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29 Feb 2008 : Column 1394

Mr. Don Foster: I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. Perhaps I will elaborate on them later, if I catch the eye of the Chair.

On the main areas of concern in the debate so far—videos and some video games—will the hon. Gentleman confirm that under the current arrangements the body responsible for classification and for carrying out any further inquiries is the BBFC, but that it does so under designation by the Secretary of State? The Secretary of State has the power to remove the right of that body to be involved in the process. There is parliamentary involvement.

Mr. Dismore: The hon. Gentleman is right. The legislation governing these matters is the Video Recordings Act 1984, which in section 7 makes provision for classification certificates to be issued by the designated authority. Certificates must contain details such as the title and the statement that the video is suitable for general viewing or for over-18s, or that it should be supplied only in licensed sex shops. The designated authority is dealt with by section 4, which clearly states:

It then sets out in detail how that should be done. Obviously, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it would be wrong of me to go through all that now, but under that provision the Secretary of State has designated the BBFC—certainly, the officers are designated, I think by name. If there is evidence and a view in Government or in the House that the BBFC is not doing its job properly, ultimately the Secretary of State could withdraw that designation.

Margaret Hodge: Yes.

Mr. Dismore: From the Front Bench, my right hon. Friend says yes. So, we have a powerful policing mechanism over the BBFC.

Again I return to the basic point of the debate. The hon. Member for Canterbury, who has left the Chamber, has come up with a jury concept for his Bill, but I simply ask him to reflect on this point. When the public were surveyed in 2005, they were asked about not only the standards and guidelines, but their experience of how those were operating, because that is what they go by. In relation to sex, in 2000, 54 per cent. thought that the standards and guidelines were about right, but that figure had gone up to 58 per cent. in 2004. Roughly a third thought that the guidelines were not strict enough. On violence, in 2004, 53 per cent. thought that they were about right and 41 per cent. thought that they were not strict enough. The figures on language and on drugs were similar.

The point I want to make about those figures is that they show that society is divided on the issue. I am concerned that today’s debate, during which we have got quite angry about these awful things, is not reflecting that. If we had a jury system and if a jury were to be properly reflective of society—this brings me to the point that I made in my first intervention on the hon. Member for Canterbury—we would inevitably end up with hung juries of one sort or another, because presumably juries would fail to agree on the guidelines, as indicated by the proportions and the views expressed in that survey of 11,000 people.

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There is a real problem here. In relation to what are, effectively, differences of subjective view, Geoffrey Robertson and Andrew Nicol say in their book:

That had the same effect. That is why, unlike other hon. Members, I have refrained from referring by title to any of the obscene materials that we have discussed today: I do not want to be accused of giving undue publicity in this debate to all those horrible things.

We need to consider what the BBFC’s process provides for. I asked my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North whether he had read the guidelines; I wonder whether all the hon. Gentlemen who have spoken so far have read them as well. I have a copy here, and they are pretty tight. The guidelines provide detailed instructions on the submission for classification of films and videos, and the details take account of the differing natures of the media.

The guidelines start from these basic questions:

The BBFC tries to reflect public opinion in its procedure, and the legal considerations, particularly in relation to videos, require it to have special regard to the likelihood that the work will be viewed at home, and to any harm to those likely to view the video or to society from the behaviour of viewers afterwards. In considering those issues, the board has in mind the possible effect not only on children but on other vulnerable people. The Video Recordings Act also requires special regard to

so the BBFC takes those things into account.

As I have mentioned, the board also takes into account the Cinematographic Films (Animals) Act, the Protection of Children Act, the obscene publications Acts and the Licensing Act, which has additional requirements dealing with public safety, prevention of public nuisance and the protection of children from harm. It starts from the basic premise from which any free society should start that

I hope that everybody in the House would agree that that should be the basic premise on which we proceed, as well as the premise that

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However, of course,

Obviously, some things will be on the border between 18 and R18, but the BBFC says:

Mr. Burrowes: The hon. Gentleman rightly points out the distinction in review mechanisms between films and video works, and their different procedures. Is there not an irony, though? When it comes to an appeal mechanism, there is a degree of democratic censorship in councils that he does not want to have through Parliament. Councils, which are accountable to their electors, are involved in the appeals process for films, but there is not the same democratic accountability for video works when it comes to the video nasties that, as he says, can cause more harm.

Mr. Dismore: The hon. Gentleman is wrong to refer to what happens in local authorities as an appeal. It is actually a decision, not an appeal. The British Board of Film Classification gives a film a particular certificate, and generally a local authority accepts that classification. However, the local authority may have had protests or may decide not to accept the classification. I remember sitting on the licensing committee when I was a member of Westminster city council. I only had to watch one rather unpleasant film, and I think that we decided in the end not to permit it to be shown in Westminster, but that was a decision, not an appeal. The only appeal, I suppose, is a judicial review through the courts of an unreasonable decision by a local authority to ban, censor or reclassify a particular film. I think that that would be the only way to appeal. The hon. Gentleman is therefore wrong to refer to an appeal to a local authority. It may sound like an appeal to him, in that it involves the local authority going beyond its normal processes to intervene in the case of a particular film as a result of public pressure, but he is actually talking about the decision of a local authority, not an appeal to it.

Mr. Vaizey: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in the case of videos and video games, there is democratic accountability, as a democratically elected Parliament has taken a decision that regulation should be carried out by the BBFC?

Mr. Dismore: The hon. Gentleman is entirely correct. There is a mixture of regulation, to which I referred earlier. It is not right for Parliament to censor; that would be fundamentally wrong, because the political balance in this place may change. There may be extreme parties in here one day. Who knows? There may be a completely different political balance. The people here might have a very different view of our society—one that was oppressive to a minority, or indeed a majority. Parliament should not engage in censorship. It would be wrong for it to do so in a democratic society. If we start censoring films and videos, where will it end? Will we then want to censor newspapers, because of what
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they write, or books? That is the road to a very undemocratic society, and it would be wrong for Parliament to take it.

That is not to say that Parliament should not approve an appropriate mechanism that allows an independent body to perform that function. The body should be subject to a very light touch, in case it goes off the rails. At the moment, that light touch is provided through the Video Recordings Act, which provides for the Secretary of State to appoint the regulator, and which sets out clear criteria for it.

Mr. Don Foster: Just to ensure that I am absolutely correct, does the hon. Gentleman agree that, as I mentioned in an earlier intervention, there is already an additional stage, as under section 5(1) and (2) of the 1984 Act the Secretary of State can decide to appoint the designated person only if there is no objection from either House? Both Houses therefore have a veto, so there is full parliamentary involvement in that important decision.

Mr. Dismore: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. The fact is that we have that parliamentary mechanism. That is probably the appropriate relationship between Parliament and the regulator, whoever the regulator happens to be. The real argument that we should be having today is on whether the regulator is doing its job properly, given some of the decisions that it has made. I do not think that we in Parliament, collectively, should second-guess decisions on particular videos or films, although we may have our own personal views. I think that some of the regulator’s decisions may have been wrong, and I am sure that others in the House think so, too, but it would not be right for us collectively to come to that conclusion. That would be a dangerous course to take, and I would be very worried if we took it.

The first question is whether the independent regulator makes the right decisions, and the second is whether it has the right processes for taking account of the public’s view. We should also ask whether there is an appropriate appeal mechanism that allows the pubic to express its concerns.

The BBFC guidelines show the main issues that the regulator considers, including the theme of the work. It highlights the most problematic themes, which include drug abuse, sexual violence, paedophilia, and incitement to racial hatred or violence—the very things that we have talked about today. The guidelines mention the problem of bad language and how the depth of concern may vary. They mention nudity, sex and violence, rightly saying:

The question is how that is addressed. The answer is: through the classification system, and where the film appears. In making decisions about violence, the BBFC particularly considers the


in other words, hero-worship. It also considers “callousness towards victims”, “encouraging aggressive attitudes”, and

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It says:

It goes on to say:

I will not go into that in detail; that would be going a little off the subject. The point is that the BBFC’s guidelines contain all the tools it needs to deal with the ills that we have identified today.

Mr. Vaizey: As the hon. Gentleman is on the subject of rape guidelines, may I inform him that the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), who chairs the Home Affairs Committee, mentioned that some video games allow the participant to engage in a rape act? I checked the point with the BBFC and found it to be completely unaware of any such video game. Is the hon. Gentleman aware of any video game that has as its intention the carrying out of rape or that allows the game player to carry out such an act? The BBFC and I are unaware of any such game.

Mr. Dismore: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention on that point. This goes back to our earlier discussion about how Chinese whispers can feed debates through the media, and we end up arguing about things that never happened and, through the early-day motion mechanism, creating a huge superstructure to deal with things that do not exist and are not a problem. We have all been spoofed at one time or another, and the possibility of people spoofing us on this issue is particularly horrifying.

Mr. Brazier: I cannot comment on the rape in games issue, but I can tell the House what Stefan Pakeerah’s father said after Warren Leblanc had murdered his son. He said that “Manhunt” is a game

Of course, that game was passed by the BBFC.

Mr. Dismore: As I said, I would disagree with a view that would approve anything like that. The question is whether it is for us in Parliament or for someone else to make that decision and be held to account for it—in this case, by the Secretary of State. Perhaps the Minister will let us know what representations the Government have made to the BBFC about that game. If they have not made any such representations, why have they not done so? It would be interesting to hear the response.

That comes back to the fact that ultimately somebody must make a decision and say where the line is drawn. I agree with the hon. Member for Canterbury that that video game was beyond the pale. I would not dispute that, but we must decide who is the appropriate person to make such decisions. Is it us lay people, doing the best we can, or is it people who have more experience of this issue because they view these things day in, day out in order to have an idea of where to draw the line to
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reflect public opinion? The latter people use their own opinion polling and surveying and their experience of what is being produced by the industry.

We must reflect on the fact that the BBFC is an independent, non-governmental body that, in one form or another, has been doing this job since 1912. The object is to bring a degree of uniformity to the classification of films nationally. As I have said, the statutory powers ultimately rest with local councils, which can overrule decisions, but a degree of consistency and uniformity in the process is important.

The hon. Gentleman said that the appointments process could be done through Parliament. I fully accept that the BBFC is an industry body, but it is responsible for ensuring fair and effective regulation of the industry. That is appropriate because the industry needs to know where it stands. The BBFC is a private company limited by guarantee, but it also has statutory duties, via the 1984 Act, that go beyond those simple industry body responsibilities. Everybody should accept that it is important to preserve the BBFC’s independence.

The Government are consulted from time to time about the BBFC’s statutory role in relation to videos. That fact emerged from a parliamentary answer that was referred to in the House of Commons Library briefing.

We have a reasonable balance. My main concern about the Bill’s proposals is the scrutiny of appointments by a Select Committee, whether it is the Home Affairs Committee, as the Bill states, or the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which is chaired by the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford, who is no longer in his place.

As I said in an intervention on my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East, the Government have asked Select Committees, via the Liaison Committee, to consider the scrutiny of outside appointments. The Government produced a consultation paper, with a list of jobs on which they think Parliament should be consulted. Parliament would not have the right of approval, but it would have the right to be consulted. Ultimately, the decision would be made by the Government—probably by the Secretary of State concerned.

That consultation exercise has been going on for several weeks. Each Chairman of a Select Committee was asked to show his Committee the list of jobs and whether we wanted to add NGO or other appointments that we thought appropriate. For example, my Committee suggested that we should add the chair of the new Equality and Human Rights Commission, which was not on the Government’s list. I say that by way of diversion to show the matters that we discussed.

The objective of the consultation was to examine senior appointments, not those all the way down the food chain, which could mean Select Committees becoming bogged down. Indeed, discussions seem to suggest that some Select Committees may have bitten off more than they can chew in the number of appointments that they want to scrutinise. Appointments will be made by the Government, not necessarily on the recommendation of the relevant Select Committee, but taking its views into account.

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