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Column 379Spearing, Nigel
Steel, Rt Hon Sir David
Strang, Dr. Gavin
Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Walker, Rt Hon Sir Harold
Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Wareing, Robert N
Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)
Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Sw'n W)
Wright, Dr Tony
Tellers for the Noes: Mr. John Spellar and Mr. John Cummings
Column 379Question accordingly agreed to .
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 14 (Exempted business),
That, at this day's sitting, the Lords Amendments to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour.-- [Mr. Kirkhope.]
Question agreed to.
Lords amendment: No. 80, after clause 82, to insert the following new clause--
.--(1) The following provisions of the Video Recordings Act 1984 (which create offences for which section 15(1) and (3) prescribe maximum fines of, in the case of sections 9 and 10, £20,000 and, in the case of other offences, level 5) shall be amended as follows. (2) In section 9 (supplying videos of unclassified work), after subsection (2), there shall be inserted the following subsection-- "(3) A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable--
(a) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or a fine or both,
(b) on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or a fine not exceeding £20,000 or both." (3) In section 10 (possessing videos of unclassified work for supply), after subsection (2), there shall be inserted the following subsection--
"(3) A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable--
(a) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or a fine or both,
Column 380(b) on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or a fine not exceeding £20,000 or both." (4) In section 11 (supplying videos in breach of classification), after subsection (2), there shall be inserted the following subsection--
"(3) A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable, on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale or both."
(5) In section 12 (supplying videos in places other than licensed sex shops), after subsection (4), there shall be inserted the following subsection--
"(4A) A person guilty of an offence under subsection (1) or (3) above shall be liable, on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale or both."
(6) In section 14 (supplying videos with false indication as to classification), after subsection (4), there shall be inserted the following subsection--
"(5) A person guilty of an offence under subsection (1) or (3) above shall be liable, on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale or both."
(7) The amendments made by this section shall not apply to offences committed before this section comes into force.")
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse): With this, it will be convenient to take Lords amendment No. 81, Lords amendment No. 82, Government amendments (a) and (b) thereto and Lords amendments Nos. 161, 177, 296 and 333.
Mr. Baker: Amendment No. 80 is designed to increase the penalties for offences under the Video Recordings Act 1984. At the moment, the most serious offence--supplying unclassified videos or possessing unclassified videos for supply under sections 9 and 10
respectively--can be tried only in the magistrates court, where someone who is convicted may receive a maximum penalty of a £20,000 fine. There is no imprisonment for the offences.
In the Government's view, those are serious offences and imprisonment should be available to the courts to deter those who would deliberately break the law. The amendment will therefore make those offences triable either way. That means that they will be able to be tried in the Crown court, where the maximum penalty will be two years in prison, or an unlimited fine, or both. If they are tried in the magistrates court, the amendment means that as well as the £20, 000 fine, there will be the possibility of imprisonment for six months. The maximum penalties for most other offences under the Act are also increased.
Amendment No. 81 will strengthen the Video Recordings Act 1984 by narrowing the categories of video works that are exempt from classification by the British Board of Film Classification. The amendment will therefore add techniques likely to be useful in the commission of criminal offences to the list of matters that cannot be depicted to any significant extent in an exempted work. That will mean that, in future, video works containing instructions on bomb making, on violent
Column 381unarmed combat or methods of breaking into cars or houses, which have caused concern, will no longer be exempt. They will require classification by the board.
The amendment will also exclude from exempt status videos that do not illustrate criminal techniques, but which depict criminal activity that is likely to encourage the commission of criminal offences. The amendment will also change the current subjective test of whether a work is designed to stimulate or encourage certain activities that may not be shown to a new objective test of whether the video work was likely to do so.
Amendment No. 82 for the first time lays down criteria that the designated video classification authority, the British Board of Film Classification, must consider in determining whether a particular video work is suitable for classification and, if so, which category it should be placed in. The criteria are whether any harm may be caused to potential viewers, or, through their behaviour, to society, by the manner in which the work deals with criminal behaviour, illegal drugs, violent behaviour or incidents, horrific behaviour or incidents, or human sexual activity. The criteria mean that the BBFC must consider who is, in fact, likely to see a particular video, regardless of the classification. So, if it knows that a particular video is likely to appeal to children and be seen by them regardless of its classification, it must take them into account as potential viewers. It is very important to bear it in mind that those statutory criteria are not intended to be exhaustive and the amendment states only that the board is to consider them
"among the other relevant factors".
The board will, of course, remain free to take account of other factors such as bad taste, bad language or offensiveness towards particular groups. The amendment will also make a minor change to section 7 of the Video Recordings Act 1984, which describes the broad categories of video classification certificates that the British Board of Film Classification may issue.
Amendment (b) to Lords amendment No. 82 flows originally from a commitment made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary when the Bill was last before the House. There was then a great deal of concern about the availability of unsuitable videos. In the light of that concern, the Home Secretary undertook to introduce an amendment in another place, which would set out in statute for the first time some of the criteria that the board would be required to take into account when determining whether a video work should be granted a classification certificate and, if so, what that certificate should be. [Interruption.] That is heartening news. Lords amendment No. 82 is what emerged as a result of that undertaking. It specifies in law the main criteria that the board should take into account when classifying videos.
Hon. Members will recall that there was also debate about whether it would be possible to provide for existing works to be reclassified in the light of the new statutory criteria. That point was also raised in the debate in the other place. The possibility of some limited review of classification decisions was also referred to by the Home Affairs Select Committee, under the chairmanship of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence), in its recent report on video violence in young offenders, which was published in June. I should like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the careful
Column 382consideration that the Home Affairs Select Committee gave in that study, and in its earlier report, to the challenges presented by rapidly developing technology.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has made plain from the beginning his sympathy with the idea that it should be possible to review the classification of works that have already been granted a certificate. However, he has been very anxious to avoid creating a system of wholesale review, which, for all sorts of practical reasons, would be unworkable. It was the Government's concern about the workability of a system which led my right hon. and learned Friend to move very cautiously in that area.
However, after consultation with the director of the board and the enforcement authorities, my right hon. and learned Friend now believes that it will be possible to meet the widely held concern that there should be some more limited system of review without at the same time creating unsurmountable problems. That is why my right hon. and learned Friend tabled amendment (b) to Lords amendment No. 82, which will enable him to lay an order establishing a system for reviewing works that have been classified before the introduction of the statutory criteria. The amendment creates an order-making power because there are points of detail that will need to be resolved following discussions with those most closely concerned.
We propose a power for the BBFC to review any work classified before the introduction of the new mandatory criteria and, in the light of those criteria and other relevant considerations, to alter the classification decision if appropriate. Just as when a work is originally submitted for classification, there will be a right of appeal against the board's decision to the Video Appeals Committee. I emphasise that nothing that is being proposed will create retrospective criminal liability. No one will be prosecuted for actions taken before the new provisions come into force and which were lawful at the time they were carried out. The proposals will mean only that if, for example, age classification of a work is changed, those who supply it unlawfully in future will be liable to criminal sanctions.
There would clearly be an anomaly if there were no way of reviewing classifications given before the measure came into effect. It is therefore helpful to provide a limited opportunity for such review. It would also be helpful if it were made clear that there will be consultation on the nature of the regulations under which the review will take place.
Column 383for honouring the commitment that he gave the House when we discussed the matter earlier this year. The Lords amendment adequately reflects most of the concerns expressed then.
The House will recall that there had been considerable debate inside and outside this place in the course of which many people raised their misgivings about the amount of violence on television and on videos and the effect that that could have on young, impressionable minds. It is not that every child who sees a violent video will go out and commit a violent offence, but all who have worked with children, especially maladjusted or disturbed children or those with special needs, know that they can often be tipped over the edge if they have a predisposition towards violence by being exposed to continuous and gratuitous violence on the screen.
The House will also recall that, at Easter, Professor Elizabeth Newsome and other distinguished psychologists, psychiatrists and paediatricians honestly admitted that they had been naive and had underestimated the effect that videos might have on the minds of impressionable young people. We have all been on a learning curve, trying to examine the effects of the video culture and of television violence on the young people of our country.
Ms Eagle: A study published earlier this year by the Policy Studies Institute and carried out by Hagell and Newburn, entitled "Young Offenders and the Media", found that young offenders rarely stay home enough to watch video violence and that their patterns of watching videos are much the same as those of children who do not offend. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that that research is superior to the research that he mentioned because it involved a control group of youngsters who do not offend at the same age as those who do? Elizabeth Newsome's research did not have a control group and relied mainly on American research carried out in a very different context.
Mr. Alton: The hon. Lady must admit that we should not want to follow the American example here--American violence is far worse than ours. Of course, we can all call in aid research that appears to support our arguments, but the fact is that 75 per cent. of the evidence heard by the House of Lords Select Committee suggested a direct correlation between the violence continually transmitted on television and videos and real violence in the community. It is a matter of common sense. Advertisers would not spend £1.6 billion a year trying to sell their goods and to cultivate the consumerism and materialism that have become part and parcel of life here if they did not think that it was having an effect on those who watch. There is no doubt in my mind that there is a direct link. Professor Newsome and other distinguished academics in many centres of learning have rightly come to the same conclusion.
Mr. Stephen: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is not just a question of people being exposed to video violence and then going on to offend? It is also a question of the general coarsening and degrading effect that videos have on us all, young and old alike.
Column 384the young and impressionable. That was what brought about the debate earlier this year when hon. Members from all political parties signed the amendment asking for that change. I welcome the fact that the Government acted upon it in the other place.
During the debates there, Lord Elton moved an amendment seeking that videos that are currently available, such as Child's Play 3' , should also be included in the general review, and that it ought to be possible to pull in videos that might have caused controversy to be examined as well as those that might come on to the market in future, such as a Child's Play 4' . That amendment was not accepted in the other place, but the Government agreed to look at the issue and I am pleased that in amendment (b) to Lords amendment No. 82 they have introduced a provision to allow the British Board of Film Classification to look again at videos that might become matters of public controversy if people felt that they were having a profoundly disturbing effect on those who watched them.
I welcome what the Government have done; it has been a satisfactory outcome. I have several questions to put to the Minister which I hope he will be able to answer before the debate concludes.
The amendment contains a trigger mechanism for referring videos to the British Board of Film Classification. Whom does the Minister have in mind to do the referring? Will the BBFC accept referrals by Members of Parliament? Would the Home Office consider making referrals if it were to receive considerable numbers of representations from the public?
No one has it in mind that all 24,000 or so videos that are currently in circulation should be re-examined. We are talking about a very small number of videos, but it would be useful if the Minister could say how he envisages the trigger mechanism working. How long will the review period be? Will it be open-ended or limited to an initial 12-month period? Can the Minister say what the timetable will be for the statutory instrument to be placed before Parliament to bring the scheme into effect? I hope that it will be as soon as possible, but it will be useful for the Minister to place it on record for the House tonight.
What publicity will be given to the review arrangements, including the BBFC initial decision to review a work and the outcome of that review? If the legislation is to help change attitudes--presumably the Home Office accepts that this is partly about changing attitudes and helping parents to be more discerning about the material that goes into their homes--the publicity surrounding the review of a particular video would be helpful.
In conclusion, I should like to thank the hon. Members who signed the original motion, particularly the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) and the Home Affairs Select Committee, which produced an extremely helpful report at a crucial moment in the progress of the Bill.
The issue will not end here this evening; we shall want to keep it under review, not least because hon. Members will be aware that last weekend in Norway a little five-year-old girl was killed by her playmates, who were just a little older than she was. The Norwegian authorities have withdrawn the television programme that they believe helped influence those children who carried out
Column 385that killing. That same television programme is regularly broadcast in Britain. At least I hope that we shall try to discover what reasons led to the Norwegian authorities reaching that conclusion. I hope that we shall continue to keep under review not just video violence, but the general level of violence on television transmissions that contributes to the culture of violence in Britain.
Mr. Michael Alison (Selby): First, I briefly congratulate my hon. Friend the new junior Minister at the Home Office on the very fluent, concise and grave way in which, in the best Home Office tradition, speaking as if he had been there for many a long year, he placed before us an extremely agreeable legislative dish for our late supper this evening.
At the same time, I extend my warm appreciation and congratulations to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary on the important pioneering role that he has played in bringing these important amendments before the House. My right hon. and learned Friend combines, unusually, an extremely acute analytical mind and head with a very responsive and warm political heart. The interaction of that rare combination of desirable attributes often leads him to the conclusion that a balance of reasonable possibility, as distinct from an absolute and proven demonstrable actuality, is good enough cause for taking an initiative, and sometimes a risk, in legislation. That is precisely what he has done in his decision, which is so highly commendable, to bring the amendments before the House. The Home Affairs Committee, which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) chaired so powerfully and admirably, reached some markedly tentative conclusions. It is very much to the credit of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary that, in the light of what the Home Affairs Committee said, he has given the benefit of the doubt to common sense and common concern. I believe that that is the result of the combination of his head and his heart. He has done extremely well by the House of Commons, and by the public at large, by the way in which he has advanced the cause of regulating and controlling that dreadful disease-- that dreadful affliction--of unacceptable and damaging videos. We shall all stand in his debt for many long years ahead and I commend him and my hon. Friend the Minister for what they have done in the short debate this evening.
I do not oppose the clause, but I wish to express scepticism about its efficacy and to express some worries that I had while I was reading it. I also wish, if possible, to gain reassurance from the Minister about aspects that are slightly unclear, and about the degree of subjectivity, which I believe damages the clause. I recognise, as do many other people, the widespread support in the House for the toughening of the law on this issue. I prefer what is now before us to the amendment that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) tabled, which I thought was even more flawed; which threatened to censor seriously the 70 per cent. of households in this country that consist of adults only; and
Column 386with which the Home Secretary had his own difficulties, as he said when he spoke to the original clause at an earlier stage in the Bill's proceedings.
Mr. Alton rose --
Mr. Alton: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her courtesy. The hon. Lady will recall that her right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), who probably knows more about the film industry than anyone in the House, wrote a compelling article in The Daily Telegraph when my amendment was before the House, saying that he would vote for it without any hesitation. He refuted the argument that the hon. Lady has made this evening, which the industry put around at the time, that all types of videos would be caught by my amendment. The industry's only reason for making those arguments was money: people were frightened that they would lose money. The hon. Lady, of all people, surely would not be on the side of people who would be willing to exploit the innocent to make profits.
Ms Eagle: Certainly not. I always read the articles that my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) writes, as I respect him as a friend and an extremely good film critic. I am sceptical about some of the practical effects of the amendments, and I wish to mention some of them, and also some of the difficulties of interpreting the wording. I am worried about the difficult task that we are setting the British Board of Film Classification. I also believe that if it takes too draconian a role in the statutory powers that it will be given when the clause becomes law, we may find that we have gone too far the other way. There may also be some detrimental effects on the British film industry, which I shall discuss later.
I want to ensure--and to receive some reassurance about it from the Minister if possible--that the provision that we are debating will not be applied in such a way as to narrow the availability to the general public of important films that are recognised as classics. Films that have such artistic merit should escape the rules that we are laying before Parliament now. I shall be much happier if I receive some of those reassurances tonight.
We must bear in mind the origin of the clause. There was undoubtedly a moral panic, fuelled by lurid tabloid stories in the aftermath of the horrific and inexplicably brutal murder of James Bulger, and the comments of Mr. Justice Morland when he made explicit reference to the possible impact of violent videos in his comments on that case.
In the light of that controversy, the Home Secretary rightly ordered that reports be made so that he could consider the evidence and what had happened in the trial. I understand that the reports that he received did not support the theory that that appalling and horrific crime had been influenced by exposure to videos. Mr. Justice Morland subsequently clarified his comments by saying that they were not based on any evidence that he had heard in the trial of the Bulger case and that no such evidence was presented at the trial. We should remember