The problem is that the Bill does not say a Committee of the House or a Committee to be appointed by the House, but specifies the Home Affairs Committee. Perhaps that could be put right on Report, but that is how the Bill approaches the issue. There is nothing to prevent the hon. Gentlemans Committee from recommending that the British Board of Film Classification should change its guidelines, if that was the Committees view. It has the power now to make such a recommendation, through the House, to the board. The House could not require the board to follow it, and that raises the question whether the role of the House is to require such a thing
or to recommend it, in respect of reflecting the views of the public and the discussion within a particular Select Committee inquiry.
Mr. Whittingdale: Let me confirm to the hon. Gentleman that the inquiry that the Select Committee is undertaking is into harmful content online and in electronic games, that we shall be taking evidence from the BBFC, and that it is very possible that we might make such a recommendation.
Mr. Dismore: I thank the hon. Gentleman. I would not be at all surprised if his Committee were to do so, because that would start to reflect the appropriate balance within our society. The regulation of media contracts has always relied on a mix of statutory controls and voluntary codes of practice, as well as self-restraint, although that might sometimes have been rather less evident than would otherwise be the case. It was interesting to hear the hon. Gentlemans account of the Steven Spielberg film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doomthe director accepted with hindsight that the board was right and he was wrong.
Mr. Brazier: That was a long time ago, of course, and the guidelines that we have had since then have been successively liberalised. The point is whether it is right that having taken soundings in 2004, including an opinion poll that showed clearly that the public wanted various guidelines tightened, in the subsequent year, in its quinquennial review, the board loosened the guidelines and, for example, removed all reference to knives from the guidelines applying to 15-graded films.
Mr. Dismore: My understanding is that the BBFC is about to embark, if it has not done so already, on the exercise of reviewing the guidelines; I stand to be corrected if I am wrong. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and I should like to refer to some of that evidence later.
Perhaps less consensus exists now than at any other time in relation to what adults may properly access. There are potential tensions between the proscription of obscene or violent material and the right to freedom of expression. I should like to read out a short quote from the Library briefing, which refers to the seminal textbook on this subject by Geoffrey Robertson QC and Andrew Nicol QC, experts in media law:
The deep division in society over the proper limits for sexual permissiveness is mirrored by an inconsistent and ineffective censorship of publications that may offend or entertain, corrupt or enlighten, according to the taste and character of individual readers. The problem with drawing a legal line between moral outrage and personal freedom has become intractable at a time when one persons obscenity is another persons bedtime reading
or, in this context, viewing. That is the difficulty that we face, first, in general terms, in trying to find the balance that reflects those two conflicting interests, and secondly, in how we go about policing it.
The key question is that of the guidelines themselves. In effect, the Bill proposes a form of parliamentary censorship over those guidelines through the Home Affairs Committee or the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. That gives rise to the issue of the extent to which Parliament is truly representative of British society. We are, of course, elected by our constituents
to come here and represent them. However, when I look around this Chamber I see that we are all white, probably middle-class men, with the exception of my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan)one of the Whipsand two, probably middle-class, women: my right hon. Friend the Minister of State and my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman), the other Whip. I see very few young people [ Interruption. ] Perhaps I should back off a little here. I do not know how old the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) is, but he is certainly not the sort of teenager we have been talking about. We are not representative of the class base of our country at large. We are not yet representative, by a long way, of the balance between the sexes, and certainly not as regards faith or race.
Perhaps one way to improve the worthy intentions of the Bill, to make it representative and to ensure that the trigger mechanism was linked to a representative body of people would be to go beyond the concept of a parliamentary trigger and have a people trigger. That might include in Committee a trigger mechanism by way of a petition with the signatures of an appropriate number of people. Those people would be a representative body expressing views about something that is of general concernthe number of deplorable videos and DVDs that are coming into our homes.
Mr. Dismore: The hon. Gentlemans idea about a trigger mechanism is interesting. If we had such a mechanism, why would it have to go through Parliament? Why could it not go directlyin an appropriate wayto the BBFC, for example? His point also raises the issue of how one makes such a series of representations representative, in a petition or otherwise. We all remember the days of Mary Whitehouses campaigns. [ Laughter. ] The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate might be too young to remember. At that time, there was much debate about whether what she was campaigning for, with the backing of certain sections of the tabloid press, was truly what British society wanted, or whether it was a brake on that society, which was pretty buttoned-up in her earlier life. She wanted to return to that sort of society, but I certainly would not want to live in it.
Mr. Brazier: It may surprise the hon. Gentleman to hear that I agree with almost everything he has said so far. The mechanism that my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) refers to is in fact already there. I am proposing that the appeals committee be replaced by a jury of volunteers from the public.
On the point made by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) about why such an appeal should not be made directly by the public, I can tell him that in Australia that is the case. Any individual can appeal in Australia. I am suggesting a parliamentary filter of 50 MPs having to support an appeal, so that we will not end up dealing with so many. Many people have said that they are concerned about getting too many appeals.
Mr. Dismore: The hon. Gentleman is probably living in cloud cuckoo land. I was going to say a little about this later, but I shall pre-empt my own remarks. What will happen is that we will be inundated. We have seen postcard and e-mail campaigns grow like Topsy over the past two or three years. If it gets out that by lobbying a Member of Parliament one might get a film banned, we will be doing nothing but respond to e-mail and postcard campaigns from every busybody group in the country. Some will want to outlaw perfectly legitimate, decent films because they are offended by one small aspect. We have seen such campaigns already
Mr. Dismore: Yes. I would not go to see Jerry SpringerThe Opera because I think I would find it very offensive, but it is one example of somethingnothing to do with violence, which is the context of todays debatethat was offensive to Christian people. Every day, we would have a plethora of requests to sign early-day motions. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North, pressure may be put on us to sign motions that are based on third, fourth, fifth or sixth-hand hearsay. People write in not because they have seen the film but because something they read in the Daily Mail or the Daily Express has set them off. There is also the question of whether the reporter who wrote the story has actually seen the film or video, or whether he has simply read a press release from a pressure group, which, of course, may have just read a press release from the person putting out the video.
If such a campaign comes to us, I am sure that the pairing Whips are not going to give us time off to watch all these things. When faced with such campaigns, we will just sign up to them to make people go away, as was said earlier. The net result of the process will be a huge burgeoning of early-day motions and an enormous increase in work load, as we ask the appeals bodywhatever it isto review lots of films that may be perfectly decent, but not seen as such by small sections of society. That is a recipe for a huge bureaucracy, a huge amount of work and huge uncertainty for the industry, and it does not advance one iota the hon. Gentlemans argument about dealing with the really evil, violent films.
Mr. Don Foster: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for sharing his concerns about how the Bill would affect all right hon. and hon. Members. He will be aware that the BBFC makes 17,000 decisions a year, so I can well imagine a large number of requests coming our way. Does he share my concern that the situation could be even worse than he describes, because various newspapers will almost undoubtedly get in on the act and will publish, day after day, lists of those Members of Parliament who have failed to sign early-day motions, even when they and the people lobbying them have probably not seen the films in question, as he said?
Mr. Dismore: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The situation might even go beyond that, with people lobbying us to sign early-day motions that we have already signed, which is what happens now. The number of e-mails that I receive asking me to sign something that I have already signed, because they have not been filtered out by the campaign group, is legion. That number would simply increase.
Stephen Pound: The House is about to overwhelm my hon. Friend with sympathy over the difficulties of his office, but the fact that something is hard work is not necessarily a reason for not doing it. However, perhaps he can help me. My reading of the Bill is that it refers only to video works and some computer games, and is not about the generic process of film classification.
Mr. Dismore: Of course, but let us consider how much stuff is churned out, day in day out. If we take the internet, too, to which the Bill refers, we are talking about a vast quantity of material, much of which will not be videos in the classic sense. We will see Life of Brian being watched on the internet in Glasgow, and where will that lead us? Actually, I am not sure where that will lead us, but it could lead to Glasgow MPs being bombarded with requests to sign an early-day motion about Life of Brian.
Mr. Gale: I am listening to the hon. Gentleman carefully. I serve on the Select Committee on Procedure, which is currently considering whether the House should introduce an e-petitioning system, which I would describe as yet more parliamentary graffiti. The hon. Gentleman has just made an extremely good case against allowing e-petitioning. I endorse that sentiment wholeheartedly, but will he explain whether he believes the principle behind the Bill to be right or wrong? If he believes that the principle is right, surely the Bill deserves a Second Reading. He is going into the minutiae of the Bill, but is the principle right or wrong?
Mr. Dismore: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I have made my views on e-petitions known to his Committee, which, from what he has just said, I suspect might not be too different from his own. As I said at the start of my speech, I have a lot of sympathy for the objectives that the hon. Member for Canterbury is trying to achieve through his private Members Bill. My concern is that the mechanism proposed will be unworkable and that it is not the right way to go. I was taken down the line of early-day motions by interventions and things grew from there, because the more one thinks about the mechanism, the more one sees how unworkable it is.
We need to consider what happens under the existing arrangements. The BBFC bases its decisions on the law, taking into account a series of things that are set out in the guidelines. The starting point is, inevitably, the Obscene Publications Act 1959, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North quoted more or less accurately. Section 1(1) says:
an article shall be deemed to be obscene if its effect or (where the article comprises two or more distinct items) the effect of any one of its items is, if taken as a whole, such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it.
any sound record, and any film or other record of a picture or pictures.
Stephen Pound: I should know better than ever to attempt to quote law in the presence of a distinguished lawyer, but as we are talking about legislation, what about article 10 of the European convention on human rights on freedom of expression, enshrined in the Human Rights Act 1998? Surely my hon. Friend is not saying that that should override every emotion in this country.
Mr. Dismore: Of course not. Indeed, I hope to discuss the Human Rights Act and the European convention on human rights later and to make it clear why the right to freedom of expression should be properly balanced by the right to preserve arrangements for public morality, which is an important point in this debate.
It is an offence for a person...to take, or permit to be taken, any indecent photograph or
of a child...to distribute or show such indecent photographs,
to possess them or to distribute them. That has to be taken into account. The BBFC also has to take into account the Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act 1937, which deals with cruelty to animals in the making of films.
As has featured in our debate this morning, public opinion has to be taken into account by the BBFC. It distils public opinion from extensive public consultation exercises. The last round of consultation was in 2004, but I believe that it was published in 2005. As mentioned in a helpful sedentary intervention from the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), the review for this year has already started.
The guidelines relate to what we as a society believe is suitable for each age group, so it is important that the widest possible consultation should allow proper consideration. When the guidelines were published in September 2000, the research that underpinned them was one of the most extensive exercises on public attitudes ever carried out by any media regulator. Some 11,000 people were consulted in 2004, which was 7,000 more than in the 2000 exercise.
The findings of the research, as set out in the Library briefing, are quite interesting. They showed a great consensus about the need to protect young people from material with the potential to cause harm. There was less unanimity about the question of copycat behaviour, although the figures revealed that quite a large majority were concerned about that. Interestingly, when it came to the proposition that watching violence in films generally makes people more likely to be violent in real life, only 45 per cent. of the public agreed. The public as a whole may not be as convinced of that particular argument as our debate suggests we are.
It is quite clear that people want proper parental control over videos, but 52 per cent. felt that there should be no limits on what could be shown in R18 videos as long as they do not contain sexual violence or break the law. The argument is then about what exactly that means. Furthermore, 60 per cent. disagreed with the proposition that there should be no limits. Presumably,
that means that the 22 per cent. and 17 per cent. mentioned in the survey were neutral. There is disagreement over whether there should be limits. We thus need to bear it in mind that the public may not be entirely of the view expressed by hon. Members here today. That brings us back to the point I made earlier about the extent to which we are truly representative of the wider public at large.
People in the survey were also asked to attach various degrees of importance to the range of issues that they were asked about. It is very interesting to note that what they thought most important were drugs and drug taking, which was identified at 75 per cent. Only after that was violence seen as an important issue, which came in at 65 per cent. Sexual activity gained 56 per cent.; strong language 49 per cent.; racial offence 46 per cent.; religious offence 34 per cent.; nudity 29 per cent. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North will no doubt be interested to note that smoking came in at 25 per cent., and alcohol, in which he will be even more interested, at 22 per cent.
Stephen Pound: I hesitate to intervene on my hon. Friend, but may I say that it is two years since I smoked a cigarette and that I have not had a drink since Ash Wednesday? I am grateful, however, for my hon. Friends thoughts about my health.
Mr. Dismore: The reason I needled my hon. Friend about smoking is that I knew he had given up and I thought he would like to know that the public are also very concerned about the issue. I am very pleased that my hon. Friend has been able to give up and I am sure he is looking forward to the end of Lent with keen anticipation.
Mr. Burrowes: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the consultation, however wide, did not apply to a matter at the heart of the Billthe accountability of the whole process of classification? Will he respond to the principle behind the Billthat the present appeals procedure is restricted to persons submitting videos for classification? Does he agree that it should now be extended, which is the point at the heart of the Bill?
Mr. Dismore: I think that there is an issue here. I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman that there are issues about accountability and who makes the decisions, but I am not entirely convinced that it is for Parliament to deal with them.
Of course we should set the general framework, if that cannot be done by the industry through self-regulation, and I suppose that our debate is more about self-regulation by the industry as it stands. That, effectively, is the arrangement we have, with a light touch from all the other methods of control and supervision that I mentioned earlier. However, I would be very concerned if there were a substitution of parliamentary censorship, which would be a dangerous road for us to go down. I have genuine concerns about the process in the Bill.