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29 Feb 2008 : Column 1375

Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend anticipates my question; how many signed it?

Stephen Pound: Far too many of my colleagues signed it.

I shall not go as far down the road to iconoclasm as the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford trod so elegantly. In one speech, he not only destroyed the principle of early-day motions, saying that in many cases constituents pressed a button and the Member responded, but he “dissed” the Daily Mail. During my 10 years in the House I have heard many things that have amazed and delighted me, but I do not think that I have heard anything so shocking as a Member of Her Majesty’s official Opposition speaking against the paper that is virtually the house magazine of the official Opposition. I congratulate him on his courage and iconoclasm, and hope that he receives a favourable press in the future.

The hon. Member for Canterbury is simply trying to bring into a system a body that, as the Government say, is not publicly funded and to which there is no obvious link—usually, the fiscal link directs such bodies—so that the voice of the people can be heard. By doing that through a series of steps—there are at least three in the Bill—he is proposing something that is sound, sane, sensible and workable. I have one problem with the principle of the appeal; there may be a difficulty with that. The Government will quite rightly ask what the distributor will do if there is an inbuilt appeal mechanism. Will the distributor have a period of purdah in which the object—the DVD, film or game—is placed in a sealed vault, probably accessible only to the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford, until the classification is made? I do not know the answer to that.

As an accountable Parliament, which is the sounding board of the nation and reflects the individual views and concerns of our constituents, we must have some input into the process. The hon. Member for Canterbury suggests that that should happen in two ways. He suggests, first, that Parliament should have a say in the appointments. I could only be impressed by the names of the distinguished figures whom the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford mentioned were present members of the board. I would certainly not denigrate Biddy Baxter in any way. For God’s sake, she educated my children—and me, for a large part of my life. However, why should there not be a link? Why should there be no coupling between what our constituents feel and the appointment of those who make the decisions?

The Government will rightly say—because they are always right, particularly my right hon. Friend the Minister, who is inevitably and invariably right—that the BCCF is not about censorship—

Mr. Vaizey: BBFC.

Stephen Pound: Sorry, it is the British Board of Film Classification—the BBFC. Forgive me.

Margaret Hodge: It has changed its name!

Stephen Pound: As always, I defer to my right hon. Friend.

The Government might say that this is not about censorship but about classification. That is arguing about angels dancing on the head of a pin. What is
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classification if it is not censorship? What is censorship if it is not classification? By classifying something, we place it in a band. By censoring something, we place it in a band. When a constituent comes to me and says that they are disgusted and horrified by something that they or their children have accessed, or, even more frighteningly, when we hear at school governing body meetings that children are referring to some of those productions, it leads me to think about what possible sanction we have in this country. At present, we have the sanction of good intentions, the establishment and the great and the good. We have the sanction of the involvement at the heart of the system of people of great nobility, such as Biddy Baxter. We need something a little more concrete. We need more of a link between the body and Parliament.

The hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford referred to “Casino Royale”. Another film is “Battle Royale”. It is horrifyingly popular among teenage children. It is a Japanese film, in which a large number of schoolchildren are placed on an island and all have a bomb tied to their bodies that can be detonated by remote control. Everyone then has to kill everyone else until only one person is left standing. That is revolting, and the first I heard of it was when I talked to teachers about kids playing “Battle Royale” in a school playground in west London last year. That is a direct link between the foul, fevered, foetid imaginings of some Japanese film producer and the silver nobility of a west London primary school.

Mr. Brazier: I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman’s eloquent speech, but I can give him an example much closer to home. I draw his attention to the study published in the British Medical Journal demonstrating how a single episode of “Casualty” showing an attempted suicide by an overdose of paracetamol led directly to a large number of similar suicide attempts over the next month. More than a fifth of the people involved cited that episode of the television programme as one of the things that led them—fortunately unsuccessfully—to try to commit suicide.

Stephen Pound: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He has exposed one of the more worrying aspects of the whole argument: imitation. What concerns me about his point and the point I was making about “Battle Royale” is the implication that in such films people are disposable. That denigrates the humanity of the individual and people’s basic human rights.

I do not want to get on to the appalling problems faced in Bridgend at present in respect of the tragic and awful suicides, but a great many commentators have said that one thing all those poor, tragic children had in common was that they spent much of their life in a virtual world. Much of their life was spent on the web, on Bebo and YouTube, and there may be something in the argument that if people watch and play interactive games and if they see violent films in which people die in enormous numbers—more than 260 people die in the current Sylvester Stallone “Rambo” film—human life becomes less valuable. The sanctity of life becomes diluted and people see human beings not just as disposable but as characters in a cast. A button can be pressed at the end of the game and it can be rewound and replayed. It starts all over again; the dead rise from
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their graves, the battered and bruised bodies climb up from the gutter, the bullets leave the body, the heads return to the shoulders and life goes on.

I do not imply that everybody is so stupid as to believe that such a mad dystopic world has a wash-over into reality, but when we are dealing with young, impressionable and, in some cases, disturbed minds, a real danger exists. I return to my substantive point: if our constituents come to us with those valid concerns—as they do, over and over again—what are we to say to them?

I do not propose that we set up watch committees. It is a fairly well known fact that when councils originally set up watch committees they had nothing to do with censorship, but were entirely to do with pyrotechnics. Early film was on celluloid, which is highly flammable, so if someone wanted to show a film in a council area they needed a licence. That is why local authorities sat in judgment about whether this or that film could be shown. It had nothing to do with the content of the film, but was entirely to deal with the fire risk, because there was an enormous number of cinema fires, particularly before the first world war.

Such licensing was a completely different issue, but it segued into the application of the prevailing morality of an area to limit its citizens’ access to films. The case of “Life of Brian” in Glasgow is an obvious example and I have already mentioned “banned in Boston”. The key factor, however, is that the local community had a voice in the process. It is easy to take a libertarian view and to say that nobody sellotapes our eyes open, nails us to a chair and forces us watch rubbish, but there is a question of availability.

There is also something else that is very human. When I was a young man there were X, A and AA film classifications, and I freely admit that on a number of occasions I adopted a husky tone, a false beard and an old raincoat to try to get into the Gaumont, Notting Hill Gate to see “Danish Dentist on the Job”, which, as I recall, was subtitled “He knows the drill”. Those films were almost paragons of innocence, naivety and—I have to say—tedium and boredom compared to some of the foul, offensive, nasty, murderous, brutal, anti-women and denigrating films that exist nowadays.

What is to be the power of the House in such cases? We can tell people, “By all means, take the law into your hands and picket cinemas”—as has happened—but do we really want the House shown as so impotent that the only access for the voice of the community is to stand outside a cinema with placards. I do not think that is the answer—

Mr. Vaizey rose—

Stephen Pound: But I think I know someone who does; I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Vaizey: As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), the Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, the decision to show a film in a cinema is down to the local council, so should the hon. Gentleman not advise his constituents to picket the offices of his local council next time a particularly unpalatable film hits our screens?

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Stephen Pound: The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. Sadly, since my local authority fell into the grasping hands of the Conservatives, my intercourse with that previously august body has been less than fruitful. None the less, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—technically—but what does a local authority do when a classified film is put on its desk? It looks at the classification. If the British Board of Film Classification classifies a film as acceptable for all people to see, few local authorities will change their mind. The classification is the guide and most local authorities will follow that guidance.

Mr. Vaizey: As the British Board of Film Classification is the body under scrutiny and, if I may use the vernacular, it is being given a good kicking, it is interesting to note that over the past year four local authorities have overruled the board’s guidelines and downgraded the classification. Films such as “This is England” have been downgraded to a 15 rating by local authorities.

Stephen Pound: Only four out of many hundreds of local authorities. I do not argue with the fact that they should have that power. If they downgrade a classification, so be it, but I am looking for a link with the House—

Mr. Dismore rose—

Stephen Pound: We can pursue the argument about which Select Committee might be the link in a moment, but first I give way to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Dismore: I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that if a local authority were to reclassify or indeed ban a film, members of the authority would have had to view it first, to form an opinion, otherwise they would be subject to judicial review. In the context of the Bill, does he believe that Members should view the film or video in question before signing the proposed early-day motion?

Stephen Pound: There is a considerable problem. The old wording was that the film was likely to deprave or corrupt, which I always found extremely difficult, because if one were to study a film in great detail one would, by definition, be depraved and corrupted if one had decided that it contained depravity and corruption.

Mr. Bone: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Stephen Pound: I hope to answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) in a moment; I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Bone: I might be one of the few Members who has actually sat on one of those committees, so I can confirm that we used to sit in a cinema to view the films before making a decision. However, we were the decision-making body; the Bill proposes that the appeal would be heard by a different panel of people, who would undoubtedly see the film, so I think the point made by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) is a red herring.

Stephen Pound: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and give way to his expertise. I was once asked to sit on the old Greater London council film classification
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committee, which used to meet in a cellar in Portman square on Wednesday mornings at 11 o’clock. It was an immensely popular GLC committee even in the days of reel to reel and a number of councillors frequently had to take copies so that the items could be studied. However, that was an almost frivolous, innocent and naive world—we are talking about something very different nowadays.

The hon. Gentleman touches on a point that is obviously of concern to us all, in that examining and classifying material has an impact on the person watching. There is no question about that, but police officers look at the foulest of material every hour of every day of every week. They rotate, but someone has to do it. There is a sniggering side to this, but there is also a profoundly serious side to it. When one talks to police officers who have had to view some of the material—we all know what I am talking about—it is apparent that it is one of the nastiest and foulest jobs that one can have, which can be corrosive and destructive.

The hon. Member for Canterbury is simply trying to bring this matter into Parliament by having the names submitted to the Select Committee—whether it is that of the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford or that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East does not really matter. To have not a parliamentary veto but some parliamentary influence at that stage would be so reassuring to the general public.

Mr. Dismore: I am sure that like me my hon. Friend believes in evidence-based policy. The problem that I have is the one that I voiced in my earlier intervention, which he still has not answered: whether people should be expressing opinions—particularly where they may have consequential legal effects, which would be the consequence of the Bill—without having viewed the film in the first place. The subordinate question to that is whether we would be given time off to do so.

Stephen Pound: I will not allow my hon. Friend to tempt me down the primrose path that inevitably leads to offence in the Whips Office, as that is not something that I seek, but his substantive point—I apologise for not answering it—is important. I do not have to be a murderer to know that murder is wrong. I do not have to be a rapist to know that rape is wrong. I am demonstrably not a woman, but I know that the denigration of women in some of these films is foul and indefensible. When one sees a film such as “SS Extermination Camp” one knows that that ain’t about Butlins. I understand that we are on shaky territory, because this comes down to a question of analysis. However, how many films, video games and DVDs each year would be so contentious that they would be the subject of the proposals? The guidance proposed by the hon. Member for Canterbury would let in some sunlight and daylight, so although we might have to view some, they would be fewer because of the Bill.

Mr. Brazier: Nobody is suggesting that the appeal be conducted by Members of Parliament. In Australia, any member of the public who hears about a film or video coming over from America can object. I am only suggesting that in Britain it would require the signature of 50 MPs on an early-day motion—one that was not graffiti and meant something.

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Stephen Pound: The hon. Gentleman makes yet another extremely sound and telling point. What he proposes is not just a mechanism that gives confidence back to the community, but a mechanism that sounds an alarm bell. It is an early-warning system. If 50 MPs in an early-day motion indicate not their concern but that of 50 MPs’ constituents—50 times 70,000 or 80,000—that is an early-warning system or an alarm bell. That will also avoid the problem that has been raised about people from particular religious groups who might have an objection to a film on religious grounds, which we should still examine. There are some who might feel that there is a knee-jerk reaction to almost any film, but this is a filter, a safety mechanism, an alarm bell, and it is an excellent system.

Mr. Vaizey rose—

Stephen Pound: On the subject of excellence, I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Vaizey: Surely the hon. Gentleman will agree that the trouble with the point about early-day motions is that it relies on the self-restraint of Members of Parliament in not making a political issue of something. I give one specific example. Six years ago he tabled an early-day motion saying that no hon. Member should sign early-day motions because they were a waste of time, yet we learn, as I have learnt in the last hour, that on 25 February alone he signed four early-day motions. Surely, when an hon. Gentleman has made a point of principle that he cannot stick to, he cannot say anything about the restraint that hon. Members might show in this mechanism.

Stephen Pound: Over the years I have come to admire and rather like the hon. Gentleman, going back to the old days when we used to sit in the Smoking Room together, when we were younger, more innocent and far less healthy than we are now. But in expressing that admiration I must say that never for a second did I believe that he had at his fingertips, without prompting, knowledge of the number of early-day motions signed by every single Member of Parliament on every single day. I am speechless with admiration. It is almost as if a small part of the analytical brain of the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) has been transplanted into the hon. Gentleman producing a super-Front Bencher. That is awesome. I can only say that if I did sign four early-day motions on that day, it showed extraordinary restraint on my part. I should be interested to know what they were. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could remind me.

Mr. Vaizey: In a minute.

Stephen Pound: The Government make one particularly powerful point, apart from the structural issues, and that concerns Dr. Tanya Byron’s review.

Mr. Vaizey: The early-day motions related to Cuba, the “Screening Matters” campaign and the Anthony Nolan trust. I cannot remember the fourth one, I am afraid.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. The Chair is taking careful note of the extent to which information technology is used in the House following the relaxation of the rules. It will be of interest to those of us who have responsibility for keeping good order.

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