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Year of the Commonwealth

16. Mr. Simon Hughes: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what initiatives his Department is taking to mark the United Kingdom Year of the Commonwealth; and if he will make a statement. [5744]

Mr. Tony Lloyd: We welcome the initiative of the Royal Commonwealth Society in naming 1997 the UK Year of the Commonwealth. This Department held a reception to mark its launch in January. As well as hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting and the Commonwealth Business Forum, we are funding the

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Commonwealth Centre in the margins of the CHOGM and are contributing to, and are involved with, a number of other events during the year.

Mr. Hughes: I thank the Minister for his reply. I would encourage him to realise that, out there in the community, lots of young people, in particular, are completely unaware of the Commonwealth, of our involvement in it, of its importance, and of the number of people who are Commonwealth citizens and who have settled in this country. They may also be unaware of its benefits, to Britain and to half the population of the world. Will the Minister, perhaps with his colleagues who are responsible for education, set up an initiative so that, by the autumn--around the time of the Commonwealth conference in Edinburgh--people will be more aware of the fact that the Commonwealth is one of the most valuable organisations to which we have ever belonged?

Mr. Lloyd: The role of the Commonwealth, although rarely ignored in other Commonwealth countries, may ironically have been ignored in this country. That is perhaps because we take too easily for granted some of the central values that it represents: democracy, good government and so forth. We can be truly proud of those values; we can celebrate them. That is why the Government are placing considerable emphasis on this Year of the Commonwealth. We are grateful to the Royal Commonwealth Society, and to people such as the hon. Gentleman who support it. The society took the initiative to make this the Year of the Commonwealth. We intend to use the rest of this year to highlight the organisation in the run-up to the Edinburgh meeting, which will generate considerable publicity both for the institution of the Commonwealth and for the values that it underpins.

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Points of Order

3.30 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I know that you have responsibility for the printing of our proceedings, and it occurred to me that Hansard may have been misled by the answer I was given earlier by the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), who suggested that I was a member of the former Government with responsibility for defence exports. For the benefit of Hansard, may I point out that, so far from being a Minister, I was not even in the last Parliament? But my right hon. Friends did a fantastic job for Britain in the promotion of defence exports.

Madam Speaker: That is barely a point of order for me.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Have you received a request from Foreign Office Ministers to make a statement on the attitude of the French authorities? I learned this morning that a constituent of mine, a British passport holder, has been told that he may not leave the camp site he is on in France while the French authorities investigate whether he is liable for French conscription--the second such case in a fortnight. Can you ask Foreign Office Ministers for a statement on what appears to be an increasing trend on the part of the French authorities? British passport holders should surely be free to travel in France without fear of arrest.

Madam Speaker: I am not aware that any Minister is seeking to make a statement on that matter today. I might advise the hon. Gentleman to make representations himself to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, since the case concerns a constituent for whom he has some responsibility.

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Film Classification Accountability and Openness

3.32 pm

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): I beg to move,

The British Board of Film Classification is one of the last and worst examples of complacent, arrogant, secretive self-regulation. There is growing concern at the increasing culture of violence in this country, and the British Board of Film Classification should be playing a vital role in combating it.

The board had its origins before the first world war; it was set up by the film industry to provide independent and impartial advice to local authorities--the licensing authorities--on which films should be shown in cinemas. In 1984, Parliament gave the board a more statutory power over videos--it is a criminal offence to see a video which the board has not passed--yet the organisation remains, in effect, accountable to no one. It publishes an annual report, but it contains no register of interests, little or no mechanism for accountability and, worst of all, no trace of the specialist advice that it takes.

A recent celebrated case was the film "Crash", which portrays people getting sexual gratification from the most violent and dangerous motor crashes. It is especially worrying at a time and in a country where more children are killed each month than were killed in the Dunblane incident and where cars are more readily available than firearms--a subject on which the House has expended much time and energy. When asked to justify his decision to allow the film to be shown in Britain's cinemas, James Ferman, the director of the British Board of Film Classification, said that he had done so because he had taken specialist advice from a child psychologist who said that the film was safe. I argued with him on television and heard him repeat those claims.

Fortunately, the psychologist in question was very brave. I hope that it will enhance his standing in the profession that he chose to break confidentiality and blow the whistle, and release the full 12-page text of the report that he submitted. May I quote from it briefly? It said:

A professional psychologist has therefore said that the film could encourage certain irresponsible young people to go out and kill people by driving dangerously. We would know none of that had Mr. Brittan not had the courage to blow the whistle on Mr. Ferman.

I wish to make a wider point rather than simply challenge that film. There is something profoundly wrong with a set-up in which an extraordinarily influential and powerful body can conduct its affairs in such secrecy.

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Furthermore, the lack of a proper register of interests means that we cannot even be certain that none of the board members have commercial connections with films that come before them. The redoubtable Steve Doughty of the Daily Mail, whom I congratulate on his investigative journalism on this matter, unearthed the fact that one board member, who is supposed to review films in our interests, helps to run an escort agency that specialises in the entrapment of parties to divorces.

There should be a full register of interests, and the board should be moved towards the BBC model. Nobody wants the Government or Parliament to censor films, but we need a proper non-executive committee, the members of which would be appointed and potentially fired by the Home Secretary. That system works in the case of the BBC and provides accountability to Parliament, without allowing direct interference in operations.

Since the beginning of civilisation, it has been accepted that what people, especially young people, see and hear, influences them. Pythagoras testifies to the occasion when he prevented a riot by persuading a piper to change his tune--or so the story goes. I do not ask that we impose some new system of censorship; I simply say that in an era when commercial advertisers can spend billions of pounds trying to change people's opinions--rightly so, as part of the workings of the market--we should get the existing machinery to work. That is the Bill's aim.

We owe it to the weak, the innocent and the vulnerable in our society to protect them. Making the board, which had a long and honourable history until recent years, work and clean up its act is in the public interest. I urge the House to support this measure.

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