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Video Recordings (Exemption from Classification)

Volume 503: debated on Tuesday 12 January 2010

Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I beg to move,

That leave be given to introduce a Bill to extend the criteria under which music and sports video works and documentaries lose their exemption from classification.

Although we passed—or perhaps I should say re-passed—the Video Recordings Bill last week, for technical reasons of urgency it was not practical to propose amendments at that stage. However, some small but highly significant amendments are needed to ensure a more robust regime for child protection. As chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, I am an ardent supporter of the right to free speech and expression, but I acknowledge the need for a system of regulation that protects children from harmful content in film, videos and DVDs.

At the current time, we have a very effective system of classification. The British Board of Film Classification undertakes extensive research into public opinion about what is acceptable content. The BBFC also takes account of research evidence and the advice of psychologists, health care professionals and the police, among others, to produce guidelines, which are updated every four years, that ensure that the content that reaches children in the UK legally in the form of film, DVDs and videos is of an age-appropriate nature and is not harmful to them.

However, there are gaps in the current regime covering videos and DVDs under the Video Recordings Act 1984—the VRA—and that is what my Bill aims to address. The VRA permits a number of exemptions to the classification regime. Currently they relate not only to video games but to other video works such as music and sports videos. When the Act was passed in 1984, the assumption was that such works were unlikely to cause any concern. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has recognised that the regime for video games needs to be updated, and the Digital Economy Bill, currently in the other place, is intended to do that. As an aside, it is important to note that in doing so it should in no way undermine the classification regime for linear—non-interactive—material by confusing the responsibilities of the BBFC and those of the Video Standards Council, which is intended to be the statutory authority for classifying video games.

Except in relation to video games, exemptions are unfortunately not addressed in the Digital Economy Bill. That is a missed opportunity and the reason I have chosen to bring forward my Bill, which would extend the criteria under section 2 of the VRA to result in specified video works losing exemption from classification. At present, exemption can be claimed for video works such as music and sports videos, which can be very popular with children. Those videos can then be sold to children perfectly legally, even if they contain material that is potentially harmful. My Bill is not intended to extend the VRA to all such exempted works, only to those that contain content that is potentially harmful, such as graphic violence, sexual content falling short of actual sexual activity, imitable dangerous behaviour and drug use. Harmless video works of football matches or artists from the “The X Factor” would remain exempt.

I have seen some of the less benign sport and music videos myself. For example, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s “UFC Best of 2007” is a combat video featuring martial arts and other fighting techniques. It is available on the high street to any child because its distributor has, quite legally, claimed exemption from BBFC classification under the VRA. It therefore carries no age rating or consumer advice. It contains close-up images of bloody and sustained head blows, which are replayed in slow motion from every conceivable angle to ensure that the best possible view is given of the moments of impact.

Another work that I have seen is Mötley Crüe’s “Greatest Video Hits”, which features topless lap dancing and a George W. Bush lookalike in a limousine with a prostitute. The packaging carries an E for exempt rating. Gorgoroth’s “Ad Majorem Sathanas Gloriam” features bloody bodies being crucified and a sheep’s head on a spike. The American band Slipknot is hugely popular with children, some as young as 10, as well as with teenagers. As expected from the band’s reputation, its 10th anniversary DVD features strong content designed to offend parents. Among the most concerning images are those of the consequences of self-mutilation carried out by two teenage girls who have carved the name “Slipknot” into their arm and torso respectively, yet the video carries a letter E in a green triangle indicating that it is exempt from VRA classification.

Those are all works that parents could and should legitimately expect to be regulated, yet under the current legislation they can all be sold legally without any age restriction. Indeed, it is worth noting that some of that material is rated and age-restricted in other countries. For example, the German film classification body rated the Slipknot DVD as suitable only for those aged 16 and above and the Gorgoroth DVD as suitable only for adults.

Trading standards officers would welcome the power to prosecute the supply of such unclassified works, but believe that the current legislation exempts them because, for example, they do not contain gross violence, which is a very high threshold, or actual sexual activity. Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services, which represents local authorities on this matter, and the BBFC both support my Bill’s minor amendments to section 2 of the VRA in order to broaden the criteria that determine when a video work loses its exemption. Such amendments would enable law enforcement agencies to prosecute the supply of video works that are currently exempted, to protect children from potentially harmful media content.

I understand that the Government believe that the enforcement authorities can already take such action. However, the view of those who actually have that responsibility is that they cannot, because of the very high bar set by the VRA in order to lose an exemption. For example, had the Slipknot DVD shown the two girls actually in the process of mutilating themselves with a sharp blade, that may well have constituted gross violence under the VRA, but showing the scars after the event almost certainly does not constitute violence sufficient to lose exemption from classification.

Many responsible members of the home entertainment industry voluntarily seek classification certificates for exempted video works that contain such potentially harmful material. Members of the British Video Association—the BVA—do so even though they are not legally obliged so to do. Their actions in this regard are to be commended. I understand that BVA members support amendments to the Video Recordings Act that would make it a legal obligation on distributors to have potentially harmful material classified, as proposed in my Bill, but there are distributors who do not take the same responsible attitude. That lack of a level playing field serves only to add to consumer confusion.

A parent looking through a shelf of music or fighting videos, some of which are rated 15 or 18, but some of which are marked E for exempt, is likely reasonably to draw the conclusion that the E video is suitable for younger children. Otherwise, the parents would assume, surely it would have been classified. Yet often, the content of E for exempt videos is virtually identical to or worse than that of an age-restricted product. I would therefore like to urge my hon. Friend the Minister to support this Bill.

To conclude, this Bill is aimed at modernising the VRA and improving consumer—and most particularly—parental empowerment, to protect their vulnerable children from harmful video material. I commend this Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Mr. Andrew Dismore, Mike Gapes, Rob Marris, Mr. Virendra Sharma, Mr. Edward Timpson, John Austin, Ms Karen Buck, Clive Efford, Mr. John Whittingdale, Judy Mallaber and Keith Vaz present the Bill.

Mr. Andrew Dismore accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 February and to be printed (Bill 45).