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I have practical concerns about the detail of the Bill, the first of which relates to the appeals mechanisms, which have been touched on by many others. As we
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heard, there are in effect two appeals processes. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Hendon that the use of the local authority in respect of films shown in cinemas is not really an appeal, but that is the mechanism for such films. As we have heard, for videos, DVDs and certain video games, the mechanism is the work of the video appeals committee.

A number of people have talked about the VAC being a creature of the BBFC, and it certainly is, but nobody should be in any doubt as to its robust independence. We have already heard probably the best example of that from the mouth of the Bill’s promoter—the row that occurred about “Manhunt 2”. Let us reflect on this point. This can hardly be a cosy relationship, given that the BBFC effectively took to judicial review a decision made by the VAC. The VAC has, therefore, clearly shown real independence. The hon. Member for Hendon referred several times to the excellent book by Robertson and Nicol on media law. Having studied this matter, they make it very clear that the VAC really does exert its independence. So it is an independent body, and we should not forget that.

The Bill proposes to establish a new appeals body for videos, DVDs and some video games. As we have heard, it would consist of an independent panel, 12 of whose members would be selected at random for each hearing, which would be triggered by an early-day motion with 50 or more signatures. The issues to be dealt with include the classification of an existing video game. I have nothing at all against the idea of ensuring that the VAC is independent not only in spirit, as it currently clearly is, but in structural terms.

I accept that we should look at that issue, because there is within the minds of some a lingering doubt that it is a creature of the BBFC. However, the question then is why we need to set up this elaborate procedure. Is there any real evidence of huge dissatisfaction with the work being done or with the classification system itself, against which the vast majority of appeals are actually aimed? As we heard from the hon. Member for Hendon and others, there are clearly mixed views on the matter. There always will be. However, we know from the detailed research—incidentally, it was not conducted, as was suggested, by one independent organisation, but by several—that the majority of the public were satisfied with the guidelines on all the categories, whether on sex, violence, language or drugs. The hon. Gentleman cited the figures on that.

The phrase “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” certainly springs to mind. I have suggested some areas where tinkering is needed, but I am not convinced that we need a radical overhaul, as the hon. Member for Canterbury suggests. I say that particularly in the light of the Byron review, to which much reference has been made today. Frankly, it is bizarre that we should set up a review to consider a large number—although not all, I accept—of the issues on which the Bill touches and discuss those issues without having had its results. Surely it would be far better for us to consider the review’s outcome to help us in our deliberations on how we can address the concerns already expressed in this Chamber.

The notion that an appeal should be triggered by 50 signatures on an early-day motion is the most bizarre of all the things in the Bill. I acknowledge that the hon. Member for Canterbury is looking for a mechanism to reflect what he called public opinion on these issues,
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and I understand that. However, I am not at all convinced that that is the right way of doing it. I am sure that, like the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey), the hon. Gentleman is an avid reader of early-day motions and that both hon. Gentlemen know that as of last night, when I struggled away from my office at 10 pm and finally checked, there were 1,075 early-day motions before the House. Of those, 380 have 50 or more signatures; I urge all hon. Members to have a look at those. However, they should also note that the vast majority of early-day motions have fewer than 50 right hon. and hon. Members’ names on them.

Having looked at the early-day motions with fewer than 50 signatures, I have no doubt that hon. Members might pick up on early-day motion 590, which was tabled by the right hon. Member for Leicester, East. It expresses his concern about that much-talked-about video game “Manhunt 2”. It was tabled on 17 December, but to this day has only 24 signatures—interestingly, they do not include that of the promoter of this Bill, despite his expressions of concern about the game.

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

Mr. Foster: I am more than happy to.

Mr. Brazier: I shall put that right on my way out.

Mr. Foster: Very good. In a second, I shall help the hon. Gentleman with some other putting right that he might want to do.

It is worth reflecting on why so few Members of Parliament have signed the early-day motion on “Manhunt 2”. The BBFC received 779 complaints about its banning of that game, but the vast majority were from people protesting about the ban, not people suggesting that it should have been done sooner or that something else should have been done.

I want to draw attention to early-day motion 849, a second one with fewer than 50 signatures. I referred to it in an intervention earlier. That early-day motion, which was also tabled by the right hon. Member for Leicester, East, is about the video that I have not seen but that was clearly the bedtime viewing of the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford—“SS Experiment Camp”. It was tabled more than three weeks ago, but as of last night it had only 10 signatures. Again, despite the hon. Member for Canterbury expressing his deep concern about that item to the Prime Minister on 20 February, his signature is not on the motion; no doubt he will assure us that he is going to put that right at the end of this debate.

It is worth reflecting on the fact that early-day motion 983, which deals with the cost of drinks and confectionery in cinemas and was tabled much more recently, already has 32 signatures. That is indicative of the interest that Members of all parties have as regards issues of real concern.

Both early-day motions might, in due course, reach the magic number of 50. However, the question is what would happen in the period between when the motion was first tabled and when the magic number of 50 eventually was reached, triggering the appeal and suspending sales. Bearing in mind the fact that the hon. Member for Canterbury has not yet got round to signing early-day motions from before Christmas, that could
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take weeks, during which huge amounts of publicity would be given to the item concerned. We heard earlier about the example of “Inside Linda Lovelace”, and “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” sold millions of copies as a result of the publicity relating to the trial. I am certain that this procedure would achieve the exact opposite of what anybody might want to achieve. It would create massive publicity, with names of right hon. and hon. Members who had not signed the early-day motion appearing in newspapers up and down the land and pressure being applied, and sales would rocket.

In practical terms, how would MPs come to know about the concerns of their constituents and other people? As I say, there would be pressure from newspapers, but there would also be pressure from groups that have not even seen the item they are worried about. It is worth noting that huge concern was expressed about two programmes that were recently on television— “Diana: The Witnesses in the Tunnel” and “Undercover Mosque”—before they even had been screened. Yet once they had appeared on our screens, many people who had protested and said how disgraceful it was that Channel 4 was going to show them were much quieter. We should be confident that we have a proper and careful procedure for Ofcom, the independent regulator, to follow.

Another good example of members of the public taking up extreme positions about things that they have not seen is the film “Dogma”, starring Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, among others. That film was protested about by a large number of people from a group within the Catholic church, more than 2,500 of whom complained to the BBFC, saying that it was blasphemous and anti-Roman Catholic and demanding that it be banned. None of those complaining had actually seen the film, which was passed with a 15 certificate. When the BBFC contacted the Archbishop of Westminster’s office about it, the people there did not think it was blasphemous, were not remotely worried that it was in any way anti-Roman Catholic, and encouraged the people who had complained to go to see it. I am worried that there would be similar whipped-up campaigns based on the prejudice of people who had not seen the film concerned. I would be deeply concerned about the system of early-day motions, which has already been brought into question by the hon. Member for North Thanet, being used in such a process.

It is important that such issues are dealt with by an independent body. It is right and proper that Parliament has a say in setting the framework for that body’s work. It is right and proper that a Select Committee can scrutinise any appointments, and even that it has a veto. It is right that Parliament, through the Secretary of State, makes the appointment. Going beyond that to use the approaches suggested by the hon. Member for Canterbury would be a step too far. However, he wants to go still further.

The hon. Gentleman wants Parliament to be involved in scrutinising, and effectively vetoing, the guidelines that apply to videos, DVDs and some video games. He is proposing that that could be done in the way he describes in the Bill. However, we come back to the notion “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I am not aware of wide- scale dissatisfaction with the current arrangements. I have acknowledged that the opinion polling has produced mixed results, but in all polls the majority favour the
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current arrangements. As we have heard already, those arrangements were put into place in 2005, based on a 2004 consultation.

The BBFC is already planning and undertaking the consultation that will inform the 2009 guidelines. I have no doubt that in the period between the 2004 work and now, there will have been some changes in public opinion, and I have no doubt whatsoever that those will be reflected in the results. It will be for the BBFC to ensure that it reflects changes in public opinion—there may be increased concerns of the sort set out by the hon. Gentleman and others. The BBFC will be able to reflect those concerns in the revised guidelines.

Mr. Brazier: Let us be clear: the 2004 consultation included a real survey conducted by an outside body, which showed that just over half those polled thought the arrangements were about right. Of those who thought that they needed changing, 41 per cent. wanted a tightening, and only 4 per cent. wanted a loosening. A rather phoney web consultation was undertaken, which produced figures almost the other way round. The BBFC admitted in its literature that it encouraged people from the film industry to contact it about that. On the strength of that consultation exercise, the guidelines were significantly loosened—for example, all references to knives were removed.

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman and I can trade statistics all day long and it will not take us any further forward from the comment I made earlier, which I stick by, and which his figures do not disprove: the majority of people were happy with the current arrangements with regard to sex, violence, language and drugs. I am not denying that a significant minority expressed a different view—the figures are very clear. He read out the figure for violence, but only 30 per cent. of those consulted thought that the guidelines were not strict enough on sex; on language use the figure was 43 per cent.; and on the portrayal of drugs 43 per cent. However, 58 per cent. feel that the guidelines on sex are about right, on violence the figure was 53 per cent., on language 51 per cent., and on drugs 52 per cent. That shows a majority in favour of no change, but I have always acknowledged that this is a difficult issue on which there are mixed views, and that a significant minority is opposed.

Mr. Brazier: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. My key point, though, is that on the strength of that survey, the BBFC chose to loosen the arrangements. Only 4 per cent. of those consulted wanted a loosening of standards on violence, but the BBFC chose, very significantly, to loosen its guidelines on violence, particularly for 12 and 15-rated videos.

Mr. Foster: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but the one thing on which I hope we can agree is that work is now under way on a major survey to ascertain the public’s view and whether there has been a change in public opinion. I do not know what the results will be and nor, I suggest, does the hon. Gentleman. However, we both have the opportunity—it is not too late—to influence how the BBFC obtains the information. If he feels strongly that it conducted the last survey incorrectly,
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I would urge him to contact the BBFC and share his concerns about the methodology used, to ensure that that does not happen again. That way, we will all be in possession of information that none of us currently knows.

As I said earlier, although the BBFC is portrayed as being far too timid, it is worth reflecting on the fact that 10 per cent. of its decisions have been to give certificates of a higher categorisation than were requested by the film makers. There are many such examples, including “I Am Legend”, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and “Cloverfield”, which were given a 15 rating instead of a 12A rating, “The Proposition” and “This Is England”, both of which were given an 18 rating instead of a 15 rating, and “Sweeney Todd”, whose classification the Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee was, as we heard, desperate to have reduced on behalf of his children. There are also a number of cases where films and videos were rejected altogether. The BBFC is therefore not a soft-touch organisation; it is one that that commands the support—albeit by only a small margin—of a majority of the British people and one whose decisions are tougher than it is often given credit for.

I therefore have concerns about Parliament getting involved in the nitty-gritty of the guidelines. For reasons that I have already given, I think that that would be a step too far. Parliament would have the opportunity of throwing out the head of the organisation responsible for the BBFC if Parliament—or, specifically, the relevant Select Committee—believed that it had come up with an inappropriate set of guidelines.

Finally, let me deal with one issue in the Bill that has not been touched on at all, other than briefly in an intervention. The current maximum fine that can be levied on retailers selling DVDs, videos or video games is £5,000. The Bill proposes to increase that to £20,000. However, the average fines in recent years have been considerably below the £5,000 maximum. Indeed, the average fines in the past 10 years have been: £519, £440, £798, £1,028, £1,378, £1,079, £921, £775, £489 and £1,244 in 2006, the last year for which we have figures. If we are thinking of increasing the fine, there must be a significant change of attitude among those deciding on the level of the fine. I would not object to that. Where there have been breaches, those concerned need to be penalised severely to ensure that people know how seriously we take the issue.

The real issue is not the size of the fine, however; it is that not many people are being fined at all. The concern among my constituents and every other hon. Member’s constituents is about the ease with which children can get hold of such material—videos, DVDs and certain computer games—in many shops. We have heard examples of the ease of accessing such material. I said in an intervention that I knew how many prosecutions there had been in recent years. I said that the average over the past 10 years was 14. However, it is instructive to note that the last time we reached even 14 prosecutions was in 2003. There were only six prosecutions in 2004, and only eight in 2005 and 2006.

We can talk as much as we like about increasing the penalties, the level of fine and the length of imprisonment, as the Bill does, but frankly there is no point in worrying about those issues unless we first ensure real enforcement of existing legislation. If that means making the labelling clearer and dealing with the two different types of
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labelling for some video games, then so be it; it is a task that we should undertake. I know that the Select Committee, under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford, is looking into that issue. We hope for an urgent response.

Labelling is important, but so is the education of members of staff working in the stores, as is educating parents about what the labels mean. With proper enforcement, we can hope that the figures will stay low because everyone will be abiding by the law rather than getting away with it, as I am convinced is currently the case.

Let me end with brief comments on another issue. As others have said, although the Bill is important and addresses issues that are of concern to many people, in some senses it misses the key point. The biggest concern should really be about the internet, particularly the ability of children to access all sorts of inappropriate material on it. That is why, as I said briefly before, I greatly welcome the Government’s appointment of Dr. Byron to look into that issue. I have kept track of her work—for example, her extensive survey work and her engagement with many experts in the field. I believe that the result of her work will influence further movements in Parliament to deal with these issues.

For the many reasons I have provided, I do not believe that the time is right to press ahead with the Bill as drafted. It would not be right to go ahead right now when we are about to receive the results of some very important research. I congratulate the hon. Member for Canterbury on initiating our debate on these important issues. As I have explained, apart from one small area of agreement, I sadly disagree with the majority of the Bill, so I cannot support it.

1.37 pm

Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): One characteristic of our debate earlier was that hon. Members declared their interest in respect of the number of children they had. My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark), for example, pointed out that he had five children. In that vein, may I point out that I have one child aged 17 months, but that, more importantly, I have another child due this very leap day. It is thus a measure of my commitment to hearing the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) that I am in my place in the House rather than in the maternity ward. Perhaps I should say that my wife is not yet in the maternity ward either! Clearly, my soon-to-be-born daughter has already taken on board the precedence of Parliament over all other issues.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury on introducing the Bill and on giving the House the opportunity to debate some extremely important issues. Indeed, by the time our debate concludes, some five hours after it began, we may well have discussed the matter for longer than is often the case on Second Reading of many public Bills.

Before commenting on some of the important matters raised in the debate, I would like to put some other points in context. Because the Bill focuses on the working of the British Board of Film Classification and much wider concerns about the increasingly violent and sexual content of video games and films, we may have lost sight of some the merits of the current system.


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