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I want to put it on the record that, by and large, I believe that the BBFC does an extremely good job. It is one of those rare bodies that costs the taxpayer absolutely nothing and it rarely takes up much parliamentary time. Having visited the BBFC, I know that it is staffed by very dedicated men and women who take their job extremely seriously. It is important for the House to recognise that the organisation largely does a very good job. That is not to dismiss the valid points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury, nor to say that no changes could be made to make it even more effective.

As we have focused on the rather seamier side of the film and video games industries, it is important again to put on record the astonishing success of those industries, none of which is due to the Minister. I want to ensure that that is absolutely clear; we do not want to give the Government any credit for it at all.

We have an extremely successful film industry in this country, and the recent Oscars and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts ceremony showed what kind of awards it can garner. The video games industry is often the Cinderella and is rarely debated in the House, if at all, but it is now worth an astonishing £8 billion a year. It is a successful industry, alongside those in France, Canada and the United States. That has to be put in context.

Nevertheless, the regulation of films and video remains an incredibly important and sensitive function. As has been clear from today’s debate, we have to strike a balance between protecting people, and children in particular, from viewing harmful and offensive content, and allowing freedom of artistic expression. As has also become clear during the debate, that has never been under greater strain than it is today because of huge technological advances and people’s ability to watch unsuitable material on all sorts of different platforms. One sometimes feels a bit like King Canute, trying to stop the tide of this material as it seeps into more and more different outlets in our homes.

In September, the Government, as has been mentioned many times today, commissioned the Byron review to consider how children might be protected from inappropriate content. No doubt, Tanya Byron, a celebrity psychologist—thus, the Prime Minister’s self-imposed ordinance on dealing with celebrities is being breached—will produce an important report, which is due in March.

The House should also know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the Leader of the Opposition, has made a strong stand on matters of this kind. In a speech last year, which I think my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury referred to, my right hon. Friend said:

Last year, the Conservative party made an unequivocal commitment to

So, we do not yet know the Government’s position, and we certainly do not know the Prime Minister’s position, but we do know that the Conservative party is committed to reviewing the role of the BBFC.

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Turning to the specific proposals in the Bill, our film classification system works on two levels: it protects consumers by removing the most extreme films and games from circulation, so a film can be banned outright, and it classifies content according to age groups for which it is suitable. The BBFC carries out both functions.

The organisation was established as long ago as 1912, and as I mentioned it has been financed ever since at no cost to the taxpayer. It is separate from the Government and from Parliament. However, Parliament has given it the function of classifying video games and videos through the Video Recordings Act 1984, which, as far as I can work out, is the only role it has in that respect.

I think that there was perhaps some confusion when the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) made his comments. Parliament has not given itself the power to appoint members of the BBFC, but simply has the power to designate that body as the body responsible—

Mr. Don Foster: The hon. Gentleman needs to check that, and perhaps the Minister can help us. I understand that there has to be agreement in respect of the president and the two vice-presidents—the specific postholders.

Mr. Vaizey: That is not my understanding, but the hon. Gentleman and I will turn to a much wiser person—the Minister, who will no doubt correct either of us, or indeed both of us, as she has done so many times in the past.

Part 1 of the Bill would make the Select Committee on Home Affairs responsible for making appointments to senior roles at the BBFC. We have debated whether the Home Affairs Committee or the Culture, Media and Sport Committee is better at scrutinising that kind of appointment. I do not know whether the House should read anything into the fact that the Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), has attended almost all of this debate, whereas the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), has departed, but I leave that to one side.

Mr. Bone: The right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) made it clear that he had a prior commitment for which, regrettably, he had to leave, so I do not think that we can draw any conclusions from that.

Mr. Vaizey: That is a point extremely well made by my hon. Friend, who perhaps should take over from both Chairmen the role of scrutinising appointments at the BBFC, such is his fairness and objectivity. I was seeking to tease the right hon. Member for Leicester, East.

Currently, the BBFC is overseen by a council of management that makes appointments. It is made up of representatives from parts of the film industry with no financial interest in classification decisions and includes a film lawyer, a broadcast engineer and an expert in film industry training, none of whom stands to gain from any policy decision by the BBFC. Indeed, none has any role in film policy development.

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I have some concerns about the Select Committee chosen by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury, given that jurisdiction over implementation of the 1984 Act and over the BBFC rests with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Moreover, I have no reason to believe that the current appointment process is flawed in any way. There is no evidence that decisions are made with the film industry’s interest in mind. As my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford pointed out, the proposal to extend the jurisdiction of the Select Committee not only to the chief executive but to other senior appointments does not chime with the review being undertaken by the Cabinet Office, in the interest of the whole House, into allowing Select Committees to scrutinise only the appointments of chief executives of bodies.

Turning to part 2—

Stephen Pound: On that point, and bearing in mind the comments made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), is the hon. Gentleman entirely comfortable with the representational nature of the body that he described? Does he feel that it accurately reflects this country in all its aspects and can speak with authority for the nation?

Mr. Vaizey: I could not answer that question completely honestly by saying that I am entirely comfortable with it, because I do not necessarily know enough about it. Perhaps a more accurate question might be whether a Select Committee’s scrutiny of a range of appointments to the BBFC is likely to increase that representation. As far as I am aware, appointments to both the management committee and the executive of the BBFC, as well as to the video appeals committee, are undertaken according to Nolan principles, so those appointments are as transparent and objective as most public appointments. In that respect, I have no reason not to be satisfied with them. Although I regularly take on the Department for Culture, Media and Sport about some of the cronies that it appoints to other bodies, it does not appear in this case to be involved in such appointments.

I come to the issue of appeals. We have had a long debate about whether an early-day motion procedure is appropriate. As I have made clear in interventions, there are two systems in place at the BBFC, one for films and one for video games. The BBFC has an advisory role as far as films are concerned. It can only advise local authorities on classification; it is up to the local authority, because it has licensed the cinema, whether a film should be screened. As I mentioned, it is a delightful fact that the city of Glasgow remains implacably opposed to the screening of “Life of Brian”, although one can presumably go into any video or DVD store in Glasgow and rent it.

As I said in an intervention during the excellent speech of the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound), it is interesting that local authorities—the democratic guardians of the nation’s morals in this instance—have more often downgraded the classification than upgraded it. In fact, there is no recent example of them upgrading a classification. “This is England” was downgraded to a 15 rating, and “Spider-Man”, “Sweet Sixteen” and “Billy Elliot” were all given lower ratings.

Mr. Don Foster: It’s all to do with Johnny Depp.

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Mr. Vaizey: The hon. Gentleman reminds me that it is all to do with Johnny Depp, a film star who is adored by my wife; I say that as we have been on the subject of the family for so much of this debate.

As local authorities do not have jurisdiction over video games, an appeals process—the video appeals committee—is in place. I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury that we support a review of how the committee works, because there is a feeling that the committee exists for the benefit of the video games industry. If the BBFC gives a video game a high rating, the video games industry, acting perfectly within its rights, can come along with an expensive QC and try to get the rating lowered. That is exactly what happened with “Manhunt 2”; the BBFC is now seeking a judicial review to try to reverse the VAC’s decision. It seems that there is very little scope for members of the public to use that appeals mechanism to upgrade a video game’s rating, or even to ban it.

Mr. Brazier: My hon. Friend is making a typically thoughtful contribution. It is not that there is very little scope for the public to use the appeal mechanism; there is absolutely none whatever. Earlier, I mentioned a terrible case in Leicester. The parents of the murdered boy have been campaigning about the first “Manhunt” game ever since the tragedy, but even though the trial judge said that there was a link between the murder and the video game, there is absolutely nothing that can be done about it, without a BBFC sanction.

Mr. Vaizey: That is an important point, but it also raises significant questions. As I say to my hon. Friend, we in the Conservative party want to consider ways in which the video appeals committee can provide a mechanism through which the public can appeal, but it is worth considering the difficult issue of how effective post-release appeals can be. I leave aside the issue of whether the early-day motion mechanism would be appropriate. I have to say that during the debate, it became more and more apparent that the idea of an appeal being triggered if enough MPs signed an early-day motion was a recipe for chaos and disaster, but that could well be discussed in Committee, if the Bill proceeds.

The problem with post-release appeal is that one could inadvertently fuel the sales of the game that one is seeking to restrict. I have no idea what the current position is with regard to “Manhunt 2”; I do not know whether it has been withdrawn from sale pending judicial review, but I very much doubt that it has. I suspect that the more that newspapers screamed, “Ban this video game”, with MPs queuing up to sign the early-day motion, the more likely it would be that some of our voters would go to the shops to buy it before it was banned, perhaps to see what all the fuss was about. That is a real problem that I urge the House to consider.

My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury seeks to provide, through his Bill, for parliamentary scrutiny of the BBFC guidelines. The BBFC puts together the guidelines with care and scrutiny. They are not the kind of guidelines that are simply written on the back of a fag packet. As has been discussed, every four years specialist research groups are commissioned, and 11,000 members of the public are consulted, although I
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heard my hon. Friend’s concerns about the web-based survey and the perhaps more objective research-based survey.

Stephen Pound: I am particularly impressed that the hon. Gentleman is present on a day when there is to be such an important family production, which I hope is successful. Surely his point is that the criteria change every four years, following a series of inputs. Why will he not allow the House, or a Committee of the House, to be one of the agents of input?

Mr. Vaizey: I am coming to that. One of the things that I really like about the hon. Gentleman—he mentioned our friendship—is how he rightly, in some respects, ascribes an enormous amount of power to me. I loved his asking whether, “I would give Parliament the power.” Believe me, I will consider it. [Interruption.]

The next review of the guidelines will take place in 2009. Guidelines change in terms of our cultural context. It is interesting to read the BBFC’s current guidelines, which contain a caveat about scenes that might “glamorise smoking”. Smoking is another thing that the hon. Gentleman and I used to have in common. Can one imagine a British Board of Film Classification in the 1920s, 1930s or even the 1960s having a caveat against glamorising smoking? Anyone who watches a pre-1960s film will see virtually every member of the cast with a cigarette in hand. Thus, the guidelines constantly shift.

As I exercise the power invested in me by the hon. Gentleman, I must tell the House that I have an enormous amount of sympathy with the view that Parliament should have some kind of say. However, I again caution against giving it a formal power to approve or disapprove the guidelines. It would not be beyond the power of this House for the Culture, Media and Sport Committee—I see my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford in his place—to conduct its own inquiry into the guidelines every four years as part of the consultation process on them. It would be perfectly within my hon. Friend’s power to constitute his Committee at the beginning of 2009 in order to examine draft guidelines from the BBFC and present a report.

One of the most interesting and perhaps ironic facets of this debate was the fact that the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), a Labour party member, constantly cautioned the House about increasing the scope of its powers and my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury, a member of the Conservative party, sought to extend this House’s jurisdiction into an area where previously it has not deemed it necessary.

The hon. Member for Bath touched on the penalties that my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury seeks to increase through his Bill. I am in sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks, in the sense that I have not seen any evidence that tougher penalties would act as a deterrent. I agree with him that enforcing the existing law might be the way forward.

The link involving the increasing violence and sexual content in video games and films is at the heart of what we are debating. There is no doubt that there is an enormous amount of concern about this in the country as a whole; it is a feeling that perhaps standards are slipping and almost that anything goes. It is important for this House to take a step back and to reflect coolly
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on matters of this nature. Interestingly, my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury said that the UK sits somewhere between Australia and America in terms of a free-for-all. He sought to make the point that there may be a correlation between Australia’s tighter regulation and its having a lower crime rate than the UK, although he was careful to say that that was obviously not the only reason.

I would make a counter point. One of my constituents, Mr. Ian Wright of Didcot, who is watching this debate on TV there, sent me a note. He wished to make the point that when he had taken DVDs and videos that he had bought legitimately in other European countries to a charity shop in Didcot, he had been told that it did not want to put them on display because although he had bought them in Europe, it was not thought that they were appropriate for Britain. I hope that I have not mangled that and got him into trouble—I am not saying that they were illegal or obscene. They were perfectly normal videos, but the ratings shown were lower than they would be in the UK. In a lot of European jurisdictions, a film that we would rate as an 18 is rated as a 15, and one that we would rate as a 15 is rated as a 12. Interestingly, those European countries seem to have a lower crime rate than we do, but a more liberal approach to classification.

I caution hon. Members that if we open the can of worms of the classification of films, we might find that the Government trot down to the Chamber and announce that they are handing the whole thing over to Europe. The Opposition are the only party in the House to stand proud and firm against further European integration, and we do not want inadvertently to give the Euro-federalists who populate the Government the opportunity to pass over this important aspect of our lives, which remains firmly under the control of the United Kingdom’s citizens— [ Interruption. ] It does—not even Parliament controls it. We do not want it to be passed over to the Eurocrats and Euro-federalists who populate the Government Benches and the offices in Brussels.

2.1 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Margaret Hodge): I congratulate all the right hon. and hon. Members who have participated in the debate. It has been of a high standard, as I am sure the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), whose Bill we are considering, would accept. The issues involved have been addressed seriously in well-considered and well-articulated contributions from both sides of the House. Interestingly, the debate has not been party political; there are varying views among colleagues who agree strongly on other issues. Such debates help to raise the status and credibility of the House, and I want us to engage in them more.

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