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Not one Select Committee proposed that any of the people referred to in the Bill should be part of that scrutiny process. Bearing in mind that my right hon.
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Friend the Member for Leicester, East, who has left his place, is a sponsor of the Bill, I would have thought that if he felt so strongly about it he would have asked his Committee to consider suggesting those posts for inclusion, and proposed them to the Liaison Committee for approval at our meeting yesterday. I am surprised that he did not. Perhaps he suggested it in private discussions and the Committee was not enamoured of the idea.

Similarly, the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford, who chairs the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, could have suggested those appointments for inclusion. His Committee suggested the appointments that it thought it ought to approve, and the heads of the BBFC were not on the list. From his remarks earlier, it seems that he does not think that they should be. That calls into question the extent to which the Bill’s sponsors have consulted those who would be given the additional responsibilities proposed. The inference must be that those people were not asked about it at all, particularly bearing in mind the exercise that has been undertaken by the Liaison Committee at the Government’s request.

We need to spend a little time on the appeal mechanism. The current appeals process is geared towards appeals by those who present films for classification. They may object to the classification that they are given, perhaps because cuts have been made or because they believe it has been put in the wrong age bracket. Ultimately, the video appeals committee’s decisions are subject to judicial review if the film maker requests it.

The problem is that there is no mechanism to allow members of the public to ask for a decision to be reconsidered by the VAC. We need to consider whether we ought to allow a review if a significant number of members of the public ask for it. If there is an outcry about a TV broadcast and a lot of people write in, the regulator examines the decisions made by the broadcaster, which is appropriate. If the regulator thinks that the broadcaster’s decision was wrong, the broadcaster is rapped over the knuckles or can be fined. Perhaps we need to try to find a similar mechanism to allow a regulator to review those decisions. Obviously, that regulator could not be the BBFC, because it makes the decision. Perhaps we could arrange for the video appeals committee to receive complaints directly and to have a trigger mechanism whereby a decision made by the BBFC should be reconsidered when a certain number of representations were made.

I fully accept that all the problems of retrospectivity would apply. Once such things are out in the public domain, it becomes difficult to recall them. One could stop further examples being sold; I suppose that one could not stop them being pirated. It is not the same as in the cinema, where a film can no longer be shown, or in TV, where broadcasters can be told not to put the broadcast out again. We ought to see whether it is possible to work out some appeal mechanism that would allow the public to express their views.

As I said earlier, I am extremely concerned about the proposed system of using an early-day motion to trigger an appeal, not because I think that it would ultimately bring Parliament into even more disrepute with the public, but because it would be a recipe for all sorts of mischief that would not advance the cause that the Bill tries to address. We would be bogged down with all sorts of complaints about trivial matters and
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the more serious problems would get lost in the herd. We would not have the opportunity to consider what should be done about these evil, violent videos, because we would be getting the requests all the time and signing them away without even thinking about what we were doing, to avoid pressure from the public.

I am concerned, too, about the mechanism of the people’s jury. First, the jury will be drawn from a panel of volunteers. If we are working on the basis of volunteering, how will that jury reflect society as a whole? One can imagine that the people who will volunteer will be those with an axe to grind, not just against the sort of evils that we seek to prevent with the Bill but more generally against such things as the video version of “Jerry Springer—The Opera” or even “Life of Brian”, which is banned in Glasgow, as we heard earlier. There is a real risk that the jury will be drawn from a self-selected volunteer panel.

Secondly, if the jury genuinely reflects our society and we get over the problem of the self-selection of volunteers, we will end up with the problem of a hung jury. That would be a likely consequence, bearing in mind the research work that the BBFC has done that shows how divided our society is on the issues of violence in film and video. If we end up with a jury, we will presumably have to have provision for unanimity, or if not for unanimity for a majority verdict. What will happen if a jury decides 6:6 or 7:5? That is hardly a ringing endorsement of the decision one way or the other. Would it ultimately be binding? We then get into the argument about chair’s casting votes and so forth. That is not a sensible way to go.

I would certainly be happy to have a method whereby certain numbers of members of the public could trigger a complaint and a review of a decision, but that review should be carried out by the video appeals committee. This is a complicated issue under the procedures set out in the Bill that could be made a lot simpler and easier to administer.

The Bill also talks about the internet. The whole question of the regulation of the internet is very complicated. I have grappled with it in relation to problems arising from use of the internet by Muslim fundamentalism trying to create the climate of violence from Islamic terrorism from which we know we suffer in our country. I have grappled with the question on behalf of constituents in relation to anti-Semitism and, of course, racism. The problem is always that the roots of those websites go far away into different countries. Trying to regulate the internet has been complicated, and Governments will continue to grapple with how to deal with it. That is why I think that it is very important that the Prime Minister has asked Dr. Tanya Byron to lead a review to consider, among other things, how best to deal with that problem. I look forward to her review and its recommendations in March.

The real problem is that the available academic research does not actually establish the link that we all think exists between watching such videos and violence. We have already heard about the case of Stefan Pakeerah. Everybody thinks there was a link in that case and there may indeed have been one, but so far academic research does not support it, which is why Dr. Byron’s review is important. Let us hope that she
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will produce an answer that allows us to decide about the link one way or the other. However, it is important to recognise that in the Pakeerah case neither the police nor the prosecution supported the claim that there was a link between the video and the appalling murder, although I am pleased that afterwards retailers rightly withdrew the game from sale.

The Bill raises important issues, which is why it was crucial that the review was commissioned, because it will look at the evidence of harm and at the measures needed to protect children from inappropriate content. The Bill is based on the premise that exposure to violent behaviour in films or computer games leads to violent behaviour in real life, but the evidence so far does not really suggest much correlation, except in relation to violent pornography and sexual offences, which are of course already illegal, as I mentioned earlier.

The objectives of the Byron review are set out in the Library briefing paper:

That seems a much more sensible way forward.

Today, based on our view of what is going on in society, we have identified an ill that needs to be addressed. The Government need to respond to the very real fear and concern expressed in the House today, but it is not appropriate for Parliament to be involved in censorship. There is a risk that we would end up interfering with entirely private rights. There is also a risk of rule by the mob or the Mary Whitehouse tendency and a real risk of unbalance in our approach. We need to consider how we can enhance the role of the regulator so that it takes a little more account of public opinion and where we want society to be rather than the direction in which it may be heading, as heralded by some videos.

We need to look at human rights provisions. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North referred to article 10 of the European convention on human rights, which makes it clear that everyone has the right to freedom of expression. The right applies to all of us, but it does not prevent states from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprise, which is the regime we follow. The right to freedom of expression is not unfettered. Exercise of that freedom carries with it duties and responsibilities, which allow the law to make provision for the prevention of disorder and violent crime or the protection of health and morals and so on.

It is important that we bear in mind the fact that an overwhelming number of people believe in freedom of expression—the right to say and do what we want—but within the constraints of the responsibilities and duties we owe each other. We need to ensure that we exercise our right to freedom of expression in a way that does not affect the health and morals of our society or create the risk of disorder or crime. Those provisions are in the European convention on human rights and that is the direction we need to take. However, we must provide certainty. The biggest enemy in the law is
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uncertainty, so we need a process of classification and criteria for it that are absolutely clear. That is a fair reflection of the law and it is encapsulated in the Library briefing.

To conclude my remarks, I very much agree with the broad thrust of the speech made by the hon. Member for Canterbury when he introduced the Bill, and I agree with most of the other contributors about the need for us to take firm action to deal with appalling, dangerous and violent videos of extreme form. However, in doing so we should reflect on the fact that Parliament should not be involved in censorship. We should put in place appropriate mechanisms to allow independent people to make decisions on behalf of our society, in a way that reflects its morals and views, to stop those appalling productions falling into the hands of the general public.

1 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on securing the debate, which has led to some extremely measured and thoughtful contributions from the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) and the hon. Members for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound), for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) and for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). We had the benefit of learning of the rivalry between the hon. Members for Ealing, North and for Maldon and East Chelmsford in terms of their knowledge of films, and it is clear that they spend a great deal of their time either in front of their video or DVD machines or in the cinema and clearly enjoy many of the films that they see.

More importantly, my sympathies lie predominantly, in terms of the contributions that we have heard so far, with the hon. Members for Hendon and for Maldon and East Chelmsford. The hon. Member for Hendon perhaps above all will join me in paying tribute to the excellent officers in the Library for preparing the briefing in advance of today’s deliberations—a briefing that has definitely informed his own contribution quite extensively, but from which we will all have benefited.

There are a few elements of the Bill with which I have some sympathy, and I certainly accept the point made by others that improvements need to be made, but large swathes of the Bill I find deeply worrying, which is why I certainly will not be able to support it. I have two broad areas of concern. First, notwithstanding that, as we heard from the hon. Member for Hendon, the research shows that a number of people are concerned with the classification system, all the research shows that the majority of people are satisfied with and supportive of it. Secondly, the Bill would give politicians an undue and dangerous influence over these sorts of issues, about which I would be very uncomfortable.

However, it is only right to start with the broad areas of agreement. As we have heard, the Secretary of State already designates the top appointments to the BBFC: the president and the two vice presidents. Before he does that, the names, covered by sections 5(1) and (2) of the Video Recordings Act 1984, have to lie before both Houses of Parliament for 40 days, and there is an opportunity there, in effect, for a veto. However, I point out to the Minister that the chances of Members of
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either House happening to spot that are slightly remote because they would have to be avid readers of either the London Gazette, the Belfast Gazette or the Edinburgh Gazette, which are apparently among the few places where those names would appear, so we might look at ways of promoting that information and opportunity more widely. None the less, there is already a procedure that gives the right of veto to either House of Parliament and to the Secretary of State.

The Bill proposes that the Home Affairs Committee would have a role in scrutinising appointments and a veto. As the hon. Member for Hendon has already pointed out, the Government are already consulting on that issue and that consultation is well down the tracks, but as he rightly said, that is only in respect of a scrutiny role, not in respect of a veto. The Bill goes further and suggests the Committee should have a veto. Clearly, the hon. Gentleman disagreed with that and would prefer to stick to the proposal that is now being consulted on. However, I agree with the proposal in the Bill that the Select Committee should have the right of veto. Indeed, since 2000, that has been my party’s policy on senior posts in quangos and similar bodies. We have long argued that that would be an appropriate mechanism. The hon. Member for Canterbury, who is now rejoining us after a brief absence, will be delighted to learn that I will support that aspect of the Bill. However, I have two concerns about it that I wish to express.

As I mentioned in an earlier intervention, either House of Parliament has the ability to exercise a veto at present. We are being asked to introduce a procedure whereby a Select Committee had a scrutiny role and a veto role, but I believe that it would be inappropriate to have both layers in existence. If the Bill gets into Committee and further deliberations take place, the removal of sections 5(1) and (2) of the 1984 Act might well be a subject for consideration.

I do not feel particularly comfortable with the notion of the three senior people—the president and the two deputy presidents—being affected by the provisions. I accept that that is the present arrangement, whereby the Secretary of State approves the appointments, with a possibility of a veto by either House. However, I believe that that is already a step too far. As with most other non-departmental public bodies, I believe that the appointment that should lie with the Secretary of State—followed by scrutiny and possible veto by the relevant Select Committee—should cover only the person at the top of the organisation. In this case, that is the president of the BBFC. I am not comfortable with the provisions covering three people.

Nor am I comfortable with the fact that the present legislation—a set of procedures that the new Bill proposes to mirror—allows for the possibility of yet more senior people in the organisation falling under that procedure. Given that I believe it already covers two people too many, it is certainly inappropriate to have the power to extend that further. I acknowledge, however, that that is in the existing legislation, and would only be mirrored by the new Bill.

Another area of concern, which has already been mentioned, is the question of which body is the appropriate one to carry out the scrutiny and to exercise the veto. The Bill is clear that it should be the Home Affairs Committee. However, others have rightly said that,
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given that responsibility for these issues largely passed to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in 2001, it would be more appropriate for that Department’s Select Committee to be the body to undertake this function.

Some people with whom I have discussed this matter have said that the wording of the Bill is flexible enough to allow that to happen. However, I have looked carefully at clause 5, which deals with interpretation, and it clearly states:

So, as the Bill stands, it would not be possible for the DCMS Select Committee to undertake this important activity. I happen to agree with that activity, but the proposals would result in it being undertaken by the wrong Committee. I do not understand how that mistake could have been made. The hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member of the House and someone who clearly has a passionate interest in this issue. Perhaps he will explain why this has happened. I find it odd that he seems to be championing a Committee that is chaired by a member of the Labour party, rather than the one chaired by the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford.

Mr. Brazier: Let me make two points. First, this of course has nothing to do with personalities—it just seems to me to be right that the focus should be on concerns relating to murder, rape and the other such issues that we have been discussing, rather than on those relating to the film industry. That is why I felt that the Home Affairs Committee was the more appropriate Committee. Secondly, that said, and as the hon. Gentleman has already mentioned in another context, this is very much a Committee stage issue, rather than one on which the decision whether to support the measure should be taken on Second Reading.

Mr. Foster: I am delighted to hear that progress might be made on this issue in Committee, if the Bill reaches that stage.

I have tried to be supportive of the hon. Gentleman and his Bill on that issue, but I have to tell him that from now on, it is downhill, because there is no other part of the Bill with which I have any agreement whatsoever. However, I hope that that will in no way lead him to suggest that I am belittling the concerns that he and many other people have about the issues that we are debating. All Members who have spoken so far, and doubtless those who have still to contribute, will share those concerns. To say that the status quo is adequate is simply not good enough. Changes are needed; for example, the hon. Member for Hendon suggested giving greater opportunities for other groups to have an appeal heard by the VAC. There is a general acceptance that there are issues and concerns, and I hope that some of them will be addressed by the Byron review, to which I will return.


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