The Minister for the Arts (Estelle Morris): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) not only on securing this Adjournment debate but on the campaign that he has waged relentlessly on behalf of his constituents and, in doing so, on behalf of many parents and many citizens of this country. I acknowledge that the debate follows a meeting with the Prime Minister, questions asked in the House and, as he informed us today, a visit to the industry itself. I thank him for raising these difficult issues, which we ought to address.
I also acknowledge the intervention made by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). The fact that he stayed for a short Adjournment debate shows his commitment, and I thank him for his interest. If he wishes, we will keep him informed of what we are able to do.
I wish to put the issue into a wider context. We are all struck by the fact that this fast-growing, fast-moving industry uses technology that was not around when we were children and parents must become involved in something that is more unfamiliar to them than it is to their children. There is a danger that regulation enforcement follows the trend. As regulation catches up with a new invention, another new invention comes along. I make no criticism of anyone, but bureaucracy and government, both locally and nationally, can be slow and cumbersome in trying to ensure that it catches up.
It is important to recognise that the games industry is a huge British success story. It earns money for us, and it earns us standing in the European and worldwide community. It is a good thing, and we are good at it. Most of the games, not those that have been mentioned this evening, add to the education, entertainment and cultural well-being of our nationI would not want to suggest anything elsebut, clearly, there is an issue with those that are violent or teach people how to commit crimes, and I would not want to pretend for a minute that such games do not exist.
The current position on classifying video games is important and it comes in two parts. First, under section 2 of the Video Recordings Act 1984, computer games are exempt from statutory classification unless they depict gross violence, human sexual activity or
17 Jan 2005 : Column 669
techniques likely to be useful in the commission of offences. As my hon. Friend said, about 30 gamesabout 2 per cent.are referred each year to the British Board of Film Classification and they can be given an age rating that can be over 18. I do not have a feel for whether that figure is an indication that an insufficient number of games are being referred and that the relationship is too cosy. I do not have the evidence to go on, but I take the point that it could become too cosy. I want to give more thought to whether the statistic of 30, or 2 per cent. a year, is what one might expect to be referred to the BBFC given the nature of the industry.
As my hon. Friend said, the United Kingdom has been involved in a pan-European system since 2003. It is a voluntary age-related classification systemthe PEGIthat the Video Standards Council administers. As we know, these games cross national boundaries and we could find ourselves in the position in which an excellent UK classification and enforcement system went out of the window because games were being downloaded in the UK. As much cross-nation work as we can possibly do is important. That is why I welcome the Video Standards Council's administration of the PEGI system in the UK. As my hon. Friend, said it is an offence to sell video games to someone not of the age to buy them.
Since my hon. Friend met the Prime Minister and representatives of our Department in early December, we have done what we can to improve the system. First, we held a meeting with all the representatives of the trade association, and that was a direct consequence of the meeting that my hon. Friend had. It involved the trade associations for the computer games and video games industries, the BBFC, video games retailers, the Video Standards Council and local government enforcement agencies.
A number of things have emerged from that voluntary meeting. First, those at the meeting agreed that they would consider a new code of practice for retailers selling the games. That will be drawn up together with training and regulation of sales. That sounds good, and it is a voluntary code. That is where we are at the moment, and we need to see how it goes. It is important because the people selling the games will be personally liable for the consequences of any offence if they should be found guilty.
I take the point made by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham about parents understanding their responsibilities. Many parents who would not dream of letting their child see an X-rated film are less understanding of the need to monitor their child's behaviour and activity with video games. They did not play such games when they were children and they have to rush to catch up with what is happening. My hon. Friend will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who shares Government responsibility with my Department for this issue, reminded parents of that before Christmas. Much more needs to be done, and the Government and the industry have to take responsibility to make sure that we inform more parents about what is happening.
Places such as Dixonsto cite just oneare seen as fairly child friendly. Will the Minister
17 Jan 2005 : Column 670
support the sort of sting operations that the police and trading standards use for the under-age selling of drink and tobacco? Should they not also be applied to the under-age selling of video games to make sure that the issue is taken seriously?
Estelle Morris: I would support that. It is an enforcement issue and I shall come to that shortly. However, I accept that there is an issue about priorities and resources, but I will come back to that point.
Some 85 per cent. of the games that the BBFC classifies carry an age warning. It and the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association are now working to make sure that all games carry an age warning and hope to have that in place by the middle of this year. We are also discussing with the industry the possibility of voluntarily increasing the size of the symbol that indicates the age under which children should not purchase the games so that it is more obvious to parents as well as to young people. If the voluntary agreement is not forthcoming, it will be open to us to examine the regulations because the size of the symbol is set out in regulations. We would not need primary legislation because the regulations could be changed if necessary.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham made an important point about enforcement. We have met the Local Government Association and the Trading Standards Institute to ensure that they consider enforcement. It is the easiest thing in the world to have legislation, but unless trading standards people treat the matter as a priority, nothing will change. Trading standards enforcement agencies have probably not caught up with the extent of the new crime of online piracy, so that will need to form part of our ongoing negotiations.
Research is important, but it is not easy to separate the effect of a game on children from the influence of many other aspects of society, such as what they read, what they watch at the cinema and what they see on the street. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East will know that, following his meeting with the Prime Minister, we have commissioned independent research from the university of Stirling. We think that that will be with us by February and we will let him know when we receive it. All the research that has been done so far has been inconclusive, but we will work to find out what we can do.
I conclude by saying that an industry that is as successful and growing as this country's video games industrywe have every right to be justifiably proud of ithas just as much of an obligation as the House and the Government to do what it can to ensure that our children are protected without fettering the freedom of adults. I thank my hon. Friend for bringing the matter to the attention of the House.