House of Commons
Wednesday 6 January 2010
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Business before questions
London Local Authorities Bill [Lords] (By Order)
Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Bill to be read a Second time on Wednesday 13 January.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
We remain committed to supporting the aluminium industry in Wales, as we demonstrated with our strenuous efforts to save jobs at Anglesey Aluminium over the summer.
To be fair to the Government, I guess that they did as much as they could to try to ensure the survival of Anglesey Aluminium, but is not the fundamental problem the operation of the European Union emissions trading system, which is making it increasingly difficult for primary metallurgical industries to operate in the EU? It would be all well and good if it resulted in the reduction of global CO2, but it merely results in carbon leakage to other economies such as China and India, which are not constrained in the same way.
The hon. Gentleman is perfectly correct about the Labour Government’s efforts with regard to Anglesey Aluminium. We made strenuous and laborious efforts over the summer to try to save those jobs as far as we possibly could, but unfortunately, for commercial reasons, the company was not able to accept the offer that was made to it. I must say that we remain committed to the aluminium industry generally in Wales and, of course, in the whole of the United Kingdom, but it is important to recognise that we operate within a European Union framework. Naturally, we are concerned about the environment and carbon emissions, and we are doing everything possible to work with our European partners to ensure that those emissions are kept to an absolute minimum. It is important to recognise also that European Union directives have an important role to play in sustaining this country’s economy.
A happy new year to you, Mr. Speaker, and to all Members.
The decision by Rio Tinto Alcan to cease production at Anglesey Aluminium has left a massive hole in the regional economy of north-west Wales, but I put on the record my thanks to the Wales Office and, indeed, to the Government for their efforts with their generous offer and intervention to keep production going. Unfortunately, the company’s internal matters took precedence.
Looking forward to the future use of the land on the Anglesey Aluminium site and the concept of green energy, does the Minister agree that we need to move forward to ensure that those jobs are kept on Anglesey? Will he meet the First Minister to ensure that priority is given to Anglesey?
I also wish my hon. Friend a happy new year. I am sure that it will be a happy new year for Labour, too. The prospects for the island of Anglesey are rosy. For example, I welcome the decision by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to consider Wylfa as a potential site for new nuclear build, and obviously we are looking at various options to ensure that the available land on the Anglesey Aluminium site is used in the most productive way possible. I am aware that a very positive meeting occurred between representatives of a certain company, my hon. Friend and the Secretary of State for Wales, and I am sure that those deliberations will continue. I shall use my good offices to hold discussions with the First Minister as well.
In 2007, when Lord Mandelson was European Trade Commissioner, he promoted a scheme for halving duty on the imports of aluminium to the EU. That was to the significant benefit of the Russian aluminium industry. To what extent does the Minister consider that that decision contributed to the demise of Anglesey Aluminium?
I do not believe that it was a factor in any way at all, because the aluminium industry throughout the world has faced difficulties. We are of the view that working closely with our European partners is entirely positive, and that is recognised by Rio Tinto, for example, which is an international player. Of course, discussions take place with the European Union, but it is important to recognise that we live in an international community, and the European Union is a big and positive player.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his response, particularly as it confirms my own view. Does he agree that the car scrappage scheme has been of greater value to the British and, indeed, Welsh economies than would have been the Opposition’s proposals to cut inheritance tax for their wealthy supporters?
I could not have put it better myself; my hon. Friend has got it in one. Rather than wasting public sector money on the richest people in Britain, very few of them in Wales, with inheritance tax giveaways, our putting money into the car scrappage scheme has increased production by a fifth at Ford Bridgend and resulted in a fifth of all new car registrations throughout the UK. That is active government—government supporting people, not favouring a tiny, rich few.
Wind Farms (Montgomeryshire)
We firmly believe in the long-term benefits of wind energy. Any assessment of traffic and the environment would, of course, be a matter for the relevant planning authority.
Many in Welshpool, Cefn Coch and across Montgomeryshire are very worried about the thousands of slow-moving lorry loads required to build potentially 700-plus turbines, which will cause traffic gridlock. They are also concerned about the environmental impact of the turbines themselves. Will the Minister meet me to hear in more detail the concerns about the traffic flows and about the environmental impact of turbines, if they are built?
Of course wind energy is the most commercially viable renewable technology available, so it is important to go along and enhance its development whenever possible. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says and I was in Welshpool last year myself and saw the area that he talked about. We will continue to monitor the situation while recognising that responsibility lies with the Welsh Assembly Government, but I would be happy to have further discussions with the hon. Gentleman and other colleagues on this matter in future.
Because of the actions my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Government have taken to preserve jobs and get people back to work, the level of economic inactivity in Wales fell by 3,000 from the last quarter. We will not let short-term job losses turn into long-term unemployment. We will not allow Welsh communities to be scarred by worklessness again.
I am grateful for that answer. The Secretary of State recently said in the Welsh Grand Committee that unemployment in Wales may well keep rising for some time during 2010. Has he made any estimate of the level at which he thinks unemployment may peak during this recession?
What has been interesting is that all the commentators are now saying that unemployment will peak at a far lower level than has been said by the Opposition and was previously feared. We have now seen economic activity rates in Wales down 3,000; jobseeker’s allowance and claimant count figures down 500; vacancies up 2,000; and unemployment still up 93,000 in Wales on what we inherited from the miserable Conservative Government last time.
My local authority of Cynon, Rhondda and Taff is particularly pleased with the future jobs fund and the impact it is having on employment in the Cynon valley. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the Government will continue to protect those who are out of work—unlike the Conservative party in the 1980s, which threw people on the scrapheap?
Well, they would be because they represent Welsh seats that were devastated by Tory policies in the 1980s and 1990s when the number of people on incapacity benefit in constituencies such as that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) and mine tripled. It has been coming down under Labour. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that we have seen active Government intervention, spending and investing over the past two years—continuing into the future—rather than a Government who will slash spending and condemn people to losing jobs, bankrupting businesses, plunging Britain and Wales into exactly the same cycle of decline and depression from which we rescued Britain and Wales when we came to power in 1997.
In the Witney constituency of the Leader of the Opposition, 10 claimants are chasing every vacancy. In the Rhondda, 75 claimants are chasing every vacancy, while in Neath it is 35. Will the Secretary of State press his colleague in the Department for Work and Pensions to modulate the pressure on claimants to find work, reflecting local conditions such as those I mentioned? To do otherwise, I think, would be both impractical and inhumane.
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, and if he has any concrete examples, I would be happy to take them up with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. The hon. Gentleman will understand the imperative of encouraging people to stay in the world of work. If, sadly, people have been made unemployed, what we are doing, which was not done in the 1980s and 1990s, is to provide them with job opportunities, training and support so that when vacancies arise—there are more and more of them in the Welsh economy generally— they can take that opportunity locally. About half the claimants leave jobseeker’s allowance within three months and more than 70 per cent. within six months—a far better record than in the miserable Tory 1980s and 1990s.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the growth in the manufacturing industry that was noted in the purchasing managers index survey published on Monday will be good news for Wales, bearing in mind our above-average dependency on manufacturing industry? Does he not think that that will help to bring down the level of economic inactivity?
I do indeed. No one is suggesting that this recession has been anything other than extremely difficult for businesses and for those whose jobs have been under threat, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right: the latest PMI index report shows that private sector growth in Wales increased in November for the seventh successive month. Manufacturing is up, and employment rose for the first time in two years. Wales was the only UK region to record job creation during November, and the latest figures show that the growth in exports from Wales since 1999 was greater than in all the rest of the UK put together. That is a good record under Labour.
Perhaps the Secretary of State will take off his rose-tinted glasses. Under Labour, more than 100,000 more people are economically inactive in Wales than the entire population of Cardiff. In the past year, the number of long-term unemployed has more than doubled. Welsh gross value added has gone backwards compared with the rest of the UK, and Wales is the poorest part of the country. What effect does the Secretary of State think that that is having on the social fabric of Wales?
The difference between this, the deepest recession that Britain has faced in generations, and the much lighter recessions that the Tory Governments completely failed to deal with in the 1980s and 1990s in Wales is that people are now being helped out of difficulty and the economy is starting to recover. It is recovering much more quickly than people expected, and much more quickly than the doom merchants on the Conservative Benches who have been talking Wales down have been saying it would. That is because we have adopted active government policies to invest in jobs and support businesses, rather than turning our backs on businesses as was done in the Tory 1980s and 1990s.
I do not live in the 1980s; I live now. Given the importance of employment in agriculture, is the Secretary of State concerned that under Labour, gross value added per capita for Welsh agriculture has fallen by more than 68 per cent., or more than two thirds? This shocking decline is worse than in any other part of the United Kingdom. Is it not a fact that the legacy of Labour in Wales will be more unemployment, more poverty, more debt and a devastated rural economy?
The problem is that hundreds of thousands of people in Wales had to live in the 1980s and 1990s under a Tory Government. That is why we are determined to prevent the Tories from inflicting such misery on them again. The hon. Lady does not acknowledge that there are now 93,000 more jobs in Wales than when we followed the Tories into power, despite this being the most difficult recession for 60 years. That is a record of Labour success against Tory failure.
Funding and Finance for Wales
The Holtham report made it clear that, although funding is currently at a fair level, spending allotted to Wales could decline in relation to that of England. That is why I have fought hard for an historic new commitment from the Treasury on funding, to prevent the people of Wales from being disadvantaged in the future.
I fully recognise the autonomy of the Welsh Assembly Government in determining specific spending priorities. What can the Secretary of State tell me, following his discussions with Welsh Assembly Ministers, that will reassure my constituents about the overall level of funding available for public services in Wales?
I remind my hon. Friend, the House and the people of Wales that the Welsh budget has more than doubled under Labour, going up from about £7 billion to nearly £16 billion next year. Again, that is a fantastic record compared with the Tory years. Spending on health services in Wales has more than doubled, for example, and there are now more nurses, more doctors and more health workers. That is a record of Labour’s success that should reassure my hon. Friend, but we must protect Wales’s budget in the future.
Now that there is irrefutable evidence of the unfairness of the Barnett formula, the time is surely right for a new formula to be devised on the basis of need. The Secretary of State said that he had an understanding with the Treasury, but Ministers have always been able to argue for more money for their Departments. What we really need is a fair structure. Can we not work together to achieve that?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his modesty. Before Christmas, he told a media outlet that his favourite literary character is Superman. “Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy!”
I agree with the hon. Gentleman and I am happy to work with him, because the issue is one for Wales as a whole. To his and his colleagues’ credit, they have asked questions about the Barnett formula. The formula has worked fairly up to now, as the Holtham commission said, but we need to ensure that it works fairly in future. That is why the formula and the agreement I got with the Treasury for assessing the allocation to Wales under the comprehensive spending review have to be refined to protect Wales’s future.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that as well as moving to the fairest possible system for the allocation of finances, we must understand that the problem with formulae is always unpredictable year-on-year fluctuations? We have seen that in local government, police, health service and other formulae. Will he ensure that any new system makes sure that there is predictable income year on year, whatever the elements on which it is based?
As always, my right hon. Friend makes a very telling point. This goes to the heart of the issue, which is that the Holtham report showed that although Wales had been treated more or less fairly, under seriously large increases in public spending we could see a convergence between Wales and the English average, which would disadvantage Wales against those areas of England that are most comparable with it, particularly the north-east. That is why we needed a new approach that underpinned the Barnett formula with an assessment that ensures every time that Wales is not disadvantaged—it puts a floor, as it were, under convergence—which is what I have achieved.
The number of people killed or seriously injured in 2008 was 1,395, which is 31 per cent. lower than the average in the period 1994 to 1998. In 2008, 7,783 road accidents involving personal injury were reported in Wales. We are taking steps to reduce road traffic accidents still further. Interruption.]
The debacle last winter of clearing the roads of snow and ice is perhaps being repeated this winter, with the roads up the valleys in south Wales being closed. Is it safe for my constituents from Croydon, Central, some of whom are Welsh and want to visit relatives, to visit Wales at this time?
The Government in all parts of the United Kingdom are taking drastic action to ensure the greatest free movement of traffic possible. As far as the Welsh Assembly Government are concerned, an announcement has been made that stocks are held for motorways. They are ensuring that stocks that are available for motorways are, if necessary, being made available for local authorities to help with other roads in Wales.
The travel conditions in the snow at the moment are important and we all appreciate the difficulties. However, going back to serious measures that deal with road traffic accidents in Wales, I am sure the Minister will join me in congratulating the Welsh Assembly Government on their initiative to reduce speeds outside schools to 20 mph. That is a really important initiative that helps to save lives.
My hon. Friend is perfectly correct. The Welsh Assembly Government and police forces are working together in Wales on a number of initiatives to improve safety generally, and the one she cites is a very good example. Action is being taken outside a number of schools in Wales to ensure that there is the smallest possible chance of accidents, and it is proving to be extremely effective.
Statistics show that more than one third of all road traffic accidents in Wales in 2008, including 52 deaths and 372 serious injuries, involved young people between the ages of 16 and 25. Many of those accidents could be prevented by better training for young and newly qualified drivers. With that in mind, will the Under-Secretary meet me, other like-minded Members of Parliament and academics from Cardiff university who are involved in those issues, to see whether we can find ways to ensure that newly qualified young drivers can drive more safely, and thus reduce the tragic number of lost young lives?
The Government are making good progress on reducing fatalities and serious injuries. A 40 per cent. reduction target has been set and we are making good progress towards achieving it. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that we need to focus on young people, and the Government are doing that. I would be happy to have further discussions with him to see how that can be taken forward.
Future Jobs Fund
The £1 billion future jobs fund is already creating 4,300 jobs where they are needed most in Wales, including through the successful Merthyr Tydfil borough council bid, which alone will create more than 700 jobs in Merthyr and the nearby communities, helping many of my hon. Friend’s young constituents to find jobs.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, which is in stark contrast to the abandonment of young people in the valleys by the Tories in previous recessions. What discussions will he have about economic regeneration and training opportunities to consolidate those that are available, so that the future jobs fund becomes an opportunity for future employment?
I applaud my hon. Friend’s diligent application in supporting his constituents and his expert knowledge of the schemes. I am happy to continue to explore ways in which we can take them forward—they matter so much to Merthyr and areas such as my constituency. I agree with my hon. Friend: I do not understand how the Leader of the Opposition can want to stop the future jobs fund and prevent funding from coming in to support young people, thus condemning them to the misery and unemployment that they suffered in the 1980s and 1990s under a Tory Government. That would be repeated if the right hon. Gentleman got power.
Despite the benefits of the future jobs fund—I pay tribute to it for the jobs that have been created in my constituency—45 per cent. of those unemployed are under 25. Does the Secretary of State share the concerns of the Prince’s Trust about opportunities for young entrepreneurs to create businesses and jobs for the future?
I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. As he knows, one of the future jobs fund schemes is in Ceredigion. The Prince’s Trust does fantastic work in Wales and elsewhere, and we should support its efforts to encourage young entrepreneurs to get themselves out of the crisis. That said, because of active Labour Government investment and the policies that we have pursued, youth unemployment is a third lower than it was in the early 1990s under the Tories. [Interruption.]
We know that young people in Wales and throughout the United Kingdom have been hit particularly hard by the recession. That is why we quickly introduced measures such as the young person’s guarantee and the future jobs fund—to help them to find work as quickly as possible.
Further to the questions asked by my hon. Friends the Members for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) and for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Havard), my hon. Friend knows that when larger employers close, it has the social effect of well-paid jobs and apprenticeships being lost. What is he doing to ensure that well-paid jobs and apprenticeships are maintained in affected areas?
It is important to remember that some 54,000 young people have been helped into work in Wales through a new deal for young people and £1 billion has been set aside in the future jobs fund. Those schemes are creating real jobs for young people the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, including Wales. I find it strange that Opposition Members opposed both initiatives. We are adamant that the mistakes of the past in the 1980s and 1990s will not be repeated. We will not stand aside and allow our young people to be lost from work for a whole generation.
But is it not the truth that this Government’s approach to youth unemployment has been characterised by massive complacency and a failure to engage with the issue? When the Minister and the Secretary of State met for their friendly pint with the new First Minister last night, what practical steps did they agree on to rescue Wales’s lost generation of young people—the tens of thousands of youngsters doing nothing constructive with their lives?
The most important thing to realise is that we will not repeat the mistakes of the Tory past. That is the lesson that we have learned here at Westminster, and that the Welsh Assembly Government in Cardiff are learning as well. We are working together in a spirit of partnership to make sure that as many people as possible are put back into work as soon as possible, and our progress is there for all to see. If the Tory policies were implemented, there would be far more unemployed people in Wales than there currently are.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the excellent work he has been doing. What is happening in Rhyl is a good example of what can be achieved through proactive government at local authority level, Welsh Assembly level and here at Westminster as well. It is an excellent example of what can be achieved when we all work together and we do not stand to one side. It is worth remembering, too, that unemployment in Wales is still 30 per cent. lower than at the height of the early ’90s; we will not forget that.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the soldiers who have lost their lives in Afghanistan since we last met. They are: from 33 Engineer Regiment, explosive ordnance disposal, Sapper David Watson; from 2nd Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, Corporal Simon Hornby; from 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment, Private Robert Hayes; from the Parachute Regiment, Lance Corporal Tommy Brown; from 3rd Battalion The Rifles, Lance Corporal Christopher Roney and Rifleman Aidan Howell; and from 4th Regiment Royal Military Police, Lance Corporal Michael Pritchard. Our thoughts are with their families and friends, who can be rightly proud of the courage, dedication, bravery and sacrifice shown by these men. That sacrifice will never be forgotten. We have been reminded once again since the House last met that there are those who seek to harm us through terrorist incidents. We must remain vigilant and ever grateful to all those serving in Afghanistan and around the world working for the safety of the British people.
I know that the House will also want to join me in sending our condolences to the wife and children of David Taylor who, sadly, died on Boxing day. He was a tremendous constituency Member of Parliament who thoroughly deserved the accolade of Back Bencher of the Year for his tireless work for the people of North-West Leicestershire. He will be greatly missed, not only by his family, who are here in the House today, but by colleagues in Westminster and all his constituents.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I would of course endorse all that my right hon. Friend says about those who have made the sacrifice of dying for their country while fighting in Afghanistan. I also want to say something about those in the west of Scotland who have died as a result of taking heroin, all harvested in Afghanistan, and to pay tribute to my hon. Friend and comrade, David Taylor, who served in this House assiduously and gave his all in his constituency as well.
If I may turn to the question, will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister give us an update on the situation in respect of the terrorist incident that took place on the plane travelling from Schiphol in Amsterdam to Detroit?
The whole House will echo what my hon. Friend says about the damage done in our country by drugs that come from Afghanistan, and I would be very happy to meet him to talk about those issues.
Since the Christmas day incident in Detroit, we have, as the Home Secretary reported to the House yesterday, taken a number of actions in key areas. In aviation security, the first of a new generation of full-body scanners will be in operation at Heathrow within a few weeks, and then, over time, in airports across the United Kingdom. Although the person who was involved in the Detroit incident was refused a visa and was on our watch list, we are nevertheless reviewing and enhancing our watch list arrangements, and given the changing nature of security, I have asked the Cabinet Secretary to ensure that any lessons that can be learned from recent events are considered and to examine whether we can further co-ordinate and integrate the work of the intelligence services and better make that work available to us.
May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the seven British servicemen who have lost their lives since the last Prime Minister’s questions? They were: Private Robert Hayes, Sapper David Watson, Rifleman Aidan Howell, Lance Corporal Tommy Brown, Lance Corporal Christopher Roney, Lance Corporal Michael Pritchard and Corporal Simon Hornby. They died serving our country, and we must always honour their memory and look after their families.
I also join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to David Taylor and his contribution to public service. We, too, send our condolences to his wife and children. He was diligent, decent and determined. As one obituary brilliantly put it, he
“was that rare thing among politicians: someone who was liked and admired equally by his constituents, his parliamentary colleagues and his political opponents.”
He will be sadly missed.
This year the Government will have to borrow £178 billion. Yesterday, one of the largest holders of Government debt warned that British debt is likely to be downgraded. The OECD, the CBI and the Bank of England have all warned that there is no proper plan to deal with the deficit. Why does the Prime Minister think that all those people take that view?
First of all, let us put this in context. The debt of every country has risen as a result of the global financial recession, and debt in Britain is actually lower as a percentage of national income than that of America, lower than in France and Germany, lower than in Italy and Japan, and lower than the average for the euro area. So every country faces the difficulty of taking itself out of recession while having to develop a deficit reduction plan. I tell the right hon. Gentleman that we will not stop the fiscal stimulus before we are out of recession, and we will not take his advice and leave the economy without the necessary support. If we had taken his advice, many thousands more would be unemployed and many thousands of businesses would be lost.
We have published a deficit reduction plan—[Interruption.] Yes, it includes raising the top rate of tax. I assume that the right hon. Gentleman now supports that. It raises national insurance so that we can fund our health and public services. I assume that he has to consider that as well. It does not include cutting inheritance tax—costing £1.5 billion—for the 3,000 richest families in the country. It includes cuts in some of the major Departments, but it includes defending the front-line services of health, education and policing. He asks me about public spending this week after he said that it was the year of change—he changed his policy in the morning, he changed his policy in the afternoon and he changed his policy in the evening.
The Prime Minister talks about the context. The context is the biggest budget deficit of any advanced economy in the world. Let us be clear about what these people say about the Government’s plans. The CBI says that the Government’s plans are “too little too late”. The Governor of the Bank of England says that
“there is not a credible plan”.
The OECD says that
“more ambitious plans…would strengthen the recovery”.
Howard Davies, the man whom the Prime Minister appointed as the head of the Financial Services Authority, said that
“the loss of confidence in the Government’s ability to get the public finances back under control”
“The major risk”
facing this country. And he said that after the utterly feeble pre-Budget report. So let me ask the Prime Minister again: why does he think that all those people think that his plans are so feeble?
The Governor of the Bank of England said:
“The very significant policy actions taken in recent months will…stimulate a recovery in demand, output and employment.”
The IMF said that the UK
“has shown a lot of leadership”—
[Interruption.] That was the managing director of the IMF. It also said:
“The UK authorities’ policy response to the deep recession…has been bold and wide ranging…The aggressive actions by the authorities have been successful in containing the crisis and averting a systemic breakdown.”
I could go through the others. The OECD said that the “fiscal stimulus” has “cushioned the downturn.”
It comes down to this: if we had taken the right hon. Gentleman’s advice, there would have been no action and unemployment would have risen much faster. If we had taken his advice, the 200,000 small businesses that have benefited would not have done so. If we had taken his advice, we would be back to the ’90s mortgage misery with repossessions. The Conservative party got wrong every decision on the recession and the recovery.
The fact is that the Chancellor is now taking our advice. He said that we can get growth only when we deal with the deficit. The Prime Minister tells us about his Fiscal Responsibility Bill, but it is completely feeble. What is required is not an Act of Parliament, but an act of political will—an act of courage. The man whom the Prime Minister appointed to the Bank of England said this about fiscal responsibility Acts. They are, he said,
“acts…of the fiscally irresponsible to con the public.”
Is not the reason for the lack of faith in the Government’s plans that the Prime Minister is so personally incapable of admitting what everyone knows to be true: that there is a need for cuts to be made? On Sunday, he said that public spending will rise by 0.8 per cent. in real terms each year. Given that everybody knows that cuts in departmental spending are necessary, was that not just completely disingenuous?
The person who was misleading the public was the right hon. Gentleman on Monday, about a married couples allowance. He said one thing on Monday morning, something different on Monday afternoon and something different on Monday evening, and then the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), who floated the policy, the former leader of the Conservative party, said that he had a private assurance of £4.9 billion being spent. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to reduce the deficit, presumably he does not want to spend £4.9 billion on a married couples allowance. If he wishes to reduce the deficit, presumably he will go ahead with the national insurance tax rise that we are proposing. If he wishes to reduce the deficit, he will not go ahead with his inheritance tax proposal, which he now says is his only pledge. We are reducing the deficit with a plan that includes tax rises, departmental cuts and protecting front-line services. The Conservatives would be cutting education services, police services and the main services in the country. Their policies are a change—a change back to the economics of the 1980s. [Interruption.]
I wish we were. I wish this Prime Minister had the courage to call the election so we could get on with it. I have to say, what a lot of desperate rubbish from the Prime Minister. I thought that he might mention marriage, so let me say this to him. The difference between me and the Prime Minister is this: when I lean across and say, “I love you, darling,” I really mean it. The only divorce that has taken place is between this Prime Minister and reality. Let us take his claim that spending is going up by 0.8 per cent. Is not the only way that he can make that claim by excluding capital spending, which he is actually cutting in half? Is that not completely disingenuous?
The right hon. Gentleman talks about love and marriage, when he is the person who cannot give a straight answer on the married couples allowance: he cannot say, “I do,” or “I don’t,” when it comes to the married couples allowance. As for the public, will he give us a straight answer now? Does his deficit reduction plan include £4.9 billion to be spent on the married couples allowance, £1.5 billion to be spent on inheritance tax and not going ahead with the national insurance rise? That is why everybody says that there is a £34 billion gap in his proposals. He cannot go round the country promising everything to everyone. He has got to face up to the facts: his policies are fit only for opposition, not for government.
If the Prime Minister wants to turn this around and make it Prime Minister’s questions, he should get on and call the election. Then there would be all the time in the world to kiss and make up.
The fact is that this Government are now deeply divided. Everyone knows that the Chancellor wanted to reduce the deficit more quickly. Everyone knows that the Business Secretary goes around the country privately attacking the PBR as a complete failure. Perhaps the Prime Minister could name one Back Bencher on the Labour side who stood up and spoke for his Fiscal Responsibility Bill last night. Not a single one. Does he not understand that a divided party without a proper plan is putting Britain’s recovery at risk? Is that not the height of irresponsibility, and why is he always incapable of doing the right thing?
Let me just give another example for the right hon. Gentleman. Last night he was asked, “Are you committed to education maintenance allowances?” What was his answer?
“Let’s just say I’m not uncommitted to it”.
He then said:
“Well, we’re in a state of quite severe flux on this whole area…so I can’t give you a straight answer”.
Is this an Opposition party ready for government? It should go back to the drawing board and think again.
The fact is that the appalling state of the public finances and the Prime Minister’s complete inability to have a proper plan show the great truth of British politics. He has had two years to demonstrate some leadership, and he has completely failed to do so. He cannot convince business or the financial markets, and he cannot even convince his own Chancellor. Is it any wonder that he ekes out his time as an unelected leader completely incapable of convincing the country?
He is going to have to do better than that. He is going to have answer some questions on policy some time. He got it wrong on the nationalisation of Northern Rock, he got it wrong on the fiscal stimulus for the recovery, he got it wrong on helping the unemployed, he got it wrong on helping home owners, he got it wrong on small businesses. He got every issue of the recession wrong. Nobody will trust him, not just on married couples allowance but on the economy at all.
A year on from the devastating conflict in Gaza, which left 1,400 Palestinians dead, the siege continues. Humanitarian relief is hard to come by, and Gaza lies shattered. Although there were undoubtedly war crimes on both sides, does my right hon. Friend agree that what is now happening is the collective punishment of 1 million people? Will he now make urgent representations to ease the siege on Gaza as a critical step towards a peace settlement in that region?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and she speaks for many people. We must not forget the people of Gaza. I have raised with Prime Minister Netanyahu the speed at which aid and humanitarian assistance can get into Gaza, and we are pressing the Israeli Government to do more to get more aid in. I will look at exactly the points that my hon. Friend has made and see what more we can do in this new year. In the end, this will require a political settlement between Israel and the Palestinian state that gives Israel security and Palestine a viable economic state that it can manage. In the meantime, we must avoid unnecessary suffering.
I also add my own expressions of profound sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of the brave British soldiers who have lost their lives serving in Afghanistan since the House last sat: Corporal Simon Hornby, Lance Corporal Michael Pritchard, Lance Corporal Christopher Roney, Lance Corporal Tommy Brown, Rifleman Aidan Howell, Sapper David Watson and Private Robert Hayes.
I would also like to pay my own tribute to David Taylor, who sadly died during the Christmas recess. I was once one of the MEPs for his area, and he had a reputation then—and always has had—as an outstanding constituency MP and someone who always spoke his own mind. My heart goes out to his wife Pam and his four daughters.
Last weekend, the Prime Minister said that he was all in favour of aspiration. Could he explain to us exactly what is aspirational about a tax system that he has created in which the poorest 20 per cent. pay more from their income in tax than the richest 20 per cent.?
It was because of all these things that we introduced the tax credit system, which is the means by which we take people out of poverty. We reward work for people who are in work, and for people who pay income tax it removes their liability by giving them tax credits instead. It is the means by which we bring greater justice, take people out of poverty and make work pay, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will continue to support the tax credit system, which is an essential part of our tax and benefits system in this country.
The Prime Minister talks about justice. He has not delivered justice or fairness in the tax system. He is the one who scrapped the 10p tax rate. It is his rules that allow a City banker to pay less tax on capital gains than a cleaner pays on wages. He is about to hit millions of average earners with higher national insurance bills. Where is the fairness, where is the aspiration, in any of that?
The aspiration is helping people into jobs, giving people the chance to earn a decent living, and ensuring that the tax system is fair.
Presumably the hon. Gentleman will now support our 50 per cent. tax on the bonuses of the banks. Presumably he will support the raising of the top rate of tax to 50 per cent. Presumably he will support the removal of pension tax reliefs, which we are carrying out as very much part of the deficit reduction plan. What we have tried to do is ensure that in these difficult times, as we make changes, the burden is shared fairly, which means that those with the broadest shoulders must pay more. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree with that.
It is our intention, even in these difficult times when companies may not be in a position to keep apprentices on, to find alternative sources of employment for them and ensure that the colleges can continue to train them. However, I will examine the specific issue that my hon. Friend has raised. As for the coalfields regeneration programme, the National Audit Office’s recommendations have been acted on, and funds from the programme have already been allocated. Stoke-on-Trent has received £3 million, more than half a million pounds of which has been committed to projects that will provide training for individuals.
I hope that my hon. Friend will find some of the answers to her questions in the decisions that have already been made, but I will look into the apprentices question. In 1997 there were 70,000 apprentices, and there are now a quarter of a million. No Government have done more to revive the apprenticeship, and we will not allow the number of apprenticeships to fall during this recession.
I know that the immigration department in Croydon is in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. Obviously, we are looking into how we can reallocate some jobs that are currently in the south-east in a way that will both save money and spread employment across the country. The Lyons review suggested that 20,000 jobs be reallocated. That has already happened, and we are considering what more we can do. However, I think the hon. Gentleman will recognise that the work of the London Development Agency and the work that is done in London are a means by which we ensure that jobs are created in London. We are always thinking about what we can do to create more jobs in this capital city.
The Macmillan work is something that is very special in our country, and very much appreciated. I believe that because of the advances that we are making in cancer care—particularly if cancer is detected early and people are able to go through the screening process—many lives that would otherwise be lost are being saved.
I appreciate that considerable aftercare is necessary even after many years, and I am determined that we will continue to support it. However, I believe that the best way in which we can help to deal with the cancer problems in our country is to ensure that we do not lose the two-week guarantee that patients can see a specialist immediately, and that we move towards a guarantee that they will be diagnosed and given the answers within only seven days. That requires money, and it requires determination to spend the money in the right place. We are determined to do that, and I hope that no party seeks to abolish it.
We have increased spending on security from £1 billion in 2001 to more than £3 billion, and we have increased counter-terrorism capability massively in this country as a result of making the right decisions. We have doubled the number of security staff, we have doubled the number of police who are associated with counter-terrorism work, and we are introducing the e-borders system, which is a means by which we can catch those people who are coming into this country. I do not think that any Government have done more to increase the counter-terrorism capability in this country, and that is right, because our first duty is the security of our citizens.
For the first time, the world was able to agree that we should not have a climate change policy that did not address the problems of rising temperatures, and the 2 per cent. limit was agreed by all countries. We also have agreement that countries will notify what they will do by 2020, and they have got to do so by 31 January. We are obviously pressing for countries to be in a position where they can reduce the amount of gigatonnes in carbon and greenhouse gas emissions from about the mid-50s in 2020 to the mid-40s. There has been greater transparency achieved, with every country agreeing to report what it is doing, but we have not yet got the international treaty that we need, and we have not yet got the announcement from all countries that they support the 50 per cent. reduction by 2050. That is work that is still to be done. I agree with my hon. Friend that we must now talk to all those countries that were reluctant to come into these talks with a view to getting a treaty to persuade them that a treaty is necessary. I think that she will see further announcements in the next few days about what we are going to do.
The idea that the Conservative party could take a lead on climate change when they cannot even convince their own Back Benchers of what is necessary—[Laughter.] The Conservatives cannot make up their minds about nuclear. We are now the leading power in the world for offshore wind. We will soon be making announcements that will make it clear that massive numbers of jobs will come as a result of offshore wind. That is the right policy if we are going to have 15 per cent. renewables by 2020. I cannot understand where the Conservatives’ energy policy comes from. If they take out nuclear and they take out offshore wind—and every Conservative local authority is opposing onshore wind as well—they have no policy whatsoever.
It is now 27 months since people suffering from pleural plaques were denied compensation by the House of Lords. Can I ask the Prime Minister what work is being done across the whole of Government to redress this, and when we can expect some progress?
As my hon. Friend knows, a meeting of legal advisers took place in the past few weeks. I am meeting a group of MPs—I think he is part of it—in the next week. I hope to get a resolution to what is a very dreadful disease—asbestosis—and what we can do about it, and also to deal with the problem that arises from pleural plaques.
If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we are going to have the levels of inflation that we had in the Conservative years, he is completely wrong. Inflation is low in this country; we have kept it low for the past 12 years. The idea that the Conservative party is now going to run a campaign saying that our inflation is going to be the highest in the world is something quite ridiculous.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The boiler scrappage scheme will help 125,000 households and is already showing that it is popular and will cut carbon emissions. Retrofitting measures such as insulation will play an increasingly important role.
I must also draw people’s attention to the fact that cold weather payments are being made to people who are affected by the cold weather right across the country—in many areas, including London, from 4 January. Some 6.9 million payments of £25 a week have already been made. We are doing our best to help people through the difficult winter weather, and we will continue to do what we can to ensure that elderly people in particular will turn up their heating and not allow themselves to suffer from the cold.
Given that the severe weather, which has hit my constituency badly, is predicted to continue for the next five days, what action are the Government taking now to make sure that supplies of salt and grit—including the stockpiles held by the Highways Agency—get to where they are needed most?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I think the whole House wants to be assured that, in this difficult period of weather when some areas are more hit than others, those areas that need to grit roads will have the salt necessary to do so, and all the support that other local authorities that are not so affected, and central Government, can give them. I assure the hon. Lady that salt supplies have been built up as a result of what we discovered and did last year. At the same time, I can announce that there will be greater co-ordination of the distribution of salt, so that those areas that need that salt will not be denied it. I hope that I will be able to reassure her constituents that they will get the salt and the grit that are necessary.
House of Commons Reform
UK politics has become ever more the private playground of Governments and the media, and this place, Parliament, an ever more tatty backdrop, with little independence. Will the Prime Minister take the powers that he has to bring forward to our agenda—not for debate, but for decision—the proposals to reform this House? Will he please do that in the next few weeks?
It is in all our interests to say that both the standard of debate in this House and what is discussed in this House should reflect the views and values of the people of this whole country. All of us want in this new year to make sure that the House is discussing the issues that matter to people.
We welcome the Select Committee report. I know that my hon. Friend has taken a long-standing interest in these institutional reforms. The creation of a Back-Bench committee, a business committee and party ballots—all these are being looked at in detail. The Leader of the House has made it clear that we will have an opportunity to debate them in due course and to discuss the recommendations.
In due course? We have been waiting for weeks. Is that not typical of this Government and this Prime Minister? He made a big announcement on 10 June last year that we were to have urgent reform of the House of Commons, but when it comes to action the Government act with all the dispatch of a particularly arthritic slug on its way to its own funeral. Will he tell us whether he is still committed to urgent action on reforming this ineffective and incompetent House, or are there people on his own Benches who are stopping that from happening?
The hon. Gentleman gives me a great deal of hope that the consensual approach will work! I think that he is part of the talks. The talks are taking place. The issues about the creation of a business committee, party ballots for Select Committee membership and ballots of the whole House for Select Committee chairmanship were recommended by the Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). We are now discussing these issues, and they will form the subject of a debate and decisions by this House.
Order. I should be grateful if Members who are leaving the Chamber would do so both quickly and quietly so that we can proceed with our business.
Damages (Asbestos-related Conditions) (No.2)
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Mr. Andrew Dismore, supported by Ms Karen Buck, Clive Efford, Mr. David Anderson, Mr. Michael Clapham, Mike Gapes, Rob Marris, Siobhan McDonagh, Jim Sheridan, Shona McIsaac, Mr. Chris Mullin and Judy Mallaber, presented a Bill to provide that certain asbestos-related conditions are actionable personal injuries; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 5 February, and to be printed (Bill 34).
Employers’ Liability Insurance Bureau
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Mr. Andrew Dismore, supported by Ms Karen Buck, Clive Efford, John Austin, Mike Gapes, Rob Marris, Siobhan McDonagh, Jim Sheridan, Shona McIsaac, Mr. Chris Mullin and Judy Mallaber presented a Bill to make provision for the creation of an employers’ liability insurance bureau comprising an electronic database and a fund of last resort; to make provision about employers’ liability insurance; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 5 February, and to be printed (Bill 35).
Land Use (Gardens Protection Etc)
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Mr. Andrew Dismore, supported by Ms Karen Buck, Clive Efford, John Austin, Shona McIsaac, Rob Marris, Mr. Virendra Sharma, Siobhan McDonagh and Mr. Chris Mullin, presented a Bill to make provision for the protection of gardens and urban green spaces; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 February, and to be printed (Bill 36).
British Museum Act 1963 (Amendment)
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Mr. Andrew Dismore, supported by Ms Karen Buck, Clive Efford, John Austin, Mr. Edward O’Hara and Rob Marris, presented a Bill to amend the British Museum Act 1963 to permit the transfer of artefacts in the British Museum; to confer powers on the Secretary of State to require the transfer of artefacts in specified circumstances; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 February, and to be printed (Bill 37).
Sheltered Accommodation (Residents)
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Mr. Andrew Dismore, supported by Ms Karen Buck, Judy Mallaber, Mike Gapes, Rob Marris, Mr. Virendra Sharma, Mr. Edward Timpson, John Austin and Shona McIsaac, presented a Bill to make provision for residents in sheltered accommodation to challenge certain local authority budget decisions which affect them; to ensure that funding provided by central government to local authorities for sheltered accommodation warden services is not allocated to other services; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 5 March, and to be printed (Bill 38).
Human Rights Act 1998 (Meaning of Public Authority)
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Mr. Andrew Dismore, supported by Ms Karen Buck, Clive Efford, John Austin, Mike Gapes, Rob Marris, Mr. Virendra Sharma, Shona McIsaac, Mr. Chris Mullin and Judy Mallaber presented a Bill to clarify the meaning of ‘public authority’ in section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 5 March, and to be printed (Bill 39).
Illegally Logged Timber (Prohibition of Sale)
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Mr. Andrew Dismore, supported by Ms Karen Buck, Clive Efford, John Austin, Mike Gapes, Rob Marris, Mr. Chris Mullin, Judy Mallaber and Barry Gardiner, presented a Bill to prohibit the sale in the United Kingdom of timber and wood products that were obtained or produced illegally in their country of origin; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 12 March, and to be printed (Bill 40).
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Mr. Andrew Dismore, supported by Ms Karen Buck, Clive Efford, John Austin, Rob Marris, Siobhan McDonagh and Mr. Chris Mullin, presented a Bill to make provision for actions for damages for torture; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 April, and to be printed (Bill 41).
Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Mr. Andrew Dismore, supported by Ms Karen Buck, Clive Efford, John Austin and Rob Marris, presented a Bill to introduce a national day to learn about and remember the Armenian genocide.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 30 April, and to be printed (Bill 42).
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You may have heard the rather dramatic news just now that a former Secretary of State for Defence and a former Secretary of State for Health have called for an immediate ballot on the leadership of the Labour party and the future of the Prime Minister. Do you consider that this might affect the order of the business for the rest of the day?
The short answer is no. If memory serves me correctly, the hon. Gentleman will fairly soon be marking 18 years in the House of Commons as the Member for Lichfield, and I therefore feel sure that he knows as well as I know that that was not a point of order.
Video Recordings Bill (Allocation of Time)
I beg to move,
That the following provisions shall apply to the proceedings on the Video Recordings Bill—
1. Proceedings on Second Reading, in Committee, on consideration and on Third Reading shall be completed at today’s sitting and shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption.
Timing of proceedings and Questions to be put
2. When the Bill has been read a second time—
(a) it shall (despite Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of bills not subject to a programme order)) stand committed to a Committee of the whole House without any Question being put;
(b) the Speaker shall leave the Chair whether or not notice of an Instruction has been given.
3.–(1) On the conclusion of proceedings in Committee, the Chairman shall report the Bill to the House without putting any Question.
(2) If the Bill is reported with amendments, the House shall proceed to consider the Bill as amended without any Question being put.
4. For the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph 1, the Speaker or Chairman shall forthwith put the following Questions (but no others)—
(a) any Question already proposed from the Chair;
(b) any Question necessary to bring to a decision a Question so proposed;
(c) the Question on any amendment moved or Motion made by a Minister of the Crown;
(d) any other Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded.
5. On a Motion so made for a new Clause or a new Schedule, the Chairman or Speaker shall put only the Question that the Clause or Schedule be added to the Bill.
Consideration of Lords Amendments
6.–(1) Any Lords Amendments to the Bill shall be considered forthwith without any Question being put.
(2) Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.
7.–(1) This paragraph applies for the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph 6.
(2) The Speaker shall first put forthwith any Question already proposed from the Chair.
(3) If that Question is for the amendment of a Lords Amendment the Speaker shall then put forthwith—
(a) a single Question on any further Amendments to the Lords Amendment moved by a Minister of the Crown, and
(b) the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown that this House agrees or disagrees to the Lords Amendment or (as the case may be) to the Lords Amendment as amended.
(4) The Speaker shall then put forthwith—
(a) a single Question on any Amendments moved by a Minister of the Crown to a Lords Amendment, and
(b) the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown that this House agrees or disagrees to the Lords Amendment or (as the case may be) to the Lords Amendment as amended.
(5) The Speaker shall then put forthwith the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown that this House disagrees to a Lords Amendment.
(6) The Speaker shall then put forthwith the Question that this House agrees to all the remaining Lords Amendments.
(7) As soon as the House has—
(a) agreed or disagreed to a Lords Amendment; or
(b) disposed of an Amendment relevant to a Lords Amendment which has been disagreed to, the Speaker shall put forthwith a single Question on any Amendments moved by a Minister of the Crown and relevant to the Lords Amendment.
8.–(1) Any further Message from the Lords on the Bill shall be considered forthwith without any Question being put.
(2) Proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.
9.–(1) This paragraph applies for the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph 8.
(2) The Speaker shall first put forthwith any Question which has been proposed from the Chair.
(3) The Speaker shall then put forthwith the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown which is related to the Question already proposed from the Chair.
(4) The Speaker shall then put forthwith the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown on or relevant to any of the remaining items in the Lords Message.
(5) The Speaker shall then put forthwith the Question that this House agrees with the Lords in all the remaining Lords Proposals.
10.–(1) The Speaker shall put forthwith the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown for the appointment, nomination and quorum of a Committee to draw up Reasons and the appointment of its Chairman.
(2) A Committee appointed to draw up Reasons shall report before the conclusion of the sitting at which it is appointed.
(3) Proceedings in the Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion 30 minutes after their commencement.
(4) For the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with sub-paragraph (3), the Chairman shall—
(a) first put forthwith any Question which has been proposed from the Chair, and
(b) then put forthwith successively Questions on motions which may be made by a Minister of the Crown for assigning a Reason for disagreeing with the Lords in any of their Amendments.
(5) The proceedings of the Committee shall be reported without any further Question being put.
11. Paragraph (1) of Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business) shall apply so far as necessary for the purposes of this Order.
12.–(1) The proceedings on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown for varying or supplementing the provisions of this Order shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.
(2) Paragraph (1) of Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business) shall apply to those proceedings.
13. Standing Order No. 82 (Business Committee) shall not apply in relation to any proceedings to which this Order applies.
14.–(1) No Motion shall be made, except by a Minister of the Crown, to alter the order in which any proceedings on the Bill are taken or to re-commit the Bill.
(2) The Question on any such Motion shall be put forthwith.
15.–(1) No dilatory Motion shall be made in relation to proceedings to which this Order applies except by a Minister of the Crown.
(2) The Question on any such Motion shall be put forthwith.
16. The Speaker may not arrange for a debate to be held in accordance with Standing Order No. 24 (Emergency debates) at today’s sitting before the conclusion of any proceedings to which this Order applies.
17.–(1) Sub-paragraph (2) applies if the House is adjourned, or the sitting is suspended, before the conclusion of any proceedings to which this Order applies.
(2) No notice shall be required of a Motion made at the next sitting by a Minister of the Crown for varying or supplementing the provisions of this Order.
18. Proceedings to which this Order applies shall not be interrupted under any Standing Order relating to the sittings of the House.
19.–(1) Any private business which has been set down for consideration at 7 pm, 4 pm or 3 pm (as the case may be) on a day on which the Bill has been set down to be taken as an Order of the Day shall, instead of being considered as provided by Standing Orders, be considered at the conclusion of the proceedings on the Bill on that day.
(2) Paragraph (1) of Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business) shall apply to the private business for a period of three hours from the conclusion of the proceedings on the Bill or, if those proceedings are concluded before the moment of interruption for a period equal to the time elapsing between 7 pm, 4 pm or 3 pm (as the case may be) and the conclusion of those proceedings.
This is a short Bill designed to repeal and revise the provisions of the Video Recordings Act 1984, including the offences under the Act. The offences were made unenforceable because of a failure to notify the offences and other provisions of the 1984 Act in draft to the European Commission in accordance with the technical standards directive.
Until the Video Recordings Act is repealed and revived, no new prosecutions can be made under the Act. This means that publishers of video games and DVDs can distribute their goods free of classification requirements, and retailers can sell or supply adult material, including explicit pornography.
The failure to notify the draft was in 1984, under the previous Conservative Administration, about whom I do not want to make cheap political points today. None of the Ministers or officials serving at the time is still in post. It was an unfortunate oversight, and we believe it to have been an isolated incident. What is important now is to rectify the situation, so that the current anomalous loophole, whereby inappropriate material can be sold to children without classification, is closed as soon as possible.
The Minister accepts that it was down to a previous Administration. The practical cost to the House is an afternoon’s business. He said that it was an isolated incident. Is he satisfied that it will not happen again, and that we will not waste hundreds of person-hours of this Chamber’s time making the same mistake?
The Cabinet Office is looking to see whether this kind of thing might have happened on other occasions and, as far as we are aware, this is an isolated incident. As I say, the important thing is for the loophole to be swiftly closed today in this House, so that the protections that have been afforded to the public for 25 years by a very successful piece of legislation introduced under the previous Administration are enforceable once again—they have not been enforceable since August, when this oversight was discovered. I am sure that the House will agree that there is an urgent need for the legal protections to be reinstated.
The Minister says that there is a loophole and he talks about trying to make the law enforceable. According to the House of Commons Library, there were 81 successful prosecutions for offences under the Act in 2006 and 139 in 2002. Is he saying that those prosecutions were not valid at the time? Would they—
Order. It pains me greatly to interrupt the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) but, as always, I am trying to be helpful. I listened with great interest to what he said, but I would not want the Minister to be diverted from the path of righteousness, and what has just been said over the past couple of minutes bears very little relation, if any, to the allocation of time motion.
I shall take your guidance, Mr. Speaker; I would be happy to discuss that matter with the hon. Gentleman later in our proceedings, but it behoves me to take the guidance from the Chair. May I say—this is in response to the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I am attempting to keep my remarks to the motion—that this is the first use of the fast-track procedure, as recently recommended by the relevant House of Lords Select Committee? We are dealing with what used to be called an “emergency piece of legislation”. This Bill does not change, in any way, the existing 1984 Act; it simply repeals and then revives it quickly in two short clauses, in order to make the existing Act enforceable, which is why we are seeking to deal with this quickly today with the minimum of delay.
I do not wish to disagree with the motion, but I want to make a point on procedure. It is not good procedure for this House to proceed with Bills in a single day unless there are overwhelming reasons to do so. Such reasons are sometimes associated with national security and sometimes with urgent circumstances outside the House. There is a reason for our procedures in this House and a reason why we have a delay between Second Reading, Committee and Report: to enable matters to be properly considered in order and to ensure not only that Members who wish to contribute to the debate can do so, but that those outside the House are able to make observations on the Bill as it proceeds. I have no doubt that this is a simple tidying-up provision, and there is every indication that it will be supported by hon. Members on both sides of the House. It could therefore have been dealt with simply over the normal time period and in two chunks to enable us to maintain the principles of parliamentary procedure; I do not entirely understand why it should be dealt with in a single day. That is an exceptional way of doing business and there does not seem to be the exceptional need for such an approach on this occasion. We had several days prior to the Christmas recess when we could easily have slipped in the Bill’s Second Reading and then proceeded in the normal way. Perhaps the Minister could tell me why that did not happen.
That could not have been done because the situation was caused by a failure to notify under the technical standards directive. In order for the provision to work, we had to notify it in draft under that directive. We did that three months before 15 December. The first day on which we could have had the First Reading was 15 December, and we did so. Today—the second day back after the recess—is the first opportunity that we have had to deal with this on the Floor of the House.
There are two very important points to make on why we are dealing with the Bill so urgently in one day. First, we are not changing the law in any way. The existing law has been debated using all the full procedures and has been in force for 25 years—it is only the enforceability that turns out not to have been enacted, and we need to address that.
The second point that I want to stress is that the lack of enforceability has serious consequences. Almost any kind of serious, explicit, violent, brutal, nasty DVDs and video games can be supplied at the moment to anybody—[Interruption.] I am sorry; that was a long intervention.
I am grateful to the Minister for that long intervention, which was helpful. I am grateful to him for explaining the constraints on First Reading. I am simply making the point that this is not an approach that I think the House should readily accept from the Government. It is not my intention to divide the House on this issue, or to do anything of that kind. However, we need to make the point that procedure exists for a purpose. If we can improve procedure so that we take less time on things that do not need a lot of debate, I am all for it—it is part of the modernisation of the House that we spoke about in Prime Minister’s questions. However, we need the delay between Second Reading and the completion of the passage of a Bill in this House if we are to make good law, and making good law is what this House is about. It sometimes achieves very little in the way of that because of the curtailing of procedures. That is the only observation that I have to make and I hope that we can now proceed.
I, too, shall be brief, Mr. Speaker, because of the guidance that you have given. I want to be reassured that when it comes to the substantive debate the Minister will deal with the points of substance to do with what has happened over the past 25 years, including the point made by the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies)—issues such as what has happened to those who have been prosecuted and whether they will be entitled to compensation. If the Minister will deal with those points, I shall be happy to support the motion.
You are a reasonable man, Mr. Speaker, so I can only presume that your necessary intervention earlier was caused by my not explaining myself sufficiently. I shall try again to overcome the difficulty that there seemed to be the first time around.
I take the points made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath): we should not be having Acts of Parliament made in one day, with all stages debated on that day, unless it is absolutely necessary. The purpose of my initial intervention on the Minister, which I hope I shall be able to clarify in my short speech, was that, given that there have been hundreds of prosecutions under the 1984 Act as it stands, can we satisfy ourselves that the Bill is so necessary and urgent that it must go through all its stages in one day? I urge the Minister to clarify where we are with the prosecutions under the 1984 Act. If they are no longer valid and therefore need to be rescinded, I should have thought that that would be important.
I understand entirely the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but will he bear it in mind that every day that we wait to bring the legislation back into force, people will legitimately be able to sell inappropriate material to minors? Local authorities are being prosecuted because they have sought, apparently erroneously, to prosecute people for doing what we would all agree is wrong. We need to get on with it very quickly. Does he not agree?
I absolutely agree. In effect, that was the point that I was trying to tease out from the Minister in the first place. We need to know where we stand with existing prosecutions, because if they all have to be rescinded and if none of them now has any basis in law, we would need to do this all in one day. I hope that the Minister can explain that to our satisfaction so that we know the urgency of this matter.
I shall construe your silence on the matter, Mr. Speaker, as consent that I might reply to the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) within the terms of this part of the debate. Prosecutions that occurred since the error was discovered in August will not have been able to proceed and will not be able to be instituted retrospectively. That is why—I think that this is what he was getting at—it is important to pass the Bill. As the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) said, not only does the situation continue with every day that goes past, but evidence from around the country shows that it is reasonable to assume that the problem will grow. The more people are not prosecuted for supplying very inappropriate material, the more people will see an angle through which they can make what one might call an evil buck. Over the past few years there have been between 100 and 200 prosecutions a year, on average, and a great deal of other activity, which might not be prosecuted, is deterred by the enforceability of the law. I hope that I have answered the points raised by the hon. Member for Shipley.
On the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), we will deal with the substantive issues in greater detail in the Second Reading debate on this short two-clause Bill. It does not in any way change an existing Act. It simply repeals and revives. On that basis, I commend the allocation of time motion to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Video Recordings Bill
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I thank the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) and others for their encouragement. We live in an age where videos, DVDs and more recently Blu-ray discs constitute a hugely important part of every family’s entertainment. Figures compiled by the British Video Association show that a record 258 million DVDs, Blu-ray DVDs and videos were sold in 2008, with a total market value of £2.3 billion. A further 79 million videos, DVDs and Blu-ray DVDs were rented in 2008. The number of films sold on video has more than trebled in the past 10 years from 61 million units in 1999 to 196 million last year. According to the British Video Association, 6.5 million DVD players were sold in 2008, taking cumulative DVD hardware sales since launch to 55 million— the equivalent of two players for every household in the UK.
Videos and DVDs are an essential element of domestic life in the 21st century, yet they are a relatively recent part of our cultural experience. The video recorder was invented in the 1960s and began to take off as a mass market phenomenon only in the late 1970s. In 1979 there were 200,000 video recorders in the UK but by 1984, when the original Video Recordings Act was introduced, over 4 million had been sold. Looking to the future—I am sure that hon. Members will make this point later—there is a definite shift in how we consume both video and video game content. The online distribution models are developing and will no doubt continue to do so at an increasing pace.
Certainly, there will have been prosecutions that were pending or in process when the defect, to echo the right hon. Gentleman’s phrase, was discovered. Those will have had to be stopped once it became apparent that the law was no longer enforceable because of its non-notification. We have heard of a handful of putative—usually putative—appeals or claims for compensation against previous convictions, although all our advice tells us that such speculative attempts to exploit the loophole further are likely to be unsuccessful.
Although the online environment is clearly the future and is going to grow, we must not be dismissive of the traditional boxed product. Only yesterday, senior executives from Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony were all reported as saying that digitally distributed product is unlikely to overtake the boxed product for some considerable time to come.
It is very nice to hear about the contribution that the industry makes to the British economy. Does the Minister intend, in his speech, to touch on the Byron review and the Government’s commitment to prevent violent video games from falling into the hands of young people? Are the Government still committed to the conclusions of Byron? Will the recommendations be implemented in full? When will the Digital Economy Bill come before the House? It deals with all the other issues that the Minister cannot deal with in the context of the present Bill.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who is a tireless advocate of his views on the subject. Yes, the Government are committed to Byron and to child safety. The work of the Internet Watch Foundation and the Department for Children, Schools and Families-led group that has been set up in an unprecedented way across Government to look at all child safety issues online is very important, groundbreaking and central to what the Government are doing. As my right hon. Friend knows, those are matters not for today, but for the Digital Economy Bill, which is now in another place.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way to me a second time. He talked about the boxed games. One of the concerns is that when people buy video games, there is not sufficient notice on those games that they have adult content, which is central to what the Video Recordings Bill hopes to do—to ensure proper enforcement. Is there anything in the proposal or in any measure that the Government propose to introduce in the near future that will ensure that when retailers sell such games, it is clear that they have adult content—that is, by increasing the very small notification on the box that it is an adult game?
As my right hon. Friend knows, child safety, boxed games, and good information that is readily understandable by the public when adult content is included in games or DVDs are central to our approach and to the Byron recommendation that content should be clearly labelled and that content unsuitable for children should not be made available for children.
However, that is not a matter for today. None of the provisions that we are discussing today in this short two-clause Bill will affect that in any way. The size of the rating symbols on the boxes is a subject which I know my right hon. Friend and I will discuss at length in the Committee stage of the Digital Economy Bill. I look forward to that, but it is not something that I should be diverted into discussing today.
The Minister will be aware, as many of us are, that because of the length of time that it now looks likely the Digital Economy Bill will take in another place, there is a real possibility that time will run out to complete its passage through both Houses before the forthcoming general election. Given the importance of the specific issue raised by the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, will the Minister give an assurance to the House that if time ran out, measures would be sought to find agreement so that at least that aspect, on which there is all-party agreement, could still get on to the statute book?
We have every intention of getting the Digital Economy Bill in its entirety on to the statute book although, as the hon. Gentleman knows, in order to do that, we will be partly reliant on the good will of members of his party and of the official Opposition—[Interruption.]
I think I have made the point. We intend to get the legislation through before the election. If the hon. Member for Bath and his hon. Friends, and right hon. and hon. Members on the Conservative Benches, will help us with that, that would be the best approach for all concerned.
I shall make progress. As I said, we should not be blinded by the online future and discount the importance of the massive volume of boxed products that will continue to be sold in the UK.
The early 1980s saw the introduction, largely from America, of what became known as video nasties: videos that depicted acts of gross violence and violent sexual acts—acts so extreme that they caused concern about the potential effects of watching them on young people and vulnerable adults. In response, Parliament passed in 1984 the Video Recordings Act. That Act introduced a system for classifying video films and some video games according to their content, and a series of offences for supplying classified videos and video games to people under the age restriction. The 1984 Act also stopped the distribution of video nasties by ensuring that such films did not receive a classification and making it an offence to supply unclassified material.
Some 25 years on, it is clear that the provisions of the 1984 Act have worked to remove the worst material from circulation. For example, the British Board of Film Classification, the body appointed under the 1984 Act to classify videos and DVDs, recently refused to classify the highly controversial Japanese film, “Grotesque”. The BBFC explained that
“the film has running themes of sexual assault, humiliation and extreme torture…and…presents the audience with…an unrelenting and escalating scenario of…sadism…(including sexual sadism) for its own sake.”
The 1984 Act was introduced to remove such films from general circulation, and I am sure that all hon. Members will congratulate the BBFC on its often unpleasant work.
It is also clear that the system of classification that the 1984 Act introduced is well understood and well regarded by the public. Independent research conducted on behalf of the BBFC shows that 71 per cent. of adults make use of the classification ratings of films to guide their purchasing decisions at least some of the time, and that 46 per cent. do so before purchasing video games. In addition, out of a total of 3,900 film viewing occasions, those surveyed agreed 99 per cent. of the time with the BBFC’s classifications. It is a good organisation, implementing a good piece of legislation that works, and it was with considerable regret, therefore, that we discovered in August 2009, during our preparations for the Digital Economy Bill, which, as hon. Members will know, is in another place for consideration, that the 1984 Act was no longer enforceable under UK law. The situation arose because of a procedural failure in 1984 to notify the European Commission of the Act’s provisions in draft under the technical standards directive. I keep stressing “in draft” because we have to repeal the 1984 Act and revive it so that it can be notified in draft; we cannot notify an existing Act.
In case anyone wishes to make a party political point about the issue, it may be worth noting that the legislation was not notified in draft because it was a private Member’s Bill, not a Government Bill. Will the Minister elaborate on how the error was discovered in 2009 and, to return to the point, on when the Cabinet Office intends to conclude its audit of all Acts passed since 1984 in terms of their compliance with the technical standards directive?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I do not want to make a party political point out of the issue. That would be silly, and I am not going to do so. Nobody involved with the legislation then is a Member now, but I think that another reason why the error might have occurred is that the technical standards directive came in early in 1984 and the Video Recordings Act came out slightly later. They almost overlapped in their inception.
If I can help the Minister, I should say that the directive came into force on 28 March 1983 and the Bill was introduced on 11 November 1983, meaning that it had to be notified to the European Commission in about August 1983. The directive was therefore very new, and I think that Graham Bright, who introduced the Bill as a private Member, might be forgiven for not being completely à point with European law.
May I further help the Minister? While he is being extremely generous to the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) on the Conservative Front Bench in relation to what happened in 1983 and 1984, will he also bear in mind that in 1993, many years later, the 1984 Act was considered again in great detail, when it was amended by the then Conservative Government, whose current party leader was at that time an adviser to the then Home Secretary? Surely by 1993 the omission should have been noticed.
Just to be helpful, I might point out that the mover of the amendment to the Act in 1993 was of course Mr. David Alton, so perhaps the conclusion is that we all bear some responsibility.
I shall move on to answer the question from the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) about how the omission was discovered last year. The answer is that, as part of our preparation for the Digital Economy Bill, we were involved in a similar process of notifying to the European Commission the Bill’s amendments to the 1984 Act—a similar process to that which the hon. Member for Bath suggests one might have thought would have happened in 1993 and 1994. On this most recent occasion during that process, it was noticed that the original Bill had not been notified.
Will the Minister help me? I think that the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), the Liberal Democrat spokesman, has inadvertently been helpful, which is not a phrase that I often like to use—but we are all in the process of engaging with the Liberal Democrats. If the 1984 Act was amended in 1993, was the amendment notified to the European Commission; and is that aspect of the Act, therefore, still enforceable?
After everyone has been so helpful, I do not want to be unhelpful, but I am still puzzled, because the Library research paper on the Bill before us states that
“the Government’s legal advice appears to be that previous convictions under the 1984 Act are safe.”
If there is a loophole and the 1984 Act is unenforceable, I do not understand how previous convictions under it can be safe. Will the Minister explain that point, please?
The convictions are safe in the sense that any attempt to seek any restitution against them would almost certainly fail in court. For instance, any appeal would be an out-of-time appeal, after 21 days, and therefore, although it would be technically possible to mount an out-of-time appeal, it would be very unlikely to succeed. If a criminal mounts an appeal because they have discovered a brief loophole in the law, they are pretty unlikely to receive a sympathetic hearing from a court. All our advice suggests that for a range of reasons like that, it is very unlikely that criminals and disreputable people will be able to exploit the loophole by seeking such restitution.
The purpose of the Video Recordings Bill, therefore, is very simple. It is designed only to repeal and revive the provisions of the Video Recordings Act 1984 in order to make the criminal offences in the Act enforceable again. Until that has been done, no new prosecutions can be made under the Act and prosecutors cannot oppose appeals made in time against convictions. This means that publishers of videos, DVDs and 18-rated and R18-rated video games can distribute their goods free of any classification restrictions. Retailers can sell classified and unclassified adult material to any person, regardless of age, with limited statutory powers to stop or prosecute them. There is also a danger—although we think it slight—that past convictions may be challenged.
To their credit, the reputable makers and distributors of videos and DVDs have continued to submit their films for classification voluntarily, and reputable retailers have continued to abide by the age classification restrictions. Trading standards officers throughout the country, however, are coming across more and more cases of people seeking to exploit the loophole. Officials are uncovering more and more cases of unscrupulous people selling unclassified material or age-restricted material either by post or in outlets that are not licensed sex shops.
For example, law enforcement officials in Milton Keynes have had to return 550 seized unrated DVDs to a seller who is now free to supply them until the Act becomes enforceable again. To be clear, unrated means beyond the R18—potentially very unpleasant material. In Bournemouth, trading standards officers were unable to prevent a newsagent selling R18 and unrated hard-core sex videos, while in Conwy, law enforcement officers were unable to deal with seven cases of supplying 18-rated videos to children. In Edinburgh, five outlets supplying adult material could not be pursued by trading standards officers. These examples are just a few of the many being discovered by trading standards officers and law enforcement officers in every part of the country.
The longer this legal loophole is allowed to exist, the greater risk of harm being caused to the public by the unrestricted circulation of this kind of material and the greater the potential for the most extreme material to be supplied to children. It is therefore vital in helping to restore the public’s faith in Parliament and the video classification system that we act quickly to restore the important public protections contained in the 1984 Act.
The Bill was notified to the European Commission on 10 September 2009 and the three-month notification period expired on 11 December 2009. The fact that we introduced the Bill on 15 December—the earliest possible date after the expiry of the notification period—and are using the fast-track procedure is a measure of how important the Government view the need for the VRA to be made enforceable again.
I know of the concern in this House and in the other place about the use of the fast-track process for legislation and the dangers involved in it, but the Video Recordings Bill provides a classic example of why fast-track legislation still has a role to play. There is a real problem that needs to be dealt with quickly in order to restore important public protections. The Bill does not introduce any new provisions beyond those with which we are all familiar and that have been successfully enforced for 25 years.
The Bill could hardly be simpler, consisting of only two clauses and a schedule. Clause 1(1) repeals the provisions of the Video Recordings Act 1984 and then immediately revives them. Clause 2 refers simply to the short title of the Bill, its commencement and extent. The schedule contains transitional provisions that are designed to ensure that the repeal and revival of the VRA provisions do not change their effect or the effect of other documents that refer to them—in other words, it ensures that all administrative decisions taken previously under the Act still remain valid in law. This is needed to ensure both that all films do not need to be submitted for classification again and a seamless transition once the 1984 Act is revived.
In order to close the period during which offences cannot be prosecuted as soon as possible, the Bill is intended to come into force immediately on Royal Assent. Thus, in summary, the Bill does not introduce any new provisions or offences into the 1984 Act; it simply restores a system of classification that has been in operation for the last 25 years, which has worked to stop the circulation of the worst kind of video material. It is a system that is well understood and liked by a clear majority of the public and the industry. The Bill is essential to ensure proper protection of the public from the inappropriate supply of violent and sexual video material by making the offences under the 1984 Act enforceable again.
In moving the Second Reading of this Bill, I hope that I can call on the support of the whole House to ensure its speedy passage through all its stages in the House of Commons today.
I am grateful for this chance to support the Government in seeking to pass the Video Recordings Bill. As the Minister noted in his opening remarks, we are here for some very peculiar reasons. In theory, we are debating a Bill that was enacted as long ago as 1984. The then Video Recordings Bill was introduced by Graham Bright, the then Member for Luton, South, who rose to become an extremely successful Parliamentary Private Secretary to an extremely successful Prime Minister, John Major. He introduced the Bill on 11 November 1983.
As is well known, the Bill was intended to address the problem of what were then known as “video nasties”. Because videos were unclassified, it was perfectly legal to sell any kind of video without any restriction whatever. As the Minister noted, in the mid-’80s, video recorders—and therefore videos—were becoming all-pervasive, so there was a need to act because videos showing all kinds of unmentionable acts were freely available.
The approach adopted by Mr. Bright in dealing with this problem was ingenious. He introduced a system of classification, and what became illegal was not the selling of an obscene video but the selling of an unclassified video, or a classified video to an inappropriate audience. The test of whether somebody was guilty under the Act was extremely clear-cut. Before the Act was passed, the problem had been that the only available sanction to stop a video nasty was the Obscene Publications Act 1959. Almost by definition, that was a subjective and difficult test to pass. In fact, there were cases of juries clearing people who were accused of selling an obscene video because the jury clearly took the view that it was not obscene. Under the Video Recordings Act 1984 it was made clear that one could not sell an unclassified video. I shall go on to explain why the Act has been so successful—largely because the British Board of Film Classification, to which I pay tribute, has been extremely successful in implementing its provisions.
If any hon. Member has the time over the weekend—or perhaps they will have had time over the Christmas break—it is worth revisiting the debates on the Video Recordings Bill in 1983 and 1984. I am extremely grateful to Mark Taylor from the Library, who pulled out the Committee stages for me to have a look at. The Minister and I were both doing our O-levels at the time, so we may not have been that focused on the debates then taking place.
As the Minister said in his opening remarks, there is a salutary lesson here about how quickly technology changes and moves on. It almost quaint to read those debates, with people referring to the video recording industry as a “new and dynamic” industry; I suspect that most video recorders are now discarded or hidden away in attics. The Minister says that it will be a considerable time before film downloads overtake box sets, but I suspect that in a few years’ time, DVD machines will be going the same way and we will be downloading films directly on to our televisions. I will come back to that problem in a few minutes.
The debate on the Bill took place at a time when the technology revolution was just beginning. It is breathtaking to see the changes that have subsequently taken place in our lifetimes.
It is worth reviewing some of the arguments for and against the Bill at the time. For example, there was a proposal to license video stores, which was rightly rejected as bureaucratic. There was also a debate about—[Interruption.] There are noises off, Mr. Speaker, which are distracting me from my carefully drafted speech. It is interesting to note—well, it is interesting to me, if not to the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster)—that there were also calls for self-regulation of the video recording industry and suggestions that it should be given time to come up with its own system of regulation. I view that as interesting, because there are echoes of our current debate as the Digital Economy Bill goes through the other place and we are debating whether it is appropriate for the Government to regulate on internet piracy or whether there should be self-regulation by the internet service providers. As the Minister knows, we support the Government in bringing in legislation to crack down on internet piracy.
The debate was notable for other contributions, notably a maiden speech by a new Conservative Member for Norwich, which brings to mind the excellent maiden speech recently made by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Chloe Smith). The highlight of the Second Reading debate at the time was a fine and intelligent speech by one Matthew Parris, the then Member for West Derbyshire, who showed the flair and imagination that have been such a hallmark of his subsequently glittering career in journalism. I say all this in the full expectation that I will be written up in exceptionally glowing terms in his column in The Times this Saturday. While this House was sad to lose Mr. Parris, its sorrow was tempered by the election of his successor, who I may say has served the people of West Derbyshire, and this House, exceptionally ever since.
I would never dare to argue with you, Mr. Speaker, but I am a little hurt that you have stolen my punchline. I was, of course, referring to my Chief Whip, but there we go. There goes the joke. I had asked for the entire Committee stage of the previous Bill to be photocopied for me, and I was going to refer in some detail to those proceedings in 1983 and 1984. However, I shall take my lead from you, and pass over what I intended to be an extensive discussion of them.
As the Minister has made clear, someone forgot to tell Europe—or, more accurately, the European Commission—that the previous draft Bill should have been referred to the Commission under Council directive 83/189/EEC of 28 March 1983. That directive is more colloquially known—and referred to in my local pub, where we speak of little else—as the technical standards directive. That failure to refer the Bill to the Commission meant that the legislation became unenforceable. This was an error of Keystone Cops proportions, although part of me would like to think that it was a deliberate attempt to subvert the European project. I like to think of the Act standing alone, redoubtable on the white cliffs of Dover, saying something colloquial to the European Commission, such as, “We’ll deal with our own pornographers, thank you very much.” Sadly, however, this one last redoubt that has stood against Europe for the past 25 years is to be snuffed out today, because somebody told the Commissioners that we had not referred it to them.
I might have misheard the hon. Gentleman. Will he confirm that his understanding of the Bill that we are about to pass is that it does not involve Brussels imposing something on the UK, but instead achieves a position in which we can prevent the importation of material from other EU countries that does not have the certification that we require? Is this not therefore a case of the UK imposing things on other EU countries, and not the other way round?
We are in danger of descending into sophistry. It is an Act of Parliament, but it is a toothless one unless it is referred to Brussels. That is the situation that we are in, but we are not having a debate on Europe and its encroaching powers. Through interventions on the Minister, we have asked how many other Acts of this British Parliament might be toothless, and we look forward to him telling us when the Cabinet Office will report on its audit of every single Act passed since the technical standards directive was put into force.
That was a sort of rhetorical question. I am sure you would have something to say if we were to discuss that, Mr. Speaker.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned an audit of all the Acts since 1984. Does he have information to suggest that other Acts of Parliament have breached the European rules, or is he just speculating that some might have done so? It would involve an awful lot of work if the Cabinet Office were to go through every single Act of Parliament.
The Cabinet Office would not have to go through every single Act of Parliament. It would have to go through only those that have an effect on trade and the free movement of goods. The hon. Member for Bath made the point that the Act restricts the trade in videos and therefore has to be referred to the European Commission. I hear what the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) is saying, however. I know that his Government are keen to save money to protect front-line services, as they say, and perhaps he thinks that the Cabinet Office exercise is a waste of money. Nevertheless, it is going ahead, as the Minister made clear. The Minister hesitated in his response, saying that as far as he knew, no other Act had breached the requirement for reference under the technical standards directive. However, the audit is taking place, and we would like to know when it will be completed.
I want to say a word about fast-track legislation. I said that we supported the Government’s aim of getting the Bill through, but I take note of the remark made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) that they should not assume, simply because we agree that this Bill is suitable for fast-track legislation, that any other Bill that they decide to fast-track will receive the same assent. However, we agree that this Bill should be fast-tracked, for the reason that the Minister gave—that an important Act that protects the public from unpalatable video content remains unenforceable and is being breached up and down the country. People are aware of the loophole and, as the hon. Member for Bath said, if we delay any longer, the breaches will continue. The Minister said that this would be an effective piece of legislation that could be implemented quickly; it was also debated extensively when it was first introduced.
I paid tribute earlier to the work of the British Board of Film Classification, and it is worth spending some time explaining to the House how the board goes about implementing the legislation. It awards an appropriate classification to video works, it provides clear consumer advice, and when necessary it removes material from a work. In extremis, it refuses to classify a work. I think that about 4 per cent. of videos submitted to the BBFC are unclassified or have cuts made. That figure is down from a peak of about 12 per cent. when the Act was first introduced, which shows that the Act works not only through the direct intervention of the BBFC but by implication, in the sense that people are keen to comply with the BBFC’s guidelines before submitting a work to it.
My hon. Friend puts a positive interpretation on those statistics, but will he concede that they might contain a slightly less positive message? The fact that the number of cuts and rejections has gone down so massively in the past 20 years might mean that although the content of the videos is just as bad as it ever was, the BBFC is now less keen to cut them than it was then.
I certainly concede that point. One can look at this from the perspective that the glass is half full, or that it is half empty, because tastes have changed. An example is the film “A Clockwork Orange”, which was originally banned but is now available on video.
I hesitate to disagree with my hon. Friend, but I believe that “A Clockwork Orange” was not banned, but withdrawn by Kubrick, because he was publicly blamed for certain attacks that took place, which the press attributed to the influence of his film.
“Straw Dogs” is one that I almost mentioned. I have not seen it, but it was in the BBFC’s briefing to me. I shall come to that film in a moment, as it is covered in my speech.
Obviously tastes change, and some films and videos that were unpalatable 20 years ago are now more palatable. For example, “Straw Dogs”, an X-rated 1971 film that was originally rejected for video release, was accepted uncut for video release in 2002 with an 18 classification. “The Exorcist” was released uncut on video in 1999, and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”—
Order. The hon. Gentleman has been in the House for four and a half years. I am sure he knows that he needs to resume his seat. I was sceptical as to whether we needed to go round the legislative course of 25 years ago, but I am absolutely certain that we need no further evidence of the hon. Gentleman’s expertise in cinema.
I concede your point, Mr. Speaker, but, yet again, you have torpedoed my next joke. Depressingly, I was going to cite the example of “Bridget Jones’s Diary”, a DVD that was, surprisingly, censored by the BBFC. I was going to make the joke that unless we pass this legislation rapidly, Richard Curtis might start putting out unsuitable DVDs, but I now I shall not.
The BBFC works closely with law enforcement agencies by providing classification evidence to ensure successful prosecutions. That co-operation is necessarily on hold while the Video Recordings Act 1984 is unenforceable.
There were several notable interventions in the Minister’s opening remarks about the effect of the unenforceability of the Act on previous prosecutions, which fills me with concern. As far as I am aware, something like 2,600 prosecutions have been successfully carried out under the Act. He says that his Department has received legal advice that if people seek to overturn convictions they are unlikely to succeed, but I do not share his confidence. It appears to be based on legal advice that he and his Department have received that an appeal against conviction would be out of time. However, I assert to him that an individual seeking to overturn a previous conviction would not simply appeal against it—by definition, they would have been prosecuted under a unenforceable Act, so there would be nothing to appeal against. Instead, they would seek to set it aside. I am concerned about that.
The House is not in the habit of passing retrospective legislation. The last Conservative Government passed one piece of retrospective legislation—the War Crimes Act 1991, which allowed people living in this country who were guilty of war crimes in the second world war to be prosecuted. It is not a habit that we want to get into, but I counsel the Minister that his legal advice appears to be extremely ropy. For example, if a person has been convicted under an unenforceable Act—we concede that the 1984 Act is unenforceable—what do they do about their Criminal Records Bureau file? A CRB check on someone could show that they had been convicted under the Act, but they might want to get rid of that and apply to have the conviction set aside. Is it appropriate that the CRB should put convictions under the Act on people’s files? That concerns me.
I would also be interested to know what the legal advice on compensation is. Of course, if people seek to set aside their convictions, that is one thing, but seeking compensation from the Government is quite another. What advice has the Minister received about what compensation might be available to people who seek to set aside those convictions? My hope—I do not have the necessary expertise in such matters—is that compensation would be de minimis if it was given at all.
The key point that the Minister tried to get across in his speech, and which we support him on, is that the 1984 Act is very much a live Act: it works and it is effective. Unlike many of the Acts and Bills that we debate in the House—one thinks of the Fiscal Responsibility Bill, which we debated yesterday—the Act has a real impact on consumers every day. He cited the opinion polls that show that 71 per cent. of people make use of classifications under the Act. There is mandatory labelling on the front and back of cases and any other surface of 5 cm or more, and videos must carry the BBFC age rating in words in a prominent position and in a specific size. In the case of box sets that contain differently rated works in one package, the classification of the highest-rated work must be printed on the outer packaging. The vast majority of video distributors include consumer advice to provide additional detail about a work’s rating to enable parents to make an informed choice about their children’s video viewing, so the ratings empower the consumer, particularly parents.
I am delighted that the Minister raises the issue of children. Presumably he is fully behind the recommendations of Tanya Byron. Those over 18 may choose whatever video or DVD they want, but we need to have measures in place that will protect children and young people from having access to violent video games.
We need to protect children from access to violent video games, films, television shows and books. The issue is not the genre—be it video game, film or video—but the content. That is what we must protect children from. I am flattered that the right hon. Gentleman already considers me to be a Minister. If he is that worried about a future Conservative victory, I hope he will join the rebellion currently being instigated by a number of ex-Ministers for a secret ballot—
Order. I believe the hon. Gentleman has enjoyed a fair amount of latitude already this afternoon, and I seriously urge him to stick to the confines of the debate before us.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
The 1984 Act has been effective in dealing with under-age sales, and it is a vital tool in helping to ensure that children and young people do not gain access to products that are harmful and detrimental to their safety and welfare. Picking up the point made by the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), it is interesting to note that in the past two years, more than 200 cases of under-age sales have been prosecuted. That is an example of how the Act is working, and in particular of how it is being implemented to protect children. We often talk about protecting children in the abstract, but the Act is a real, live example.
The Act helps to deal with unofficial and counterfeit goods, and it is used to prevent supplies of counterfeit or pirate works and as a means of detecting unclassified works. It is therefore effective against unofficial products being put into circulation, and therefore helps to protect legitimate businesses from unscrupulous trading. The BBFC frequently gives evidence to the Federation Against Copyright Theft and the Trading Standards Institute on whether a seized work has been classified by it for distribution in the UK. Even if traders of pirated products are not prosecuted on behalf of rights owners for conspiracy to defraud, or for copyright or trade mark infringement, actions can still be taken for illegally supplying an unclassified work or a classified work to an under-age person.
The Act helps to deal with the problem of parallel imports of video works from other countries. Those are normally in breach of it because they have not been classified or labelled for UK distribution. That is extremely useful to UK retailers and distributors who have acquired licences for sale in the UK and who wish to protect their businesses from unlicensed imports. The point again is that often, prosecutions are the tip of the iceberg. The fact is that people who seek to import videos and distribute them illegally in this country are put off by the provisions of the Act.
The Act can be a gateway to the discovery of other serious offences. Often, investigations that begin with a breach of the Act unearth other criminality such as obscene images, the proceeds of crime or illegitimate business dealings. It can therefore help to uncover unscrupulous businesses.
As the Minister indicated, although the Act remains unenforceable, it is heartening that legitimate makers of videos continue to comply with its provisions. Responsible members of the home entertainment industry, which includes distributors belonging to the British Video Association and games publishers, have continued to submit their works to the BBFC for classification. However, the BBFC is concerned that others are not doing so.
I join the hon. Gentleman in his praise of the industry. Is he aware that in fact, the number of products that have been submitted for classification since the problem arose has dropped significantly? There must be a concern that material is being produced and sold inappropriately and unclassified.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, you were not in the Chamber when Mr. Speaker continued to anticipate my every remark. Now that he has left the Chamber, that role has been taken by the hon. Gentleman, because I was about to say that the BBFC is concerned that submissions have decreased significantly. There was an 11 per cent. reduction in September 2009 and 20 per cent. in October 2009. He is not even listening to me now, but there was a reduction of 38 per cent. in only the first half of November 2009. That is an extremely worrying trend.
There are numerous examples of distributors blatantly disregarding the law because they know that it is unenforceable. For example, in Bournemouth, trading standards officers cannot prevent a newsagent from selling R18 and unrated hardcore sex videos or two unlicensed sex shops from selling unrated DVDs. There are examples throughout the country: Brent, Cheltenham, Conwy, Dorset, the highlands, Havering, Islington, Luton, Manchester, Milton Keynes, Powys and Southampton have all reported examples of retailers distributing unclassified works because they know that the 1984 Act is not enforceable. As the Under-Secretary said, some local authorities are even being pursued through the courts for carrying out in good faith what they believed to be their statutory obligations.
We have made it clear from the outset that we support the Government’s intention to pass the Bill as quickly as possible. Let me mention only two concerns on which, in a perfect world, we wish the Government had acted.
First, as the hon. Member for Bath said, the Digital Economy Bill will amend the 1984 Act and bring video games into a system of statutory classification using the European rating system known as PEGI—pan European game information. Broadly speaking, hon. Members of all parties support that. Everybody recognises that video games should be classified under a statutory system. The vigorous debate that took place between the British Board of Film Classification and PEGI about the appropriate rating system was played out and a conclusion, which Conservative Members support, was reached.
However, we assert that the Under-Secretary could have inserted relevant provisions in a draft Bill, which could then have been submitted to the European Commission in September and returned to the House to be enacted. To pick up on the point that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome made, although we support fast-tracking the Bill, we would have supported including provisions in a draft that was submitted to the European Commission and extending the debate on the measure. It need not have taken long—we could have had Second Reading today, Committee tomorrow and Third Reading next week.
I make that point because there is serious concern about the time available for the Digital Economy Bill. It is debatable whether we will even get a chance to discuss those provisions in this House. If the Under-Secretary responds by claiming that including those draft provisions in the Bill that we are discussing would have made a debate impossible, I say wait and see whether we even have a debate on those provisions, if and when they come before us through the Digital Economy Bill. I am not sending a hidden message. Conservative Members intend to co-operate on the Digital Economy Bill—although we take issue with some of it, it contains many important provisions that help the digital economy. However, in the circumstances, with the Prime Minister on the verge of toppling because of a rebellion by his—
Order. I repeat my earlier remarks to the hon. Gentleman and remind him that we are dealing with one Bill at a time. At the moment, we are considering the Video Recordings Bill.
That is absolutely correct.
There is some concern that music and sports videos remain exempt from classification. Again, that exemption could have been removed in a draft submitted to the European Commission. There is overwhelming support for removing the exemptions. There is not a shred of logic or intellectual credibility to keeping music and sports videos exempt. Why should something be exempt just because it is of a particular genre? As I said to the right hon. Member for Leicester, East, we are worried about inappropriate content being distributed to minors and adults. Whether it is in a video game, DVD, film, a music video or something related to sport is irrelevant. The exemption is bizarre. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman agrees—he is nodding.
I do not agree that we are talking about the same thing. A film with inappropriate content is not interactive. The point about video games, which is backed up by research from America, is that the player is part of the process. Players shoot and stab people in a video game, and that is different. I accept that inappropriate content is wrong, wherever it is found, but video games are different.
I continue to assume that the right hon. Gentleman is against hard-core pornography and offensive content. For example, a video by the band Slipknot, which includes self-mutilation by teenagers, remains unclassified. Before we get into a debate on censorship, I am not saying that that content cannot be viewed by responsible adults, or that the video by Mötley Crüe, which depicts a George Bush lookalike with a prostitute, could not be viewed by responsible 18-year-olds. However, I think that all hon. Members agree that it should not be viewed by a 10-year-old, and should therefore be classified so that parents know, if their 10 or 11-year-old comes home saying, “I’ve got the latest Mötley Crüe video,” exactly what it could contain. It is extraordinary that music and sports videos are exempt. We will continue to press for the removal of that exemption. However, we are where we are; the Bill has been introduced in its current form and we do not intend to stand in its way.
I end with a wider point about what the Bill omits, and ask whether we are closing the stable door after the horse has bolted and whether, by considering a Bill that applies to a venerable Act—25 years old—we are missing the point. I ask that because of the advent of the internet and convergence. Although the Under-Secretary said in his opening remarks that experts who retail such products believe that it will be “some considerable time” before the download of film overtakes the purchase and rental of DVDs, I counsel that that “considerable time” could be considerably shortened when one considers, for example, YouTube, which grew from nothing to being a global company in 18 months.
To pick up on the comments of the right hon. Member for Leicester, East about the Byron report, which focuses on keeping children safe in a digital world, I am genuinely interested in the Under-Secretary’s thoughts about how and whether content should be regulated online. As he knows, an increasing number of video distributors submit their films for classification to the BBC for an online rating, but obviously more unscrupulous dealers do not do that. The legislation does nothing to ensure that there are any sanctions against people who distribute videos online.
The opportunity to respond to a Second Reading debate for the first time from the Front Bench has been thoroughly enjoyable. It has been a rollercoaster ride. There were a couple of clashes with Mr. Speaker, who took the punchlines of my best jokes, but I hope that I have covered the ground comprehensively and shown the reasons for the Opposition’s support for the Government’s fast-tracking the Bill today.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey). I congratulate him on his maiden Second Reading speech from the Front Bench. It was fascinating and I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you were not present for the whole contribution. I feel—and I am sure the House feels—that we know so much more about the hon. Gentleman, especially his encyclopaedic knowledge of all the films and videos that have been produced in the past 25 years.
It must be a Minister’s worst nightmare to arrive at his desk in Whitehall to be told by civil servants that an important Act is effectively illegal. An Act is an Act, as the Minister has said, but the news in respect of this Act was that it had not passed through the necessary European legislation hoops and that therefore the prosecutions under it for the past 26 years were, in effect, invalid. I do not know whether the Minister who is present was the Minister who was told that news, but if so, I would love to have been in his office as he received the advice. I must commend him, however, as I think he has dealt with this situation in an extremely calm and cool manner throughout, from how he responded to the first announcements just before Christmas to the way in which he has presented the Bill to the House. It is right for the Government to use this special method to try to get the legislation through the House, because the worst possible thing to do on discovering that an Act of Parliament is not, in fact, enforceable would be to allow that Act to remain on the statute book and individuals and companies to be prosecuted, and then to try to work out at a later stage exactly what to do about that very unfortunate circumstance.
The Minister has given us an assurance that the Government have brought the matter before the House as best they could in the circumstances. We will therefore deal with all the Bill’s stages this afternoon, and, judging by the number of Members attending this debate, we should deal with them speedily. By doing so, we might provide more time for discussion of the Digital Economy Bill, as the hon. Member for Wantage said.
In common with every other Member who has spoken thus far, I of course agree that we need to correct the error made 26 years ago, and I commend the Minister on not seeking to make party political points about why it occurred, as this could have happened to any Minister. We do not expect Ministers to have encyclopaedic knowledge of how the European Union works. Ministers operate in accordance with the advice given to them, and clearly over the past 26 years advice was given to Ministers suggesting that the legislation was fully in keeping with European law and was therefore enforceable.
I hope that when the Minister sums up he will tell us in greater detail precisely what will happen to those who have been prosecuted; he alluded to that during the discussion of the allocation of time motion. The question of compensation has been mentioned, and when this was announced I received a telephone call from the home affairs editor of The Times telling me what had happened. There is genuine concern among those who have been prosecuted over the past 26 years as to whether their convictions were valid, whether the sums paid in fines will have to be repaid to them and whether they might be re-prosecuted as a result of the new legislation. I am sure that it will not be retrospective legislation. We cannot say that everybody who has been prosecuted under the 1984 Act will have to be re-prosecuted—we do not know. It is extremely important that there is clarity on such issues if the House is to give the Government the benefit of the doubt and allow them to pass the Bill in the space of one day—or a few hours, in fact.
Let us be clear about what we wish to know. Will those who have been prosecuted be entitled to compensation, and if so, how much will they get? Will they be re-prosecuted? Do their convictions still stand, or are they expunged? What is the precise legal nature of this situation? I am sure that the Minister will have sought the advice of the Attorney-General and that she will have been very clear about where the Government stand in respect of an Act of Parliament that is found to be unenforceable. When the Minister sums up, I hope that he will tell us the answers to those questions.
My second point is about the general debate concerning video games. I am keen not to stray beyond the measures of the Video Recordings Act 1984, but there were some very interesting comments from the Front Benches about their commitment to ensuring that the thriving and innovative video games industry in the United Kingdom, and particularly in London, survives. I am not against what is being proposed, and I have never been in favour of censorship; I have always been very clear that those who are aged 18-plus should be able to buy and watch whatever video games they want. Those who are not sufficiently old should not be able to do so, however, and those retailers who are prosecuted under this Act must be dealt with very severely indeed.
I say that because I disagree with the hon. Member for Wantage, in that I do not believe that watching a film is the same as participating in a video game. I know that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have very young grandchildren, and I have children aged 14 and 12. A huge amount of research has been done on the issue, and it has been found that half of all eight to 11-year-olds use the internet without adult supervision. I do not know how many Members present have children or grandchildren aged between eight and 11, but it is a real worry that a half of those in that age group are not supervised by adults when using the internet.
Some parents take the home computer out of their children’s rooms and put it in a room where everyone has access to it so that they can watch over what their children are doing online. Parents have different ways of dealing with that issue, but the fact is that watching a violent film is different from participating in a video game. If a young person gets hold of “Modern Warfare 2”, for example, they will be asked to participate in a terrorist attack; they will be asked to shoot at civilians in Moscow airport as part of the game. That is why the Russian Government have banned “Modern Warfare 2”; they felt that in an age when we are trying to educate our children about the need to understand the dangers of extreme violence, we should not place in their hands, under the guise of entertainment, games that allow them to act in a violent way.
I am grateful to the Minister for what he said about the Digital Economy Bill coming before this House soon, and it is always the hope of Ministers that such Bills will come to the House from the other place quickly, but I have counted that we have just 35 working days from now until 31 March. Nobody knows when the next general election will be held, of course, but there are only 35 complete working days in which legislation can be addressed in this House.
The right hon. Gentleman refers to “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2”. It is already rated 18 and therefore it is already illegal to sell it to somebody who is under age, without the Digital Economy Bill needing to be passed. I do not disagree with the right hon. Gentleman on the necessity of passing that Bill, but there are already provisions in place that prevent children from playing that game.
Absolutely, and I would be the last person on earth to question the expertise of the Chairman of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. The hon. Gentleman is right, but there are certain bits of that Bill that it would be helpful if we could implement. That is a recommendation of Tanya Byron. There is absolutely no point in the Government setting up an inquiry and receiving an excellent report from Tanya Byron if they do not then implement the report as a matter of urgency.
I agree with the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) on this matter. I know that some people believe that the Liberal Democrats exist to provide consensus, but he is true to type, and he has made it clear that if there are bits of the Digital Economy Bill that we can all agree on, we should go ahead and get on with implementing them. If we can implement the Bill currently under discussion as quickly as we are doing, why should we not do so in respect of other measures? That would be far better than leaving decisions on which Bills will get through to an end-of-Session barney behind the Speaker’s Chair between the Chief Whips of both sides. That is not the right way to make legislation. I hope that we can move forward on the issue.
The Byron recommendations must be implemented in full, as doing so will help to strengthen what the Government are trying to do enormously. As far as video recordings are concerned, I pay tribute to what the Government have done over the past few years. There has been a huge leap forward since I first took up this issue, along with others, after young Stefan Pakeerah, from Leicester, was stabbed to death in a park in Leicester in circumstances similar to those found in a video game watched by his killer, Warren Leblanc. I know that the judge in that case said that there was no connection, but the mother of the young boy stabbed to death felt very strongly that there was. Following subsequent meetings with two Prime Ministers and many Ministers, the Government have pushed forward on the matter.
I welcome what the Government have done, but it remains the case that any Member of the House can walk into any video store subject to the Video Recordings Act 1984, pick up a box set and see a tiny—it is still tiny—reference to the age limit for those playing the game. Through various campaigns involving people on all sides, we increased the 18 certificate sign from about the size of a 1p piece to probably the size of a 10p or, possibly, 50p piece. Actually, we have always said that, as with cigarette packets, splashed across the front of a violent video game should be the fact that it has adult content—and good luck to over-18s who wish to buy it! That would bring the fact to the attention of retailers who might, sometimes inadvertently, sell the game to someone under the age of 18.
I was interested to hear the statistics put forward by the hon. Member for Wantage on the number of stores that have been prosecuted. I have been after those statistics for some time. They are good news. The last time some mystery shopping was done—Trevor McDonald on one of his ITV programmes sent in a load of under-18 mystery shoppers—they were sold video games for over-18s, but the stores were not prosecuted. I welcome the fact that the figures are quite high. We are going through the bother of trying to get the Bill through quickly, and we should send out a message that legislation passed by the House will be implemented and that those who break the law will be prosecuted.
Through no fault of the Minister, we find ourselves in the position of trying to repeal and re-enact a law originally passed 26 years ago. That is the fault of neither the Minister nor any other individual. The fact is that the Bill is before us today. I hope that we can make rapid progress and, in the near future, discuss the substance of video games and hear from the Minister on Second Reading of the Digital Economy Bill.
It is a great honour and privilege to follow the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), who serves with such distinction as the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee and has a clear personal interest in one of the key issues being debated today—video games. I was particularly delighted that he went out of his way to praise the video games industry. He is absolutely right in doing so: it is a vital part of this country’s creative economy, which many people believe could be, with the relevant support, as important to the country’s economy as the financial services industries have been. Many people have believed him to be interested only in condemning individual video games—he has gone on several crusades in that respect—so it was good to hear him praising the industry, as well as chastising it for some of the projects it has produced.
I was also pleased that the right hon. Gentleman picked up on a point that I made in an intervention on the Minister. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I have done the calculations on the Digital Economy Bill, which makes amendments to the Video Recordings Act 1984, and given the recent announcement that the time allocation in another place will be longer than originally anticipated, it seems highly unlikely that we will be able to get through all the stages of that Bill in this place before the likely date of the general election. Given that there is cross-party support for much of Tanya Byron’s excellent report, I hope that the Minister can find ways to ensure that areas on which there is such agreement can be brought forward and put on to the statute book before the election.
I was also pleased to hear the right hon. Gentleman pick up on a point made by the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey), to whom I shall turn in a second, about the successful prosecutions of those who have been selling inappropriate videos to under-age people—to children. It is right and proper that we praise, for example, the many excellent trading standards officers in local authorities around the country who have brought those prosecutions so successfully—if only other cases of under-age sales, such as those of alcohol, were prosecuted with such vigour! However, I am delighted that that is happening in this case.
I am always delighted to be involved in debates in which the hon. Gentleman has participated. I confess that it came as a complete surprise to hear that this was his maiden Second Reading speech as a shadow Minister. He seems to have been in his place as a shadow Minister for so long; it demonstrates how scarce is the legislation on matters within the portfolio of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Had we been allowed, many of us would have liked to see legislation such as the Heritage Protection Bill, which would have given him an earlier outing on his party’s Front Bench.
The hon. Gentleman occupied the crease for 36 minutes, during which he did a great deal, rightly, to praise the British Board of Film Classification for its work. However, he failed to praise it also for its work in speech writing—I recognised quite a large chunk of his speech from the excellent briefing notes that the organisation provided to all hon. Members likely to be taking part in the debate. However, he raised some important points, and I do not wish to repeat many of them, given that he occupied the crease for so long. We know why we are here and we know what the problem is.
As the right hon. Gentleman said, the Minister was generous in not seeking to gain party political advantage on where the error occurred, whether in 1984, in 1993 when the first revisions took place, or in 1994 when the second revisions took place. One might have expected the concern now discovered—about the provisions not having been reported to the European Union—to have been discovered at that time. Nevertheless, let us praise the current civil servants in the Minister’s Department for finding the problem and helping the Minister and his predecessor to find a way to deal with it swiftly.
Swiftness is the essence of why we are here today. It is vital that we get back on to the statute book, as quickly as possible, legislation that provides protection against the sale of inappropriate material to children, and counters the ability of people to sell pirate DVDs and so on. We have all made it clear that we are keen to support the Minister in his desire to fast-track the legislation back on to the statute book and then, if there is sufficient time—I am increasingly concerned about that—to make subsequent amendments to it in light of, for instance, the introduction of the PEGI system for video games. There is support for that on both sides of the House.
Reference has been made to the case for amending the Video Recordings Act itself, something that we could have done today. It might have delayed proceedings, but it could have been an option. The hon. Member for Wantage made a point about some of his party’s proposals for changes to the legislation. I would like an assurance that the issues raised will be dealt with in the Digital Economy Bill, so that there will not be a need to amend the Bill that is before us.
I share the concern expressed by the current shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt), about DVDs and videos relating to sport, religion and music that do not carry ratings but which often contain material that many of us would think inappropriate, in particular for sale to young people. Such videos include self-mutilation, erotic dancing, sex toys, drug use and so on.
The Minister’s officials have made clear a point that was not picked up by the hon. Member for Wantage. They have said:
“Music, sports or religious videos lose their exemption from classification if they depict sexual activity, mutilation, gross violence or other practices likely to cause offence,”
and that in those circumstances,
“it is for the appropriate enforcement authorities to take action.”
The implication is that there is no need for an amendment, because other bits of legislation could be used to prosecute people distributing such material. I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify that issue, because it is one that those in probably all parts of the House want to be resolved. My concern is to find out the means by which it is going to be resolved, or whether the Minister believes, as his officials appear to be saying, that there is no problem and that action can be taken under existing legislation.
I will not dwell on my second point for any length of time, because it has already been raised by the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who is no longer in his place, despite the fact that the race meeting to which he was hoping to go today has been cancelled because of bad weather. The hon. Gentleman rightly raised the issue of the degree of complacency—I choose my words carefully—that the Minister appears to have about people who have already been prosecuted under the Video Recordings Act 1984, which we now understand was not correctly enforced.
The Minister seemed to imply that the reason why he had been advised that there would be no redress was that people would be too late to make an appeal. However, as the right hon. Gentleman made clear—I think that the hon. Member for Wantage made a similar point—if the legislation was never enforced correctly, we are not talking about an appeal; rather, I suspect that we are talking about a very different legal process. Others have asked, and I, too, would be grateful if the Minister could give us clearer assurances about why he and his officials are correct in this matter.
If the law is logical—the Minister will know more than we do about that, because he will have consulted the Attorney-General—and there was, in effect, no conviction because there was no proper legislation, the money from any fines would have to be handed back. If anyone received more than a fine—I am not sure what the penalties are—there would have to be additional compensation.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a compelling point. Indeed, I noticed some months ago that he was reported in one newspaper as saying that
“if the act has never been brought into force, prosecutions under it are void. You cannot prosecute someone and convict them on the basis of legislation that has never been in force”.
That seems very compelling indeed. I confess that I have so far heard nothing from the Minister to assure me that the right hon. Gentleman, with his great experience as Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, is wrong.
The right hon. Gentleman is distinguished in many regards, but we will leave it to the equally distinguished, relatively new Minister to come up with an answer to those questions.
I want to pick up a point that I mentioned in an intervention and to take it a stage further. As I have said, the Minister rightly praised the many responsible retailers and producers who have continued to behave as if the 1984 Act were still in force. I add my congratulations to them. However, he also pointed out that there are some problems developing. The first, which I mentioned earlier, is that the number of firms seeking classification has fallen dramatically. Year on year to September last year, the reduction was 11 per cent., bearing in mind that for most of the year it was assumed that the 1984 Act was in force. It is therefore not surprising that by October the figure was 20 per cent. or that by the middle of November it was 38 per cent. There was therefore a significant reduction in the number of people who wanted their material classified.
Indeed, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because when he made that very point earlier, I looked at the briefing and intervened on him. He is absolutely right.
The other point, which has not been touched on so far, is that as I understand it—from the same, excellent brief from the BBFC—a number of councils and their trading standards officers are being pursued through the courts for carrying out what they thought in good faith were statutory obligations under the VRA. Clearly they were wrong: if the VRA was not in force and they were seeking to prosecute people for breaches of a non-existent Act, one can understand that those people might be aggrieved and seek redress from them. My question for the Minister, therefore, is, what assistance are the Government providing to local authorities in that position?
The third point that has already been touched on—again, by the Minister and others—is about the large and growing number of examples of places around the country where breaches, as they would have been if the law had been in force, of the VRA are taking place. The Minister cited Bournemouth, Conwy and Milton Keynes, while the hon. Member for Wantage referred to a number of other places. In Cheltenham, for example, law enforcement officers cannot pursue a newsagent selling R18 and unrated porn DVDs that are displayed above an ice cream display cabinet. In Manchester, trading standards officers have dropped three VRA cases involving 3,000 videos.
However, there are two examples that I want to draw to the Minister’s attention in particular. The first is from Powys, where trading standards officers are unable to pursue seven cases of under-age video games sales. The other example is from Brent, where trading standards officers are unable to prosecute three high street stores for selling age-restricted video games to children. In both cases, as the right hon. Gentleman said, we are particularly concerned about the sale of inappropriate material to under-age young people.
Where those prosecutions have been dropped, I wonder whether the Department has taken note of its own explanatory notes, which point out that, even with the 1984 Act no longer on the statute book, there are other bits of legislation, such as the Obscene Publications Act 1959, that in certain circumstances could be used in respect of the sale of material to under-age people. Being interested in that point, I looked at the equally excellent briefing produced by the Library. In paragraph 2.2 of that briefing, the Minister will find the following reference to how the 1959 Act might be used in such circumstances:
“The 1959 Act proscribes the distribution, circulation, sale, the giving or loan of obscene material. A point to make here is that at least some successful prosecutions under the 1984 Act could well have been made under the 1959 Act: pornographic material that might be legally supplied to an adult could be obscene if given to a child.”
The briefing then quotes the case law on that issue, but my question is, given that there are, and will continue to be, outstanding cases where prosecutions could not now be taken forward under the re-established VRA, will the Department seek to provide support to those local authorities concerned, to see whether they could use other bits of existing legislation on the statue book to help bring prosecutions against those who have sought to abuse the loophole created by the error made back in 1984?
I made it clear—I repeat the point now—that the Minister is absolutely right to get the Bill on to the statute book as quickly as possible, in order to return the protection that the VRA brings and enable the BBFC and all the enforcement authorities to continue their excellent work to date. For that reason, we give the Minister our full support and hope that we get the Bill through quickly today.
It is a pleasure to follow all four previous speakers in what has been a remarkably harmonious debate. I do not intend to change that. This is an important measure, and I welcome the fact that the Government have moved so swiftly to close the loophole that has been identified. I will not dwell on how it came about, but I merely observe that the Government are very fond of blaming almost every ill in society on the actions of the previous Government, and this is one of the very few examples where there may be some merit in that claim.
I hope that the Minister will address the questions raised by the previous speakers about the consequences of the loophole, because I share their concern about the status of those who have been convicted over the course of the past 25 years and the possibility of their bringing actions for what now appear to have been unlawful convictions. I hope that he will spend a little more time on that subject when he responds.
I wish to make a few observations about the Video Recordings Act 1984. I always approach any such legislation with some suspicion, as I am fundamentally opposed to censorship. I believe that in a free society it is up to adults to choose what they wish to see, but there are two important qualifications to that. The first is that there will always be some material that is so unacceptable in its violent or explicitly sexual content that it is deemed to be damaging to people to view it. I accept that, and some examples have been given in the debate.
I shall return to that matter, but perhaps more important is the fact that while adults are free to choose, we have always accepted that children require protection. I join right hon. and hon. Members in paying tribute to the work of the BBFC. It is in the area of age classification that some of the most difficult decisions have to be taken. The film that required perhaps more cuts than any other, some time ago now, was “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”, because the distributor was keen that it should be given a certificate that meant children were able to see it. The BBFC felt that it contained inappropriate material, and there was lengthy negotiation. A lot of the controversy about films such as “The Dark Knight” and “Casino Royale” is about whether they should appropriately be 12 or 15.
The virtue of the 1984 Act was that it extended that protection, which already existed in cinemas, to viewing in the home. The Minister gave the statistics on the extent to which viewing in the home has taken off in the past 20 years. When the Act was originally introduced back in 1984, it was accompanied by a degree of what one can only call hysteria about video nasties, and it is worth reflecting on what has happened to some of the most notorious examples of films that were widely cited at that time.
The then Minister, Mr. David Mellor, named three films in the course of the debate. The first was “The Driller Killer”, which was banned after the passage of the 1984 Act but then released uncut in 2002, and last night I checked and found that it is available on Amazon for £3.98. The second was “Zombie Flesh Eaters”. That, too, was banned under the Act but then released uncut in 2005 and can now be found on Amazon at £5.98. The third was “I Spit On Your Grave”, which was also on the list of prosecutable movies until 2001 but was then released, although with substantial cuts made by the BBFC, and is now widely available. Perhaps the most remarkable example is a film that was on the Director of Public Prosecutions’ list of films that were banned, Sam Raimi’s “The Evil Dead”, which at the time was regarded as wholly unacceptable but, indicating how tastes change, two years ago was given away free with copies of The Sun as a promotional move.
There is no question but that tastes change and we have become more liberal, which I welcome. However, as I said, there will always be films that go beyond what is generally regarded as acceptable. The Minister mentioned one particular film, “Grotesque”. Two films were banned by the BBFC in 2008. The first was “Murder-Set-Pieces”, described as having scenes in which
“a psychopathic sexual serial killer…is seen raping, torturing and murdering his victims”.
The second has the unlikely title of “The Texas Vibrator Massacre”—I leave its contents to the imagination of hon. Members. I shall return to those two films in a moment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) made the important point that there are loopholes in the existing legislation, which existed for good reasons at the time. It was not regarded as possible that a video concerning music or sport could be unacceptable. That loophole has undoubtedly been exploited. I hosted a dinner that the BBFC gave in the House just before Christmas, at which it showed us examples of some of the material that is now available in music videos and sports games that does not require certification because of the loophole in the 1984 Act. I understand why the Government did not feel able to address that matter in the Bill, but I share the wish that has been expressed that the loophole should be closed, and I hope that it will be in the Digital Economy Bill.
The second main point that I wish to make is that at the time of the passage of the 1984 Act, the world was completely different. Mr. Graham Bright, the Member who moved Second Reading, said that he defined a video recording as
“a video tape or video disc. It is thus a physical product.”—[Official Report, 11 November 1983; Vol. 48, c. 525.]
Of course, it is now not necessarily a physical product. More and more video is being made available through online distribution, which at the time perhaps could not even have been conceived. We are seeking to address that through moves such as those by the BBFC to impose a voluntary system of regulation, but the films that we are concerned about are now very widely available. I return to the two that I mentioned, “Murder-Set-Pieces” and “The Texas Vibrator Massacre”. I checked last night and found that both those films are widely available through file sharing sites. An internet search for either with the words “download” or “bit torrent” will bring up any number of sites from which one can obtain them. Equally, they are available through cyberlockers. Both are on Megaupload and RapidShare and can be accessed without any attempt to verify the age of the person downloading them. There is serious concern about how we can continue to protect young people when it is now so easy to obtain such films.
We will debate the matter at greater length when we come to the measures against piracy through illegal file sharing that the Government are proposing to take in the Digital Economy Bill. It is worth remembering that it is not just protection of copyright that is at stake when we consider file sharing. There is equally the concern that it is being used to circumvent the protections that the House has put in place. In the most extreme cases, as I am sure the Minister will be aware, child pornography is being widely distributed through illegal file sharing. That is another reason why I share with other hon. Members the view that it is important that we get the Digital Economy Bill on to the statute book.
Having said that, I agree with the Minister that the majority of distribution of video content will still be through physical product for the foreseeable future, so it is certainly important that the Bill should be passed today and that we should reinstate the protections that we thought were already in place. However, there is a danger that we will be seen to be bolting the front door when the back door is wide open, and we will have to consider that in future.
That leads me to the more general conclusion that I suspect that there is nothing that this House can do to legislate to prevent the distribution of material online from sites that may be located on the other side of the world. When we consider what it is appropriate for people to view, we must remember that that is a matter for adults to decide. The most effective means that we can have to protect children is for parents to exercise responsibility, watch carefully what their children are doing and ensure that they are not obtaining access to content that could be damaging to them. I support the Bill, but I fear that it is beginning to look increasingly old-fashioned and outmoded given the extraordinary pace of development throughout the video sector.
With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall reply to the debate—and what a pleasure it has been. What a bijou gathering of wisdom and experience this is. Two Select Committee Chairmen, the venerable battler from Bath and my old friend from Wantage have all, in their different ways, made valuable, insightful and often entertaining contributions. Would that it were always thus.
We have already congratulated the British Board of Film Classification on the job that it does, by which we meant the job of classifying films, but I think I ought also to congratulate it on the job that it does in lobbying Members of Parliament and providing briefing for these debates. Rarely can the entire participating body in a debate have been so thoroughly and extensively briefed by a single organisation. I visited the BBFC’s offices fairly recently and heard its arguments about one or two aspects that we may not see in exactly the same way, but I think we are in accord on most of the issues that Members, in their different ways, have discussed today: that is, the central issues. Let me deal with a few of them, hopefully not leaving out too much but also not using up too much time.
The hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) could not quite resist making the anti-European point that the 1984 Act was clearly a single market liberalisation measure leading up to the Single European Act of 1985—that crowning, triumphant, extraordinary piece of Thatcherite European legislation that is the rock on which the European single market is founded, and the basis on which it continues to exist and derive so much prosperity for our countries and our Union. He mentioned several times—and other Members mentioned it as well—that the Cabinet Office had been looking into the issues. I cannot give him any more detail of who in the Cabinet Office has been doing what, but I can tell him that the need to ensure that the omission was an isolated incident and will never happen again is being taken very seriously.
I agree with the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), who praised the zeal and efficiency of the DCMS officials who finally discovered the omission and set us on the road to where we have arrived today. If we are not keen—as I am not—to get into the business of allocating blame for causing the problem in the first place, I am sure we can all unite in wholehearted praise for the people who identified it and are helping us to solve it.
The issue of appeals and past convictions is a difficult one. It is not as simple as some Members seem to think. None of the questions involved has been tested in court. To date, the courts have dealt with no attempts to set aside past prosecutions. Successful prosecutions issued before the failure to refer the 1984 Act to the Commission were dealt with through due process, and as such they still stand. The courts are very reluctant to set aside convictions made years ago when the offence was proved and the defendant found guilty under an Act of Parliament passed by the House, only the enforceability of which has been invalidated by a technicality. The Act remains an Act of Parliament. It remains in force. Only the ability of the authorities to enforce is affected by the failure to notify under the technical standards directive.
We think that claims for compensation are very unlikely to succeed. There is no automatic right to compensation, and any legal right to it in these circumstances would be unprecedented. I understand the prism through which Members have viewed the issue. The hon. Member for Wantage claimed that I had been given bad advice. He described the move from the current boxed physical product world to the online world, and said that he was minded to give me better advice on that than I was currently receiving.