camps were not dolled up to the nines, wearing make-up. At one point, the inmates were drinking wine and eating the sort of food that would never have been seen in the camps. It was a pathetic, out-of-date pornographic portrayal. The film had no impact on me whatever.
Of course, judgment is personal. I have enormous respect for the hon. Member for Canterbury for promoting the Bill, but the film he selected as a basis for the measure would not encourage violence in any way because it is such a poor film—it is just bad.
I may be able to reassure the Minister. I had never heard of the film when my Bill received its First Reading; it was one of the large number of films and games sent to me as examples.
May I take the Minister back to the study conducted by the Secretary of State for Justice and published in December? She dismissed it as being composed only of such extreme material that it would be banned in the UK. She cannot really claim that, because the document was based on 124 studies from all over the world. The material was indeed extreme, but as the bounds are pushed steadily back some of it is coming into the British orbit.
I hope to come to the evidence on content in a research-based desk study undertaken in 2006, which encompassed studies from throughout the world, not just in the UK. Context matters a lot because it has an impact on whether a piece of work could be said to influence behaviour in a particular society.
As one who has led a fairly sheltered life, despite appearances to the contrary, I too have had a look at some material in connection with this matter. Surely the point about “SS Extermination Camp” is not that it is a bad film but that it is a film about the gratuitous torture of human beings, and whereas today there is a bad film about torture on the market, tomorrow there could be a better film about torture. That is what concerns me. The minute that we have the public availability of a film that relies on that form of viciousness, the question of whether it is bad, good, aesthetic, well lit or well acted, is irrelevant. It is out there and another one could then follow it.
I disagree with my hon. Friend, who made a fantastically good contribution to today’s debate. A good film that portrays torture well, as “This is England” did, has a far greater impact on our views and possibly on our behaviour than a bad film that portrays torture in a poor way.
Several hon. Members spoke about the internet, which is the big challenge. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Canterbury covered only videos and films. The internet is of greatest concern because of the difficulty in controlling the source of information and therefore in being able to ensure that we censor where we have to censor while being able to classify. It was largely arising from that convergence over all the platforms that the Government, in responding to the legitimate concerns that the hon. Gentleman raised, asked Tanya Byron to examine the area to see whether we should have further regulation or changes in regulations to protect our children from material accessed by them, either through video games, the cinema, DVDs, or, most importantly, the net. As has been said, she is due to report in March. She has undertaken her work in a serious, comprehensive, sensitive and good way, she has talked to everybody and she has been assiduously independent of anybody. I have no doubt that we will debate her findings when they are published, and if she suggests that further action is needed in this new converged world, we will respond to that.
When I was Minister with responsibility for children we started to look at the emerging problems of the net, particularly in relation to child pornography and pornographic images, and interestingly, what came out of that work was an understanding, which Tanya Byron may or may not reflect, that if we wish to protect our children from accessing inappropriate material, action must be taken on what is classified, which is action by the content producers. Action also needs to be taken by internet service providers. We touched on that issue in the strategy document on the creative industries that we produced last week.
Action should also be taken in relation to parents, because they have a key responsibility for protecting their children from accessing inappropriate material. Work can also be done to educate the children themselves, and their peer groups, so that they can begin to understand the harm that they could experience by viewing the material. So this is not just about our taking action here by passing a bit of a law, even if it is the hon. Gentleman’s Bill. That would not be effective on its own. We need to get all the stakeholders working together. That is the way forward.
Of course the Minister’s last remark is exactly right. The Bill seeks only to look at one area. However, the point must surely be that, in getting all those groups to collaborate, we will all need to agree on where we set the boundaries. Part of the problem is that anything that can go out to adults can now reach children relatively quickly. Indeed, one of the two Bulger murderers was a 10-year-old who, according to the testimony of the trial judge, was heavily influenced by at least one of the violent videos that his father had been watching.
Several Members, including the hon. Gentleman and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East, have raised that issue. However, it is important to put on record what I understand to be the facts. If the hon. Gentleman does not believe what I am saying to be right, I shall be willing to reconsider. All I can give him are the facts that I have been given.
Let us consider the Stefan Pakeerah murder. That was an horrific, terrible crime, involving a horrible way to die. Stefan was subjected to a hammer and knife attack by a 17-year-old, who has since been given a life sentence. Stefan’s mother and father suggested that the actions of Warren Leblanc—the man who was found guilty of murdering their son—had been influenced by his alleged obsession with the video game “Manhunt”. They may have made that statement, but the rationale for the statement is less clear. The game was discovered not in Warren Leblanc’s possession but in the victim’s possession. It does not feature the use of a hammer, and it was not considered by the police to be a contributory factor. No such connection was ever suggested in court. Indeed, the prosecution and defence barristers insisted in court that the video game had played no part in the killing. It was reported that Leblanc was motivated by fear of a gang to which he owed money.
That is the information that I have been given. If the hon. Gentleman can provide me with other information, I would honestly be willing to look at it. However, we need to be extremely careful before we make assertions in the House about a connection between a particularly horrific murder and the playing of a game. I accept that it is a violent game, but it is none the less a game with a classification. We have a responsibility to ensure that we carry through our legislation based on evidence, and we need to be accurate about that evidence.
That is absolutely right, and I was going to come to that. My understanding is that “Child’s Play 3” had been in the house, but there was never a suggestion that either of the two boys who killed Jamie Bulger had seen it. Anyway, that particular film was rated 18, so it should not have been rented or sold to the boys, given the issues that have been discussed.