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8.45 pm

I shall explain to the House why it is not appropriate to support the new clauses, but I hope that I may offer some assurance--in the way that my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) suggested--that these are matters that the Government take extremely seriously, albeit we believe that we have set in place mechanisms, through the regulators and responsibilities on broadcasters, to ensure that there is further action.

I also commend the speech of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton), who has consistently ensured that we pay proper attention to the effects of violence on young people. It is impressive that, in a Bill of such complexity, covering many areas, the House has chosen to speak at length on this subject. That in itself is a demonstration of the fact that hon. Members regard it with great importance. It may not be of great concern to the press and others, but we, as Members of Parliament, take it extremely seriously.

I was concerned by the comments of the hon. Member for Mossley Hill about the number of nine to 11-year-olds who have watched material that is quite unsuited to their age. Many would agree with his concern that so many of them have televisions in their own bedrooms, where they are able to watch unattended. Rosalind Miles spoke forcefully the other day about the dangers of children watching television in an isolated way. Children need an adult's interpretation of television. About nine years ago, I chaired a Dicey trust conference on the media and the rule of law. Many people from television, including Will Wyatt and others, were there, as well as Mary Whitehouse. At the time, it was fashionable to sneer at those who were concerned about the effects of violence on the young. Things have now changed substantially. At that stage, my worry was that about one third of children aged between five and eight had televisions in their bedrooms. That figure has now risen substantially.

As is often the case, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) and the right hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) challenged the presumption that we could tackle some of the issues in the way that is set out in the new clauses. That is a view that I hold. The only aspect that has not been properly covered is the fact that many people find so much violence frightening, whether or not it influences behaviour--I take the view that if the independent television companies make their money by persuading people that showing advertisements on television influences behaviour, it is extraordinary to say that other television programmes have no influence on their behaviour. Fear of violence is common in our society, although actual levels of violence are low. Anyone who is afraid of violence has that fear exacerbated by the amount of violence that they see on television.

As the right hon. Member for Copeland made clear, the Bill establishes the Broadcasting Standards Commission on an enhanced basis with greater authority. In addition, it will have the power to commission research in many areas, including on violence, which makes new clause 10 unnecessary as it already has that power. The BSC will have strengthened authority because, if the regulators and broadcasters fail to act on its recommendation, it will be required to follow the matter through and ensure that a statement is made saying what happened to the complaint in question.

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Only recently, the House debated the new royal charter and agreement for the BBC. Again, that strengthens the authority and clarifies the responsibilities of the BBC's governors, as the regulators. Many hon. Members will commend the remarks of the new chairman, Sir Christopher Bland. When asked recently whether more needed to be done about violence, he said:

In years gone by, we would not have had such a strong response from the chairman of the BBC. At present, its producers' guidelines are under review. One of the assurances that I can give the House is that, following today's debate and the strength of feeling and authority with which comments have been made, I intend to have further discussions with the chairmen of the BBC and the ITC, as the regulators, as well as the chairman of the new BSC so that I can be sure that the many points raised today are recognised and given the weight that they deserve.

Mr. Michael Lord (Central Suffolk): My right hon. Friend is sounding a little tougher and I am pleased to hear that. Does she appreciate, however, that members of the public who are watching this debate will probably feel exasperated? Most people now know that there is far too much violence on television and that it is doing a vast amount of damage. They look to this House to do something about it. If we do not accept the new clauses, which may have their faults, the public will expect action that will bite quickly, not long-term reviews, hoping, wishing and supporting. That will not do. Children are being damaged daily and we need much more dynamic action.

Mrs. Bottomley: I appreciate my hon. Friend's comments. Of course, some of the evidence is conflicting. I take a strong interest in the report to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby referred on violence, pornography, and the media. Many people of distinction contributed, not least Professor Andrew Sims, the professor of psychiatry at the university of Leeds. The fact that two thirds of the population said that they were concerned about levels of sex and violence shows that we must give that matter careful consideration. At the same time, however, the ITC reports that only 4 per cent. of the complaints that it receives concern violence, so there is a gap between the general perception that there is too much violence and the number of complaints received, which has fallen--it used to be nearly 6 per cent. and now it is down to 4 per cent.

Another piece of evidence that gives ground for encouragement was the research published last summer by Sheffield university, which showed that whereas in 1986 about 1.1 per cent. of material on television contained scenes of violence, it is now down to about 0.61 per cent. Also there has been a change in the public's tolerance. The public have become progressively more concerned.

Professor Philip Graham--formerly a child psychiatrist at Great Ormond Street and now president of the National Children's Bureau--said that although less than 1 per cent. of a football match is made up of goals, which is

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indeed true, it is the goals that one remembers. Although the amount of violence may be diminishing, none of us should disregard the power of the volume that remains.

Mr. Spearing: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way because this is a non-party issue. In resisting new clause 7, is she saying that it is the Government's view that the amount of violence, however one measures it, is okay and that there is no statutory requirement for an aim to reduce it? If she is, surely that is a refusal to intervene, as is often the case with the Government, in matters that affect broadcasting as distinct from film, books and other publications.

Mrs. Bottomley: I do not think that new clause 7 is appropriate, because it undermines the authority already provided through the BSC--which has been given strengthened powers and responsibility--and the regulators and broadcasters. The Bill gives the BSC authority to commission research on violence, and I have just reported one of the changes that has been made on the basis of information from Sheffield university. I believe that we need an annual statement on the amount of violence that features on television, and that is precisely what is now happening: the BBC, the ITC and the BSC are ensuring that material is made available annually enabling us to measure the effect year on year.

A number of hon. Members have referred to the watershed, a system adopted by the regulators as a guide to programme content. It is a further and effective means by which parents can make decisions about their children's viewing. I think that hon. Members throughout the House have re-emphasised that it is ultimately the responsibility of parents to ensure that children watch appropriate material.

As has been said time and again in the House, there is no room for complacency, but we should consider the new clauses in detail. I have explained why new clause 7 would undermine the present position; as for new clause 10, my Department is already reviewing the way in which the V-chip might work. We attended a seminar in which Dr. Arthur Pober spoke about the chip. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Mossley Hill could not be present, but I know that he was invited at relatively short notice. I shall visit the United States later in the year, and hope to talk not only to Dr. Pober but to those who are persuaded that they have overcome some of the perceived disadvantages. Indeed, I shall ensure that I talk to those people.

I do not need to rehearse some of the disadvantages that have already been identified by my colleagues--for instance, the danger that parents will have a television with a V-chip downstairs while the children will have one without a V-chip upstairs, and the danger that programme makers will believe that they are discharged from responsibility because a V-chip is in place. Many reservations have been expressed. I believe that they may all be surmountable, but that it would be inappropriate at this stage to make this the subject of primary legislation.

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